“Everyone,” as Mike Tyson famously said, “has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s a good quote, but I think it vastly overestimates the majority of the human race. In my experience, most people don’t have a plan. In fact, punch in the mouth or not, most of us don’t even have a consistent direction. No, I’m afraid, the truth is that most of us are winging it all the time.
Planning is a uniquely human skill set and the ability reliably do so was so important to our ancestors that they devoted an immense amount of labor constructing sites like Stonehenge in order to predict the best days for planting or harvesting crops. Their efforts helped humanity to achieve dominance over nature and while it can be argued that animals like wolves can cooperate to spring cunning traps, that certain birds and chimpanzees can make and use primitive tools, and that beavers can work to shape the natural environment, no other animal can plan for the future with the thoroughness of mankind. Why then, do so few of us do it?
Part of it has to do with our brain structure and the way that we have been programmed to survive over many millennia of evolution. Animals, we know, are primarily driven by instinct and use their brains to focus entirely on the present. They go through life encountering various obstacles and overcoming them as they emerge. Given the huge variety of life on Earth, that seems a valid survival strategy. The human animal, too, is hardwired by nature to do exactly the same. We live our lives and await whatever is thrown at us. When it finally arrives, we rise to the challenge and tackle the problem. Once victory has been achieved, we go right back to guard-position and wait for the next challenge. It’s a wonderful skill and without it, it is highly likely that our species would have gone the way of the Dodo long before our kind actually ended that particular bird.
But our ability to plan for the future is an order of magnitude greater than our ability to simply survive. The problem is, however, that it is not hardwired into our brains. It requires a learned, cognitive process to be fully employed. Add to that the fact that the process is not generally taught in schools, at least not to my knowledge, or if it is perhaps it comes at a time when it might not be directly usable and, therefore, atrophies for lack of use. The ultimate result is, I think, is that the bulk of humanity ends up living by their wits while planning gets pushed to those who have both the time and the necessity to learn it.
The process, it turns out, is not especially complicated but it does, as I indicated above, involve a cognitive process. It begins with framing the problem in a way that is nothing more than understanding the way things are – “the current state” – in relation to the way that you want them to be – “the end state.” From there, you look for the obstacles that are impeding progress towards your desired end state – perhaps it is a regiment of German soldiers or perhaps simply poor spending habits – and consider the various ways is which you might overcome those obstacles. Let’s call those your “lines of effort.”
There are often several lines of effort to achieving your goals. Say that your goal is ”a million dollars.” Lines of effort for that might include a high-paying job, savings, investments, spending habits, etc., but the main idea of the planning exercise is for you to list out the many paths that lead where you want to go. Inside each line of effort are different steps or objectives. Your “job” line of effort, for example, may include a series of steps through which you educate yourself and then build the contacts and experience required to get the job that you believe will help you to reach your end state. Tie your lines of effort in with one another, your good job combined with good spending, savings, and investment habits, to build a solid approach to achieving your goal. Keep it realistic! Using the lottery, for example, as the primary line of effort to get your million dollars probably isn’t going to work so don’t even go there.
It sounds easy, right? Conceptually it is, but it’s important to understand that planning cannot predict every outcome and that your plan, no matter how thorough, may not always proceed in the exact way that you envisioned. Fortunately, we still have our lizard brains to guide us through those times when unexpected challenges arise, but the trick is not to give fully into the automatic cycle of action-reaction that the obstacles we face often trigger. As you struggle, you need to keep your eye on the ultimate goal and work to get your plan back on track. Once things are stable, adjust your lines of effort and turn once again to achieving your end state. Don’t give up in disgust. Perseverance and the willingness to pick up and start over every time your plan is smashed into smithereens is a necessity.
For some of you, the information that I am providing in this short, thousand word essay will be old news. You will decry my methods and claim that they are overly simplistic. Perhaps they are, but that’s OK. For each and every one of you, there is someone who has never received this advice and who has wondered with great frustration as to why they aren’t getting where they want to be in life when they are so good at solving problems and overcoming obstacles. Five years ago that person was me. And while I can’t claim that I have suddenly found the key to amazing success, I can tell you that, for the first time in my life, I can actually see where the road I am traversing actually leads. There’s no reason why others shouldn’t get the same view.