“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living in the now.” ~Alan Watts
I went to college a little bit later in life. Because of that, people often mistakenly believed I was operating on a specific (and somewhat urgent) timetable—as though I was running to catch up with the rest of the people my age.
However, I was already in a career I loved (teaching yoga) that supported me financially. For me, going back to school was mainly about enjoying the process of getting an education without any pressure to get it over and done with.
As it came time for me to graduate, I frequently got asked, “So, what’s next?”
I never quite knew how to answer this question, and to be honest, it always made me a little bit uncomfortable. Mostly it made me uncomfortable because I could sense others’ discomfort with my answer, which was: “Nothing’s next.” People seemed to bristle at my reply and worse, give me a list of reasons why they thought it was risky not to have anything lined-up after I graduated.
Even though their reactions weren’t personal, and for the most part, didn’t really have anything to do with me, the truth was: I was still insecure about making my own way through life and taking the path less traveled—which in this case was teaching yoga full-time and not making any concrete plans for the future.
People clearly thought I should go out and get a “real” job (as if teaching yoga didn’t qualify as a real job). Another yoga teacher even asked me if I was going to get a “big girl job” when I graduated. Ouch.
It seemed as though everyone expected me to launch into a new career or go on to higher education, and in spite of myself, I subconsciously agreed that perhaps I should just make a nice solid plan for my life.
The problem was A) I already had a plan (which was not making any plans) and B) up until that point, my whole life had been spent making plans, and that hadn’t worked out so well. Over-planning had led to a lot of wasted time and energy. Plus, it had become readily apparent that life doesn’t always go according to plan (and thank God for that!).
While plans aren’t in and of themselves bad, and they can certainly help lend direction to life, equally, I found it was generally in my best interest to leave things wide open to possibility, and here’s why:
1. Planning tends to solidify life, and life is simply not meant to be frozen solid.
Cliché as it may sound, life is a lot like water, and making plans is like placing a whole lot of logs and rocks and other obstructions in life’s way—it clogs up the current. Plans create resistance, and life is usually best when not resisted.
2. When you’re looking for a specific outcome, you’re often not looking at anything else.
A whole world of fantastic prospects could be surrounding you, but when you have on what I like to call the “focus-blinders,” all you can see is what you think you want, and nothing more.
3. This one’s sort of an addendum to number two: We might miss out on opportunities.
For the most part, people are inclined to think they’ll recognize opportunity when it comes knocking, but it’s been my experience that opportunity comes in all shapes and sizes, and it might easily be missed (or severely delayed) if we’re expecting it to look a certain way.
4. This last one might be the most important, and it’s that over-planning can cause us to overthink and end up second-guessing or compromising ourselves, as well as our values and goals.
I’ve learned the hard way (on more than one occasion) that having a plan and sticking to it like glue can be a fast path to rock bottom.
All those years ago, when I was on the eve of graduating from college and on the verge of having a major planning relapse, I looked back at my life so far and could see that everything had always worked out in one way or another, and often in ways I could never have orchestrated (or predicted) myself.
While the future certainly looked intimidating from where I was standing, I had the sense that I could trust things would continue to work out. Even if I wasn’t the one carefully planning everything out.
The story we tend to tell ourselves is that if we don’t make plans, then nothing will happen. And if we’re not in control, then things might fall apart.
But the gentle truth, which is actually the glorious truth, is: we’re not in control, anyway. Not fully. And that’s such a lot of pressure to take off your shoulders. Even if you don’t plan your life down to the last detail, things will still happen. Opportunities will still show up.
Phew, it’s not all up to you!
That doesn’t mean you can’t also have some idea of where you’d like to go—there’s nothing wrong with having dreams and goals. But there’s something to be said for staying open instead of being rigidly attached to a specific outcome.
That compulsive urge to plan comes from the urge to avoid uncertainty, a protective instinct that’s literally hardwired into our biology. Planning is a powerful impulse to minimize risk and ensure our continued safety and security.
However, if you can find a way of making peace with a future that is largely unknowable, and also recognize that unknowable doesn’t automatically mean bad, it will help soothe that part of your brain that instantly wants to launch into planning mode.
Ultimately, real security doesn’t come from the outside—from making plans or holding office jobs or earning Master’s Degrees. Real security comes from within.
The most control we can exercise is to keep on doing the next right thing, taking steps that move us closer to the center of our Self, and living our lives in a way that reminds us of who we are.
I still occasionally fall under the spell of planning, but every time I get wrapped up in the false sense of security planning offers, I come once more to the realization that life simply does not function according to my made-up agenda (no matter how well-crafted).