The Five Years Question

I am reading a really great book. A dive in and stay there kind of book. Only I am not, as it were. I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for days now. Why? Because I am in A Quandary.

I am loving the book when I’m reading it (a review will be forthcoming, of course) but my brain is so tangled up in other things that I can’t concentrate for long. Seriously, people, I have been reduced to playing Chuzzle. In Zen Mode. You know, the one that you can’t win because it never ends. (That said, I discovered if you play long enough you get badges. Why badges are necessary in a game that cannot be won is beyond me, but they’re cute.)

We’re coming off the holiday season, which this year has been insanely overstimulating for me… the low-key holidays of my past have been replaced with Sudden Influx of Large Boisterous Family. I do appreciate the bounty, but I am an introvert. There have been mental adjustments.

That’s been distracting, but it is not the Quandary. With the coming of the new year, I have been forced to reassess my life. I had a job interview a week before Christmas, and, while I didn’t get the job, it did get me pondering. Particularly when the interviewer brought up the infamous “So where do you see yourself in five years?” question.

There are several ways to answer that question. You can be obsequious and suck up, presuming you will be there and be Making Great Things for the company. You can speak to a broader career initiative. You can be honest, if you want. You can lie through your teeth. Whatever gets you the job, right?

I suspect that most people have no real idea, and even if they think they do, five years is a long time. Heck, I’ve gone through about half of the major life changes list in the last two and a half years. I’m certainly not the same person I was before then. No matter how well-prepared I am, the question always results with a deer-in-headlights moment. It’s a scary question.

The last two weeks, I have been thinking about that question outside the limited context of the job market. Unsurprisingly, to me, I found that I have no real answer. I have some vague proto-ideas, but nothing concrete enough to give me a place to land. At the same time, I am reaching the age where jumping around trying to find oneself is simply tiring. Whatever I want, I want some sort of stability.

I don’t have a particularly good history in the stability department. I’ve moved ten times since college, five in the last two and a half years. I’ve had many and various jobs, and I’ve been unemployed almost half as long as I’ve been in the workforce, for various reasons. It’s always something different. Sometimes I’ve made mistakes, other times I just got (un)lucky. To be in the job market means to put your work life (and often the rest of it by extension) in someone else’s hands.

And we’re conditioned to accept that. I remember, as a kid and a teenager, feeling like I was just filling out the life checklist. I went to school and college was expected. I went to college, and a Real Job was the next step. That’s about where I faltered, right out of the gate, and I’ve been stumbling through it ever since. The only thing that’s remained stable is the idea that this is how it works. Objectively, I know there are many alternatives, but the default programmed into the hindbrain is: There is only one path, and you fail to follow it. I keep trying to climb back into the lane and it works for a short while, until I fall out again.

That conditioning is tricky. We ask each other “what do you do for a living?” We are “making a living.” The implication is that if you don’t have a career, you are not living. If you don’t follow The Plan, you’re not alive.

There are so many things I haven’t done because I was looking for a job. The hindbrain constantly tells me I cannot participate in this or that activity because I don’t have an adequate response to “what do you do?”  It actively tries to shut me down; obviously, without a job, without a living, I am not a real person, I have no right to do those things.

Over the last two weeks, however, I’ve been wondering: if I keep doing everything according to The Plan and it still doesn’t work, maybe it’s not me. Maybe the plan is faulty. Maybe it’s only designed for certain use cases.

Maybe I don’t know where I want to be in five years because I’m looking at the wrong map. I’ve sort of come to this conclusion before, but it’s always been in the context of  This is How It Works. All the changes I’ve tried to make have been limited to finding that One True Career, of finding the slot that I fit into.

I’m wondering if I need to stop looking. If I need to work from the assumption that I am not going to get a job, as society would see it. Then I have to figure out how to live from there. If I find a job in the process, great. If not, I need to find out how to live without The Plan. And that’s going to be hard. I barely know where to start even thinking about it.

It may take more marathon Chuzzle sessions, but sometimes trying not to think is the best way to figure something out. If I need to think outside the box, first I have to get my brain to accept the fact that there is no box.

I don’t need a box to finish that awesome book, but I do need to make some decisions. They may affect my reading time, but hopefully only to make it better. Wish me luck.

This entry was posted in Opinions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Five Years Question

  1. Charles says:

    Ever since I read this post last week, it keeps popping back into my head and wishing I had something profound & life-changing to tell you.

    Wait, first things first: Good luck.

    I would urge you to interpret the phrase “making a living” a little differently. Existing inevitably costs money. We all want to bring in enough money to cover those costs, because (to put it mildly) there are logistical difficulties when we don’t. “Making a living” is about covering the cost of living; it has absolutely nothing to do with whether you’re a real person. Of course you’re a real person. Temporarily unfortunate, perhaps, but no less alive than anyone else.

    On the “five years” question: I’d say stability is a fine thing to focus on. Even the most ambitious, job-hopping of interviewers should be able to identify with that desire on some level. During a first interview, you may not yet know that the place you’re interviewing is a perfect fit, where you’ll be able to stay, working happily, for five or more years . . . but you probably hope it will be. They, too, should feel some need to prove themselves.

    As for other plans besides The Plan, there are only about six ways to make enough money to constitute a “living,” and that’s if you count entrepreneurship and freelancing as two separate items. You can probably rule out “Inheriting a Fortune” right off the bat. Maybe thinking outside the box becomes a bit more manageable when you consider how few paths—or rather, categories of paths—there actually are.

    I understand about life changes. I’ve been between jobs, and relationships, more than once. For a while, it feels like you’re never going to find something stable again. But then suddenly you do, and the feeling goes away. You’re obviously smart; you have marketable skills. It will happen.

    In the meantime, I wish you strength. And luck, sooner rather than later.

    • anverie says:

      I totally somehow didn’t see this until today, oops…. Although it occurs to me that it was posted while I was in the clutches of the flu and thus avoiding the blog, which may explain it, but still, I should be more observant. ::pokes WP notifications with sharp stick::

      Back on topic: Thanks. I do appreciate it. And I am still working on how to convince the hindbrain to accept common sense. One of these days it might learn, until then I get to deal with irrational anxieties.

      I’m looking for work as much as I can, but I’m also trying to figure out some backup plans. Such as using this blog to provide income, which is possible but I need to be more proactive about it. I’ve got some ideas, and I’m hoping to implement in near future. Maybe it won’t generate much income, but every little bit helps, and who knows, might lead to something. If nothing else, it gives me something to focus on besides waiting for the phone to ring.

      I’ve been here before, and I’ll probably be here again. This time, I’ve kind of hit the “I’m getting too old for this” phase; it’s led to a fair amount of rethinking priorities, among other things. Hoping maybe this time I can expand my horizons instead of just waiting for someone else to make the decisions. I don’t know whether it’ll work, but any progress is good progress. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed and trying new things.

      I’ll take all the luck I can get, though :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>