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 change now, but their managers may have a hierarchical view and more acutely perceive the risk of failure.

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 a planner. 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 career with their purpose and are burned out or cynical. Don’t let that be you.

Most often, anxiety about career direction occurs after a number of years on the job. You’ve launched your career, 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 environmental, 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 uses your core competencies. You may be more be interested in designing and carrying out programs than 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, other planners about your perceptions and plans.

Take time to get this right.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. 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

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. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.


December 6, 2016

By Richard Willson, FAICP