“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

If this question isn’t the worst in the history of job interviews, it’s at least the most useless. The only thing of value it will tell you about a job candidate is whether or not they can control an eye-roll.

There is no good answer to this question.
I’ve tried giving vague answers; hopeful answers; philosophical answers; bold answers; humble answers. I don’t think any approach I’ve tried has been the right one.

The most truthful and logical answer I can think of — which is also one that would probably remove me from consideration for the position in question — is:

“I have no idea. But if you show me your org chart, and tell me which one of the people above me is planning to leave within the next five years, I’ll make a reasonable guess.”

Five years from now is unknowable and irrelevant.
In an interview, I’d rather not start theorizing about one or two of the 856,000 possible scenarios that might play out over a five-year time span. It’s an unfair question, because I don’t have all the information I need in order to answer it — details like who I’m going to meet during the next five years who could change the direction of my career, or whether or not you’re going to lay me off in that timeframe. I’d rather stick to topics like what I have to offer you right now, and what I can do to help your company meet its goals. Topics I can address with confidence, and which pertain to the job, and my ability to perform it.

Photo of Madame Leota from Disneyland's

Looking for answers about the future? Maybe Madame Leota can help. I can’t.

If you’re really using the five-year question to get a peak into my psyche, be direct. Ask questions that will give you an idea of how I see things. Give me a fictitious scenario and ask me how I would handle it. (Or, read my posts.)

What makes me think five years from now is irrelevant?
I’m comfortable making this assertion because I’ve been alive for more than five years. At no point in my life, had I laid out a five-year plan, would I have come close to being on target. I realize an interviewer isn’t going to check in with me in five years and punish me if my life doesn’t match up with my answer, but why waste time with pointless guessing games? I may have a goal today that I will drop like a maggot-infested chicken drumstick in a year.

I have a degree in English. But when I was in school, I didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do with an English degree. I wasn’t thinking about a job at all, because I was busy looking for a husband. So if you had asked me at age 20 what my five-year plan was, I’d have probably said, “To get married and have a baby.”

Here’s what those five years actually looked like:

  • I got engaged.
  • I spent way too much time planning a wedding.
  • I got married.
  • I graduated from college.
  • I worked as a tutor.
  • I didn’t have kids.
  • I got a crappy retail job.
  • I got divorced.
  • I started an advertising career.

At age 20, my goal was to become Betty Draper. Five years later, I was Peggy Olson. I couldn’t possibly have gotten any farther off the mark (unless maybe I had become Don Draper).

photos of January Jones and Elizabeth Moss from AMC’s “Mad Men.

The question “Where do you see yourself in five years?” will only yield a relevant answer if you’re asking someone with very limited vision.

I didn’t plan it. It just happened. Life happened.

We like to think we have control over much of what happens in life, but we don’t. Yes, when you come to a fork in the road, you make the choice as to which path to take. But you don’t create the fork, and you rarely know when one is going to appear.

Talking about what job you think you’re going to want in five years is just daydreaming. If it’s not — if you know what you want and have the roadmap — you’d better be 100% positive, because you’re effectively putting on blinders, consciously choosing to ignore other opportunities that present themselves along the way.

If it ain’t broke . . . 
When I was a teenager, I almost always had crushes on more than one guy at a time. That way, I could still have one to daydream about when the other made it clear he wasn’t interested. The approach gave me a new goal to focus on immediately, and ensured I could remain hopeful, instead of getting mired in disappointment.

I’ve found this strategy also works really well for career goals. When one option doesn’t pan out, I have others to focus on. If I only have one goal, I’m painting myself into a pretty dark corner if it doesn’t come to fruition.

I also happen to think surprises are life’s best treats. Having everything planned takes all the fun out of it.

So, where will I be five years from now?

What is the answer that will land me the job?