Why Career Planning Is Time Wasted

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Our culture worships
planning. Everything must be planned in advance. Our days, week, years, our
entire lives. We have diaries, schedules, checklists, targets, goals, aims,
strategies, visions even. Career planning is the most insidious of these cults
precisely because it encourages a feeling of control over your reactions to
future events. As that interview question goes: 

where do you see yourself in
five years time? This invites the beginning of what starts as a little game and
finishes as a belief built on sand. You guess what employers want to hear, and
then you give it to them. Sometimes this batting back and forth of imagined
futures becomes a necessary little game you play in order to ‘get ahead’.

“We want to make a
decision all of our own, based on our own values and preferences.”

In reality, people
frequently don’t know what they want and psychology has proved it. That’s why
career planning, or at the very least just deciding what you’re going to do
next, is so unpleasant. It’s no fun at 18 years old when people ask what you
want to do. There seem to be so many different options, each with myriad
branching possibilities, many of which lead in opposite directions, but all
equally tempting. Surrounded by these endless spiralling futures, it is no
wonder that many a school-leaver sticks with what they know and follows in
parental footsteps. But we don’t all want to trust the tried and tested,
whether for good reasons or bad. We want to make a decision all of our own, based
on our own values and preferences.
Midlife crisis

If it’s hard at 18,
it’s even harder in midlife when people are theoretically better equipped to
make their choice. In reality by your 30s wide-eyed optimism has normally been
replaced by a more cynical outlook on jobs and the workplace. Now it’s more
clear what the downsides of certain jobs are. There’s not only our own
experiences of work but we also have friends at work, all of whom colour our
perception of their careers.
Everyone has their
own internal trade-offs. How much routine do you like: boring but safe? How
much do you like travel: exciting but you’ll be away from loved ones? How much
do you care about earning more money: and taking a more boring/stressful/less
fulfilling job? Whatever the outcome of all these swings and roundabouts along
with many more, the reason that deciding what to do with your life is so
difficult is that it involves predicting the future.

There’s many reasons
why it seems we should be good at prediction what we want. If I know that I’m
enjoying what I’m doing now, then I should enjoy it in the future shouldn’t I?
On top of this I’ve got years of experience building up a set of things I like
– cinema, books, sitcoms – and things I don’t like – trips to the dentist, severe
embarrassment and flu, especially not all at the same time. If I’ve got this
huge bank of likes and dislikes it should be easy to predict my wants in the
future. And yet, it seems we are often surprised by what the future throws at
“We are poor at
predicting what will make us happy in the future.”
The idea of making
mistakes about what we might want in the future has been termed ‘miswanting’ by
Gilbert and Wilson (2000). They point to a range of studies finding we are poor
at predicting what will make us happy in the future. My favourite is a simple
experiment in which two groups of participants get free sandwiches if they
participate in the experiment – a doozie for any undergraduate.

One group has to
choose which sandwiches they want for an entire week in advance. The other
group gets to choose which they want each day. A fascinating thing happens.
People who choose their favourite sandwich each day at lunchtime also often
choose the same sandwich. This group turns out to be reasonably happy with its

Amazingly, though,
people choosing in advance assume that what they’ll want for lunch next week is
a variety. And so they choose a turkey sandwich Monday, tuna on Tuesday, egg on
Wednesday and so on. It turn out that when next week rolls around they
generally don’t like the variety they thought they would. In fact they are
significantly less happy with their choices than the group who chose their
sandwiches on the day.
Prediction failure

This variety versus
sameness is only one particular bias that people display in making predictions
about their future emotional states. There is another counter-intuitive bias
emerging from the work being done in positive psychology. This looks at how
people predict they will feel after both catastrophically bad, and, conversely,
fantastically positive occurrences in their life. For example, how good would
you feel if you won the lottery? Most people predict their lives will be
completely changed and they’ll be much happier. What does the research find? Yes,
people are measurably happier after they’ve just won, but six months down the
line they’re back to their individual ‘baseline’ level of happiness.

So, in the journey
from the sublime – predicting how we’ll feel about winning the lottery – to the
ridiculous – predicting which sandwiches we’ll want for lunch – we are
incredibly bad at knowing our future selves. And if we can’t even decide what
type of sandwich we might like next week, how can we possibly decide what type
of job we’d like to be doing in twenty years?

With age
occasionally comes wisdom. Over time we learn, whether implicitly or
explicitly, that we are not that good at predicting the future. At the very
least we begin to recognise it is a much less precise science than we once
A stranger future

This means your
future self is probably a stranger to you. And, on some level, you know it.
That’s why it might be hard for an 18 year old to choose their career, but it’s
a damn sight harder for someone in midlife when limitations have been learnt.

“People begin to
understand that the future holds vanishingly few certainties…”

This might seem like
just another way of saying that people get more cautious as they get older, but
it is more than that. It’s actually saying that it’s not caution that’s
increasing with age, but implicit self-knowledge. People begin to understand
that the future holds vanishingly few certainties, even for those things that
would seem to be under our most direct control, like our sandwich preferences.
Best guess beats
careful planning

The argument about
miswanting applies to any area of our lives which involves making a prediction
about what we might like in the future. Career planning becomes painful
precisely because it’s such an important decision and we come to understand
that we have only very limited useful information.

The best strategy
for career planning is this: make your best guess, try it out and don’t be
surprised if you don’t like it. But for heaven’s sake don’t mention this in
your interviews.
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy
Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in
psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in

He has been writing
about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the
book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.