Plan All You Want, But Be Nimble
by Ken Goldstein
Sixth in a Series of Ten
I’m not at all a fan of Mike Tyson, but his most memorable and useful quote in my mind remains: “A plan is something you have, until you get hit.” I have a Hebrew carving in my home that says this a different way, “Man Plans and God Laughs.” One of my earliest mentors, the great writer David Milch, said it yet another way, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”
Yesterday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of books, magician and author Ricky Jay was asked by someone in the audience, “If I want to be a magician, what do I study in college?” Ricky couldn’t answer the question. A friend of his, a professor in the USC creative writing program was also in the audience, so Ricky kicked it to him — he couldn’t answer it either. Ricky wasn’t sure how to tell the student to prepare for life’s later adventures, because as he reflected, if you asked him at college age if he would be writing for the New Yorker and doing radio commentaries and writing books of historical anecdotes and also doing magic at this age, he never could have predicted it, maybe the magic. Patti Smith, who won the National Book Award for Just Kids, her memoir about artist Robert Mappelthorpe, was equally sage — she wondered why she had to be labeled an author or a musician or a poet or a painter, couldn’t a creative life be OK in simply exploring the creative process. “What would Da Vinci have answered?” she asked, “Oh come on, Leonardo, which are you, a painter, a sculptor, a scientist, you can’t really be all of those.” Did he know he would be all of those, and at a level that would last and command respect for so many generations to follow? What if he had simply stuck to The Plan? Could any of us predict where we are now at a level of detail that would paint an accurate picture? Then toss in the hits. I wonder.
To the point of a plan, yes, I think you should have one at any given time. With a road map you will probably get somewhere, maybe not to the precise destination you originally intended, but somewhere that eventually makes sense. Without any road map, you will more likely wander, which is not the same as exploration, and not necessarily a bad thing. With no map, no plan, you may get somewhere you like in a time frame that is right for you, but how many of us are really comfortable with that little structure? Even Kerouac and the Merry Pranksters thought they were going somewhere, but it was the detours that came to matter most to them.
So what about that part where the surprise left or right jab literally knocks the thinking process from your brain? That was Tyson’s point, and the metaphor is crystal clear. You train for the fight, you study your opponent’s every move, and you go into the ring knowing exactly what to do. Then he does something different and you get clobbered. Your head is ringing, you can’t see straight, but the fight is not over unless you let it be. That’s when you decide if there is another chapter, can you react, can you recalculate on the fly, do you have another idea? Your plan has crumbled, but you’re still in the fight, unless you choose otherwise.
The ability to plan and prepare, be directed and be focused, these are elements of success. Yet equally critical is the know how to accept the extemporaneous and be ready, always ready, to seize opportunity on a second’s notice when every rule you believe to be true is changed, spun, flipped, or junked. Knowing that a fork is there in the road takes staggering intuition that you may not even know you are calling on when it happens, because that fork won’t be labeled, that sucker punch won’t be broadcast, that opportunity when you get to it will not say “Walk This Way.”
I have one friend who recently went from a boss who thought she was a star to a boss who can’t find anything she does right. I have another friend who thought he beat cancer, then awoke one day to discover he is going to have to beat it again. Three friends who believed they were in forever marriages are now going through divorce. A vast handful of former employees who never thought they would see a layoff notice were met over the past few years with a surprise to the contrary. In no event did The Plans for any of these people include these brutal hits. In no event have they wholeheartedly abandoned their long cherished plans. Yet in no event have their plans gone without editing, adjustment, or real-time recalibration. It would be too crass to say they are rolling with the punches, a true hit doesn’t much let you roll, but shaken as they are, they are reacting, and they are on their feet with resilience and conviction.
There is a difference between focus and rigidity, just like there is a difference between improvisation and chaos. You can’t predict an outcome, but when you are looking back, you’ll see where those inflection points appeared and you were simultaneously grounded and flexible. It’s a tough balancing act, but it’s one that can separate win from loss, modest success from great success, definition from label.
Be directed, but be fluid. Don’t get knocked off your game, and don’t refuse to play simply because someone changes the rules. Prepare, then pivot.