Plan For the Future – But Don’t Prescribe It
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
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Plan For the Future – But Don’t Prescribe It
Our definition of 'goal setting' isn't what it used to be. Somewhere along the line, we got it twisted – and now, kids who have barely got their driver's license are expected to plan their entire future.
We carry this pressure into adulthood, too. I know plenty of people who have nailed down exactly where they're (allegedly) going to be in five years' time. Despite the supposed benefits of future planning, they're very stressed individuals.
Here's what I think happens. Job titles, cities, and companies are all tangible things we can grasp with our minds. It's easy to say, "I plan to be a Senior Vice President of something-or-other at this company in five years" – so we hold on tight to those specifics.
The problem is that, in prescribing a future for yourself, you leave little room for unexpected opportunities or a change of heart. You box yourself in when there was never a need to use boxes in the first place.
Let me dig into this a little deeper – you'll see what I mean.
Why We Prescribe
I am forever haunted by the statistic that 40 percent of US college students end up dropping out. The actual dropping out part doesn't scare me; it's the implication. We feel so pressured to line up our ducks, to prescribe our futures, that the detours and roadblocks we encounter later on are seen as failures.
Even as adults, why are we so hellbent on having a rigid five-year or ten-year plan? How on earth can we predict what we'll want, who we'll be, and where we'll be in a decade? If I made decisions now based on what I wanted ten years ago... well, things would be different. Let's put it that way.
So, why do we do this?
We're Conditioned This Way
It's easy to see how rigid planning stems from childhood; we're raised with the ideas of career progression, degrees, and qualifications, and having defined career paths that lead logically from one place to the next. There's little talk of flexibility. At my school, you were either going to college or you were lost.
It stands to reason that we'd come away from this conditioning with a set-in-stone mindset: you choose your career now, and you plan it out to the nth degree.
We Want A Sense of Security
In the words of Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a psych professor at Pepperdine University, "It’s a way of dealing with worry and can give people a false sense of control."
I can understand that. I've been there myself. When all else feels chaotic, there's a temptation to retreat into our comfort zone and make rigid plans for the future. We don't want any surprises – we just want what we expect.
Of course, we know deep down that life has other ideas. Planning our lives seems like the best way to combat unexpected changes... but in reality, it's like locking our knees before hitting the ground. We make ourselves so inflexible that even a short fall leaves us with a broken bone.
Family and Societal Expectations
It's easy to start prescribing your life as a way to explain or justify yourself to others. If you're not in a stable job at the moment, for instance, maybe you'll create a plan for the future to soothe family members, friends, and peers.
But again, this comes with an expiration date. We may be able to fool others for a little while – but we can't keep up that façade forever. It's human nature to change our minds and switch paths; trying to stick it out despite feeling like you're going in the wrong direction is counterintuitive at best, and damaging at worst.
But Isn't Planning Helpful, Usually?
Great point – yes, it is. Planning is both helpful and essential to getting the life you want. But there is a difference between planning and prescribing yourself to a certain path.
Planning involves setting goals, making budgets, and taking stock of what you already have. It's like mapping out the route to your destination, but knowing that you can change course if needed.
I'd also say that mindful planning comes from your values and passions. Instead of looking at a career progression chart for your area of study, you should plan your future around the things you know bring you the most joy. Why? Because typically, your values and passions are the things that don't change.
The Psychology of Open-Ended Planning
I frequently think about this quote by one of the best philosophers of all time, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push."
It's hard to know exactly what he's referring to here. The way I interpret it, though, is that doors to new opportunities will remain closed if you don't realize they're able to be opened.
This is what I believe happens to us when we plan our lives out too rigidly. We end up clueless as to the possibilities lying just outside our peripheral – because why would we bother looking when everything is already decided?
Open-ended planning sidesteps this problem by actively putting questions in the air. What could you be doing in five years' time? What could your career path look like? What new opportunities can you take advantage of in the meantime to explore your passions?
You acknowledge the infinite options available to you, and therefore, it does occur to you to "pull rather than push."
Values-Based Planning 101
Rounding up everything I've said so far, here's my hypothesis: we need to be engaging in values-based planning rather than prescriptive planning.
There's a clear distinction between the two. With prescriptive planning, you are largely focused on the way your future looks and sounds. What's your job title? What do you earn?
In values-based planning, you're focusing on how your future feels. Knowing what you respond to emotionally, and knowing where your passions and values lie, you're able to construct a picture of the future that will gel with your personality regardless of where you end up.
A rigid, prescriptive, plan might be, "I want to finish this degree, get a job in X field and work my way up the ladder within Y company."
A flexible, open-ended five-year plan might be, "I want to end up in a position where I'm working with people on an individual level and helping them to solve problems." That could mean a lot of different things – so you can take the time to explore and find out what that looks like in practice.
You can see how one plan is much more open to unexpected opportunities and changes, while the other has a much narrower path. Yes, the more ambiguous option feels a little intimidating – but that's the beauty of it. A little uncertainty is a small price to pay for flexiblity and uncapped potential.
When Prescriptive Planning Helps
By all means, there are certain situations where making a rigid timeline can be your saving grace. For instance, you might be working toward a 10-mile run in six months' time. You might have a specific career path in mind that requires certain qualifications, or you may be working toward a promotion at your current job – in which case you'll need to plan out the steps to get there and make sure they're achievable within a certain timeframe.
In these cases, planning a rigid timeline is your roadmap – it keeps you on the path and provides a sense of security in the face of uncertainty.
As soon as you start talking about five or ten years down the track, though, you're essentially making plans for someone you don't even know. That person could have completely different wants and needs than you do now.
By all means, keep your goals in sight – but make sure you're open to the unexpected and embrace opportunities as they come. That's how real growth happens.
It's easy to get caught up in what feels like a logical plan, life rarely works out the way we expect it to. (In fact, it usually deviates in very drastic ways).
That doesn't mean you should abandon all hope for progress – just that you should always be ready to adapt when necessary. Center yourself around the things that ignite your passions, and don't put a low ceiling over your head as a self-inflicted cap on your potential.
I'd love to hear from you if anything here resonated, so feel free to respond in email or add a comment below. Until next time!
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