Apple CEO Tim Cook's Failed 25-Year Career Plan

Can you plan your life a quarter century in advance? Tim Cook says yes—sort of.

What would your 25-year plan look like? Would it matter 25 years from now?

As part of Tim Cook's 25-year reunion at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, the Apple CEO spoke about his experiences at the school and the Apple-y madness that followed.

But back when Cook was at Duke, he had a professor who asked his students to write a plan for their next 25 years. It's the sort of thing he wouldn't usually remember, Cook says, but he needed it for a commencement address. And while scrambling through his stuff, he found the plan, yellowed with age.

Looking back, the plan was "reasonably accurate" for 18 to 24 months after it was written, he says, but not at all after that.

"Not a single thing," he says. "Zero."

What's accurate in the inaccuracy?

The "the journey was not predictable at all," he says, and unless the MBAs assembled have much more insight into what they'll be doing, that same unpredictability will be a part of their lives.

The only thing you can do, he says, "is prepare."

Why? He expands:

"The world is going to change many times, the environment's going to change many times, the companies you work for are going to ebb and flow, you may wind up in the same company, you may not, you may wind up in the same career, you may not, you may wind up with the spouse you're married to now, you may not."

What Cook describes is having a certain humility about the way that you plan your career. It's the same sort of anti-hubris that productivity-philosopher Bob Pozen told us about last year: You can educate yourself about what's going on in your industry, but you cannot know what will happen.

In this way, career planning is both deliberate and emergent: You can define structures for yourself of what you'd like to do, but you need to leave room for opportunities to emerge—which are, we recall, forever attached to people.

[Image: Flickr user Chemi Ubani]

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  • Jim

    Yet more support for the Chaos Theory of Careers (e.g. Pryor and Bright, 2003, 2007, 2011) that talks explicitly about the emergent nature of careers and the relationship between order and disorder, pattern and surprise, preparedness and opportunity awareness.