Part 10: How to make your career plan
People often come to us trying to figure out what they should do over the next 10 or 20 years. Others say they want to figure out “the right career” for them.
The problem with all of this is that, as we’ve seen, your plan is almost certainly going to change:
- You’ll change — more than you think.
- The world will change — many industries around today won’t even exist in 20 years.
- You’ll learn more about what’s best for you — it’s very hard to predict what you’re going to be good at ahead of time.
In a sense, there is no stable “right career for you.” Rather, the best option will keep changing as the world changes and you learn more. Many people we’ve advised would never have predicted the job they’ve ended up doing.
Long-term planning could even be counterproductive. There’s a risk of becoming fixated on a specific plan, and failing to change your plans as your situation changes.
All that said, giving up on planning and setting goals probably isn’t wise either. As Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless but planning is essential.”
Having some idea of where you’d like to end up can help you spot much better opportunities to advance. In fact, if you want to have a big positive impact, we’d argue that planning is even more important. Many of the highest-impact roles require specialist career capital you’re unlikely to get by accident, such as connections to people in biosecurity or expertise in particular technical skills. Likewise, getting to the top of many fields often requires decades of focused effort.
This is the planning puzzle — most ‘plans’ will radically change long before they’re completed, but we still benefit from having them.
Given all this, how should you make a good career plan? Here are our main tips.
Reading time: 20 minutes. Or use our planning template to make your own plan.
The bottom line
Your career should move through three stages:
- Explore to find the best longer-term options for you.
- Build career capital towards those options.
- Deploy the career capital you’ve built to tackle pressing problems and bargain for a job you find personally satisfying.
Your plan will change, and most people can’t predict what job they’ll be doing in 10–20 years. But it’s still useful to have a broad longer-term vision: 2–5 global problems you might try to solve, and 1–5 potential roles you’ll steer towards longer term.
It’s even more important to devote time to finding your best concrete next step — a specific job, educational opportunity, or project you’re going to do in the next 1–3 years that will increase your impact or career capital.
Generate a long list of ideas for next steps by:
- Working backwards: look for options that accelerate you towards your longer-term vision.
- Working forwards: look at the opportunities right in front of you, even if you’re not sure where they’ll lead.
Then create an ABZ plan:
- Plan A is the top option you’d like to pursue, or a series of paths you want to try out.
- Plan Bs are the promising nearby alternatives you can switch into if Plan A doesn’t go as intended.
- Plan Z is your temporary fallback in case everything goes wrong — it helps you feel more comfortable taking chances.
Identify key uncertainties with your plan, then investigate them. If you need help narrowing down your vision or your next steps, you can use our decision tool.
Finally, set a time to review your career, typically within 6–24 months. You can use our tool to help.
Table of Contents
- 1 Don’t “keep your options open”
- 2 The three key stages to a career
- 3 Have a longer-term vision
- 4 Spend longer planning your next steps
- 5 Have backup options: the ABZ plan
- 6 Set a review point
- 7 Apply this to your own career
- 8 Want to come back later?: Get the guide as a free book
Don’t “keep your options open”
A very common response to the planning puzzle is to try to “keep your options open.”
There is some wisdom in this idea: if you gain transferable career capital, you’ll have more options in the future. And if you’re extremely uncertain what to do, just building transferable career capital and coming back to your plan later is a reasonable course of action.
But through advising thousands of people with their careers, we’ve seen that it can have some serious pitfalls. Deciding to just “keep your options open” can:
- Lead to you spending far too long working in a generally prestigious job (like consulting) that you know you don’t want to do long term and just isn’t that relevant to your longer-term goals.
- Stop you committing, so you end up pursuing a middle-of-the-road job that gives you some flexibility, rather than going for something that might be outstanding for career capital, and so ultimately give you better options.
- Turn into an excuse to not think hard about what’s best.
So what should you do instead?
The three key stages to a career
Move through the following three stages:
- Explore: take low-cost ways to learn about and test out promising longer-term roles, until you feel ready to bet on one for a few years. (Most likely to be the top priority ages 18–24.)
- Build career capital: take a bet on a longer-term path that could go really well by building the career capital that will most accelerate you in your chosen path, but with a backup plan. (Age 25–35.)
- Deploy: use the career capital you’ve built to tackle pressing problems and bargain for a job you find personally satisfying. (Age 36 and up.)
And then keep updating your plan every 1–3 years as you continue to learn more and the world changes.
Career capital, exploration, and of course the impact of your work are always going to be relevant to every career decision you face, throughout your career. But your focus should change over time.
The stages last different amounts of time for different people:
- If you’re especially uncertain about what to do longer term but feel like you’re learning a lot about where to focus, you might stay focused on exploration for longer (or just build transferable career capital and figure out your vision later). (Or someone mid-career who’s made a dramatic career change might shift back to exploration.)
