is a question I will go to great lengths to avoid in my professional career – having learnt some hard lessons in the process of trying to answer it before.
It’s a trick question on multiple levels. On the one hand, it’s designed to give you some humility – telling your boss you want to be the king of Earth is only considered arrogant, despite that being what you would like to see yourself doing. So honesty is pretty much out the door in the first 10 milliseconds.
Given that the answer is no longer honest, what is it for? Well, one big possibility is that it’s a precursor to a grand knowledge-transfer – some ancient pearls of wisdom are about to fall your way. A few Yoda-like sentences with deep voices by super-old people telling you how the world works. I have a major distaste for all of the above (though not Yoda himself), mainly because I was given way too much life advice during college to have scarred me for life. When a person goes to corny Tom Hanks one-liners from Forest Gump, you pretty much know they’ve got nothing.
Getting past the personalities, the question itself is irrelevant. It is a means at demonstrating you are having a serious discussion without having one. The question you should be asking is what needs to be done today? No matter who you are – even Apple or Exxon or Walmart – there is ALWAYS a pressing need at the moment. Using the words “prisms”, “lenses”, “tactical vs strategic”, “synergistic dynamism”, and my favourite of this year, “impedence mismatch” don’t really make the need go away, and really only hide the fact that you have no idea what to do about today’s need, you have no answer, you have no response (whether tactical or strategic when viewed from any perspective through various prisms in front of different lenses that all work synergistically to provide a a clear view without impedence mismatch with the world.)
So you attempt to paint a picture of how things will be five years from now. What pains me about this is that people do fall for it. I wrote once before (way back in 2007) as an advice for college projects – on how the kids who do boring stuff like writing a simple kernel or device driver or a payroll system are taking a higher risk, as the world expects them to deliver on what they promise. As opposed to those who want to make experimental holographic displays and they already set themselves up for an “out” by saying they made ‘significant progress’ towards the cause.
The same with the computing industry or any other industry. The five-year question is simply a way of saying, “Dude, if you ask me what I’m doing right now, I got nothing. How about I make something up for a timeline so ridiculously far in the future that you probably will forget to hold me accountable, or even if you do, I can call you a petty vindictive person for holding on to grudges for five years, and still avoid answering the question.”
This part is for those who won’t get the point above, and hence is a pre-emptive strike at the top questions/comments/criticisms you will try to make. Let’s see how well I can predict – though I suspect I’ll only get as far as five days in the future – yeah, I’m that bad.
1. Long-Term Strategizing is important: Yes, I totally agree. The words strategy and tactics do have very valid well-known semantic meanings. But a strategy and tactic both are processes – and any process has an expected outcome (Expectation as defined through the prism of mathematics.)
Where means there is an immediate, quantifiable, verifiable, observable “step” you’re taking today. It may be the first of many. It may be a small one. But it is one you should be able to point at and say, “That’s what we’re doing NOW to get to the ideal in FIVE YEARS.” Whether it is employee growth or product deliverable, or whatever the heck else you want out of life (what I’m doing to become the king of Earth depends on the lens you look at it from.)
Long-term strategizing is not an EXCUSE for not answering for what you’re up to today.
2. Shouldn’t you have a vision for yourself?
One absolutely should. I have one for me, and I’m sure you have one for yourself. As House would say, “Everybody lies”, and that’s true. I really don’t want to be King of Earth – that was a blatant unabashed lie! I want to be “King of Earth where others will run Earth, and I will only reap benefits.” – What I want, the English language doesn’t have a word for. Even a Dictator comes with risks. I want to be a weasel risk-free dictator.
Whether you want to be a “CEO” or “Senior VP” or whatever the heck your company has, we both know you’re lying. That’s not where you see yourself five years from now. That’s where you realistically hope you’ll be given that the world operates somewhat rationally. It would save everyone a great deal of time if we just began with where we can be given that literally everything went in our favour – the right president, the right immigration laws, free college, a 10-million dollar loan for my private business, etc. and then aim to get as many things right as we can.
3. Maybe others aren’t as narcissistic as you:
That’s true. But they’re every bit as ambitious, if not more. If they were narcissistic, they’d admit that they’re as ambitious. Well that’s a lie too. Not everybody; I’m sure there are still monks in China, India, Italy, etc. who may have suppressed ambition – but I haven’t met them, so I must account for the possibility that they exist.
Find me one person who couldn’t find one thing to improve about their lives. Yes – literally one person. Even Bill Gates would love to cure all Polio on earth, and given the veto power, would probably make it happen. If he didn’t, he’d be an idiot. Or maybe he wants to educate people to make choices that would help them cure Polio – to respect Free Will and all that. Still – that power of education – to reach that many people with that information is an enviable power over Earth.
We all have our pet causes – and without going into the rationality of them, we can all agree given veto power over all of Earth, we each have things we would change – even if the change was that no one person should ever have such power over all of Earth again (and I’m glad and deeply respectful towards our forefathers who fought a costly and bloody battle to keep that from happening – which allows me to write this blog without fear of a dissident killing me without consequence, if they disagree with what I say.)
So there you go – nothing is ever enough. That’s what makes life fun and fascination, etc. – go watch an underdog movie for the relevant quotes here.
4. Why do you take things to such extremes?
Because it leaves no wiggle room. If I came up with something like, “Senior Product Manager”, there’d be at least one smartass telling me how I’m just not thinking big enough. Hence the Veto-power-over-Earth. Even given that power, there are things people will find to do, and people will find to do NOW. In fact, I’d say I can’t think big enough – because I still haven’t been able to hypothesize a situation/position where you would have nothing you’d want to do, if you could get it for free.
Rolling back up the stack, there’s no excuse left for not doing something NOW!
5. So what’re you really saying?
Before you rehash, this is what I’m saying. That question is irrelevant – because we already know the answer – “As much as I can”, and also redundant because, “I’m already on my way there.”
When someone does bring it up, it is usually a means of avoidance. Watch out for that.