how to fail your five-year-plan

Winter bike ride{This photo has nothing to do with this post but serves to remind you to get out and ride a bike!}

While still a grad student, I put together a grand five year plan, outlining exactly where I expected and wanted to be in half a decade’s time. Both professionally and personally. I did this because I believe in setting goals and making plans and writing to-do lists. And because I had read on many a professional and academic advice giving site that making a five year plan would be key to my success in the profession.

That five year plan assumed that we would be out of this city by now and that we would also be expecting our second child soon. But here we are, two years into that five year plan and we’re not leaving and we’re not having a baby.

And I’m happy. (And on the days I’m not, I can still say that I find meaning in what I do).

I’ve torn up that five year plan. I stopped looking at it a long time ago anyway. The me who wrote it is not the me living my life today. And the me that is writing this post now has no idea what the me in five year’s time will want or need in life.

Five years is a long time when you’re open to life changing you. It’s a long time when you’re raising another human being and no longer making decisions with just yourself in mind. It’s a long time when you have a partner whose life tugs at your life and when you decide to stop following a script you wrote a long time ago before you even truly thought about what being an “us” would really be like.

I tore up that five year plan and have no intentions of writing another one.

Five year plans can be a really good thing, don’t get me wrong. And I still make to-do lists and dream big and tuck goals into the back of my mind, hopeful that someday I’ll achieve more than I’ll let drop to the wayside.

But for now, I like that life can still surprise me. I like being where I didn’t think I’d be and feeling so at peace about it. And I like wondering where the next five years will take us, resting my pen and resisting a list, knowing that things will unfold as they should despite my best efforts to control them.

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{Bikes, a new baby, and the story of us.}
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22 Responses to how to fail your five-year-plan

  1. Dave says:


    Life has been almost nothing but surprises for us the last 10 years, and I couldn’t be happier with how it has turned out (except perhaps if we were already in Amsterdam) :)

    I think it’s a good way to live, with intention, but openness. Live now. You can’t be in the past or the future, so might as well focus most of your attention on what’s happening here, now.

    I’m glad that you are able to feel at peace with your life, and happy about exactly where you are, it’s a great state to be in.



  2. C says:

    Thank you for this post. I have also been struggling with my “5 year plan” and finding my rightful place the past few months. Elegantly written, Thank you.

  3. Catherine says:

    Hear, hear. I’m all for goal-setting and star-shooting, but defined time limits can sometimes work against us, I think. I love that line from Desiderata: “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should”. Words to live by!

    • simplybike says:

      Oh I love that quotation, thanks for sharing it!


      • Scebi says:

        oh dear god, that video is hideous. atuohlgh, to be fair, i think it might have been interesting if it were presented as a flickr stream that you could slideshow.but it does highlight the uselessness of many, many books. you should see the yearly RMIT library cull… phew! and i’m sure there are worse universities with more useless research being done and subjective more books on unsuspecting public.fabulous to have coffee with you stan – we must do it again sometime soon :)

    • Alex says:

      Yes, thank you so much for reminding us all of that quote! It’s one of my favorites.

  4. Unnati says:

    I love it how honest you are and I thank you for that. I wonder if I read same things as you did about 5 year plan. I made one of those when I graduated from college. I’m not sure where that list is but I’m not concerend. In last 5 years i’ve realized that life can change in a minute so how we can plan for 5 year?? Since this year started, i’ve written down single item that I would like to do that day. One that would make my day better. Since then i’ve learnt to make more realistic goal and life has been good. Again thank you for sharing! :) <3

    • simplybike says:

      Hi Unnati,

      I love the idea of writing down one goal/item for each day and working on that item. It would still provide that sense of accomplishment and forward momentum without the overwhelmingness of one large to-do list or a five year plan. I think this is a much more sane approach while still keeping oneself on a path. I think I will try this as well :)

  5. E. says:

    I remember sitting with you at our favorite coffee shop before you went abroad for a year, talking about what the next few years would hold and wrestling with how we could negotiate the expectations of academia with the relationships and other dreams that we simultaneously held. And I remember how it was so amazing and wonderful and freeing when, a couple of months later, you and T. “eloped” and you decided to be fully in Iowa rather than splitting time between cities. I love that you plan, and I love that you tear up plans!

    • S. says:

      Thanks, E! I had completely forgotten about that! What a great change of plans that one was, one of my better ones to date. I would do it the same way all over again :)

  6. Beth says:

    I really appreciated this today! I’m still on break from my first year of my doctoral program and have been alternating between feeling antsy and feeling completely freaked out about all the things I “have” to do before I graduate. Some days I feel like a productive scholar and other days I feel like I can barely write or read a word. Anyway, this was great. It would be lovely to here how your other fellow Academichics have continued to move forward in their academic careers and personal lives. Do you think they’d ever do a guest post?

  7. Alex says:

    Thank you so much for writing this post. It was funny, I was actually looking at your blog last night for inspiration. I took two years off of school to work on political campaigns and I will be starting graduate school on Monday. Somehow, while researching summer internships to apply to, I stumbled onto doctoral programs. I want to be a research analyst and I thought that getting my doctorate would offer up more opportunities within my field. But the thought came up- can I accomplish all that I want to in academia and somehow be ready to start a family? I’ll be 33 when it’s all said and done. That’s when I visited your blog and saw all that you were able to accomplish, while starting a family. You’re right. We don’t know what’s going to happen in life so it’s silly to make up a plan, outlining every single detail and preparing for possibilities. Along with the Desiderata quote posted above, I think Rent also has a good way of looking at things…”how do you measure a year? In daylights? In sunsets? In midnights and cups of coffee? In inches? In miles? In laughter and strife? In 525,600 minutes how do you measure a year in the life? How about love? Measure in love.” Have a wonderful night and thank you so much for being you.

