Nathanael Garrett Novosel, August 30 2023

Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

In the immortal words of Creed Bratton of The Office, “If I can’t SCUBA, then what has this all been about? What am I working toward?” While this is quotation is meant to be funny since a man working an office job (with plenty of references to drugs, murder, and other seedy activities during the workday) for decades was all leading up to a retirement life full of diving, it is a good reminder that you have to know where you’re headed to know whether you’re going in the right direction and doing the things you need to do to get there.

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” is a common career question asked in job interviews and mentoring conversations. Clearly, it’s a direct technique to figure out what your goals are and what life progress you expect to make over that time. It, of course, also hints at the methods you believe will get you there since you might start to add detail regarding how you anticipate taking that journey. But it’s a much more visceral way to ask the question because it forces you to visualize being there and what it would look/feel/sound/be like in that state.

Now, there is a difference in intent between someone asking you in a job interview and you asking yourself this. In a job interview, the reasons for the question are that they want to see if you see yourself in the same career path (or at the same company) over that time (replacing talent costs a lot more than retaining it) and they want to see if you have ambition, goals, and vision for your own future. Both of those checks help give a hiring manager a better idea of whether you would be a good long-term hire for their company. For yourself, your question is to trigger ideas for what you want to do and what progress you want or need to make.

So should you do this exercise? Well, it’s best when you think/say that you don’t know what you want to do. For example, if someone asks you a higher-level question like what you want to be when you grow up or what goals you have and you have no idea how to answer, then this 5-year future-state question helps you to begin to answer it. In your mind, you picture all of the aspects of your life:

There are plenty of other aspects of your life that you will be able to envision or picture when conducting this exercise. And, as you do that, you begin to identify what you want in ways that you might be less willing or able to do if someone asked you what your goals are. For example, you might not have any conscious goals, but if you are single and expect to be married and have children in five years, you’ll need to find a compatible partner, establish a romantic relationship with them, reproduce, and then support the child in that time. That is a long list of goals and milestones from one mental picture that you might not have been able to articulate otherwise.

This works for all aspects of your life, from living in a house->saving to buy a house to working in baseball->studying a sports-related major. Every mental image you can imagine for yourself can be tied to real decisions and actions that you can take today to go in that direction.

So if you are finding yourself listless and/or without direction in life, this is a good approach to kickstarting your process of making what you want real and tangible instead of ambiguous and uncertain. Most people procrastinate thinking about these things because it’s hard, usually requiring a lot of research and many decisions as well as involving plenty of possible mistakes and setbacks along the way. If you just forget all of that for a moment and envision how you want your life to be, you can then start to fill in the blanks between where you are and that picture to come up with first steps to move in that direction.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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