The Five W’s are standard information-gathering techniques for journalists and police. But consultant Robert Glazer argues who, what, where, when and why are also helpful questions for you to plot your career path.

“If we view life as a story, we can often identify the Five W’s in different phases of our lives. Taken with this perspective, they become a powerful metaphor for focus, self-discovery and actualization,” he writes on his blog.

In our 20s, we start to think seriously about what we will do with our lives, picking a career. In our 30s, he says, it shifts to when and where, notably when we want to get married, have kids, or reach certain professional milestones. We also can make critical decisions about where we want to live as our career and earning power start to flourish.

The midlife crisis is supposed to strike in our 40s, a time when he says we contemplate – often for the first time in our lives – the why. Why do we do what we do, why is it important and would something else be more fitting? “As we uncover these answers and build our spiritual capacity, we start to see the full road map of our life and close ranks, moving away from things that feel misaligned or superfluous. It becomes a logical point of recalibration for friendships, relationships and careers,” he writes.

But Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a Canadian working in Britain as a gender consultant to large multinationals, recently turned some of that upside down with a provocative look at the different career trajectories of women and men. She noted that we tend as a society to view careers as having two phases: A steady climb toward commercial success, fame and power, which is then capped by a period of continuing effort dedicated to service to others.

“But for many women, the reality is exactly the reverse. It’s the first half of their lives that is spent balancing professional growth with serving and caring for a variety of others – children, parents, communities – and the second half that affords them the possibility of prioritizing their own voices and ambitions,” she noted in Harvard Business Review.

Many younger women feel trapped while in the first stage. They welcome the later-in-life chance for a career focus. And with men starting to take a greater role in child care, they may now face a similar career trajectory, one she says employers must deal with.

Consultant Jeff Gothelf adds another dimension with his story of how on the morning of his 35th birthday he woke up in a cold sweat. He had a stable, lucrative job as director of user experience for a company based in New York, heading a team of 14 people. But he realized in about five years he would be overpaid and with younger, faster, hungrier, smarter people swarming into tech he would become unemployable. “I was a really good designer, but I was replaceable – interchangeable with thousands of other people,” he writes in his book Forever Employable, a manual on how to avoid that fate.

He reinvented himself as a consultant, entrepreneur and thought leader: “I was no longer going to look for jobs. Jobs were going to look for me.” To do that, first you must plant a flag, indicating what’s special about your expertise and why should others be seeking your assistance. For him it was lean user experience, but even that had to be sharply defined. And it didn’t come quickly, taking about five years to complete. But instead of being outdated in his company at 40, he was an expert whom many companies sought. Indeed, he stressed that can be a double-edged sword: For the rest of his life, he will be the lean user experience guy. But he will also be forever employable rather than outdated.

Harvey Schachter
The Globe and Mail, November 5, 2020