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by Derek Loosvelt | March 28, 2017


nervous guy interviewing

Do you dread the "Where do you see yourself in five years?" interview question? Do you dread it in part because you have no five-year plan? If you answered "yes" to both of these questions, you're in luck, because the latest New York Times Corner Office column inadvertently includes some excellent advice on how to build a great answer to this often-dreaded interview question that doesn't involve any grand five-year plan.

The subject of the column is David Cancel, the CEO of Drift, a sales communication platform. In the column, Cancel is asked what career and life advice he has for recent college graduates. Here's the majority of Cancel's answer:

If you ask me today what my five-year plan is, I don’t know. My plan is that I try to make every day as good as it can be, and then I try to make the next day better than the last one. That’s it. It’s a slow progression, but if you do it over time, amazing things happen.
Also, be prepared to work hard. That can help you get ahead if you don’t have the advantages that other people have, because not many people will do it. Not many people want to do anything that involves discomfort. But if you want to grow in any dimension in your life, it involves discomfort.
If you’re not willing to deal with the discomfort, you can’t grow. It’s impossible.

As for how this advice (which could very easily be used by older employees in addition to recent college grads) could help you answer the five-year plan interview question, it will enable you to do a couple of very important things. First, it will allow you to move away from giving your interviewer a pat answer, one you probably think you should give your interviewer (something like: " ... and I see myself growing with your company and hopefully I'm in a more senior position here, with more responsibility, etc., etc., etc.,"). Second, it gives you a great place from which to begin to formulate a more genuine response. Invoking Cancel's advice, you might answer along these lines:

Five years is a long time, so while I do think a lot about my future and career, I find that it's often difficult to see very far ahead. In the past, it's been my experience that plans don't always work out the way I envision. Inevitably, certain unforeseen events and opportunities arise that alter those plans. But, what I certainly plan on doing in the near future and what I would definitely plan to do here is to do my best to always be improving my skills and abilities, and learning as much as I can.

My plan is to treat each day as a possibility to learn and progress, and I plan to work as hard as I can and take on as much responsibility as I'm able to, in order to improve, progress, grow, and be more effective in my position.

That said, I know it takes time to grow, and careers are marathons, not sprints, so I'm willing to put in the work and time, and trust that if I do that, opportunities will present themselves to me.

Lastly, in the past, it's been my experience that pushing myself beyond what I thought I could do, putting myself in uncomfortable positions, outside my comfort zones, have been among my best learning experiences, and the best opportunities for growth. So, I plan to do my best to remember to welcome those opportunities in the near future, which hopefully will include working for your firm in this position.

Or something like that.

The point is if you don't have a set five-year plan, you want to focus on the immediate, what you're going to do in the very near future, what your plan is if you're offered this job. By doing this, you take the answer away from discussing any untrue and fluffy future plans. (And even if you do have a clear five-year plan, and it makes sense to share that with your interviewer, you could perhaps include Cancel's line of thinking along with your future plans.)

Of course, this sample answer that I present above, thanks to Mr. Cancel, is not meant to be used if it doesn't ring true for you. And, by all means, if it does ring true, make your answer much better than mine (or, at least, put it into your own words). The point is I really think Cancel is onto something here with respect to future plans, especially for recent college grads, and using his advice as a springboard could get you to an answer that is much more truthful. 

I maintain that, despite what many career advisors will tell you, you should always answer interview questions truthfully (or very, very, very close to the truth), not how you think you should answer them, not with information you think your interviewer is looking for. Using that sort of tactic is, I believe, almost always a bad plan.

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