Whether you’re asked this question in the middle of an interview for your dream job or by some very prying relatives, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” is quite difficult to answer. Granted, some of you may know exactly how to respond, but several of you are probably stumped. If you had asked me this question before my first year of university, I would have said something along the lines of “After graduating university with high marks in all of my accounting classes, I’ll be working towards earning my Chartered Accountant (CA) designation in one of the top accounting firms downtown.” If you ask me this question now, you’re going to get a response that’s less specific and more conceptual. Compared to the old answer, the new one may sound like a big “I’m not sure.” However, it’s actually a much stronger and more suitable response.
As a student of a highly esteemed business school, several of my classmates seem to know exactly where they’re headed in life. I see peers who are moving so quickly with their careers – networking with industry leaders, making the right connections and, most importantly, landing internships that undoubtedly lead to full-time employment. I used to be one of these people.
I landed my first accounting internship even before I graduated from high school. For this company, I worked on several different projects that ranged from doing research on potential clients to doing advanced Excel work. At the same time, I did some bookkeeping for a small car dealership a few times a week. The work definitely taught me a lot and I’m thankful for those experiences, but I couldn’t help but feel unfulfilled without any indication as to why. After a month, I decided to move on from this position, hoping to find something else. It was the best decision for me at the time and I don’t regret it.
Then, my first year of university came around. Refusing to be fazed by a not-so-pleasant experience, I went ahead with my decision to pursue accounting. I attended almost all of the accounting networking events hosted by my school’s career centre and accounting club, did extensive research on which courses I needed to take in order to get my CA designation and even went so far as to plan my third and fourth year so that I get my designation as quickly as possible.
However, things changed when I took my first accounting class. From all of my excitement over a future career in auditing and adding “CA” after my name, I didn’t really stop to think about what accounting actually was. Since I was in a special program in high school, the only accounting class I ever took was an online course that taught more bookkeeping than actual accounting. In contrast, my university accounting class taught me that accounting is more than just bookkeeping and looking at numbers on a page. Don’t get me wrong, I was doing well in the class, but I wasn’t enjoying it. Halfway through the term, I had a sudden realization. I couldn’t see myself doing accounting for the rest of my life. In five years, I couldn’t see myself working as a Staff Accountant in one of the top accounting firms and my business card wasn’t going read “Jan N., CA.” I finally understood why I had my reservations about my first internship. For once in my life, I didn’t know what I saw myself doing five years down the road. My career path had hit the wall.
Now, if you’ve ever been through this “career limbo,” you can’t help but feel lost. When you don’t know what you’re passionate about, it affects everything: including your attitude towards your schoolwork and your extra-curricular activities. During that period, I spent most of my time frantically searching for other career paths; desperately trying to recreate and rebuild my five-year vision.
Fortunately, after some time, I had another realization. Some of the greatest leaders of our time didn’t know what they would be doing in five years. They weren’t caught up in trying to achieve some concrete plan. Instead, they focused on solving problems and succeeding by constantly improving their selves. Consequently, I realized that I was approaching the question in the wrong way. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” isn’t meant to yield responses that must be obeyed and followed; it’s meant to motivate and serve as a constant reminder of one’s goal.
After taking a long, deep breath, I realized that my previous five-year vision was bland and uninspired. It didn’t allow for any sort of growth and limited me to a goal that thousands of students already have. I needed to open my career path to possible detours and bumps along the road. For example, after speaking to a professor about a certain business field, he told me that graduate school would be necessary – a path that I didn’t even consider until speaking with him. No one’s career path is ever linear; there are going to be curves, ups, downs and loop-the-loops. You just need one strong and clear vision that you will work towards every day, but has ample room for adjustments and improvements every so often.
Now is your turn to answer this question. Where do you see yourself in five years?