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, as we’ve seen, your plan is almost certainly going to change:

  1. You’ll change – more than you think.
  2. The world will change – many industries around today won’t even exist in twenty years.
  3. 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 single “right career for you”. Rather, the best option will keep changing as the world changes and you learn more. Giving up on planning and setting goals probably isn’t wise either.

This is the planning paradox – especially when you’re early in your career, most ‘plans’ will radically change long before they’re completed, but we still benefit from having them.

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 reducing risk.

Reading time: 5 minutes. Or skip ahead to make your own plan.

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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 different options before deciding which to aim for. If you’re very uncertain, plan to do more research while building flexible career capital.
  • Plan Bs are the promising 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—something easy to achieve. Having a Plan Z helps you take bigger risks.
  • Review your plan at least once a year – you can use our tool.

The A/B/Z plan

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

The founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, wrote a book about why to think of your career as a startup. 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. One of these is what Hoffman calls the “A/B/Z plan”. We’ve also found it useful while giving one-on-one advice to hundreds of readers.

The idea 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. You can use it to map out the next couple of years, wherever you are in your career.

1. Plan A – your ideal scenario

You have three main options for your plan A, depending on how confident you are about what to aim for long-term.

So start by sketching out what long-term options you’d like to aim for using the material earlier in our guide. “Long-term” means over the next 5-20 years – the time frame depends on what’s appropriate to your situation.

  1. Which problem areas would you like to work on? e.g. global health, decision-making science (from part 5).
  2. Which roles would you like to have? e.g. nonprofit operations, data science earning to give, reality TV star, president (see ideas in part 6; and use part 8 to narrow down by personal fit).
  3. What career capital would you like to develop? e.g. marketing expertise, a network of biomedical researchers, and so on (from part 5 and part 9).

Roughly rank your long-term options, then choose one of the following three types of Plan A.

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

Try to determine the best route to your top option. You can do this 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 and the article on how to be successful.

At the same time, 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.

If you’re unsure about which next step to take towards your long-term option, use our decision tool.

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.

For instance, if you’re interested in either being an academic, think tank researcher or data scientist, but can’t decide between these, then try to come up with a plan to try out all of them. This might mean working in them for one or two years each, doing internships, or doing part-time projects.

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

We covered how to explore lots of options while minimising the costs in an earlier article.

Option #3. If you’re very uncertain about your best long-term option, then do more research while building flexible career capital.

If you’re very uncertain and haven’t done much research into your career, then you may want to set aside a couple of months to think about it, read more and talk to people. If you’re a student you could do this over your holidays. If you’re working, you might want to take a break. You can use the tips in the article on personal fit. Your Plan A is “do more research”.

If you’ve 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. In the meantime, do whatever will best build flexible career capital to maximise your options.

To work out which options are best for flexible career capital, use the advice in our articles on career capital and how to be successful in any job. Then narrow down using the advice on personal fit. For instance, this could mean working in consulting, doing grad school in Economics, or working in a small company that lets you try out lots of roles. If you’re unsure about which next step to take to get career capital, use our decision tool.

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

2. Plan B – nearby alternatives

These are the 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:

  1. What other good options could I pursue?
  2. What’s obstacles am I likely to run into with plan A? Then figure out what you could do if this happens.

Come up with two or three alternatives.

For instance, if your plan is to do consulting for two years, then go to graduate school, but you’re concerned you won’t get a consulting job, then list out some alternatives you pursue in that time.

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. Your Plan Z is what you’ll do to mitigate the worst of those risks.

First, clarify what the worst case scenario really is, and identify the worst risks. It’s easy to have vague fears about “failing”. Indeed, 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 case scenario, you’ll realise it’s not so bad. Rather, 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 dependents who rely on you. Other than these, most “failures” 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 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. This is your Plan Z. 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.

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.

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 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 advancement 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.

Just like a startup entrepreneur, the aim is keep testing and improving your plan over time.

Now, you can use our tool to make your own plan. It takes you through all the steps above.

Read next: Part 11: All the best advice we could find on how to get a job

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Or see an overview of the whole 2017 career guide.

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