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Why No Plan Is the Best Plan

This is part of a series of posts selected by Jim Carroll, our APG Guest Editor during October 2017, surrounding the theme of

'How To Get On: Advice on how to manage a strategist’s career in a creative business'

Read more posts here

Spray (1940) by Harold Williamson

Throughout my career, one of the questions I have always dreaded is ‘where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?’ Early on, it used to make me feel slightly sweaty and nervous. Even though I knew it would be an inevitable topic of conversation in almost every interview and career chat, I still struggled to prepare an answer that felt credible and convincing. In more recent years, as I’ve grown in confidence and built a career for myself, I find I’m longer nervous, but annoyed.

Why? Because it seems to me that the default assumption of almost every careers advisor, interviewer or head hunter is that a clear goal, and plan to achieve it, is a critical component of career success. Google ‘career goals’ and you can take your pick of careers websites listing the multiple benefits of career goal setting. Or explore #LikeABoss on and, if you’re so inclined, you can even learn how to upgrade your SMART goals for HARD ones. Frankly, it makes me want to weep.

And it’s more than just my personal reticence and contrariness. I’m just not convinced that a ‘career plan’ is the right plan.

But first, let me be clear about what I mean by ‘no plan’. I’m not advocating being uncommitted, unambitious, complacent or leaving your career to chance. But I am questioning the virtue of having such a clearly defined goal and strategy for achieving it, that you fail to spot all the opportunities open to you, or sacrifice your happiness because you’re chasing some distant ambition. Let me expand.

With no plan, you’re more open to possibilities

Attention is a well-known psychological process which lets us screen out background noise in restaurants when we want to talk to someone, or when we need to find that extra focus to hit a deadline. But when we’re focused on a particular vision of the future, the attention we give to it means we’re also likely to screen out stuff our brain perceives to be ‘distractions’. But what if those distractions aren’t irrelevant? What if they’re actually opportunities and are more interesting or valuable than where you’re currently headed? I never dreamed I’d help found a company. I never set my sights on being an entrepreneur. But when someone rang with just that idea, even though I’d just taken a new job I’d worked quite hard to get, I decided to go for it. High risk, not part of any career plan, and really inconvenient timing. But it was an opportunity that wasn’t going to come along every day. Six years later I run my own company. I’ve learned more than I ever imagined I would, and I’ve had a lot fun along the way.

With no plan, you can focus on being brilliant right now

Most of the senior people I’ve met who manage others love the people in their team that are wholly concentrated on the day job. They’re the people who put their time and effort into doing what you ask them to do, not just well, but brilliantly. Rather than worrying about when they’re going to get the next promotion, or what they can do to get there faster, they worry about being awesome at TGI, about knowing the competitive set and their advertising better than anyone else, or doing a fantastic job of whatever else it is that their boss has asked them to think about. And believe me, being brilliant right now is what marks you out for future success. You’ll be appreciated, noticed and make yourself indispensable. And that’s a pretty good recipe for promotion.

With no plan, you can figure out what you really love

My father always told me that the formula for career happiness was to do what you love. But if you set your sights on a specific goal and plan your career on the assumption that the journey there is just about accumulating the ‘right’ experience, you can end up spending a lot of time doing stuff you don’t particularly like. How frequently are people told to take a job ‘because it’ll be good for your CV’? In my experience, people tend to be good at the things they enjoy. I, for example, have always loved science. So, I spent probably more time than was ostensibly good for me finding opportunities to work on ‘science-related’ accounts like Public Health England and the British Heart Foundation, which meant I could indulge my interest in biology and my New Scientist subscription was practically a legitimate work expense. Along the way, I learned a lot about behavioural science, and made some award-winning work... which, of course, ended up being very good for my career. So, my counsel is to think less about what’s ‘good for your CV’ and think more about where your passions lie. If you discover what you love, the chances are you’ll naturally want to put more time and more effort in, and you’ll probably get pretty good at it. And guess what, people who are good at stuff tend to be in demand. So maybe finding the thing you love isn’t just a formula for career happiness, but a formula for career success as well.

With no plan, you’re free to adapt and change to the world around you

My favourite statistic at the moment is that 60% of 14 year olds will go into a job that doesn’t currently exist. Assuming they all start work within a couple of years of leaving university, that implies extraordinary change in the working world in less than 10 years, and in an era of digital transformation and marketing fragmentation, why should planning/strategy be any different? If you have a career plan based on what the world looks like now, I suspect the only thing you can be certain of is that your career won’t work out like you planned. That job you’ve set your sights on might not even exist in ten years. The skills you’re so keen to acquire might not be the ones that future employers will value. Far better, I think, to leave yourself free to adapt and change as the world demands it.

This might not be conventional wisdom, but I genuinely believe it’s far more exciting, rewarding and enjoyable to live and work for the present than to worry too much about planning your future. And as Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke put it, ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.’ So perhaps staying focused on today’s opportunities - practising what we might call a bit of ‘career mindfulness’ - isn’t a bad way to take care of the future after all?

Kate Waters

Chief Strategy Officer, Now


Kate is super-smart and charming, and has a compelling expertise at the intersection of creativity and behavioural science. But she is also that rare creature: the Entrepreneur Strategist. Here she argues that having a career plan may not be the right plan at all.

- Jim Carroll


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