Standard Issue Aspirations

What are your Career Aspirations?

(Photo by joyful on Unsplash)

It seems like the kind of stereotypical “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question that elicits everything from curiosity to an eye-roll. Some of us wear these aspirations on our sleeves (for better or worse), and some (myself included!) spend many years of our working life in the “five-year plans are for losers” camp.

There’s a balance to be struck, and finding the sweet spot that keeps you motivated and fills in the blanks of what you need to get there takes work and direction you set yourself. This doesn’t come naturally to many of us.

As someone said to me in a recent conversation, “If you don’t bring your own career aspirations, your employer will be happy to provide you with some”. The structure around reward and promotion and performance management is a huge player in Tech when it comes to how people define their Locus of Control. For engineers specifically, it can be very tempting to ‘abstract away’ a real and considered assessment of what we really want from the few decades of work we get to do. I like to compare this to the concept of Flow writ large. It’s an understandable goal with (usually) a well-understood method that we can get lost in.

Many years ago, I coached a co-worker who had been managing a team for several years. They were, by all accounts, doing a very fine job. Their reports were happy, attrition was low, the team were meeting their goals. Over the course of our time together, this person made it known to me that they were managing because it was something that needed to get done. They didn’t particularly enjoy doing it, but they had the skills and ability, and it was what was in front of them. They weren’t unhappy, but without having a good conversation about what they themselves enjoyed doing, they could have found themselves stuck (or at least, feeling stuck). As the lead of their department, I could absolutely have hired a manager to do that part of the job and more, allowing this person to do the kind of work they felt better suited their career aspirations. In the end, that ended up happening, after a set of conversations where we spoke about their own career goals, rather than my (temporary, less consequential) staffing and talent planning.

It’s possible to have a conversation with yourself where you come out of it with a better understanding of what you actually enjoy doing, rather than what you feel is expected of you, or what you feel obligated to do. It doesn’t mean you then have to about-face your entire career or reset a bunch of progress; often, it helps just to be able to bring your own personal values to what you’re doing. This can further help you steer yourself where you genuinely want to go.