Part 10: How to make your career plan

People often come to us trying to figure out what they should do over the next ten or twenty years. Others come to us saying they want to figure out “the right career for them”.

The problem with all of this is that your plan is almost certainly going to change:

  1. You’ll change (more than you think).
  2. The world will change – as we saw, many industries around today won’t even exist in twenty years.
  3. You’ll learn more about what’s best for you. As we saw, it’s very hard to predict what you’re going to be good at ahead of time.

In a sense, there is no single “right career for you”. Rather, the best option will keep changing as the world changes and you learn more. Given this, how should you make a career plan?

Here we’ll explain how to take your shortlist of options from earlier and make a plan that’s both specific and flexible, while also avoiding too much risk.

Watch this video or read the full article below (5 minutes), or skip ahead to make your own plan.

The bottom line

You can make a flexible plan by using the A/B/Z plan:

  • Plan A is the top option you’d like to pursue. If you’re relatively confident about what you want to do in the medium-term, focus on that. If you’re more uncertain, look to try out several options. If you’re very uncertain, plan to do more research while building flexible career capital.
  • Plan Bs are the nearby alternatives you can switch into if Plan A doesn’t quite go as intended.
  • Plan Z is your temporary fallback in case everything goes wrong. Having a Plan Z helps you take bigger risks.
  • Review your plan at least once a year – you can use our tool.

Trying to make a ten year plan is unhelpful because the situation will change. It could even make you inflexible to new information and options.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, made a 25 year career plan when he graduated from business school. See how that went.

On the other hand, you don’t want to bungle around without any plan at all. Having specific goals will make you more likely to succeed, and thinking about which career options are best is better than sending out CVs at random.

So what’s the answer?

A flexible plan. Here’s how to make one.

Perfect match
People like to think finding the right career is like finding their “perfect match” for life. It’s not.

The A/B/Z plan

The following is a template for writing career plans that we’ve found useful. You can use it to plan out the next couple of years wherever you are in your career.

The format is borrowed from business strategy from The Start-Up of You, a career advice book by the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman. Business strategy is similar to career strategy, because the situation is uncertain and rapidly changing.

The idea of the A/B/Z plan is to set out a number of possible options, ranked according to preference. We’ve also added some adjustments depending on how confident you are about what’s best.

1. Plan A – top option

This is the ideal scenario. You’ve got three main options for your plan A. Choose one of the following depending on how confident you are in what to aim for long-term.

Option #1. If you’re reasonably confident about your best long-term option, work out how to get there.

Your top long-term option contains a couple of elements:

  1. The problem areas you would like to work on e.g. global health, decision-making science (from our earlier article).
  2. The role you would like to have e.g. non-profit operations, data science earning to give, reality TV star, president (from our earlier article; and your guess at where you have best personal fit).
  3. The key career capital you would like to develop e.g. marketing expert, a network of health workers (from our earlier article).

By long-term, we mean 5-20 years – the time frame depends on what’s appropriate to your situation.

Try to determine the best route to your top option by talking to people in that field and looking at what successful people have done in the past. In particular, look for exceptions – how have people attained these positions unusually fast, or despite major setbacks? Also, double check the advice in our career reviews.

In addition, look for steps that both take you towards the goal and build flexible career capital at the same time. That way, even if Plan A doesn’t work out, you’ll still have options.

Option #2. If you’ve done some research but are still uncertain about your best long-term option, make a plan to try out your top 2-4 options over the next couple of years.

You can minimise the costs of trying out options by using the tips in the earlier article, such as exploring before grad school rather than after.

Also consider trying out a wildcard – an option outside the usual path – to avoid narrowing down too early.

Option #3. If you’re very uncertain about your best long-term option, then first, do more research. In the meantime, build flexible career capital.

Give yourself a set amount of time for research. If you haven’t done much research already, choose a short time frame like two months. If you have already done a lot of thinking, then you may just need to commit to one option for 1-3 years, then re-evaluate after that.

Within that time frame, create a list of ways to learn more about which option is best.

Otherwise, do whatever will best build flexible career capital. Use the advice in our articles on career capital and how to be successful in any job.

If you’re early in your career, you’ll probably be in either option two or three. That’s fine, you don’t need to have it all figured out already.

If you need help coming up with longer-term options, then go back to the article about high-impact jobs, or use the brainstorming questions in the article about personal fit. If you need help doing an initial narrow down of those options, that’s also covered in the article about personal fit.

2. Plan B – nearby alternatives

These are the options you could switch into if Plan A doesn’t work out, and options that might easily turn out to be better than your Plan A. Writing them out ahead of time helps you to stay ready for new opportunities.

To sort out your plan B, ask yourself what’s most likely not to work with plan A, and what obstacles you’re most likely to face. Then figure out what you could do if this happens. Come up with two or three alternatives.

3. Plan Z – if it all ****s up, this is your temporary fallback

Sometimes you need to take risks in order to have a big impact. How can you manage these risks?

First, clarify what the risk actually involves. It’s easy to have vague fears about “failing”. In particular, when we think about bad events, we bring to mind their worst aspects. But we often don’t consider all the things that would 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”

One way to combat this bias is to think through exactly what you would do if things go wrong. Often, you’ll realise it’s not so bad.

It might mean sleeping on a friend’s sofa while paying the bills through tutoring or working at a café; living off savings; or going back to your old job. 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.

It could even mean something more adventurous like going to teach English in Asia – a surprisingly in-demand, uncompetitive job that lets you learn about a new culture.

The risks that really matter are anything that could permanently reduce your happiness or career capital, such as burning out and getting depressed, or ruining your reputation. You might also have dependants who rely on you. Other than these, risks are just temporary setbacks that you’ll be able to overcome in the long-term.

Second, is there anything you could do to make sure that these risks don’t happen, especially the serious ones? 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. This is your Plan Z.

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 financial runway.

Going through these exercises makes risk less scary, and makes you more likely to cope if the worst does happen.

An example career plan

Suppose that your long-term goal is either to undertake development economics research or found an international development non-profit, and you’re unsure how good a fit you’ll be for academia.

Then your plan could be:

  • Plan A: While a student, spend a summer holiday living in a developing country (something you need to do to go into development) and another working at a non-profit. Then work as a consultant for two years, and then pursue a Master’s in Economics. At that point, you’ll either be able to continue in economics academia, or switch into non-profits.
  • Plan B: You might not get a consulting job. In that case, you can go to grad school a year earlier, and spend your year out interning at a non-profit, or teaching English in a developing country.

  • Plan Z: Move back in with your parents and take a job at the deli you worked at last summer.

Commit to reviewing your plan

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 is called the “sunk cost fallacy” or “status quo bias”.

To help avoid this mistake, you need to keep reviewing your plan. Here are a few ideas:

  • Schedule in a time to review your career in six months or a year. We made a career review tool to make that easy. Work through the questions by yourself, and then try to justify your thoughts to a friend or mentor. 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.
  • Set check-in points. Make a list of signs that would tell you you’re on the wrong path, and commit to reassessing if those occur. For example, publishing lots of papers in top journals is key to success in academic careers, so you could commit to reassessing the academic path if you don’t publish a certain number of papers by the end of your PhD.

Now, make your own plan, and learn how to put it into action.

First, if you don’t already have a plan: Use this tool to work out your plan

It checks you’ve applied all the key lessons of the guide, and helps you make your A/B/Z plan.

Continue →

Then, read part 11: How to get a job

Read next →

Or if you’re new, see an overview of the whole guide.