“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

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I’ve been gathering input from readers and I realized that quite a few people struggle with answering this interview question: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

It’s my pleasure to share my thoughts and help you to answer this question.

The goal

The biggest mistake people make when approaching this question is that they attempt to answer it in the literal sense. I think people hear the question as “What will you be doing on this day, 5 years from now?” Taken this way, I can understand why candidates get stumped or are not clear on the relevance of this question.

This is not a literal question. The interviewer is trying to gain an understanding of your short- to mid-term goals. However, if the interviewer were to position the question as “What are your goals in the short- to mid-term?” this is too abstract and even more difficult to answer, hence the 5 year question.

The value of this question is quite notable. Someone who is 24 will not have the same 5-year goals as someone who is 64. Someone who aspires to an executive position will not take the same path as someone prefers to develop as a subject-matter expert.

When I was a recruiter this was a critical question because different positions had different careers paths. For instance, I hired for a team in IT. The developers were expected to stay developers and become experts, whereas the architects were the expected was to grow to other departments and eventually hold a leadership position. Although they were part of the same team, their career paths were quite different. Imagine, for example, if we had hired a developer who wanted to become an executive. We, as a company, would be asking this person watch their colleagues get promoted while they hold down the fort. This would be a recipe for dissatisfaction for this employee and the person would eventually leave the company in pursuit of their objectives.

How to answer this question

There is no “right” answer to this question but some answers do come across better than others.

If you aspire to a leadership position, but you sense that this may be more than 5 years away, you could answer this: “Long term, I would like to be in a leadership position, but I think that may take longer than 5 years. In the short- to mid-term, I would like to take on special projects and work cross-functionally with other teams to truly learn and understand the business well.”

If your goal is to take the subject-matter expert route, you could answer this: “I have spent X years in this career and I know I’m in the right field. I would like help others, be it on my team or managers and directors in other teams, to better understand my area of expertise and make more informed decisions based on what I have shared with them.”

Generally speaking, answering this question with an aspirational and diplomatic spirit will take you a long way. If you want the hiring manager’s job, you can say that. Some hiring managers actually react well and take it as a fun challenge. Others, however, are insulted when a candidate answers this candidly. But even this answer can fly with all types of hiring managers by adding a bit of aspiration and diplomacy: “I hope to be such a great contribution to your team that you will get promoted and I will take your place.”

An inconvenient truth: you don’t know where you see yourself

I have deliberately side-stepped the question that I know that some people, maybe you, are asking: “But I don’t know where I see myself in 5 years! How do I answer?” My response is that it’s a good thing you have an upcoming interview because now is the time to think about it.

There’s a quote by Terence McKenna that goes like this: “If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody else’s plan.” There is a lot of truth to this statement.

Intangibles aren’t enough: “I want to be happy” or “I want to make lots of money” or “I want to help people” are neither plans nor goals. If you look at public figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates or Richard Branson, you can tell that they are sincerely happy, they make lots of money and are of great service to others. Each took a radically different path. The work which helped them build their fortunes was in different areas. Happiness and service manifest differently for each one.

This is your life. I know you’re preparing for an interview and it’s important to be well prepared. But you can’t keep avoiding this question and not being deliberate about your life. While this subject is outside the scope of my expertise, I do want you to be fulfilled. Start asking yourself the big questions. These 5 years will pass whether you have a plan or not.

Final thoughts

Remember that the interviewer is not looking for a factually accurate response. No one will come and see you in 5 years and say “Ha! You aren’t doing what you said!” When you know where you’re going, you know which opportunities take you in the direction of your goals and which don’t. If your goals are not in alignment with the position you’re interviewing for, then you’ve dodged the proverbial bullet. This frees you to interview for a position which does match your aspirations and a job that will help you succeed in meeting your goals.