Plan Your Career or Follow Your Gut?

Do people with five- and 10-year plans find more career success? Are they happier?


I recently spoke to Nancy, a mid-level executive in an energy company. She complained that she never had a big goal toward which she was working, no five- or 10-year plan.

She decided to accept or decline each opportunity as it arose. When it came to job interviews and performance reviews, she was unable to answer the question “Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?” She said she felt flawed in some way.

I could relate. I spent a good portion of my adult life thinking that I was screwed up in some huge way because I didn’t have long-term goals and made my career decisions based on what opportunities arose. It wasn’t until my 40s that I decided my way of doing it was as good as any other because those with plans seemed no happier or more successful than I. In fact, when their plans don’t work out, the planners often seem more bitter or resentful than those who never plan.

Not having a long-term plan didn’t seem to have hurt Nancy, either. She’d just earned a big promotion at her company while colleagues all around her were being laid off. The only thing “wrong” with Nancy that I could perceive was her belief that there was something wrong. I tried to reassure her that there was nothing intrinsically better about having a five- or 10-year plan, despite all the reams of paper in books and magazines compelling us to create one.

Then I came upon a relevant piece of research in the book “Primal Leadership” by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee: “There’s no right way … to plan for the future; research has shown that it’s a very personal process. When people do try to follow a prescribed model, their learning plans usually get relegated to the bottom drawer. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to formulating a useful agenda for your future.”

It turns out that we make decisions best using our particular core talents. If you typically employ procedural, step-by-step thinking, for instance, then it is very useful to make a plan with specific, measurable goals and make decisions using a list of pros and cons. But if you are strong in relational thinking — concerned with people and values — it’s easiest to navigate using relationships and values as your guide. Those with innovative core talents prefer focusing on short-term accomplishments and the freedom that comes with making it up as they go along. If you have strong visionary talents, a compelling picture of the future can help draw you toward it.

Uncovering your pattern

The trick is to discover your most effective way and then use that. One way to begin is to look for the pattern in the choice points in your life. This practice is adapted from psychologist Ira Progoff. Look back at some of your major decisions. Did you follow a preordained plan, or did you make a decision based on the facts? Do you follow a particular process? Is there a difference in how you made the decisions you are happy with in retrospect and those you are not? When I look at mine, I see that I always choose in the moment based on a relationship or my values (including my value of living somewhere warm). No overt plan for me! That means I tend to talk through my thoughts with a few trusted friends.

Armed with more knowledge about my process, I can now use my formula without second guessing myself so much. And here I am in my late 50s, making more money than ever before in the steepest downturn in the economy since the Great Depression and loving my work. I must be doing something right, at least for me!

If you still think having a long-range plan is better, consider this: Harvard researchers found planners and spur-of-the-moment actors did no better in salary or position by mid-career.

Discover how you make good career decisions, and continue to follow that formula. That’s the best way to succeed, as far as I can figure out.