Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I was recently in a job interview where I got asked the question in the title. It's a classic question in many job interviews but luckily recently I've been asked it very little. Even though the question itself is a great one, I don't think job interviews are a great place for that.

I got a bit surprised by the question and started my answer with something like "We're currently in a pandemic and I don't even know what the world looks like next month..." and continued with talking about some of my long term aspirations.

Not a great interview question

My biggest issue with this as an interview question is that there's rarely an answer that would be both honest and good. It's one of those classic interview questions that articles and books teach you how to answer to – and if you follow someone else's advice on how to answer about your future plans and aspirations, it might lead to great results in the interview process but it's probably not honest.

In all honesty, most of my long-term aspirations are not compatible with majority of the work I've done in the past nor in the ones I'll do in the future. It doesn't mean that I wouldn't be a great employee and I can already tell here to any current or potential employee that I'm not looking for a job that I can retire from in 30-40 years.

What I want to do in life is to run a non-profit technology school that is complementary with existing education facilities. Something that helps people learn to create and build things in a very practical form. I've been running and coaching in a lot of non-profit programming workshops (like Rails Girls, Django Girls and codebar) and there are so many things I've learned from those that I want to one day do on a larger scale. However, that dream is far away so meanwhile I'll use my skills in the job market to help developers become better in different ways. But it's the honest answer. Maybe not exactly in "5 years" but at least for me, the question of 5 years means long-term aspiration and not exactly in 5 years looking from the calendar.

Another reason why I think it's not a great question for job interviews is that if at any point of my life, I'd look back 5 years ago and try to remember what I thought I'd do, I would have been completely wrong. Nothing that I've done I could have even imagined 5 years earlier – although, I kinda dreamed of working in Silicon Valley in "5-10 years" but it ended up taking me 8 months from those discussions to reach. Five years ago, I would have never imagined we'd be in a pandemic. Seven years ago, I would have never imagined I'd be an international conference speaker. Heck, 16 months ago I couldn't have imagined that I'd be 2 weeks away from completing my one year anniversary of publishing a blog post every week.

It's all because regardless of my wild imagination, I couldn't imagine big enough. Five years, even 10 years seems so short that looking forward, it's hard to imagine that much progress but looking back, there's been so much that I've learned, improved, and been eager enough to experiment.

And that's why I'll rather live my life in very much shorter plans. I let the flow take me to different places and I want to give myself the opportunity to grab those opportunities even if they'd be against my long-term plans because they can lead to adventures I never could have imagined.

But it's a great mentorship question

I did mention in the beginning how I think the question is great. And even after all what I wrote before, I think we should ask it more often. Not in the interview setting but rather in mentorship sessions.

Reflecting on your recent past and daring to dream into the future is something we (in general) don't do enough. In our day-to-day life, we're so overwhelmed with what's in front of us: work, family life, responsibilities and especially restrictions that it's hard to remember to think big every now and then.

Back in the day I read a book called Become an Idea Machine and I've used its exercise number 66 regularly and whenever I'm invited to host my Dream Workshop (like I'm doing next week with OuluES's Human Accelerator program) or to talk about my dreams, it's on my slide deck. Whenever I'm asked to speak with people running different public or private programs, I show it and ask people to consider it.

In all of its simplicity, it states:

If you had absolutely no worries about money, and no fear, what are ten things you would do this week?

And if I use that as the final slide, I usually make my own addition of "and then go and do them".

I don't use it because life would be so simple that we can just ignore the realities and restrictions. That would be foolish of me to assume that. Life is hard and filled with those restrictions and if you are running some kind of program in public sector project, your resources are probably also very restricted (I've used this with university teachers a lot).

I use it because it's a wonderful mental exercise. It gives you the permission to dream the life you would like to have if you could. I don't mean thinking about "I would be rich and famous" type of dreaming. When I use this myself these days, I frame it a bit differently:

If you could do anything, what would your week look like?

I would think about things like when do I want to wake up and where. Would I like to cook and eat lunch at home or be able to travel and enjoy the local cuisine in different places? What would my work days look like, both in structure and content.

I've been extremely privileged and lucky that I've been able to make a lot of those things into reality over the years. But that's not even the point. Even a small change to better can be a huge improvement in mental health and happiness but it often requires this kind of starting point where we think about the optimal situation rather than looking at the future from the pinhole of current restrictions.

To me, the answer to that question is very much the core of the question in the title. Sure, in corporate world corporations want you to say something about how much you're gonna enjoy working for that company in five years and climb the corporate ladder (but not too much to threaten your manager's position).

So where do I see myself in five years?

I have no clue and I'm very happy I don't.

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