    • S. says:

      Thanks, Alex! And I love that quotation from Rent, I hadn’t heard that yet. Beautiful.

      As I’m always still trying to figure things out myself, I don’t know that I’m that qualified to give advice but it sounds like you’re already making the best call: go for what you want to be doing right now and don’t overthink what might come, what might be/might not be awaiting down the road, etc. It’s so hard to know how things will unfold anyway.

      And yes, it’s possible to be in grad school and start a family! Lots of others have done it before us and we too made it work just fine. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.


  8. Stephanie says:

    Perhaps counterintuitively, I feel like grad school taught me this lesson to some degree–maybe when a goal (like writing a dissertation) is so big and seemingly unmanageable, the only way to deal with it is to ignore the big picture and think about the day-to-day? Or maybe I’m just an escapist :).

    This post reminds me of the often-quoted but still very apt line from John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Thanks for your lovely reflection on that sentiment.

  9. Nicola says:

    Thank you for this post; it has been really thought provoking. I have been giving a lot of consideration to similar things recently. I think I did have long-term goals back when I was graduating from university but I would never have guessed at the time that I would have ended up where I am today… suffice to say that most of my goals have progressively adapted to suit what I can manage at any given time and I don’t think I have ever managed to stick to a deadline for a meeting one of the goals – life is just too unpredictable for that it turns out – and I am increasingly making my peace with that!

  10. Ezra says:

    Really great.

    I don’t think that writing five year plans is inherently bad, but, being ready and willing to realize that things change, and people change, and that you change is an important part of accomplishing what the five year plan is truly about: living happily–living the life you want to be living at that moment.

    Two years ago, I wouldn’t have seen myself where I am now, and I’m happy(and confused) about where I am. I’m ready to keep rolling with the punches, because life is evolving with each day that passes. (Can I please stop writing in cliches now?)

    Keep doing what you’re doing!

  11. Susan K says:

    What a lovely and honest post. I also made something like a mental 6-7 year plan (I didn’t write it down, I just had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do before I went up for tenure) right after finishing my PhD. I was really lucky to have a TT job, and really lucky to have a flexible partner willing to move to where I was going (in a year and half). However, what I have realized since (almost 5 years after finishing my PhD) is that I should have been more specific about the kind of life I wanted, not the kind of goals I wanted to accomplish. While focused on career and life goalposts, I realized that making close friends in my new city and really figuring out ways to solidifying my relationship to my family and in-laws wasn’t prioritized, to the point where I felt isolated and exhausted. So now I am making goals for my well being, and hoping for the best along the way in terms of career and life goal posts- prioritizing my relationships, prioritizing health and well-being, and loving myself more (sounds Oprah-esque, but academia doesn’t encourage that). Anyway, sounds like you’ve done an amazing job building the kind of life you want- one of great relationships, experiences, and an open and loving attitude. Good for you and thanks for being a great example to those of us embarking on the motherhood/academia path!

    • simplybike says:

      Hi Susan,

      thanks so much for this comment. I really love your point of determining what kind of life one wants rather than measuring it in goals. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially for us A-type personalities that often populate academia, right? I wish you all the best as you continue on this journey!

  12. Chrissy says:

    This post is such a nice reminder to be flexible and open. I think it’s extra important for people in academia, where careers are hard to start and jobs are in such high demand. I have no idea what we’ll do when I graduate in 1.5 years, but I’m trying not to worry, or plan, too much. A one or two year plan is about all I can handle right now, and I think that’s more than enough. :)

  13. Maria B says:

    I came to a similar conclusion myself, but mine was regarding my business plan. I was feeling distraught because I hadn’t met my milestones and goals that I had set out to accomplish years ago. It finally dawned on me that it is hard to propel a business forward when you feel like you are failing, nor does it makes sense to hold yourself to standards that are arbitrary at best. So, I’ve let the business plan go and am focusing on letting the business grow organically instead. I appreciate the meandering road and don’t miss freaking out with fear that I’m getting off track. The plans and ambitions are good for a guide but can definitely hinder enjoying of the richness of life when they become too rigid. Great post!

  14. Rachel says:

    I love this post so much. I was also one of those compulsive over-planners who was secretly (maybe not so secretly) freaked out by the idea that I had no idea what I would be doing or even which continent I would be in a year’s time. I did make plans, even 1 year plans for academic jobs and so on – but of course things didn’t turn out as I planned. I think I am actually happier in my current place than I would’ve been had the ‘plans’ worked out. My favourite line of your post was “The me who wrote it is not the me living my life today.” So, so true. All your experiences change you, people you meet surprise you, and you learn things about yourself that you never did – so why should I expect myself to meet some mythical checklist created by an older version of myself? If anything, I’ve learnt that lots of the time, life really surprises you – mostly for the better. (And even in the bad, I can usually see a huge silver lining in it !)

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