Why Long Term Planning is Futile

Sometimes it feels like everyone else has got things figured out. We should know what we’ll be doing in one, five, even ten years out. Waking up without a plan for the day, week or month ahead is irresponsible and reckless. You’re a time waster, frittering your life away in a series of spontaneous and impulsive decisions. Or are you? Is having a plan always the best way?

Everything seemed to be handed to me on a plate at university. But after graduation, I was forced to leave the bubble and enter the ‘real world’. I fidgeted through my first graduate job knowing I should be somewhere else, and felt compelled to figure out where it might be. I felt like I was starting completely from scratch and didn’t really know where to begin.

I’ve never been the person that knows what they want to do ‘when they’re older’. I’ve sometimes been envious of others in this position – they’ve thought it through, made a plan and are getting on with it. An indecisive streak, combined with a lack of conviction towards any particular pursuit meant I generally erred on the side of keeping my options open.

I’ve had a number of calls with a careers advisor in the last few years, many of which have centred on a sprawling mind map of all the things I’d like to do or think I’m good at. Over time its focus drifted from the environment and sustainability to working in the outdoors and leading expeditions. But it always felt so vague. I never really knew how to hone in on the specifics so that I could start figuring out how to get there. This led to frustration and a sense of being detached from any strong purpose or intent. It sometimes felt like I was muddling through and grasping at things as they drifted into my consciousness. I’d feel really enthused by something for a while before finding reasons why it wouldn’t work. I was desperate to define ‘the plan’ so that I could meticulously go about executing it.

A Different Perspective

However, in the last few months I’ve started to see things differently. For one, it’s easy to overthink and over analyse things to the point where you’re constructing a future identity of yourself that has no basis in reality. There is a time for reflection on past events, but in order to finely tune your ambitions, it is necessary to go and do things and see what works. Without the benefit of practical experience, it’s difficult to know what you’ll enjoy and be good at in the future. In the last few years, I might have been better giving my full attention to what I was doing in the moment without worrying so much about where it was all leading. 

Planning for the future could be in vain, because events happen that change our circumstances that are completely outside our control. As Nassim Nicolas Taleb said in his book Fooled by Randomness, we are wired to attribute things happening to our own skill and good judgement (or lack thereof), when most things happen completely by chance. We are less influential than we think, and life is often little more than a series of reactions to external occurrences. Think back over the last five years of your life and compare your outlook then to your current circumstances. If you are of a similar age to me (30), they are likely quite different.

When I left university in 2014, I wanted to go and work offshore on an oil platform. I was attracted to the idea of gruelling work in remote places, long holidays and good pay. My timing couldn’t have been worse. In the second half of 2014, the oil price (Brent crude) crashed from over $100 a barrel to well under $50 in the space of six months. Production was slashed, graduate programs were cancelled and I was forced to think again.

The 9-5 office job that resulted was branded ‘untenable’ by my flatmates and me, and having resolved never to make such a mistake again, proceeded on a whim to Canada. While I was there I decided it was now-or-never for the engineering career, so when I returned to the UK in late 2017 I went to work with a man called Rod on the Isle of Lewis. He was developing a new wind power device which sounded really interesting, and I thought it could lead to other opportunities in the industry. 

The Winding Road

Eight years earlier I was living in university halls of residence with a Spanish guy called Marc. He later took part in an Erasmus exchange placement in Austria and insisted that I should do the same (by then I was then a year behind him having done a placement year). I took his advice, and it was in Graz that I met fellow course mate Mat, who introduced me to his friend Ollie when we returned to Bath. The three of us did a lot of running together and soon became good friends. Ollie went on to do a PhD and chose to investigate a novel airborne wind energy concept in collaboration with a small wind power company. It was this connection that took me to the Isle of Lewis.

With a toe in the door, I applied for a number of jobs with renewable energy companies. In spite of my best efforts, interviews came and went without success. One weekend while up on Lewis, Rod and I drove an hour south to the Isle of Harris. Rod was buying a sea kayak from a Dutch couple who lived there, whose son used to run an outdoor activity business. We had coffee with them and heard all about it – their son had since moved on to other work abroad and Harris was left without any provision of outdoor activities. Thus, the seed was planted for Roam Outer Hebrides.

