Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? How to answer the hardest interview question

Not sure of your next move? You can still give great answers to questions on your future
Harriet Green explains how to answer one of the trickiest interview questions out there.
With job hopping becoming increasingly common, and new definitions of the “career ladder” coming into play, careers are becoming less predictable creatures. Even if you’re within a profession, knowing what the next few years will look like can be difficult – and explaining it to others even harder.
But the “where do you see yourself in five years’ time” question is still an interview favourite, with rehashed versions cropping up at networking events, and even in discussions with colleagues. So how can you ensure that a) you’re prepared for it, and b) you’ve got a good answer?


For starters, be comfortable with unpredictability. As management and organisational behaviour professor Joseph Weintraub points out, “five years, in today’s environment, is very hard to predict. Most businesses don’t even know what will be required in the next two to three years.” Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive of Expedia, has gone as far as saying that you shouldn’t even bother planning your career in the conventional sense: just “optimise for the next one to two years instead of the next five or 10,” he says, writing for LinkedIn. But even if short-term thinking is more helpful in career terms, how can you ensure it comes across well in an interview?


If you’re being asked the question by a potential employer, the chances are that your interviewers aren’t actually looking for a straightforward response. “They are trying to understand someone’s goal orientation and aspirational level,” says business administration professor Len Schlesinger, writing in the Harvard Business Review.
It’s also worth remembering that how you answer the question is as important – if not more – than what you say. A 2010 study led by Todd Rogers and Michael Norton confirmed the importance of eloquence over substance when it comes to being liked and trusted. And Harvard’s Timothy Butler recommends using “where do you see yourself in five years?” as a launchpad to demonstrate your strengths – even if that means obviously dodging the question. For example, “I don’t know for certain where I’ll be in five years, but I know that, within the next year, I plan to bag several high-profile clients.” As American businessman and politician Robert McNamara famously said, “never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked.”


But however eloquently you can respond, you should avoid the temptation to answer off the cuff. Butler explains that “the real issue is to do your homework. If you’re thinking this through in the moment, you’re in trouble.” Make a habit of regularly asking yourself introspective questions: “what are my goals?”; “what am I willing to do to get there?” This will help you set up a long-term vision, which you then just have to feel comfortable articulating.
Another way to look at it is to focus on themes and skill sets, rather than a particular end point. As Weintraub says, focusing on personal development will mean you can still answer the “where do you see yourself” question, but while avoiding running the risk of looking too sure of yourself.

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