I can clearly remember when I became a long term planner. It was in December of 2003. I was reading through a book on quantum physics that my chemistry teacher had assigned as extra credit for our class over the holiday break. I started to fall in love with physics and math in a way that was totally different than any time before in my life. By the time I finished that book I was almost certain that I wanted to pursue a career in the sciences.
I spent the rest of that following spring reading about science, technology, engineering, and math related jobs. I finally decided that I wanted to be an engineer by the start of my junior year of high school. By that point I had read enough that I knew I wanted to get at least a master's degree in engineering. Two more years of high school, four years of college, and two years for a masters was eight years away - but it seemed like my path was set.
Throughout college that plan shifted around a bit here and there. By the time I graduated I decided that I wanted to get a PhD in mechanical engineering and use that knowledge to start a technology company someday. That probably meant that I needed to work for a few years after I finished my doctorate, so I was at least seven years away from my ultimate goal. I had been working on an eight year time horizon for the past six years though, so what was an extra seven?
All of that changed when I got to grad school. I started attending some events in the research park at the University of Illinois about technology startup companies by the second or third week of school. It wasn't very long before I started a company of my own as a side project. By the following fall I had to make a decision - was I going to stick to my plan of getting a PhD, or should I quit early to work on my new company?
That was probably the most difficult decision that I've ever made. On one hand I had a phenomenal opportunity to get an incredible education from one of the best engineering schools in the world. On the other hand I had the chance to move my career timeline forward by five or six years.
I wrestled with the decision for months. Ultimately, the thing that helped me make the decision was a passage in Clayton Christensen's book How Will You Measure Your Life. I won't re-print it here, but the basic essence of what resonated with me was the concept of having an emergent career strategy instead of a set path. He writes about how if you are in a career stage where there is a well defined goal - becoming a partner at a law firm, being promoted into a management role, making VP of a division, etc - it is a good idea to follow a set path to your goal. You'll be more likely to reach your goal if you have set milestones to compare with your own progress.
On the other hand, if you have a more loosely defined goal - like becoming the founder of a technology company - it is best to adopt an emergent strategy. Emergent strategies allow you to evaluate opportunities as they arise. I think another common analogy would be navigating with a compass instead of a map.
Once I settled on an emergent strategy for my career I felt a huge amount of pressure melt off of my mind. I decided to take the chance with my company and stop graduate school after I finished my master's degree.
It is funny to look back on my career planning journey from 2003 until today. I almost feel like I knew more about my future then than I do today. In reality I guess I've never known what I was going to do next, but it was easy to fool myself into a false sense of security through my planning.
I don't know what the future holds, so I'm still working with an emergent strategy for my career at the moment. It has served me well for the past two years and I expect that I'll keep going in the same direction for at least a few more years.