"I sometimes wish I had a plan. I see my friends who are my age and are graduating with their PhD or their MD or their JD and I think "Fuuuuuuuu$!....", my 26 year old client agonized. Just two weeks later, I met with a recent graduate who lamented, "I feel like I'm the only one of my peers without a plan. I just want to know where I'm going."
I get a gut-punch feeling when I hear this because I remember it. I didn't have a plan, either, and those days of feeling lost in life's outer space really sucked. It's lonely out there.
There is massive social pressure to have a plan. We are a culture that loves the plan. From a very young age, we ask children what they want to be when they grow up. We tell high schoolers to make a 5-year plan, and then we ask college students incessantly what their career goals are. Don't have a plan or a concrete career goal? Then you probably make one up just to deal with the questions. "I'm working for XYZ right now and applying to law school!" you might say cheerfully while inside you're thinking "Lord knows how THAT's going to work out...".
You're Not the Only One...
First of all, you're not the only one just making things up when people ask you about your career goals. I can't tell you how often I hear this from students, young professionals, even full-blown adults with established careers. Hell, I make this up myself sometimes, because it's better in public to SOUND confident in what you want even if you don't actually feel that way. So stop comparing yourself to all those people who "Have a plan", because the truth is, they're probably winging it more than you know. The comparison is your first error here, and if you can eliminate that, you'll instantly feel a little better. Know that lots of people are pretending, just like you.
What Does the Plan Mean?
Some people do have it. "I've just always wanted to go to Dental school," or "I knew in high school I wanted to be a teacher." And the people who have it all figured out are envied because it is actually easier to live your life this way, when you're young. It's easier to have something to say and really mean it when people ask you what career you're going for, it's a relief. You get to relax when people ask that question and answer confidently, and then there is a nice clear pathway in front of you for how to implement that career goal. But here's the thing - lots of people who might be convinced at an early stage in their careers that they have a plan will probably end up changing course at some point. They might be enviable now for having chosen a direction or feeling a sense of rightness about the path they are pursuing, but talk to them again in 5 years, and you could hear a different story. Their plan might change. They may experience a setback. They may get bored. They might realize late that they were actually just pretending and are now doing soul-searching to try to figure out what their heart REALLY desires. Know that even when you have a plan, that's still not the end of the road.
How to Plan Without A Plan
The secret to getting through this self-loathing around a lack of a plan is to plan differently. If you're feeling down about not having a plan, stop focusing on the Dream Job right now, and focus on building a plan that will help you figure out what your Dream Job is going to be. We'll get to what you'll tell people at dinner parties next, but in the meantime, give yourself some organization by developing a strategy for how you're going to figure out your path. Stuff that goes on this plan are things like informational interviews with professionals who do interesting work, attending a conference, taking an internship, applying for a job in a field related to what you think you might want to do, volunteering for an extra project or initiative at your current job, or traveling to get some space and time to know yourself better.
But How Do I tell People I Don't Know?
You could keep doing that pretending thing, but I do recommend some level of honesty about the fact that you're in an exploring phase. The reason is that people might be able to provide some input or connections that could be helpful for you. So put some level of organization around what you're thinking (I can help with this if you need it), by saying something like "I'm exploring 3 possibilities at this point. I'm currently studying for the MCAT to possibly pursue medical school, and in the meantime, I'm also interested in learning a bit more about the Project Management career path, and the third is that I'd like to find a job now working with nonprofits so that I can get more information on whether that would be a good fit for me." This type of response works because it makes you sound organized and not flakey (thus avoiding the scary looks from people that you might get if you just said "I don't know"), but also is honest and open about the fact that you don't have a set outcome or goal yet. What you do have are some ideas, and some activities to start with, and those actually equate to a plan.
So go easy on yourself. Start with what you know about your career interests and skills now, put yourself in positions that will give you more self-knowledge and unique experiences, and you'll begin to see a path forming in front of you.