My least favorite interview question used to be, “Where do you see yourself in [fill-in-the-blank] years?” Not because I couldn’t think of an answer. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. But the answer I was prepared to give wasn’t one employers wanted to hear: “I have no idea.”
As a journalist who entered the field long after its golden era (That is financially speaking. There are still reporters doing necessary, award-winning work), I’ve watched the career I dreamed about change rapidly. Alongside my cohorts, I’ve experienced the volatility of a publication’s sale, its subsequent layoffs, and the elimination or consolidation of jobs.
You can’t talk about that experience during an interview, because it’s depressing. The reality is there are many people in many industries who realize shortly after starting their careers that what they expected isn’t going to pan out. You have to find a way to move the conversation forward again.
I struggled with that for a long time. It wasn’t until I started taking stock of my skills and seeing how what I loved to do could transfer to another industry that I was able to reenvision my career, though the long-term plan was never as concrete as it had been before.
I used to be able to hammer out a 5-, 10-, or 70-year plan, no problem. I would die as an editor at my desk, writing about a city I’d grown to love. My tombstone would read: “Here lies a city magazine editor. Or is it lays? She never did get that right.”
When I refashioned my career goals, they were much broader. I started with what I knew I wanted to take with me from my current industry. I wanted to write, to learn, to find a job that would feed my curiosity and keep me engaged. I never wanted to feel stagnant, and I wanted to know my work would somehow affect my community.
Then I assessed what I didn’t want to take, the reason the dream didn’t work out. For me, that was the day-to-day uncertainty about whether my higher-ups would continue to value my role. I needed stability, not of employment necessarily, but of worth. I wanted to know that even if my company no longer had a need for my specific position on their team, there would be opportunities for growth elsewhere. I also needed to be paid a living wage.
When I expanded my career view, I began to see how many other industries outside journalism offered positions where I could use my skills as technology and innovation were evolving.
I faced an intimidating learning curve when I shifted my career because I was interviewing for jobs in unfamiliar sectors. But I quickly learned how to suss out whether the company I was interviewing for was the right fit through embracing my honest answer to the question “Where do you see yourself in [fill-in-the-blank] years?” and learning how to communicate “I don’t know what my job will be” to prospective employers.
I was done with striving for a corner office and a dream job. I didn’t know whether the job I would want in 5 or 10 years even existed yet. I did know what kind of work I wanted to do and how I wanted to feel when I went into the office every day.
The work I was doing and the company’s values mattered more to me than the endpoint. When I found a company that aligned with those aspirations, I knew I wanted them to hire me.
Beth Castle is the managing editor at InHerSight.