Young adulthood has always been a challenging stage of development. In addition to new responsibilities and privileges, the situation comes complete with all the big life issues: Which career path to take, how much training to go for, when/whether to start a family, where to live…Exciting, yes, but also overwhelming.
For the next year, I’ll try to help by devoting the second Sunday of each month to career topics relevant to young adults roughly 25 to 35 years of age. These are the folks who have the majority of their work lives ahead of them, along with all the decisions and planning that entails.
A good way to launch this series is by providing a career-planning template that offers structure without being overly rigid. Such a tool can help you steer your career while unlocking additional advantages, such as the opportunity to link long-term goals with near-term job options, and to leverage perks like tuition reimbursement for their full value.
The process itself isn’t particularly complex or mysterious, although it does require some setup. Think of it as a kit with three pieces, similar to the simplest desk from IKEA. The pieces themselves might be put to some use individually, but they reach full utility when they’re bolted together into something larger.
I’m not sure I can stretch that metaphor much further, so let’s move ahead to those pieces.
Piece 1. Lists of your personal and professional goals.
To make each list more useful, choose items that are meaningful but also measurable. For example, “Reach a supervisory level at work” or “Purchase a house” or “Finish college” would all fit the bill, while “Succeed professionally” or “Have a happy home life” would be too vague.
Piece 2. A list of the careers or job titles you’d like to try. Depending on your curiosity, this list could easily grow to several dozen. It’s fine to start with a long selection, but try to end the exercise with only three to eight options. In this case, vague is fine. For example, if you’d like to try something in health care at some point, you don’t need to decide now which role it would be.
Piece 3. A timeline that stretches from your current age to 60 years into the future. For flexibility, this might be best started on a long piece of paper or even a white board. Eventually you may decide to transfer it as a work-in-progress into digital form.
Putting the pieces together is the next step. I recommend dividing the timeline into five-year increments, then shading the sections that pertain to your expected worklife. Hence, a 25 year-old whose timeline extends to 85 would have 12 five-year sections marked off, with the shading extending perhaps to age 70 when she anticipates she’ll stop working.
Now the fun starts. Use a pencil to transfer items from Piece 1 (personal and professional goals) onto the timeline. Since people tend to peg their goals to their age, it helps to write those numbers along the bottom of the timeline before starting this step.
Once you have your goals organized onto the timeline, turn your attention to the career and job ideas you’ve listed for Piece 2. These you will drop onto the timeline to be conducted in five-year increments, in whatever order seems most logical. For example, if one of the jobs is physically demanding or requires extensive travel, that one might land in the first five-year segment when you’d likely be healthiest.
For the moment, it’s fine to have multiple job titles occupy the same five-year segment, or to have one title stretch over several segments. (You may decide to use sticky-notes so you can move things around easily.)
By now you’ve probably realized that a benefit of this process is its visual nature. Writing down your goals first assures they get precedence in your planning, while adding the jobs helps you recognize opportunities and risks.
For example, an education goal can be an opportunity when paired with work that offers tuition assistance, while the same goal could be at risk from a job requiring extensive travel.
To finish your career template you’ll need to settle on which jobs belong in which slots, at least for the first 10 or 15 years of the plan. Career counseling and research can help you make these choices.
Once you’ve reached this level of planning, you can set the template aside in favor of a to-do list directing your steps for the near-term goals. At this point, you’ll have absorbed the basics elements of your plan into your consciousness enough that it will be guiding you even without having to refer to it.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.