- If you’ve already hit diminishing returns on career capital, you might move to the deploy stage faster, and vice versa.
- If you think work on your chosen problems is especially urgent — which many people think is the case for AI safety — and the opportunities around today are better than those that will be around in 10 years, that’s a reason to skip to the deploy stage even if you’ll be less well-prepared for it.
Next, we’ll look at some more ways we recommend going about career planning — while taking the uncertainty involved seriously.
Have a longer-term vision
Although the future is very uncertain, we think for most people, it’s helpful to have at least a vague idea of where you’d like to end up longer term. This is your vision.
Your vision should be broad enough that it won’t constantly change, but narrow enough to provide some direction.
Your vision should include:
- A list of 2–5 global problems you’d most like to work on longer term, as covered in part 5.
- A list of 1–5 roles or types of work you’d like to aim towards, as covered in part 6.
Types of work you could aim for include the categories of high-impact careers we looked at earlier, like being an entrepreneur, writer, or organisation builder. “Longer term” could mean anything from five to 25 years — just pick a timeframe that makes sense to you. If you’ve done the exercises in previous articles, you should have a shortlist already.
Here’s an example: Megan was studying in Beijing when someone suggested she take a look at 80,000 Hours. After reading our guide, she decided that she wanted to work on reducing existential risks, and in particular the risks from AI and nuclear war.
She had spent some time doing research in academia, but she felt that academic work in her field — international relations — was unlikely to provide her with a high-impact career path. So her best guess was to aim for a career path in government and policy. Her vision, if all went well, was that she could become an expert in multilateral relations, and then advise key players on multilateral agreements around AI.
Your vision may feel much more uncertain than this, though, and that’s fine. You only need a rough idea to help spot opportunities and guide your exploration.
As we’ve covered, finding the best career for you is a step-by-step process, so you’ll update your vision every couple of years: adding or removing options from your list, and making the items more specific (e.g. you might start out looking at organisation-building roles, and later focus on becoming a PR specialist).
A common mistake is to obsess about which longer-term options seem best in the abstract. So once you have a rough idea of longer-term options, turn your attention to generating ideas for concrete next steps.
Spend longer planning your next steps
Ultimately, the decision you need to make is what to do next. Thinking about your vision is useful, but only because it helps to guide that decision.
Your next step could be a new job, but it could also be a course or a new project. Typically, it’d be something you might do for a couple of years, though it could be from a few months to 5+ years. For example: accepting a job at Oxfam, spending a summer studying Chinese, or starting a blog while continuing in your current job.
Trying to work out whether you should (for instance) be a researcher (like Dr Nalin) or a communicator (like Rosa Parks) longer term is hard because it’s abstract.
It’s often a lot easier to work out which concrete job or graduate programme to take. Sometimes it makes the decision really obvious: for instance, if you don’t get into any good graduate programmes, that’ll be off the table.
It’s also even possible to skip having a vision and only focus on next steps. With each step, you’ll ideally gain some career capital, learn more about what fits you best, and increase your impact — putting yourself into a better and better position and having more and more impact over time. In this way you can build a great career step by step, even if you have no idea where you’re going to end up.
Hopefully, this feels like a relief. Even if you have no idea what you want to do longer term, you can still build a great career iteratively. And if you do have some good ideas for your vision, that’s a bonus.
So, while we recommend most people spend some time thinking about their longer-term vision, most people should spend even more time identifying and comparing concrete next steps.
Working backwards: if you know your long-term vision, work out how to get there
To come up with next steps, there are two broad approaches.
The first is to work backwards from your vision: think about where you’d like to end up, and then identify the most direct routes to get there.
The best way to do this is to ask people in the field how someone with your background can advance most quickly. For example, ask: “If I wanted to be in role X in five years, what would I need to do?”
Also, look for examples of people who have advanced unusually quickly and figure out how they did it.
Think about which types of career capital will be most important. For example, Bill Clinton knew that to succeed in politics, he’d need to know a lot of people, so even as an undergraduate, he kept a list of everyone he’d met on a paper notepad.
We do some of this analysis in our career reviews, but there’s no substitute for getting personal advice on the best next steps for you.
If you’re feeling uncertain about a longer-term option, another question to consider is: “How might I eliminate that option?” Is there something you could do that would decisively tell you whether pursuing that longer-term path made sense or not?
Working forwards: look at the opportunities immediately in front of you
That said, it’s important not to get wedded to a particular pathway.
Most great careers also involve working forwards — being alert to the opportunities that happen to be in front of you, following your nose, and going with what’s working, even if you’re not sure where it’ll eventually lead.
One reason is the inherent unpredictability of career success.
Another reason is because next steps vary so much in how promising they are, so the variation between specific jobs can trump the variation between broad career paths.
