The 10 year plan, or lack thereof

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Many of us have faced this question at some point in our lives. It comes up in job interviews, in conversations with friends and mentors, and perhaps from potential business associates and current or future life partners. Whatever the context, the aim of asking this is to assess if we have clarity about our aspirations. I have seen articles that describe how to answer this question “strategically” in HR interviews, with advice to lay out a vision for personal growth, and avoid extreme responses such as “I don’t know” or “I want to be a CEO”. I have always had difficulty with this question, not because I doubt its intent, but I’m not sure that there is a logical way to arrive at a satisfactory answer, without a long list of disclaimers. I will explain my reasons below.

  1. Long-term predictions (and 10 years is a relatively long time in the scale of a productive human lifetime) are inherently subject to large degrees of uncertainty. Even excluding the possibilities of meteor strikes, aneurysms and global catastrophes, a lot can happen, and it does. Disruptive innovations bring unanticipated changes, and create unforeseen opportunities and challenges.
  2. Even small perturbations accumulate over time to lead to outcomes that are substantially different from what is expected. This is sometimes referred to as the Butterfly Effect in Chaos Theory: a butterfly flaps its wings, and eventually a storm gets triggered a continent away.
  3. As a result of the above, we see evolving and emerging professions and career options. Driven by a set of core and transferable skills, drastic career transitions are possible. For example, today’s programmer is tomorrow’s data scientist; today’s marketing intern is tomorrow’s social media strategist, and today’s CEO is tomorrow’s life coach. If careers follow more unusual trajectories, today’s doctor could be tomorrow’s entrepreneur; and today’s accountant tomorrow’s blogger and stand-up comedian! And we know little about the professional opportunities of day after tomorrow.

As I look back at my own professional journey, if someone had asked me this in the early years of graduate school, I probably would have said, “I see myself in a tenure-track position in academia”. If someone had posed this question when I joined industry, a likely answer could have been about leading global regulatory filings of an innovative new medicine. When I moved back to India from the US, it may have been that I want to address business problems in diverse domains by developing methods and applying the techniques in my toolbox.

As it happened, all these long-term forecasts would have turned out to be wrong. This isn’t because I’m particularly bad at making predictions. In fact, I like to think, due to my training, I’m slightly above average in understanding and quantifying uncertainty…call it the Lake Wobegon syndrome if you like. It is because that is how life is. Situations change, we change, opportunities present themselves, and decisions to pursue or not pursue certain paths determine future states of health, happiness, material success, etc.

I realize there are folks who can articulate a 10-year goal for themselves, and would do their best to stick to a path to get there no matter what. For me, 10 years is a long time, far too much time for too many butterflies to flap their wings. It is also an eternity relative to the pace of technological change, and the effects on how we live and what we do.

So where do I see myself in 10 years? The best I can do is say…somewhere different from where I am today, having picked up a few more lessons along the way. As long as we enjoy the journey, and it fulfills and enriches us, does the destination really matter?


Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on August 19, 2015.