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The Power of Plan B


I am not a particularly flexible person. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. I have developed such a practice of trying to make everything come out exactly as I want it to, that even the words Plan B annoy me. In reality, almost nothing happens in the way that any of us thinks it will, despite the many hours we spend constructing what we feel is the perfect plan or the flawless scenario. Still, the energy I put into making sure that nothing can possibly go wrong is unfathomable to people around me.

For the last few months, for example, I have been planning a trip. Part of the three-week adventure will include two other adults and two 18-year-olds. Naturally, I want it to be perfect, to go exactly as planned. When you have stopped laughing, come back and let me tell you more. Over the course of recent weeks, I have pored over travel books and calendars and ads for car services to meet us at train stations. I have tried to guess, predict, organize, and plan for every detail I can imagine so that this will be the most perfect trip ever.

Here is the good news: I know that very little of this will actually happen the way that I am imagining it. In fact, I am old enough and experienced enough to admit that I probably don’t even want it to transpire according to my plan. And this in itself has made me realize a few things. First, I think that planning is the activity I engage in to help me manage whatever anxiety I may have about not knowing what lies ahead. Once I’m doing the thing I’ve planned for, I’m much more engaged in it, and quite capable of handling whatever may occur.

Plan B is not just what we fall back on when the really great strategy doesn’t pan out and we’ve all failed. Plan B is real life.

I haven’t always felt this way. When I was younger and I would cover the lined pages of tablets with financial plans, to-do lists, reminders, and admonishments to myself, I still believed it was all one connected activity: the plan and the thing itself. And in those days, it probably was. For a long time, I simply didn’t have enough experience to trust my experience so I believed that the way to manage what might come next was to choreograph every step. In case you are much more evolved than I and have never engaged in a similar attempt at control, it is exhausting. It is also not even vaguely worth the effort—especially if your goal is to have the result match the plan.

It was actually at work that I first began to see that planning and doing serve different functions in my life. If a long and somewhat complex task was ahead of me, I became a planning expert. I would lay it all out, figure out what I considered would be the pitfalls, and consider all of the potential participants and their interests. I was like an expert whittler with a sharp pocketknife and a fresh piece of balsa wood. Surprisingly, once real life took over, I often forgot the pages of notes I had taken, the important factors I was sure would need attention. In other words, I was no longer in my head, where plans are born and flourish. I was in real life, where we simply face what’s set in front of us and we do the best we can do. These are two very different worlds.

Just recently, engaged in a work project with several others, pressed for time, and worried that all of what everyone needed to complete by a certain date would not get accomplished, I could feel my heart beating a little harder. I had leapt into my planning mode with the same energy I used to put forth as a kid when it was my turn to jump rope and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by being too slow, or tripping on the rope. I didn’t stop to remember that the plan was just my own personal salve. It was all happening so quickly, I believed for a moment that the plan had to happen exactly as I had created it. Suddenly, I got a grip on myself and realized we might just have to change things, postpone them, go back to the drawing board. It’s what we do when time, other humans, and life itself are involved.

This does not mean that I will not rely on Plan A in the future as a way to help me navigate my fears and to get me going on my way to thinking about what needs to be done. But I finally get it that Plan B is not just what we fall back on when the really great strategy doesn’t pan out and we’ve all failed. Plan B is real life. It’s the fun, juicy part of things. It’s where I want to be when I can let go of my apprehensions and appreciate what’s really happening.

I’m still obsessively organizing our upcoming trip because that’s part of the fun for me. It’s even more fun knowing that, as the adventure unfolds however it will, in its own, unpredictable Plan B way, I’ll be right there in it, and I'll be doing just fine.