Early Career Angst

Many young planners encounter career anxiety. This is natural, given the diverse nature of planning practice and the gap between theory and practice. This post distinguishes between two kinds of career anxiety.

The first type of anxiety is feeling that your talents and contributions are underappreciated. Media accounts portray young professionals as seeking responsibility and say in decision-making early on. Sometimes, managers perceive that young professionals don't respect hierarchy or understand the work of those above them.

Young planners' concern about their impact is understandable as they want to make a change now, but their managers may have a hierarchical view and more acutely perceive the risk of failure.

Navigating Early Career Expectations

If this is a concern you experience, I suggest patience. Do as well as you can, and soon greater responsibility and authority will come. Assess your co-workers' and peers' career trajectories as a frame of reference. It takes a little time to get there.

The anxiety I take more seriously is when young planners question whether their planning work is aligned with their purpose as planners. By this, I don't mean personal career success, as reflected in promotions, salary, prestige, or power. While we seek all those things, they alone aren't often the basis for a satisfying career. Rather, you may have anxiety about whether your values and innate talents are aligned with your planning work.

Anxiety about purpose is a sign of a reflective planner — it is valid, ongoing, and should be honored. Don't let people tell you that being unsettled in this way is whiny or excessively reflective. Alignment between purpose and work is vital for career effectiveness.

You may have encountered older, disillusioned planners who didn't align their careers with their purpose and are burned out or cynical. Don't let that be you.

Mid-Career Satisfaction and Purpose

Most often, anxiety about career direction occurs after several years on the job. You've launched your career, and been successful, but feel unsatisfied. One former student, who worked long hours at the job, said, "I don't mind working hard, but I want that work to be in line with my purpose."

Let's say you work as an environmental permitting/GIS planner in an engineering firm. This work requires precision and attention to detail. You are a vital part of a larger regulatory process. This work protects the environment, but such a job might not suit a spontaneous, creative, and people-oriented planner.

It is worth taking the time to think through types of planning work that use your core competencies. You may be more interested in designing and carrying out programs than in ensuring compliance with regulatory systems. On the other hand, if you want to directly help others you could pursue a career as a meeting facilitator or community organizer. Of course, you may feel that you have multiple purposes and can't decide. No worries — take a long view of how multiple jobs over your career will help you figure out all your purposes in planning.

Over the long run, planners who align work with their values and talents are effective and grateful for the opportunity to practice planning. Consider how your work fits you as your career progresses. Consult with mentors, friends, and other planners about your perceptions and plans.

Take time to get this right.

This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Thinkstock photo.

About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy.

December 6, 2016

By Richard Willson, FAICP