Career Planning is a Horrible Idea

on April 9, 2012 | in What the F Should You Do With Your Life?, Work | by

“I’ve got to figure it out,” I lamented to myself in between sips of my delicious vanilla bean latte.

“What’s wroooong with me? Why don’t I know what I want to do with my life? And who the HELL are all are these superfreaks who seem to have it all planned out?”

It was the spring of 2006 and I was a college grad without a clue.

At the time, this uncertainty made me want to vomit with anxiety. In the years since, though, I’ve come to discover something insanely interesting and helpful, something that I wish I would’ve known back then:

Career planning may be a terrible, horrible, sucky idea.

Here’s what I mean.


Guys, our logical brains want to have everything planned out. Our crazybrains think that if we only do enough analysis, we can think our way into the answers, into the “perfect” job or career.

Even worse, our crazybrains think that if we can’t think our way into the answer, we’re screwed.

Thing is, this just isn’t true.

In the years after graduation, I began talking with lots of people. I sought out people who were insanely fulfilled with their life paths and who were super happy OMG!,  and I began asking them simple questions– questions like “How did you find your path? How did you know that this was what you were “supposed” to do?”

And I found that almost all of them had a really strange answer:

“I didn’t. I didn’t know.”


At first I was like, “This must be a fluke,” but over time it was proven time and time again: Many of the happiest, most awesome people I knew didn’t start off with a grand plan. 

Most of them didn’t start off with a clear vision of what the endpoint would be, and yet they ended up doing insanely fulfilling, passion-igniting, made-for-them things.

They disproved– no, CRUSHED the myth that in order to “find your path,” you’ve got to figure everything out right away and have a clear vision of what the endpoint will be.


While driving from my hometown of Boise, Idaho to Seattle on Wednesday, I listened to lots of gangsta rap an audiobook of Jim Collins’ and Jerry Porras’ Built to Last (for the seven-millionth time). The book is based on a six-year research project designed to determine what separates enduring great companies from similar companies that failed to become great (read more here).

During the course of their research, the authors found something that really surprised them, which they dubbed “The Myth of the Great Idea”:

Few of the visionary companies began life with a great idea. In fact, some began life without any specific idea and a few even began with outright failures.

– Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, authors of Built to Last

The authors tell the story of Bill Hewitt and Dave Packard, the founders of HP, forming a company in their garage without any clear product idea. In their early years, they produced products which varied from automatic urinal flushers to bowling foul-line indicators to fat-reducing shock machines.

Masaru Ibuka, the founder of Sony, started off with a rice cooker that failed in the marketplace.

J. Willard Marriott, founder of Marriott Corporation, began his business by opening an A&W Root Beer stand– he just didn’t know what else to do at the time.

In fact, almost none of the great companies in the research study began life with a great idea or a grand vision of the product they’d create. All they knew was that they wanted to build a great company.


Guys, the evolution of a great personal path isn’t a whole lot different than that of a great company (Nerd alert! Nerd alert!).

It’s not our job to figure it all out right now. It’s not our job to come up with “The Great Idea.”

We don’t have to know exactly where we’re going– we don’t have to begin with a “great idea” or a “grand plan” in order to build a great life. In fact, our paths might even start off  with outright failures, and that’s ok– as long as we get a couple of other things right.

Yep, that’s right– it’s imperative that we get a couple of other things right.

After all, starting off in the weeds in no way guarantees that we’ll end up somewhere awesome.

If we don’t start off with a good foundation, we could just end up– well, in the weeds. We might never find our way out.

Or maybe our paths will evolve, but in a less than ideal direction, like toward the murky creek water where we could get stuck in the mud or even drown.

So how do we pick the “right” place to start?

How do we minimize our chances of getting stuck in a less than ideal path?

And how do we “live our way into the answers” and allow our unclear paths to evolve toward greatness without having a total panic attack every day of the week?

It turns out that there are very specific, very simple ways to do this– ways to set things up so that our unclear paths have the best chance of evolving into greatness and clarity rather than spiraling into shittiness.

This fall, I’m unveiling a project that’s been in the works for quite some time: The Unlost Guide to Finding Your Career and Life Path.


Forget the “shoulds;” I’ll show you how to find your own personal path and how to live your way into the answers, even if you have no clue where to start. Learn more (and be thoroughly entertained) right over here.

Also, my story ran last week on Amber Rae’s awesome and inspiring site, Check it out here: “Dance With What Brings You to Life.”


