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How to answer ‘Where Do You See Yourself In Five Years’ Time?’

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Posted on 3/11/2015 by Ngaire Wallace

Career coach, writer and entrepreneur Emile Wapnick opened her excellent TED talk ‘Why some of us don’t have one true calling’ by posing the question: "How many of you have been asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Putting aside for now whether or not we do have one (or more) true calling/s, how to re-write your CV once you find yours and want to move into it, and what to do if you have no idea where to start - which I will address in future posts – let’s take a look at how to respond to the ‘grown up’ version of this question that arises time and again in interviews: "Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?"

As a job-seeker, you may roll your eyes inwardly each time you are asked this. As an interviewer, I internally cringe whenever I ask it. Cliché or not, it is a question will continue to arise and is likely to have a major influence on whether you land the job of your dreams (or any job at all).  

The key to a successful response is empathy.

Consider "Why is my interviewer asking this question?" Or, in other words, "what do they want to hear?"

Imagine the following scenario:

You are meeting your Tinder crush for the first time. Over a pint of your favourite bitter (or a crisp glass of rosé), the script of a B-grade movie strikes and you are suddenly gifted the ability to read your date’s thoughts. Hoping for an ego boost, and a clue as to whether they might be ‘the one,’ you gently probe to find out why, out of all their other ‘swipe rights,’ they chose to spend a Tuesday evening with you.

Now, which of these two outcomes would make you more likely to see that person again?

One: You discover that after their initial attraction to your homepage your date has read your profile in detail, identified with your fondness for obscure anime and your passion for dancing poorly to eighties’ ballads, and hopes that an introductory meeting may lead to establishing a mutually beneficial relationship.

Two: Your date has not bothered to click beyond your picture. They were already sold on your convenient location and immediate availability, and frankly, they’ll consider dating anyone who meets certain basic criteria. Winter is coming and they’d quite like to not be single, at least from November to February.

Job searching is much like dating. Like any ordinary human, your interviewer wants to know that you have chosen them, and that you specifically want what they are offering. They do not want to feel like you turned up simply because their office is on the Northern line and Google didn’t call back.  

You may think that the ‘where do you see yourself’ question is the fodder of inexperienced interviewers or a death knell that signals the interviewer has made their mind up already and is just scratching to fill a lull in conversation, but in fact, the answer to this question gives valuable insight into an applicant’s aspirations, level of commitment, likely level of engagement in the role, background research, and plain old common sense. If I had a pound for every person who applied for a job as an accountant and then told me they want to work in sales, I would have at least a quarter of a London flat deposit by now. 

TL;DR: Save the fact that you still don’t know what to do with your life - or that in five years’ time you see yourself drinking a margarita on a beach in Hawaii – for TED talks and your friends in the pub. In your next interview, impress your potential future employer with your in-depth knowledge of their company, product, values and culture, and tell them that the job they have on offer is a perfect, and logical next stepping stone in your planned career path. Help them to believe that this is your dream job, and consequently, hiring you is in their organisation’s best interests.

However, remember that even the best metaphors have their limits - don’t tell your next internet date that in five years’ time you see yourself settled down with them, and possibly in a Management position, or you may find yourself facing an very early retirement.