Planning hinders growth.
Everyone is improvising. Back to work on Monday.
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After a 3 month “break”, I’m starting work again on Monday. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I am looking forward to having a change of pace from childcare.
Do call me out for lunch or coffee! You’ll likely find me in between my two gyms at Somerset and Telok Ayer, or at my office in bras basah.
This month, I reflect on whether it is important to be planning for growth, or if I am better off forgoing plans and going with what feels best in the moment.
Planning hinders growth.
Despite our collective love for Japanese food, Alcina has never been to Japan. Shortly after we started dating, the tsunami happened, followed by various fears about radiation. By the time it was clear that this was not a real risk, we were close to getting married. Out of some measure of superstition, we decided that since we already avoided travelling there a few years, let’s wait till we’ve had our kids. We’ll then leave them with a grandparent and have a big Japan holiday filled with as many sushi restaurants as our stomachs could stomach.
We often joked about this as our “life plan”.
Fast forward getting married, having 2 kids and watching a pandemic disrupt travel, carrying out this plan looks very different from how we first envisaged it. I’d definitely be far more hesitant to be away from my kids in a different country.
Planning is everywhere. We ask kids what they plan to do when they grow up, couples when they plan to have kids, businesses about their future plans, and politicians what they plan for the economy. Everyone is expected to some kind of long term plan, and to be judged based on those plans.
Common advice is that success requires planning. “Fail to plan, and plan to fail” some would say. I still recall that line printed in the annual planner I was issued in SJI. Read about any success story and its common to feel that the subjects took very deliberate, calculated steps to achieve success.
In the early years of adulthood, it felt like everyone else seemed to be more prepared than me, they knew what they wanted, what subjects to study, skills to build, and firms to join.
So I tried to plan for my own success too. The trouble is, those plans kept changing, I never knew what I wanted my future self to be. It was too easy to have a different picture of success each day, and then think of all the things I would have to do. One day I might think I’d be happy if I had a small business - and start trying to learn some entrepreneurship skill. Another day I might see fitness as the path to happiness - and make ambitious exercise plans that never materialise. But at least, every day I seemed to be working towards something, and that felt comforting.
I find myself forced to rethink this as I get older and add more variables to my life, and in a less certain world. I barely know how each day will play out. Carving out fixed blocks of time is like moving mountains. I attended a wedding dinner recently, and spent a week arranging things so that I could enjoy that dinner in peace. Its not really that there is no time, but that I don’t really know when the time will come.
Plans become a source of stress rather than a path to happiness. In all likelihood, I won’t be able to keep to them and feel frustrated and guilty. But, I worry that without planning, I would stagnate.
Would I? Or, could it actually be better to take life as it comes and go with the flow? Is planning actually a fantasy which holds back growth?
Plans are merely thoughts. They cost nothing to conjure in my head, and don’t need to be grounded in any reality. There is no proof that the plan is doable, it will lead to its intended results, or that those results will make me happy.
Logically, plans are destined to fail. To our limited mind’s eye, capable of at most holding 8 digits of a phone number at once, we can’t account for the infinite possibilities of the future. Its not just problems and crisis that may derail a plan, there’s also a infinitude of possible lucky opportunities and happy accidents that exist outside of our plans. The bigger we plan, the further we are likely to fall.
In light of this impossibility, no one’s success or happiness is because of their planning. Regardless of what they believe, or more likely, what media wants us to believe, everyone is simply improvising as they go along. I can do fine without having the next 20 steps planned in advance.
So why do I end up living for some future version of me, rather than in the present? Planning is a way to escape the present. To take comfort in believing there is a path to becoming better, and that there is a reward at the end of that path.
In part this is motivated by insecurity. By a lack of belief that I am good enough right now to be happy or deserve my place in this world. I need to become a better person than I am now, so that I can be fulfilled.
But its also an element of greed. Its saying that I need more than what I have or am now to be satisfied. Its a refusal to be content with the present day.
If planning is a fallacy, and I am satisfied with the present and take a short term view of life, could I easily devolve into a stagnant life in front of the TV, a game controller in one hand and my phone in the other, caught in an endless loop of content consumption? I have already spent several revenge bedtime nights like this when I had originally intended to be productive.
I think stagnation is unlikely. Our mind and body naturally seek to learn and grow. Our brains automatically build knowledge when we read and think. Our muscles know how to strengthen and adapt when we exercise. I can trust my instincts to lead me towards things that let me grow.
It might actually be the opposite. By thinking so much about the future, and fantasizing about achieving the end goal, I end up doing less. I’m more likely to give up on a run once I start thinking about its end. Progress happens in the present, I go further when all I think about is putting the next foot in front of the other.
I’m learning to stop thinking about some kind of future James, and exist in the here and now. Perhaps its a blessing that between my kids and commitments, i’m forced to learn to put my plans aside rather than waste energy on them. To let visions of some fantasitical future life pass by, and focus on putting that one foot foward in the moment.
I’d love to hear how you work out goals and ambitions in your own life? Are you able to stick to plans you make? How? Has it been good for you? Or, if you prefer to improvise with each day, how do you manage it?
I helped out with drafting this speech relating to our laws on tackling the illegal wildlife trade. It was eye opening for me to learn how we are far more exposed to this than one would notice in daily life.
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