18 years ago my 5 year plan was to survive. I see you—you can get through this.
I came across a beautiful thread by Julie Zhuo focused on the differences between cultures when it comes to career aspirations.
It got me thinking, sometimes the response when people are asked about their career goals isn’t culturally driven, it’s life circumstance driven. As a single mom in my 20’s when someone asked me what my 5-year plan was, my immediate, truthful internal response was, “to survive”.
At that time in my life, finishing my degree, working 2 part-time jobs, and caring for my toddler while fighting to make ends meet encompassed the only things that fit on my plate. Did I expect the rest of my life to be the same? No. Is looking forward to your brighter future a healthy, helpful thing to do? Absolutely. But sometimes, you need to take a step back, because looking that far into the future can make you feel like you’ll never survive your current situation long enough to get there. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” wasn’t a question that I could even wrap my head around at that point. I was stressed, depressed, and completely overwhelmed.
For some people having a 10-year plan filled with detailed lofty plans helps motivate them to keep pushing forward. The tough aspect of that approach is that often your goals change midstream. Then the 10-year plan gets derailed, by something completely unexpected and you’re left floundering.
So instead, I’ve built my life on micro dreams. When my daughter was a toddler, my dream was to finish my college degree. Next, my dream was to land a single full-time job that paid my bills. The next dream was landing a job that paid my bills and gave me nights and weekends off to spend with my daughter. At that point, I was finally in a headspace that gave me room to think longer-term and figure out what made me tick, and what I enjoyed doing most.
I wasn’t on a straight and narrow predefined path, and it gave me the freedom to pivot in any direction. My degrees have been helpful in opening doors, but I don’t directly use either of them in my profession. Passively, skills I learned while pursuing each degree apply to the work I do, but as far as direct application goes, everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned on the job.
Now, there are professions that this approach won’t lend kindly to. For example, if I wanted to be a brain surgeon, and that was my definite life long goal, starting early and taking all of the steps necessary to reach that result would be closely planned. But other roles? I worked part-time at a retail store in college, and a friend there had a degree in marketing. She wound up becoming a lawyer. Another friend got a degree in nuclear engineering and wound up opening a custom-crafted guitar business. I have degrees in Psychology and Education, and I landed in SASS technology startups and fell in love with product design.
Don’t judge your entire life as a success or a failure based on a single predefined path. You can veer off to the right and still be just as successful, setting a new end goal.
After I got that full-time job that gave me nights and weekends off, my next goal was buying a house. Then it was renovating that house. Now I’m in a comfortable financial place and my goals are helping my daughter, who is turning 18, pay for college, and then buying an oceanfront condo where I’ll spend my retirement years sipping coffee while I stare at the ocean and write novels.
When my daughter was a toddler and I was struggling to survive, my retirement plans weren’t even remotely close to being part of my life plan.
Don’t get me wrong, goals are excellent, and can be strong motivators. But don’t box yourself so tightly into them that you choke yourself, or push yourself down a slide of self-doubt in your value.
Especially now, with job markets in flux, it’s important to open your mind and set new micro-goals that are obtainable. Once the crisis passes, you can jump right back onto your long term lofty career goal plan, but you may find something between now and then that makes your long term plan shift into a new direction.
I’ve chatted with designers laid off from major corps who felt devastated at first, who are now working with non-profits for a fraction of the pay. They make enough to pay their bills and have the benefits they need, and they are HAPPIER than they have ever been. Their end goal went from climbing a corporate ladder to helping as many people as they can in a week.
Is that an option that works for everyone? Absolutely not. As sole breadwinner with a toddler, I had to scramble and work multiple jobs to cover living expenses when I didn’t have a full-time job. But, moving us into a new, smaller apartment in an area with a lower cost of living took a lot of that pressure off. Did we stay in that small apartment forever? No. I eventually saved up and bought the cottage I’d always dreamed of owning. But it made working my way into a “buy a house myself as a single mom” salary possible.
So for now, just give yourself credit for landing even a part-time job. Then for moving from a part-time job to a full-time job. And then from a full-time job to a job with better hours. Or for getting a job that pays even slightly more.
Be gentle with yourself. This situation is unbelievably hard, but you can push through it and make it out the other side. Even if your micro goal is just to get through today, and then through tomorrow, you should celebrate when you succeed.
You can scale a mountain by taking tiny steps. You just have to keep moving forward.