There’s an interview question we need to talk about. It is one that I strongly dislike and it goes something like this: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” You could replace that 5 with a 10 or 20, but the question is still equally unhelpful in my view.

I’ve been asked this question multiple times and it sends a feeling of “ugh” down my spine every time. Why? Because, if we’re being a bit vulnerable and 100% honest here, who really knows what journey of life will lead us to in 5 years? Not me. This question has made me doubt myself, my clarity about what I wanted, and my drive to get to my goals. It has also made me feel inferior to those who could answer so clearly and confidently. But all of this is simply a byproduct of a well-intentioned yet poorly formed question.

A few years ago, I decided I no longer cared about this question, at least in the format in which it is presented. Rather, what I actually cared about was finding out my why, my purpose. I started swirling these questions in my head (and – spoiler alert – I still do):

Why am I on this planet? What am I supposed to do with all of my waking hours? What is my role in addressing the world’s most urgent needs? What is my greatest value add and contribution to my community? What do I enjoy doing so much so that time passes extraordinarily fast? What gives my life meaning?

During this time, I started a list of all the things that gave me joy and meaning: physical movement (specifically, yoga and cycling), simply being outside, recipe-free plant-based cooking, rescue animals, editing resumes (for real), talking with people about their career and life goals, raising resources for causes I care deeply about, launching side projects that allowed me to be creative, learning new skills, reading business books, gardening, and the list goes on. Keeping this expansive list ultimately helped me to identify trends and priorities in my own life. Much of what landed on this list has informed my career and life ambitions, which are about the many ways we invest in ourselves as people.

The Learning: Once I stopped asking myself a boundaried, unfair question, I unknowingly set myself free to explore my purpose in a way that is creative, freeing, and exciting. Identifying and honing my purpose has given me just enough grounding to have roots, but enough liberty to create, pilot, fail and pivot over and over again.

How does this purpose stuff translate to interviewing? Good question. What is deeper and more meaningful to learn about is a candidate’s purpose versus their plan. Plans stem from purpose and are meaningless without it, so go deep first – discuss purpose!

For this particular question, think about what you’re really hoping to learn from candidates by asking “where do you want to be in X years”. Let’s assume the real intent has to do with assessing job fit, career ambitions and their alignment with your open role, or something in that arena. If that’s the case, instead of asking “where will you be in X years”, try something that goes deeper and is more meaningful. Here are just a few purpose questions you could try:

  1. What is your why?
  2. What gives you meaning in your work?
  3. What gives you great joy at work?
  4. What impact do you hope to leave on the world?

If you’re still interested in the plan, here are some questions to ask as follow ups that will get you that type of information.

  1. How do you see this coming to life in your work?
  2. What steps have you taken to achieve meaning? What future steps do you hope to take?
  3. How does this role connect to your personal mission or purpose?

I’ll leave you with this quote that I refer back to regularly and often:

“Things that excite you are not random. They are connected to your purpose. Follow them.”

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