The Five-Year Anniversary of a Bad Question

"Where do you see yourself in five years?"

It takes every ounce of my strength to hold back the words of comedian Mitch Hedberg - "celebrating the five-year anniversary of you asking me that question".

We should all plea temporary insanity for going along with this question. We don't know. We can't know. We're just as clueless as a college freshman planning our first year in the Real World as we are telling a potential employer we know we'll be a certain type of successful. 

Author Daniel Pink addressed the absurdity of predicting five years from now during a commencement speech to the graduating Northwestern University class of 2004. He said:

"The way to be okay, we all believe, is to have a specific plan — except may it’s not…

The smartest, most interesting, most dynamic, most impactful people … lived to figure it out. At some point in their lives, they realized that carefully crafted plans … often don’t hold up… Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.

The question is less about our prediction skills and more about our attitude now. A monk trains for enlightenment and a fighter trains for the belt. What were really being asked is what is your plan right now? What's your motivation to get there? 

Are you working toward something?

Anne Adams could have pointed to her contribution to cancer research, if she was asked. She was a successful biologist for years, but when her son was hurt in a car accident and she took some time off to help him recover, her entire life changed. 

Radiolab told the story of how Anne Adams transformed from a prolific biologist into an obsessed painter. The apex of her art was a visual representation of composer Maurice Ravel's masterpiece "Bolero". You know the song. It's repetitive for about fifteen minutes, slowly building to an impossible crescendo. The irony of "Unraveling Bolero", as Adams called her piece, was that it turned out both Adams and Ravel shared more than their creative urges, they both were sick in the same way. They were both unraveling with frontotemporal dementia. While their brains were slowly crumbling into swiss cheese, their art was getting wilder. 

Neither saw it coming. How could you? It's inside your head. Adams couldn't predict or explain her obsession with painting her representation of Ravel's "Bolero". But she painted past the time she lost her ability to speak, and right up until the day she died.

You need to do what pulls you now. You can't know if it's an interest or a mental illness, but the question remains. And the simple answer is "better". You'd hope that in five years time you'll be doing better by all accounts - health, wealth, family and friends, sex, career, travel, and beer. 

Forget five years ahead. Start now.

"Where do you see yourself in five minutes?"