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What is it about career planning that seems to generate avoidance behaviors in a large subset of people? Why is it that many people have solid plans in other aspects of their lives—I want to marry again, I want to buy a house in the next three years, I want to finally quit drinking—yet can’t commit to a statement about what might be the single most important aspect in determining their overall happiness in life? Where is the career plan? Despite being years or even decades into adulthood, for some, it has yet to be defined.

To have a career plan means three things:

  1. to be able to state a specific occupation, or a related group of occupations, you intend on pursuing, or are currently a part of
  2. to project how you would like that career to unfold over the next three, five, and ten years
  3. to be committed to engaging in professional development (ongoing learning) to deliver your ambitions as stated in #2

Furthermore, the career plan should be written down. This can adequately be accomplished with a half page of text, but writing it is not to be overlooked. This is because once written, the plan becomes a contract you make with yourself. Without the plan, at best, you simply have a loosely-defined goal, and a goal without a plan is just a wish.

Now that you see the steps for producing a career plan, it’s time to decide where you are getting held up. If you are stuck at step one, could it be that you never devoted any time to learning about careers and therefore you simply don’t know enough to make a decision? If that’s the case, you can work with a career counselor or you should read articles and tap other resources to get the career information you need. Additionally, you or someone else needs to assess your marketable skills because that too must be factored into your career decision. As you arrive at this part of the paragraph, I have a question: Right now, are you excited about doing what I just suggested or is paralysis about to set in? If you know what you should do, yet still can’t commit to doing it, the reason is often one of the following—you are depressed and have lost your enthusiasm on many fronts, or you are gripped by fear, which you may not even recognize at first.

If you are depressed, the good news is that there’s a lot of help available to you and you need to seek it out. The odds are very much in your favor that you will emerge from your depression, and with the right help, sometimes quite rapidly. Once your mind is in a better place, the career issues will be much easier to work on. Depression is a common phenomenon when career decisions are elusive. Once you recognize this and get professional help, you have already surmounted the first hurdle.

If you are not depressed, but still can’t seem to muster the resolve to tackle the career exploration and decision process, it is likely that your career paralysis is about fear. To avoid the possibility of failure, you decide to sit out the game. So you don’t finish school and/or you don’t train to develop skills that could get you a better job. This is because if you attempted those things, you might ultimately expose yourself as less competent than you care to know. However, we really have no choice but to accept life’s challenges. Furthermore, perhaps it is comforting to know that success is often born out of failure. (Read the biographies of Henry Ford and Walt Disney and you will find prime examples of people who failed miserably in their careers before they ultimately succeeded.)

Step two and three of the career plan are about ambition. Humans inherently want to achieve and accomplish things. I will simply call this “mastery” and it is the icing on the cake of life. Without it, something does seem to be missing. You can attain mastery in a hobby you have, but the payoff is far better when you achieve mastery in your occupation. This is because being great at your job yields job security, potential for advancement, and gives you a self-esteem boost like few other things ever can.

In some occupations there is a career ladder, meaning that some individuals advance to more prestigious roles including management or even into the executive ranks. However, it’s no one’s job but your own to seek advancement in such careers. Seeking advancement in corporate America is not about longevity. It’s about talent and the elevation of your skill set. So, as you work on career plan steps two and three, tell yourself what you hope your career will be like in three, five, and ten years from now. And what are your plans for the professional development that is going to help you get there?

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