How to Plan Your Career

Are you a Plotter, a Pantser, or somewhere in between?

Posted Aug 19, 2017

I read a lot of books about writing. Truth be known, if I spent as much time writing as I do reading, I’d be writing my tenth book by now.  (I suspect a few writers out there understand and empathize.)  But here’s something I’ve noticed along the way: there are a lot of similarities between writing advice and career advice. For instance, the guidelines for writing a query letter to an agent or publisher aren’t all that different from writing a cover letter to an employer. The 60-second pitch writers prepare to summarize their book to a potential publisher at a writing conference is basically the same as the elevator pitch job candidates prepare to sell themselves quickly at a job fair or networking event.

But my favorite parallel between writing and job-seeking is the concept of writers as either "Plotters" or "Pantsers." The Plotters like to plan ahead: they develop their characters and plot, write outlines, and break their stories into chapters or scenes, always knowing where they, and the story, are going. 

Pantsers, on the other hand, work off the “seat of their pants.”They take a less-structured, more intuitive approach to their writing, and often speak about “showing up to the paper” and seeing what happens. 

Although I don’t recall seeing it, I’m sure there’s a middle ground—a “Plontser” so to speak who does a little of both.

So what does this have to do with careers? A lot. Because the way you plan (or don’t plan) your career can influence your success in the job-seeking process. And if you’re trying to use a system that doesn’t fit your style, it won’t work as well—and you’ll dread the process.

Many traditional career guides follow the “Plotter” model: a clear, lock-step system of moving from where you are to where you want to be.They focus on goal-setting, often breaking down the goals into action steps.Organized.Clear. Structured. An easily followed visible path. Where are you now? Then what happens? What will happen next? And so on. These systems generally work well in traditional careers where the education and the career are a linear match and the potential employer is equally obvious.

Another school of thought, the Pantser equivalent, says just work with what you know and keep moving forward. Just “follow your passion” or “do what you love.” I hear this a lot about gifted students seeking careers: “They can do anything they want…so they really don’t need career guidance. They’re smart. They’ll figure it out.” It’s not a planning system so much as an assumption that something will magically arise.  And for some, it works.   

Personally, I like the middle-ground, the “Plontser” focus so to speak.  This is the focus I take in my book, "You Majored in What?", and can also be found in the excellent books of  John Krumboltz and Al Levin, "Planned Happenstance" and Robert Pryor and Jim Bright, "The Chaos Theory of Careers."  Here’s a video if you’d like to learn more from Dr. Bright.

All of these books follow the concept that much of the job search is, in fact, random and unpredictable.There are unexpected moments that appear in your life, and if you’re smart you’ll grab them rather than follow whatever plan you might have created. 

I see this type of career planning succeed every day in my work. It’s why I created my career development system, “Wise Wanderings.” The word and concept of “wandering” came from three sources:

  1. The famous Tolkien quote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”
  2. Dr. Herbert Simon’s eloquent phrase “network of possible wanderings” describing the places one can go in their mind based on the knowledge and experiences they acquire, and
  3. The way a majority of my students found their careers.

At the same time, I added the word “Wise” because it’s important to plan while still allowing for the unplanned. 

So where are you in this trio of approaches? I have 3 strategies for career planning depending on your type. My book contains a full explanation of each, but here is a simple summary:

For Plotters, I have a “Probability Plan.” Probable Life Planners have a clear career goal and they move toward it in the expected way. Examples of this might be someone who wants to be an engineer, accountant or lawyer. There are certain educational goals, licensing or certification requirements, and clear potential employers. They can follow traditional goal-setting plans if they are seeking a traditional career in these fields.

The “Plontsers” (the middle ground)  are Possibility Seekers in my book, and I offer a “Possible Lives” exercise. (We have a "Vision Place" at the Vanderbilt University Career Center where students can design their Possible Lives.) Basically, put your name in the middle of a piece of paper.  Write down all the careers you are considering all over the paper in no order.  Draw a line from your name to each of the careers.  On the line jot down the steps to get to that career. Now watch your energy—are you gaining energy or is it draining? Go where the energy takes you. Are there common themes showing up in several of the lives? That’s another clue. You can use my Possible Lives planning system to plan out several careers at the same time to see which one rises to the top.

Finally, for “Pantsers” I call my system, “Intention Setting.” You aren’t ready to hone in on a particular career path. Rather, you have basic ideas you want to play with.  Maybe you’re thinking “I’d like an international career” or “I’d like to help people.” Those are great general ideas—so write them as intentions: “I am seeking an interesting job where I can help people.” Put it on a sticky-note. Read it every day.  Start to hone in. How would you help? What would you do? What kind of people? Let the ideas take shape and build a life of their own. Experiment. Test out your ideas by volunteering. When your vision becomes clearer you’ll be able to develop a plan that works for you.

Whether you’re a Probable (Plotter), Possible (Plontser), or Intentional (Pantser) job seeker, there’s a system that will work for you. If you have found yourself stuck in the career planning or job-seeking process, you might be trying to fit a mold that doesn’t fit you. One system doesn’t work for everyone, so try another system that fits.

©2017 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved.