Part 5: How to do career planning

The best selling career advice book of all time, What Color is Your Parachute?, advises readers to think deeply about what job they most want, and then go get it. This is typical of much career advice. 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” or to “find their calling”.

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 – 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 in the previous article, 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 the previous article and make a plan that’s both specific and flexible.

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, just build 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 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

Here’s a template for writing career plans that we’ve found useful. It’s borrowed from business strategy from a career advice book by the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman. Business strategy is similar to career strategy, because the situation is always highly 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 to make depending on how confident you are about the best options.

1. Plan A – top option

This is the main plan you’re looking to go for – the ideal scenario. You’ve got three main options for your plan A:

  1. If you’re relatively confident of the best longer-term option (5-15 years), then focus on pursuing it. Try to determine the best route to that option – you can do so by looking at what successful people have done in the past. Then look for steps that both take you towards the goal and build flexible career capital at the same time. This career capital means that you’ll have good back-up options even if Plan A doesn’t work out.

  2. If you’re unsure about the best longer-term option, then plan how you can try out your top 2-4 options over a couple of years, plus a wildcard. Use the tips on how to explore from our article on personal fit. You can re-evaluate your longer-term plans when you’ve learned more.

  3. If you’re really, really unsure, then just do something that builds flexible career capital and buy yourself some time to explore as many options as you can and think more about it.

If you’re early in your career, you’ll probably be in one of the last two categories. 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 part 2c in the guide. If you need help doing an initial narrow down of those options, go back to part 4.

2. Plan B – nearby alternatives

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

To sort out your plan B, ask yourself what’s most likely not to work with plan A, and then figure out what you could do in that event. Come up with two or three alternatives.

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

This is what you’ll do if everything goes wrong, in order to buy yourself time to get back on your feet. For instance, it might mean sleeping on a friend’s sofa and paying the bills through tutoring. Or how about moving to Asia to teach English?

Having a Plan Z makes it easier to take risks. If you think about it, Plan Z probably isn’t so bad – you’ll still have food, friends, and a soft bed, and you’ll be able to figure something out pretty soon.

If you do face serious risks, however, such as if you have people who depend on your income, then you’ll want to seriously consider what you would do if Plan A and B don’t work out.

An example

Suppose that in the medium-term you’re interested in doing development economics research or founding an international development non-profit, but you’re unsure how good a fit you’ll be for academia.

Then your plan could be:

  • Plan A: During your undergraduate studies, 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 Masters 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 – it’s probably one of the most common career mistakes. That means you need to commit to reviewing your plan.

  1. Schedule in a time to review your career in six months or a year. We made a handy career review tool to make that easy. If you have a mentor, talk to them too.
  2. 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 if you don’t publish at least one paper in a top journal before the end of your PhD, you could commit to reassessing the academic path.

Summing up career strategy

Now we can sum up the whole guide so far. Here are the priorities you should be focusing on as you move from early to late career:

  1. Explore. Learn more about and try out your most promising options, while minimizing the costs. Don’t expect to figure out what’s best right away just by thinking about it, rather, think like a scientist testing a hypothesis. Keep focusing on exploration until you feel you’re getting a better sense of the best options. (Part 4)
  2. Build flexible career capital. Improve your skills, connections and credentials to put yourself in a better position to make a difference in the long-run. Do this at least for your first few jobs, and keep going until you stop finding really high return opportunities, or you find a really good way to make an impact. (Part 3)

  3. Help solve the most pressing social problems. Do what contributes by focusing on the most pressing problems, picking the right approach, and doing something with excellent personal fit. That way you’ll have a career that’s both personally fulfilling, and has a big positive impact on the world. (Parts 1, 2a, 2b, 2c)

  4. Adapt your plan. Review your career at least once a year, since the best option may well keep changing. Keep a plan B and a plan Z in mind. Don’t expect to figure out your “perfect match” right away. (This article.)

You’ll be doing all of these throughout your career, but this is where your focus should be at each stage.

That’s almost the end of our guide. Here’s where we apply everything and help you figure out what to do with your life.

First: Use this tool to work out your plan

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

Continue →

Then read part 6: How to get a job

Read next →

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