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[Image by dhammza]

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  • ericlunsford

    Aaah, you’ve nailed it! Too many of us (I’ll go ahead and say it – us Gen Y’ers, especially) try and plan the entire road map first before we even get started. Comparing ourselves to businesses reminds me of Simon Sinek’s saying of, “People don’t buy what you sell, they buy why you sell it.” If you are true to yourself and follow what you love doing, success will follow. Don’t worry about making it into a massive business/career just yet. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Yeah! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with planning, per se– it’s just that we often can’t see (or even conceive of) the “endpoint” from the place we’re at now. Being true to yourself and following what you love is essential at some level, whether you’re doing it to make a living or not. We each must find our own answer that speaks to us.

  • I wish I would have read this a few years ago!

    I went through exactly the same process. From the “what’s wrong with me”, to the anxiety, to the research, to the realization that you don’t have to know the end point. Or even, that there might not be an endpoint at all…

    And then, of course, I got stuck in the weeds! For me, that’s been the hardest part of all -figuring out how to get out of the weeds. Ultimately what I realized is that you have to courageously follow your passions. Because then, weeds or no weeds, you’ll be happy either way.

    • “There might not be an endpoint at all…”


  • It’s laughable that, even though us “adults” are all floundering around trying to figure out what to do, society expects kids to know these grand answers. Not just in high school, but in middle school, so they know what to take the next 4 years. God forbid anything in the plan goes awry, cuz we will freak the f out. (I know I did).

    Perhaps if we learned how to cope with all of life’s uncertainties early on, we wouldn’t be so devastated when (not if) we fail.

    • Agreed. It’s rarely (if ever) a straight shot, and I’m not sure that there’s “just one answer” (or any “right” answer at all), and yet society places this weird expectation upon us that we have to “figure it out” straight away. Ha!

      Also, though– what does it mean to “fail?” Is something still a failure if it helps us eliminate paths that *aren’t* for us? If it helps us learn something that will ultimately lead us closer to our true path?

      • Exactly…all the things that I’ve “failed” at were things that were horrible for me.

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  • Maggie Broderick

    It’s funny how you always seem to right exactly what I need to hear (read). I just found out that I didn’t get an internship for this summer, and I was starting to feel overwhelmed by my impending graduation in a few weeks. Recently I have started thinking about what I want to do short-term that I think will enhance my skill set and make me happy. Thanks for sharing these ideas. I am definitely going to just follow what makes sense for me right now and not be so stressed about where I will end up.

    • “I have started thinking about what I want to do short-term that I think will enhance my skill set and make me happy.”

      I like this idea, Maggie! I say go for it! (& let me know how it goes!)

  • So very, very true! Really, when you’re only two decades into life, how can you have it all figured out?! The third decade brings so many experiences — unexpected ones! The key is to hold onto what makes you feel happy and good. Just hold it close. Find a way, no matter what the practical road is and what other people say, to make life of it.

  • JM

    Thanks for this, definitely needed to hear it today. I’ve been all bent out of shape freaking out about where I should settle down in the long term, what I should do if I don’t pass my professional qualifying exams, how I’ll be able to learn to do xyz, and so on. I think I need to just take a breather and realize that these things usually work themselves out in the end!

    • Yes– take a breather. You’re gonna be just fine!

      I DO advocate planning to the extent that we CAN plan– I’m not advocating letting everything go; it’s just that sometimes it’s impossible to know exactly where we’ll end up, and that’s ok. There are ways to get where we want to go and stay on purpose without having to know the exact destination (suspense!).

  • this reminds me of me. and then i thought i had it all figured out. then realize i didn’t
    but now i know it’s ok if nothing is figured out :)
    Noch Noch

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  • Therese,
    This is an awesome post! I tend to be a planner. Okay, that is a slight lie… I don’t “tend” to be a planner… I LOVE PLANNING! If Microsoft excel were a woman I would fall passionately in love with her.

    That being said, I have had to learn to tame the beast. Like you imply in this post, it is impossible to magically predict the future. I have discovered that trying to create the perfect plan NEVER creates the perfect plan… All it really does is waste time when I could be out there doing it.

    I think the power is in doing something, anything. I am slowly learning how to spend very little time planning and more time just experimenting.

    Though, I love Excel, I think the real power is in taking action not planning the action.

    This was a very fun post.

    • Thanks Izmael! For the record, I’m not against planning– I think there’s power in both planning AND in experimenting… and I’m not sure we have to choose between the two. We can do both! (Really I just wanted to ruffle some feathers with the headline ;-)

  • Great post. I am also a planner- I like to have everything figured out! But part of life is just enjoying the journey and taking advantages of opportunities as they come. Trying to plan everything out perfectly often doesn’t work– you have to be open to the possibilities, because something incredible (and unplanned) might be out there!

    • Yes, Akhila! I’m all for planning when we CAN plan– it’s just that very often we cannot foresee the specifics of where we’ll end up. How can we stay open to, and even create space for, these unknown opportunities to evolve, while still planning for those things that *are* “plannable”? That’s what I’ll dive into a little bit deeper when I release my guide :)

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