For example, maybe you think biorisk policy is more pressing than nuclear risk policy on average — but if you find a job in nuclear policy with an unusual amount of responsibility, or that’s an unusually good fit for you, or where you work with a great mentor, it could easily be better to work in nuclear policy.
To go back to Megan, when she was figuring out what to do after her master’s, in order to work backwards, she considered ways she might most rapidly advance in a government and policy path. She put common options, like getting a job at a think tank, on her list of options.
But she also realised her current position, living and studying in China, could open up some additional opportunities off the standard path. She saw an ad for a job working for the US Department of State in Beijing as a Chinese social media analyst — and got it. She’s since managed to find a role at the Department of Homeland Security, towards her vision of working on reducing the risk posed by AI systems.
When you’re working forwards, it helps to make a big list of interesting jobs and training opportunities, even if they don’t obviously feed into your current longer-term plans. Here are steps you could use:
- Earlier in the guide, we covered a list of next steps to gain general career capital, so you might have some ideas from there.
- Ask your friends, colleagues, people working on pressing problems, and people you admire what opportunities they know about. The best opportunities are usually found through people you know.
- Check out the jobs listed on our job board — do any of them seem interesting?
- Are there any opportunities, areas to learn about, side projects, or people you feel especially excited about right now?
- Is anything you’re doing right now going better than expected? Could you spend more of your time on that?
Many opportunities also only emerge after you start looking. So one of the most useful strategies is to simply pursue lots of specific jobs and make lots of applications.
We often come across people agonising about different longer-term paths, whereas if they’d simply made applications, the next step would have become obvious.
We’ll look at how to manage the job application process in the next article.
Have backup options: the ABZ plan
Startup founders have a broad vision for the company, but face enormous uncertainties in the details of their product and strategy. To overcome this, they test lots of approaches, and gradually improve their plan over time.
You face similarly large uncertainties in your career, so we might be able to borrow some of the best practices in entrepreneurship and apply them to career strategy. This is the premise of The Startup of You, a book by the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman. One of his tips is making an “A/B/Z plan,” which we’ve also found useful while giving one-on-one advice to our readers.
Writing an ABZ plan helps you think about specific alternatives and backup plans, putting you in a better position to adapt when the situation changes.
1. Plan A: your ideal scenario
Your Plan A is your best guess at the route you’d most like to pursue.
This could be a particular vision you’re going to bet on, and the next step that would imply.
For example: Try to become an academic economist who works on global priorities research or AI policy (vision) by studying these extra maths courses at undergrad (next step).
If you’re more unsure about your vision, you could also plan to try out several longer-term paths, by taking a couple of carefully ordered next steps, as we covered in the article on personal fit.
Or your Plan A could be just to build some valuable transferable career capital (e.g. learn people management, get a degree in statistics), and then reevaluate your plan later.
2. Plan B: nearby alternatives
These are promising alternatives that you could switch to if your Plan A doesn’t work out. Writing them out ahead of time helps you to stay ready for new opportunities.
To figure out your Plan B, ask yourself:
- What are the most likely ways your Plan A wouldn’t work out? If that happens, what will you do?
- What other good options are there? List any promising nearby alternatives to Plan A, which may be other promising longer-term paths, or different entry routes to the same paths.
Then come up with two or three alternatives. For instance:
- If you’re already in a job and applying to master’s programmes, one possibility is that you don’t get into the programmes you want. In that case, your Plan B might be to stay in your job another year and to assess later, or to apply for a master’s in another discipline.
- If your Plan A is to work in policy by getting a job in the executive branch, your Plan B could be to try think tank internships or working on a political campaign.
3. Plan Z: if it all ****s up, this is your temporary fallback
Your Plan Z is what you’ll do if this all goes wrong.
In other words, if your A and B plans don’t work out, what will you do to pay the bills until you get back on your feet?
Having a Plan Z can not only help you avoid unacceptable personal outcomes, but it can help you get more comfortable with taking risks — knowing you’ll ultimately be OK makes it easier to be ambitious.
Your Plan Z can be very short if you’re comfortable with the risk you’re taking, or are in a secure position. If you’re in a higher-stakes situation (e.g. you have dependents) you might want to do more careful planning.
Some common examples are sleeping on a friend’s sofa while paying the bills through tutoring or working at a café, living off savings, going back to your old job, moving back in with your family, or taking a job you find relatively undemanding.
It could even be something more adventurous, like going to teach English in Asia — a surprisingly in-demand, uncompetitive job that lets you learn about a new culture.
Then ask yourself: “Is this Plan Z acceptable?” If not, you might need to revise your Plan A, or prioritise building your safety net for a while.
Optional: further ways to reduce risk
Sometimes you need to take risks in order to have a big impact. Thinking about them ahead of time can make this easier.
