I have a file of notes from a few years ago where I was brainstorming responses to common interview questions in order to prepare myself for an interview that was for what I thought was my dream job. One of those questions was the tried and true “Where do you see yourself in five years [Or one, or three, or ten]?” And I had a neat and tidy response all typed out. I also didn’t get the job, or several others that I interviewed for in the same field, and I have no idea if my well-formulated answer to that question had anything to do with it.
A few years ago, when I crafted that response, I can tell you one thing: I didn’t think the “where” I would be was here. Not by a long shot. At the time, I had this idea of what I wanted, and now that idea is 180 degrees different. Looking back, when I saw that job and thought “dream,” what I really saw was “familiar.” Or “safe.” It was a position that was virtually identical to one I’d worked before, so I knew the ropes. I just knew I could do that job well, and I was convinced it would bring me happiness where no other job could. But if I’d really taken the time to think about it, was it actually where I wanted to be? If I’d gotten the job, was that the industry I truly saw myself in for five, ten, twenty years? Not so much.
As I’ve gotten a little more honest with myself over the last year, I decided to go back to school and pursue the career I’ve been dreaming about (for real) for about a decade, that I always had an excuse not to go after. Today when I think about where I see myself in five years, it’s working because I enjoy what I do, not because I have to bring home a paycheck. I’ve discovered that it’s possible to be creative and get paid for it, and even if the road to get there isn’t easy, it fits more than the safety net I used to call a dream.
To tell you the truth, I don’t ever want to go to a job interview again. When I think about my future after graduation, I see freelance and building my own business (which is, you know, terrifying, but so are job interviews, right?) Maybe part of why I’ve always had a hard time with this question is that it feels like I have to lie in order to get the job. Naturally I can’t say “I see myself working somewhere else, thank you very much.” An interviewer doesn’t want to hear about the next job you want, or the promotion you’ll start chasing within your first month, or about your plan to become a famous rock star. They want to know that you’re committed to the position, that it fits in nicely with your long-term plans and the company’s goals, and that you’ll be a valuable asset to their team for more than a couple months. As someone who’s always been honest to a fault, I think I have a hard time with that kind of commitment.
From the practical standpoint, you might have to interview for jobs you don’t intend to stick with for the long haul. I’ve been there, and I don’t want to demean that choice, because I know it can be tough. But if you have the means, why put yourself through an interview for a position that you don’t really want? May I venture out on a limb and chat with my fellow creatives (and maybe those who like to rebel against practicality, like I do)?
Maybe the best way to answer the “Where do you see yourself?” question is to have an honest conversation with yourself first, without a potential employer in the room. Really ask yourself where you want to be in a few years, and don’t be afraid to explore different possibilities. No one can predict exactly what will happen during that time, but give yourself a chance to dream, to think about who you are and what you want to do for a living for the rest of your life. Write it out if you want to, or talk it over with a trusted friend. Strategize what it will take to actually make it happen.
Now here’s the tricky part. Once you’ve got your five-year plan figured out, act on it. Whatever that looks like for you—pursuing a different job, getting a degree, starting your own business—Do the thing. And if you do some soul searching and the answer is “I have no idea,” that’s okay, too. Dreams take time, and they’re not always what we think they are at first. Keep keeping on in the meantime, and when your inspiration strikes, tap into it. See where it takes you.
You probably can’t be completely candid about your long-term plans during a job interview, but you can be honest with yourself. When it comes to living the career, and life, you’ve dreamed of, I’d say that’s more important. I’m still unraveling my plan, but so far I can tell you it beats regret, and it definitely beats a lifetime in the safety net.
Amanda Baczek is an aspiring graphic designer and current arranger of words (sometimes good ones.) She finds fiction writing to be the greatest antidote to reality, but has a passion for connecting with the outside world through all forms of the written word. A recovering worst-case scenario expert, she's learning to be okay with change and uncertainty, and hopes to help others discover the joy and freedom in listening to their creative heartbeat and following their craziest dreams.