The Futility of Projecting Your Life

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Recently, I was interviewed for an attorney position. At that time, I was 27-years old, five years removed from undergrad and 2 years removed from law school. During the interview, one of the interviewers asked the following question: “Kyle, where do you see yourself in 5 years?” As a 27-year old, I wouldn’t say that I had an incredibly great handle on life, but after spending 7 years in post-secondary education (both undergrad and law school) and 2 years working full-time as a lawyer, I was starting to figure things out.

A 5-year plan put me at age 32. My thirties seemed so foreign. I was in my 20s—albeit my late 20s—but I desperately clinging to my younger 20s. It was only five years earlier that I had been screaming my face off at Penn State football games, wondering where the next chapter of my life would lead. I never imagined that five years from my days inside the Penn State Student Section would I be a licensed attorney concluding a clerkship for one of the most widely regarded judges in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

But now, during the interview, I was being asked to project my life 5 years into the future. I couldn’t do that during undergrad. How was I supposed to do that now?

The assumption behind the “Where do you see yourself in (insert number) years?” question is that I can reverse engineer my life’s trajectory if I simply know my end destination. But I couldn’t imagine being 32, let alone picture how my life would look at 32. Not surprisingly, I had no idea how to accurately answer the interviewer’s question. Nevertheless, I fed him some half-hearted answer about how I intended to be a rock-star lawyer somewhere in the area. That’s all seasoned lawyers want to hear from younger lawyers, anyway.

Not unlike my legal interview, many employers want to hear a neat, concise life narrative before hiring a prospective employee. Candidates with a demonstrated track record of internships, courses, and references all within the tight contours of the employer’s industry make for the brightest prospects. In response, students craft their resume to tell the desired narrative. The problem is, however, that hardly anyone’s life unfolds in a nice, neat fashion conducive for clean story-telling, even though we try to produce a resume that indicates otherwise. Indeed, life is a constant process of growth and improvisation, which blends together interests on one hand and opportunities on the other. You simply cannot plan for the opportunities that will present themselves 15 years from now. But that’s precisely what conventional wisdom tries to do, as exemplified by the older gentleman in my interview.

Even more damaging to “Where do you see yourself in (insert number) years?” question, research indicates that students don’t know what they want out of life, anyway. Consider the following hypothetical. Which professional would you choose to be?

Which professional would you choose to be?

Professional #1

$ 99

Per Month [pricing_row]Average income[/pricing_row] [pricing_row]Average health[/pricing_row] [pricing_row]Average working hours[/pricing_row] [pricing_row]Reasonable rapport with family and friends[/pricing_row]

Professional #2

$ 99

Per Month [pricing_row]Above-average income[/pricing_row] [pricing_row]Minor health problems[/pricing_row] [pricing_row]Lots of work-related travel (meaning infrequently home)[/pricing_row] [pricing_row]Very close relationships with family and friends[/pricing_row]

A similar hypothetical was posited in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz found that when faced with a similar scenario, 64% of respondents prefer the characteristics of Professional #2. Although Professional #1 is more or less average in every category, Professional #2 has two very positive features (above-average income and very close relationships) and two negative features (minor health problems and lots of travel). Ultimately, people perceived that the positive features of Professional #2 were more appealing than the across-the-board average features of Professional #1.

However, Schwartz found that when respondents were asked to reject choosing a particular Professional—rather than accepting to be a particular Professional—the 64% in favor of Professional #2 dropped to 55%. In essence, how the question is presented—whether in positive language (who do you want to be) or negative language (who do you not want to be)—can significantly alter an individual’s career preference.

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Now imagine this kind of unsuspecting influence exerted upon a teenage high school student. Depending on whether the student is asked, “Do you want to be an engineer?” or “Why do you not want to be an engineer?” can significantly determine whether that same student chooses to be an engineer—all unbeknownst to the student. And the decision to be an engineer or not be an engineer maintains consequences to last an entire lifetime.

The engineering hypothetical assumes that the student knows as much about engineering as the four characteristics presented in our pick-a-professional hypothetical. However, do you think a high school student can reasonably project the type of rapport he or she might maintain with his or her hypothetical family 10 years from now? That would require at least knowing what the average number of weekly work hours are. Many college engineering majors don’t even know the answer to that question. Since high school students maintain even less information regarding their prospective majors than provided in our hypothetical, it should not be surprising to find that the manner in which career questions are presented actually exerts more influence than the results found in Schwartz’s experiment.

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