The Only Answer to "Where Will You Be in Five Years?"
November 10, 2015

The Only Answer to "Where Will You Be in Five Years?"

by Brian de Haaff

We spend more time at work than anywhere else during our adult lives. So, it is important to be fulfilled by what you work on. That sounds peachy, right? But I know it is not easy to get there.

The challenge is that changing jobs can be a painful experience. You are faced with sending out cover letters, resumes, and interviewing against a sea of other hungry candidates. But the bigger issue is that you very likely do not know which job would truly make you happy. It is hard to really know.

You are not alone. That is why there is one part of the job hunt that has always fascinated me. And it always comes during the interview process.

It is a question that all of us have been asked. Do you know what it is?

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I have seen countless candidates flatline at this question. Their faces go blank, they start to stutter, and they struggle to give an answer — any answer. This question makes people nervous — and I believe I know why.

Conventional wisdom says that those who get rattled by the “five years” question think there is a right answer. This logic says that the nerves come because they worry their own goals will not be what their interviewers want to hear.

But as the CEO of Aha! I have interviewed hundreds of candidates during the past few years. And that experience has made me think deeply about a different reason why this question concerns people.

Here’s the secret — there is no right answer to this question. I do not expect candidates to have their whole lives planned out. But I do expect them to tell me what they value. I expect them to know what drives their actions, and how they live their lives according to those values.

That’s it — I want to know what you are working towards.

A consequence of our fast-paced world is that we do not often pause to reflect on our own values. And we are never encouraged to share them. So, we end up doing what we “should” do — going to college, taking a job to pay back our student loans, or working for a lousy boss to only become a slightly less lousy boss ourselves. I understand why we do it. I did it myself. The problem is that we disconnect our actions from our personal values.

We typically do not ask ourselves why we do what we do. We therefore never really deeply explore what we value. And that makes us question what our futures should look like.

If you are preparing for an interview, the “five years” question does not have to stump you. Here are some ways to confirm your values — and start working on them now:

Answer your “why”
The “five years” question is important. But a deeper question lies behind it: “How will you measure your life?” This is arguably life’s most essential question — no matter your age or life experience. Time is finite for all of us, so what we do while we are here matters. Think deeply about what matters to you and the legacy you want to leave behind. Do you want to be known for your hard work? Strong faith? Whatever it is, answer this question for yourself. Then, ask yourself why it matters to you.

Write your goals down
You cannot work towards your purpose without goals. Once you know what you value most — and why — you can identify goals to help you live with purpose. The beauty of goals is that they are deeply personal — you have the power to define what you want, whether that is to become a VP of Marketing, publish a novel, focus on raising your kids, or some combination that is uniquely yours.

Start by identifying two goals for yourself — something that you want to achieve personally within the next year, and something that you want to achieve professionally during that same time period. Write them both down and put them where they are visible. This will help inform the decisions you make.

Identify initiatives
If goals are where you want to be, then initiatives are how you get there. If your goal is to be a marketing director for a fast-growing SaaS startup in five years, then you will need to master several steps along the way.

So, make a roadmap that shows the different initiatives you should fulfill en route to becoming a marketing director. “Take a course on SEO” could be one initiative; “work as a product marketing manager for two years” might be another. These initiatives are your secret weapon. They help you realize how much control you have over your career.

Values are relative. They also mean different things to different people. I cannot define what your own values should be, or how you ought to fulfill them. But we all should have them and be able to explain how they influence where we are headed.

That is precisely why I ask candidates where they see themselves in five years. I want to learn what propels them to leap or stumble out of bed each morning. The most successful people share a deep sense of passion for something that fulfills them. And every employer wants a purpose-driven team.

So, do not be afraid to explain your values and how they will define your future. The “five years” question is a great opportunity. It is your chance to reflect on where you are going — and how you will ultimately measure your life.

Where will you be in five years?

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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