Sunday, September 12, 2010

To Plan or not to Plan, that is the Question

Image thanks to Christie Abshire Butcher's Students at the University of Texas, Austin
A friend, known as Artfish on Open Salon, posted the following on her facebook page:

"One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a  tree. Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" was his response. "I don't know," Alice answered. Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

To which I shot back:

"That's where the cat and I differ-- I don't think it matters where you want to go, there is always a right road to take."

My response touched off a conversation about "mistakes" that led into a discussion about the role of "planning," which now that I think about it, was probably a conversation about the role of "self determination" in living a "successful life." 

Okay so I think too much, but that quote touched a nerve.

I think it struck me because for the first 40 years of my life I lived via the extreme planning method that was advocated to all of us (educated people) in fact, through the education process, whether in high school or college or graduate school, which, in short, was, "if you don't have a plan in life, you'll never get there." Never mind where "there" was. But, you'd never get "there." So, be afraid, be very afraid; and I was very afraid that I would never amount to anything.

Let me elaborate on what this method "meant:" You made a plan, generally in writing, for the next year (short-term), and the next five years and ten years (long-term) and then planned, generally in writing, how to set about trying to accomplish it. This process was reevaluated every year, preferably near the New Year, as far as I knew, though I'm not sure why, and life was assured to consist of some ordered (and successful) trajectory.

Living life by this method was a better guarantee of "success" than the "other method," which I assumed was "just drifting through life." I guessed that drifting through life meant that you didn't get an education, lived in a trailer park, had children by various fathers and never married.... or some kind of life as equally "unsuccessful sounding" as *that.*

Okay I had anxieties.

The first little crack in this philosophy appeared as I graduated from college in 1982 in one of the worst recessions in years and couldn't find but a secretarial job. This was not what I was led to believe should happen. I deserved some recognition of some sort. And I didn't get it. I was special, damn it. Plus, I planned.

To recover from this unpleasant and unplanned scenario, I just planned some more. I set my sights set on law school, which was supposed to solve all career snafus as I would be on a bona fide career track. Undergraduate degrees, obviously, no longer trained you for anything, so an advanced career track, like law school would fit the bill. Getting into law school was a chore and I don't want to belabor that time in my life. But, if you think that getting into law school was a chore, practicing it, with children, then with a possible move to Vancouver BC (which I bucked) then with a move to Louisiana (which I accepted, naively) was impossible. I struggled for years, mainly because I was so focused on my "law school" career, which I had written down, that I couldn't see beyond it or outside it, and I was miserable.

My husband can attest to years of misery.

At some point during these years of unmet goals, I had a breakdown and went to see a therapist, who fortunately was a spiritual person. Thank goodness for someone that believed in life, rather than the plans of small human beings.

I learned to plan but to be open to the possibilities that "life" (or God, if you are so inclined) throws at you. My first great opportunity was to take advantage of the time I had "off" to pursue involvement with a lifelong passion-- the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a development organization in Sri Lanka that I fell in love with when I was 19 years old. 

The second was to "study" gerontology, another passion. No goals. No nothing. These two passions intersected for me and I have years of volunteer and consultant, development and aging work to show for it, including another MS and a PhD. None of it planned. 

I also "happened upon" a Duke post-doc, not planned, and went for that. When I got back, I "happened upon" a position of directing numerous evaluations of state social programs. And after that, I "stumbled upon" a job with private industry as their director of chronic care research, a gerontologist position that has been more than I ever could have imagined.

So, after the last 12 years of a fabulous life, I have to say that I am an advocate for being open to the Big Picture. You can plan, but be guided by your passion and by opportunities that present themselves to you, whether in "your field" and "within your plans" or not. Trust your gut. If you can help it, don't make "lists" (which I also used to do -- you know, listing the "pros" and the "cons" of a scenario). 

Do what drives you. Be in love with your life. Follow the possibilities.

In that way, I truly believe, there will never be a "wrong road." All roads presented to you will be or will lead to the "right ones," divinely inspired, if you are so inclined.

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