Guest Post - The Stress of the “5-Year Plan”

Guest Post - The Stress of the “5-Year Plan”

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The past several years of surveying and talking with our members have made it clear that Individual Coaching & Support is often identified as one of the most important pillars for professional development, but also the area that emerging leaders have the least access to - both in terms of how to find these resources and in terms of lack of funding. 
The following post is part of a larger effort by YNPN to raise the level of awareness about the importance of coaching and tools for accessing this critical support - both amongst our members and the sector at large. 

The Stress of the “5-Year Plan"

By Alicia Jay, cross-posted from

I recently asked a room-full of emerging social change leaders to close their eyes and picture their professional selves in 5 years. Everyone closed their eyes, and sat with the visualization. After the exercise, I asked for reactions. A few folks shared their visions– brilliant and inspiring.

Then, one brave woman stood up and said, “That exercise really stressed me out!”  I LOVED her honesty, and it really got me thinking.

Projecting into the future has always been one of my go-to tools whenever I’m feeling stuck, bored, or just planning for my next steps. I love imagining myself 5 or 10 years from now. My Type-A side is nicely balanced with my inner day-dreamer, and visualization remains one of my strongest manifestation tricks.

When I Grow Up image

But, for some, or maybe even for many emerging leaders, conjuring up that  vision is terrifying or impossible:

How am I supposed to know where I want to be in 5 years, I’m not sure where I want to be next month?  

I like what I’m doing now, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue this work for 5 years? 

I don’t see how I can support myself financially doing non-profit work for the long-haul? These are all valid feelings.

If these types of questions are resonating with you, I encourage you to throw away the idea that you need a “5-Year Plan” and just simply start with one basic question for your work NOW:

How do you want to feel at work every day? 

Get specific with your answer. Here are some examples from recent conversations I’ve had (paraphrased) to get the juices flowing:

  • I want more responsibility at work—I want to feel like my boss and co-workers trust me, and are willing to give me big projects to work on without micromanaging. I want to feel acknowledged for the good work that I have done. I’m a team player, but I also want ownership.
  • I like my job, but I want to feel more stable. I know my organization is having financial trouble, and I’m worried that if they have to cut jobs, mine will be the first to go. I don’t know much about how the fundraising works, but I’d be happy to help in any way that I can. I wish I could be included more in decision-making conversations, or at least feel more clued-in to what’s happening.
  • I think I’m in a rut. Between working a day job and volunteering on the weekends, I think I’m getting burnt out. I want to feel excited to go to work, not exhausted and dreading every Monday morning. I want to feel supported, inspired, and like I’m making real social change every day.

Again, the more specific of a picture you can paint, the easier it will be to take action steps.

The person from the first example decided it was time to have a conversation with her boss about more responsibility and taking the steps to work her way up to a manager’s role. She also realized that in a few years, she might want to be a Program Director or other manager of some sort.

The next person decided to schedule an informational interview with someone that works in philanthropy. Instead of feeling disempowered by the fundraising aspect of his organization, he realized he might actually want to pursue either fundraising or even grant making in the future.

This last example is arguably the most common situation I hear. There is no one prescription for this situation, and in my experience, it’s the right time for many people to get more personalized and ongoing support.

If you’re finding yourself on the brink of, or already, in a cycle of burn out, come say hi over at, and take the FREE questionnaire and get a personalized response directly from me.


There’s no need to force a “vision” if it’s just not coming to you. Leadership vision is only useful if it’s a source of inspiration and motivation, not stress.

Don’t want to plan out your life for the next decade?! No problem, just start with how you want to feel tomorrow.

Alicia Jay is the founder of Rabble Up, a coaching and training program for emerging social change leaders. Go to for more information or to schedule a free coaching consultation.

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