The consequences of the best laid plans

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 3, 2009, 1:39 PM | comments: 0

I was talking today to a friend who has always had plans about the way her life would go, and expressed frustration and regret that it hasn't all worked out. I know it's not much condolence to say I've been there too, but I've been reflecting on the topic a lot lately.

A recent topic on CoasterBuzz that related to radio really took me back. In 1993, I was sitting on my college advisor's deck with another friend, sipping beers, when I expressed my desire to run a radio station. My friend said she wanted to own one, and we entertained the idea of doing that. My advisor bluntly said that it would never happen, and that we wouldn't even know each other in five years. As it turns out, he was right on all accounts (and the friend ended up being a psycho, so that's OK).

Plans are like informal contracts that we make with ourselves. They are rigid in nature, rarely include an "out" and do not account for the fact that the world around us changes continuously. These characteristics make them inherent failures from the start, resulting in a great deal of sadness and disappointment.

Our life plans tend to be the same, and usually involve going to college, finding the best job ever, finding the best mate ever, making babies and retiring. The problem is that sometimes people don't finish college, their jobs aren't what they expected or they change careers, relationships crumble, children get put off and retirement may end up being something we can't or don't want to do. These are in fact the basis for the classic mid-life crisis, but I find that people go through it several times. And it sucks regardless.

The coping strategies are often more destructive. We enter into relationships for the wrong reasons, for example. My therapist believes that Stephanie moved in with me to escape her family, the result of which manifest itself as resentment toward herself and me many years later. I'm responsible too, because I felt like that kind of relationship was comforting for the career crisis I was having, and ignored the problems that I'd later learn were always there.

In fact, we work in careers or jobs we find aren't at all what we wanted, because changing would break the plan-contract and indicate failure. I pursued radio even after I left it, which was ridiculously stupid. And when I did jobs I didn't like, I tried to compensate by committing to a relationship that I refused to believe was broken, because I couldn't deviate from the plan.

The single most destructive act of pursuing the plan is doing so at the cost of our happiness in the moment. Some people live their entire lives chasing the next thing in the plan, and end up being miserable. I did it for years, seeking the next bigger paycheck or title, the next relationship, the next step, all the while ignoring the evolving world around me, and the fact that my happiness was suffering.

So where does this leave me today? Well, I try not to have a plan that extends more than six months out. I can't predict how the world will change, how the people around me will change or how my profession will change. My own happiness is not rooted in what these things can do for me. The joy that I find in life every day comes from knowing that something I did is having impact on the world and people in it. The more I focus on that, the more everything else comes to me, and the more I am happy, right now, in this moment. The joy is rooted in what I have to offer, not what I crave to receive.

This attitude is hard to maintain. It takes practice, and there are a lot of days where I can't do it. But ultimately, I've learned that this is where happiness comes from, in what I can offer, not the externally influenced things in life's great unobtainable plan.


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