Four Reasons Not to Plan Your Career


Four Reasons Not to Plan Your Career

There are several reasons why the invincible executive generally does not develop a specific career plan. The reasons range from the practical to the near-philosophical. First, if you are always looking ahead, you do not know where you are. You will not perform well in your current job. According to Mike Sears, the executive vice president and CFO of Boeing, "Life comes in bits and pieces. You get your teeth into a job that you like, and you enjoy it, and you work it.... Most of us have not, early on, set some very lofty position type goals. Rather, we have taken what we have and demonstrated good performance." It is always better, according to Sears, to focus on your current job and do it very well, while keeping your eyes open for the next opportunity.

Six-time Emmy-winning producer Christopher Lloyd (who has written for or produced "Frasier," "Wings," and "Golden Girls") told me that virtually the same rules apply in Hollywood. "You just sort of put your head down and do the best job you can at the level that you are at. There are always going to be people who are looking to advance you because, by advancing you, it makes their job easier. However, do not try to advance too fast. It is always great to take a step up the ladder, but do not do it unless you are really sure that you never want to be on the rung that you just left behind. Better to take it one rung at a time, because if you take two at a time, it is easier to [get in over your head and] fall back down. If you are on a slow rise to the top, I think you are sort of protecting yourself and not leaving yourself open to disappointment."

Hendrik Verfaillie, former CEO of the agricultural products company Monsanto, echoed these sentiments when he noted that one of the most important characteristics of top executives is that they channel their energies into doing a stellar job right now. Congressman Richard Gephardt agrees. He notes that the biggest mistake young people make early in their careers is an "unwillingness to start at the bottom." Congressman Gephardt believes that the best route to the top is to start somewhere at the bottom, learn about your profession in an unhurried manner, do a good job at whatever level you find yourself, and keep your eyes open for opportunity.

Second, it was a recurring theme in my interviews that, if you are going to succeed, people have to like you, and you have to like yourself. If you spend your time telling everyone where you should be or where you intend to be in your career, your pride and arrogance will turn people against you. Pushing for a particular job or title, according to Jim Parker of Southwest Airlines, "destroys the cooperation of your peers." Consequently, it is the quickest way to make professional enemies. In fact, the sentiment that you should be in a better place than you are is, according to over fifteen of the people I interviewed, the single biggest reason why people fail to realize their potential. While inner ambition must be very strong, its external manifestation must on a day-to-day basis be very mild. Most invincible executives agree that there are only a couple of times in most successful careers when you have to make an aggressive move. We'll cover those rare occasions shortly, but the general rule is to work hard and lie low.

In addition, according to Stephen Lambright, a group vice president of Anheuser-Busch, if your eyes are always a rung or two above your current place on the professional ladder, you will be continually frustrated with your progress. This frustration can and often does lead people into self-destructive professional behavior, such as bad-mouthing others who are promoted ahead of them or demanding concessions from employers when the employees are in a position of weakness. "Their ambitions become their own worst enemy in that they don't move fast enough on their own schedule and they either give up or burn out," according to Lambright. Many career flameouts can be attributed directly to the pride, arrogance, self-pity, and even self-loathing that arise from a rigidly charted career path that isn't going exactly according to plan.

Keeping your ambition in soft focus is, therefore, essential to maximizing professional opportunity. Indeed, several of the invincible executives I interviewed said that if you are too focused on a specific goal, you foreclose opportunities for success in areas outside of your narrow focus. "You never know exactly where that opportunity might arise," Hollywood superagent Joel Gotler told me. In fact, most invincible executives have made major changes in their career paths. For example, Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor, thought at one time that her path to glory would be as a classically trained professional musician. Had she limited her opportunities to music, we would have never had the benefits of her diplomatic and political skills.

Finally, at the highest plane, invincible executives are quick to point out that neither science nor human nature favor focused career planning. The late medical researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson put it to me roughly this way when I had the chance to talk to them at length several years ago in connection with a civic event. Since individual personalities are fluid and the events that surround us are equally fluid, any attempt to be overly rigid in living one part of life will result in a sort of counterreaction—the emergence of disorder in other areas of life. The future does not like being constrained and reacts against it.

Put more specifically in the career context, Doug Bain, senior vice president and general counsel of Boeing, notes, "You cannot plot your career from here to there because the facts and the world around you will change." Overplanning runs contrary to the way the universe works—according to everyone from medical researchers to corporate vice presidents.

"Look at our presidents," a former senior staffer at the Smith-sonian Institution noted to me in an off-the-record, social context a few months ago. "Leaders who sort of meandered their way to the presidency, like Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, and George W. Bush, seem to lack the tragic flaws of those who focused and planned for their presidencies at an early age like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton did." True, he added, it is possible to get to your goal with unbridled focus—both Nixon and Clinton did—but (1) it is very hard to do, with most people failing miserably, and (2) those very few who do succeed with unrelenting focus are often emotionally stunted, which can in turn lead to corruption, scandal, and a tragic fall. That was certainly the case with President Nixon, and arguably so with President Clinton. It is no surprise that the two presidents who were most focused on reaching the presidency experienced the most turmoil when they got there—the former resigning and the latter getting impeached. Indeed, "the more focused the action, the stronger the counterreaction," to paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton.

The tendency of focus and overly rigid planning to backfire is a common thread in my research. A highly intelligent and respected deacon with whom I spoke recently blamed the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church on a similar phenomenon—a rigid priestly lifestyle designed to promote lofty goals often leads to a secret underworld of shameful conduct. "Rigid structures crack the most easily," he said. "When overly focused people fall, they fall big." Remember Gary from the beginning of this chapter? Same idea.

An actor's agent echoed essentially the same sentiment when he told me several years ago that he has seen many would-be stars focus so intently on becoming famous that, even if they are among the very few who reach their goals, they are by that time often broken, emotionally empty, and riddled with addictions and personality disorders. "Forcing your mind into obsessive focus on specific goals effectively mortgages other areas of your personal and professional development, leading to self-destructive conduct," he observed.

While I have no specific opinion on clergy celibacy or how to succeed in Hollywood, I was fascinated at the parallels between what I heard from prominent businesspeople, sociologists, historians, and religious leaders on the subject of rigid professional goals: it is not the best route to success and often leads to catastrophic failure.

So lesson number one for all would-be invincible executives is that ambition is good, but it is better to leave your ambition to work its way through life without rigidly focused goals and step-by-step planning. That is not to suggest that we should avoid goals entirely. But the invincible executive charts a general direction, not a specific result. His or her goals are impressionistic—colorful, fluid, multifaceted—but above all, imprecise.