I have two anecdotes to share today, and then something to say about them.
Last year, my friend B. shared a wonderful “Plan B” story about a day she spent with her daughter, who was then a young teen. I don’t remember all the details, but I think the original plan was to take the train to New York City to see a Broadway show, and then shopping or some other treat. The timing was tricky though, because of other things on their schedule, and B. decided they should have a Plan B – what they would do if the train was late, or the show was sold out, or any other monkey wrench in the machine. Long story short and indeed, the original plan fell through entirely, but they immediately switched to Plan B – which if I’m remembering correctly involved taking another train to Philadelphia and seeing an exhibit at a museum, and there was a second Plan B for the first Plan B which had to be implemented, because it was all on the fly – well, you get the picture. They had a fabulous time, and remember it fondly to this day as an adventure that unfolded one surprise after another like a series of gifts.
The second anecdote is less sunny. Twenty years or so ago I was having lunch with a college friend, who shared with me her dreams of making a career in a highly competitive industry. After some time (and plenty of expressions of encouragement, I assure you) I asked her, “what do you think you might do if that doesn’t work out?” A chilly silence descended. My question, it seemed, was as welcome as a bucket of icy water dumped over her head. I was genuinely surprised. Why not consider alternatives? Her plan involved the participation or cooperation or support at some level from many other people at many stages along the way, and other people are not always able or willing to participate or cooperate with or support our personal plans.
Plan B does not imply lack of confidence in Plan A. But it is an acknowledgment that things don’t always work out as we hope or expect. I think you could even argue that having a Plan B makes Plan A more likely to come to fruition, just as the safety net under a trapeze swinger makes going all out for the triple flip possible. One of the things I love about children is their wide embrace of possibilities. Ask a kid what she wants to be when she grows up and you may well get an answer like, “A doctor. Or a ballerina. Or maybe a professional chef.” The more paths we see leading away from our starting position the better. The more we limit ourselves to one set of options – the only options that can lead to the end of the rainbow – the more anxiety we feel. We see threats to that narrow range of options at every turn. Disappointment and defeat lurk behind every tree. This is similar to what I wrote about a while back when I talked about different ways of dealing with obstacles – a limited range of options can make obstacles permanent.
Among the values that intellectual courage can help us activate are flexibility and adaptability; emotional courage can help us activate readiness and optimism; physical courage can help us with patience and social courage can help us with tolerance. How about today making a Plan A with your kids for the weekend, and then making a Plan B to stick in your back pocket? Who knows what may happen? You may even find yourself hoping that Plan A falls through!