First, clarify what a realistic worst-case scenario really is if you pursue your Plan A. It’s easy to have vague fears about “failing,” and research shows that when we think about bad events, we bring to mind their worst aspects, while ignoring all the things that will remain unchanged. This led Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman to say:
Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.
Often, when you think through the worst realistic scenario, you’ll realise it’s not so bad, and is something you could overcome in the long term.
The risks to pay most attention to are those that could permanently reduce your happiness or career capital, such as burning out, getting depressed, or ruining your reputation. You might also have dependents who rely on you.
Second, is there anything you could do to make sure that the serious risks don’t happen?
Many people think of entrepreneur college dropouts like Bill Gates as people who took bold risks to succeed. But Gates worked on tech sales for about a year part-time as a student at Harvard, and then negotiated a year of leave from study to start Microsoft. If it had failed, Gates could have gone back to study computer science at Harvard — in reality, he took hardly any risk at all. Usually, with a bit of thought, it’s possible to avoid the worst risks of your plan.
Third, make a plan for what you’d do if the worst-case scenario does happen. Think about what you’ll do to cope and make it less bad (as well as having a fallback Plan Z, as above).
If it helps, remember you’ll probably still have food, friends, a soft bed, and a room at the perfect temperature — better conditions than most people have faced in all of history.
Fourth, if at this point the risks are still unacceptable, then you may need to change your Plan A. For instance, you might need to spend more time building your financial runway.
Going through these exercises makes risk less scary, and makes you more likely to cope if the worst does happen.
Set a review point
Your plan should change as you learn more, but it’s very easy to get stuck on the path you’re already on. Not changing course when a better option exists is one of the most common decision-making mistakes identified by psychologists, and can be caused by the sunk cost fallacy or status quo bias.
To help avoid this mistake, you need to set a review point. Here are two options:
- Pick a timeframe to review your plan, typically 6–24 months. (Go for shorter timeframes when you’re more uncertain and learning a lot, and longer ones when you’re more settled.) Around the new year is often a nice time. We made an annual career review tool to make this easy.
- Review your plan when you next gain significant information about your career. For example, publishing lots of papers in top journals is key to advancement in academic careers, so you could commit to reassessing whether you want to be an academic if you don’t publish a certain number of papers by the end of your PhD.
When you do the review, the most important question to ask is: what have I learned since I last made a plan, and what might that imply about which longer-term paths and next steps are best?
Then go and discuss your thinking with someone else. Other people are better able to spot the sunk cost fallacy, and having to justify your thinking to someone else has been shown to reduce your degree of bias.
If you have more time, it can be helpful to start from a blank slate: if I were making a career plan today, which vision and next steps would seem best? This can help you step out of your current situation and see things afresh.
Apply this to your own career
Bringing all this advice together, here are the seven steps to building your own career plan:
- What’s your career stage? Exploring, building career capital, or deploying your existing career capital?
What’s your vision? If you haven’t already, sketch out your best-guess shortlist of longer-term paths to aim towards and global problems to work on: your vision.
Now clarify: what’s the very next decision you need to make? Then generate a big list of ideas for next steps. You should already have some ideas from the article on career capital. Lean towards including more rather than less, including some that seem like a stretch.
- Work backwards: what steps would most accelerate you towards your vision?
- Work forwards: what other interesting opportunities are you aware of?
- Now, make an initial guess at which 5–10 next steps are most promising. If you’re struggling to narrow them down, you can also use our decision process to help. Look at the lists of questions for comparing options in terms of career capital and in terms of personal fit from earlier in the guide.
Then make an initial guess at your:
- Plan A: your top longer-term plan
- Plan B: nearby alternatives
- Plan Z: fallback options
- What are your most pressing key uncertainties about all the above? We introduced the idea of a key uncertainty in the article on personal fit, but it can be applied to all aspects of your plan — vision, strategy, next steps, and ABZ options. What information would most change your rankings of options or your Plan A?
How might you best resolve those key uncertainties? If you have time, go and do that. Ideally keep investigating until your best guesses stop changing.
At this point, often what seems best is to simply pursue your list of next steps, and then reevaluate your plan after you have concrete options on the table. We’ll talk about how to get jobs in the next article.
Now is also a good time to consider applying to speak to our team one-on-one. They can help you check your plan, decide which next steps to prioritise, and start toward them.
Once you have concrete job offers on the table, you can use our career decision process to choose between them. It’s the same process for comparing longer-term paths, but it can also be applied to next steps.
Finally, once you start your job, set a review point. (When you do your review, consider using our annual career review tool.)
It could well be worth spending a whole weekend on career planning. If you’d like to do that, we’ve created a planning worksheet covering all the key exercises from the guide so far. If you fill it out, you’ll have a complete career plan. (Try getting a friend to do it with you for moral support and to discuss options.)
Read next: Part 11: All the best advice we could find on how to get a job
Or see an overview of the whole career guide.