I have never been comfortable answering the standard interview question, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” because I never planned my career in that way. Many people feel the same way. It’s not that we don’t have goals, but our goals are not oriented toward picking a spot for ourselves on the organization chart. Perhaps 30 years ago people in stable organizations could plan careers that way, “I see myself as Director of ____ in 3 years,” or “I plan to be Vice President of ____ in 5 years.” But those days are long gone.
I’ve always engaged in the types of problems that interest me, and spent my time getting better and better at solving the problems that I’m passionate about. If you show me a staffing problem, I’m endlessly interested and engaged, but if you show me an accounting problem I’m not. With this career approach, there’s little focus on whether I will be a Director or Vice President of ____ in 3 to 5 years. A title is not my goal. My goal is to constantly improve my ability to solve the specific kinds of business problems I’m interested in.
Even if you have a 5 year goal, you must be careful how you answer this question in an interview. Maybe your answer reveals that you’re trying to get the interviewer’s job, which makes them feel threatened. Maybe your answer does not take into account how their specific promotion cycle works and it puts you at risk of appearing to be too ambitious or not ambitious enough simply because you don’t understand the titles they use.
So if this question comes up in one of your interviews, do the Washington thing, and answer a different question. Senior executives and politicians do this all the time for a good reason. Instead of picking a title or position that you’re aiming for, answer the question as if you were asked “What kinds of problems do you like solving?” With your answer, you’re bound to demonstrate a lot more regarding your interests and passions, and will provide more insight into your character and motivations than answering with the question your interviewer asked.