At a recent alumni event, I was drawn to a seminar titled: “Designing Your Life: What Do You Want To Be (When You Grow Up)?” I expected the room to be filled with recent graduates, wondering how to use their impressive credentials to make a living, as well as a few mid-career professionals looking to transition to their second career. Instead, I found a full range of folks of all ages and professions. The man sitting next to me had kids my age, was a partner in a major DC law firm, and was still wondering what he wanted to do with his life.
The seminar began with Professor Bill Burnett presenting a “design approach” to planning. That is, rather than viewing big questions about life paths and goals as problems that need to be solved (engineer thinking), resources that need to be optimized (business thinking), or issues that need to be analyzed (research thinking), these questions should be seen as the starting point from which to build a way forward.
To begin, Professor Burnett encouraged us participants to discard a set of dysfunctional beliefs that tend to get in our way. For example, it is counter-productive to believe that we have one life and just one chance to get it right. This particular misconception has dogged me since I was a child, and has led me to place unnecessary importance on things that seemed to be prerequisites for a successful life. Professor Burnett shared statistics showing that most people have an average of three “lives” during their adulthood. The “Odyssey Years” – ages 20 to 35 – are increasingly devoted to figuring out who you are rather that what you want to do, and it has become common for folks to embark on an “Encore Career” between the ages of 55 and 70. This perspective led me – and many others in the seminar – to breathe a sigh of relief. I still have a chance to be other things besides a lawyer, public servant, wife, mother, etc. in my lifetime.
Professor Burnett then gave each of us a challenge – to draft at least three 5-year plans in ten minutes. We were to map out the steps we would take down each five-year-long path, and then evaluate how the result made us feel (excited, fearful, bored, embarrassed, etc.) and how realistic we thought it was (on a meter). Faced with this daunting task and the blank paper in front of me, I panicked. I did not have one 5-year plan, much less two or three.
This realization, on its own, was an epiphany for me. I detest uncertainty so am a planner by nature (I was nicknamed “the pre-crastinator” in high school and have lived by the mantra, “Why put off until tomorrow what could get done today?”). However, my plans now need to accommodate the (often unknowable or unpredictable) needs and desires of my husband, toddler, and baby. Upon discovering that even the best laid plans for a family of four tend to be futile, and that I am even more upset by foiled plans than by uncertainty, I have embraced a more go-with-the-flow attitude towards everything from dinner to vacations. The advantage is that I am less stressed about meeting expectations or fulfilling “to do” lists; the disadvantage is that I am more reactive than proactive regarding change.
When Professor Burnett started his ten-minute timer, I feared I’d made a mistake by choosing his seminar. I was in no position to draft 5-year plans; I cannot even project what I will pack for lunch tomorrow. But then the professor urged us to turn off our self-censors and left brain critics so that we could draft our 5-year plans without being hindered by doubts and judgments, and to just start writing. So I did. When Professor Burnett called time, I was shocked to look down at a page filled with very specific steps to reach each of three different five-year end states.
This exercise taught me a valuable lesson. Not that I am destined to become Oprah’s right-hand woman (a girl can dream!), but first and foremost, that the planner in me is dormant, but not defeated. Even as I race through my days without a minute for self-reflection, somewhere the hamster is running (an expression my husband uses, which I love and have adopted) and considering alternate realities. I do not need to set off to accomplish any one of my three 5-year plans just now, but if I check in on that hamster from time to time, I might find myself strolling down one of those paths without having to plot out each step along the way.
I wanted to share this revelation just in case anyone else is feeling caught up in laundry, bureaucracy, teething, home repair, etc. and wondering what you are doing with your life. It’s okay not to know. Perhaps planning is overrated.