It was through starting the business that I met Mika. The two of us later planned to buy a live-aboard sailing yacht, and moved to Oban to become better acquainted with the boating world. Upon realising it was probably a good idea but a bad time, I went to work in a care home for the winter instead of in a boatyard as originally planned. My time here made me realise that working with people in some regard was ultimately the most satisfying thing I could do. I’d loved leading sea kayaking trips on Harris and in many ways care work was similar, just in a very different context. Then along came Covid-19 and plans for a range of outdoor guiding work that summer fell by the wayside. It was back to the drawing board again. Following some serious soul-searching throughout April, I had a revealing conversation with a friend I’d met through sea kayaking, and subsequent fortuitous googling had me stumble upon the idea of training to be a Maths teacher in secondary school. And here we are now. 

Bungles and Disarray

Such formative experiences necessitate a degree of risk-taking, and since chance plays such a great role in life, we are highly likely to come unstuck at some point. But I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Theodore Roosevelt, who said “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” 

Could I have saved myself five years and just figured out earlier, with better planning, that I should be a Maths teacher? No, of course not. The decision was based on a complex web of interlinked experiences, ideas and values that have developed through exposure to a range of different environments and people.

It’s certainly taken a good few bungles to get to this point. But periods of disarray, as distressing as they can be, stem from a willingness to try something without having it all figured out beforehand. They are necessary in forming our own unique character and growing as a person; they teach you about who you are and what is good for you. They can be messy, unexpected, annoying, regrettable, costly and embarrassing. But how boring would life be if things went exactly as you’d intended all the time and you sailed through life without any problems?  Planning a safe and secure course of action will often keep disarray at bay, but amounts to a rejection of risk and thus new opportunities.

Goals vs. Values

Planning is important in order to put thoughts into action in the pursuit of an objective. If we didn’t plan, we’d bounce from one thing to the next, entirely dependent on what society or somebody ‘with our best interests at heart’ dictated to us, without much regard for the future and how one would like it to look. 

I try to plan tomorrow the evening prior, because if I don’t I end up spontaneously doing things that seem like a good idea but with hindsight are a waste of time. Procrastination is quick to infiltrate the unplanned day. Furthermore, I often look back on the week and write down what went well, what didn’t happen and what I’d like to do next week, because I find it helpful to get some perspective and it informs what I want to do day-to-day. But rather than fixate on an exact schedule, I try to align what I’m doing with a rough vision for the future, which revolves more around values than any particular accomplishment.

A rough idea of direction of travel is thus useful for adding meaning to a daily routine. Motivation and self-esteem can wane if we don’t have a handle on the reasons why we’re doing things. And in the current climate, adding to our skills through personal projects or online learning in an area that interests us is likely to be of benefit down the line. But remaining open-minded to new opportunities that hadn’t previously been considered is more important than ever.

Fixating on a Plan

Clarifying the big picture requires consideration, but if it’s too rigid it’ll likely mutate so much as events unfold that it isn’t worth investing the energy in prescribing it in the first place. Obsessing over long term goals can lead to confusion about how to set about achieving them or what to do next. Rather than direct action, they can muddy the waters and lead to a sense of inadequacy and failure because they seem unattainable. Things don’t go to plan and we worry about ‘wasting time’ or being ‘unproductive’.

The primary reason not to be too anchored to an idea of the future is that one can miss opportunities that appear now. If one is too preoccupied with getting on the bus to a destination one may miss the driver who’d have willingly taken you there via a more interesting route, or even somewhere different entirely. Metaphorical though it may be, this outlook has been literally and fruitfully applied in the past! Covid-19 has shown us that our best laid plans can be quashed by events which we have no control over. Adaptability, resilience and creativity are more important than ever; planning and organisation can only get you so far. This is as much a mindset as a method; being receptive to things around us can bring about profound shifts in our outlook.

Relinquishing ‘control

We like to pretend we are in control of our lives. But in reality, we control very little. It’s like living on a small raft drifting down a huge river – we can get our raft in order but we have no idea what’s round the next corner. I try to think of this as an opportunity rather than a threat. All sorts of wonderful (and dreadful) things will happen that would previously have been impossible to conceive of. If we plan too diligently we risk expending effort paddling against the flow when we are inexorably travelling in a different direction. Better to relax, adapt, and get ready for whatever’s round the corner! 

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