Dear Interviewers: We Don't Know What 5 Years Will Bring, So Will You Please Stop Asking?

Dear Interviewer,

I get it; I used to be an obsessive planner. I made spreadsheets and planned different career paths and scenarios I could take after college. I went into so much detail that I even wrote out specific companies and graduate school programs I was interested in for the specific paths I outlined.

I thought people who didn’t do this were foolish and lacked focus. It turns out that I was the foolish one. Nothing I planned out ever ended up happening.

I’ve since written off time traveling into the future and creating elaborate five-year plans. Today, I’d like to make a plea to you: Can you please stop asking people where they see themselves in five years? This isn’t just me being a whiny brat, either. Here’s why the request is for your own good and why it’ll make applicants happy, too:

You're not likely to get an honest answer.

Let’s be honest here: What would you be doing if money weren’t an issue?

Once, when I was in my early 20s, an interviewer asked me where I saw myself in five years. With a straight face, I said, “I want to move to the Czech Republic and build a golf course there.”

I studied abroad in the country and became friendly with a golf crowd that was really passionate about the growth potential for the game there. I wanted to get in on it. I even did a project on it during my senior year of college.

In response, the interviewer laughed in my face and said, “How about something a little more realistic?”

I felt badly after that. It was an honest answer.

Moving forward, though, I toned down my answers and started saying things like “management” or “opportunity for growth and learning.” In other words, I stopped reaching and started settling.

Most people have something they’d like to do “some day.” Some people won’t do it; some people will try it, and just a few people will succeed at whatever they want to do “some day.” With bills and expenses looming overhead, you won’t hear about these people in interviews. Instead, people will say what they’re expected to say.

Note: A Czech guy I met when I lived there did end up building a 27-hole golf course and is now big boss at a resort. So, things can happen.

It's impossible to predict.

Mitch Hedberg’s answer to the five-year question was, “Celebrating the fifth-year anniversary of you asking me this question.” This was part of a stand-up act, but it might be the best answer around.

Think back to where you were a year ago (or two years ago). Back then, would you have expected to be where you are now? Probably not, so how is it possible to know what you’ll be doing five years from now?

When I started college as an engineering major, I never thought I’d be living in a rural, former Soviet country, speaking Russian and going to the bathroom in an outhouse after graduation.

While I was hauling water from the well in the above Soviet country, I never thought I’d be living in NYC, working in the corporate world, doing the whole meeting and conference call deal. I also never thought that I’d get fired from that job and end up broke, living with my parents again a few years later.

Then, somehow, I stumbled into writing and I now have clients who pay me to write. How the heck did this happen? I hardly ever wrote anything in college.

The world changes at a rapid pace. Five years ago, Twitter wasn’t as mainstream; neither Instagram nor Spotify were around and our mobile phones couldn’t handle the apps we have now. There are infinite choices and we simply don’t know what we don’t know.

It doesn’t add value in screening candidates.

Let me guess: You have problems in the workplace you want solved right now, correct? Then, where candidates see themselves in five years is pretty irrelevant. I already mentioned how you’re not likely to get an honest answer. Additionally, the question doesn’t get to the core of your concerns, either.

How about asking what applicants would do in 30, 60 and 90 days on the job? Or, you could ask how they’d solve a hypothetical problem that you typically encounter on the job. It’s a crazy world out there for young people and we’re constantly bombarded with questions about the future.

First, everyone asks, “What are you going to major in?” Then comes, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” Finally, interviewers ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Nobody knows. Heck, you probably wouldn’t be able to answer the question, yourself. There’s enough anxiety and worry out there, already.

There’s no need to add more fuel to the fire. It’s burning hot enough.


Silent Interviewees Everywhere

Photo via Bioler Room