“Failing to prepare…”
I know, I can hear the next thought in your head: “…is preparing to fail.” One of the newsletters I follow began with this phrase, and the more it went into my head, the more it bothered me. Why does it have to be negative? How about…”Failing to prepare is preparing for anything.” or “Failing to prepare is preparing to improvise.” As the great General Mon-Mothma* said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or, as Gary Sinise** put it, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” Even better, in my mind, is what Dan Gilbert found in his exhaustive studies on happiness:
What we’ve been seeing in my lab, over and over again, is that people have an inability to predict what will make us happy — or unhappy. If you can’t tell which futures are better than others, it’s hard to find happiness. The truth is, bad things don’t affect us as profoundly as we expect them to. That’s true of good things, too. We adapt very quickly to either.
If you want to really learn about just how bad even the experts are at predicting what’s going to happen, take a listen to the Freakonomics segment on “The Folly of Prediction.” They relate many different examples, such as Philip Tetlock, a psychology professor at Penn State who tracked 80,000 “expert” predictions over 20 years…and found that the highly-paid pundits only did a little better than “…a baseline group of Berkeley undergraduates…How did they do relative to purely random guessing strategy? Well, they did a little bit better than that, but not as much as you might hope …“
If even the experts are unable to predict things better than, say, monkeys and a dart board, how on earth can you expect to “prepare”? In my opinion, it comes from being good at improvisation. Be ready for anything that happens. Does that mean mapping out all the potential outcomes?
Kind of. It means mapping out all potential outcomes including the one that you didn’t think of. Call it contingency plan X: If what happens is something I didn’t expect, here’s what I’ll do. And then have a strategy for it. Maybe it’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) maybe it’s “when in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!” See which one works better for you. You can even practice, by putting yourself into unfamiliar situations, dealing with them, and then looking at how you did.
It’s not about having the right tool for the job, in other words. It’s about having a toolbox and the knowledge of how to make the tool you need when you need it.
Improvise, Adapt, And Overcome.
To my mind, the most important skillset is the ability to adapt to the obstacles between you and your goal and change the plan so as to accomplish the objective. Combine that with the quality of resilience, or the ability to endure those obstacles until they are overcome, and you’ve got an unstoppable force that is the stuff of legend.
Literally – ever heard of Odysseus? That guy who took on cyclops (not the X-Man) Circe (not the Baratheon) and a whole bunch more just to get home? His epithet (fancy kind of nickname) was polyteknos – the “man of many ways.” It was his ability to adapt to what was actually going on, rather than get frustrated at how he thought they should go, that made him a hero. And that got him home.
I confess, I may be biased. I have flown by the seat of my pants for most of my life, with a tendency to leap before looking and hope that I’ll either learn to fly, a net will appear, or somebody remembered to fill the pool. There have been many times that I’ve looked at other people who seem to have their whole life figured out, who can make a plan and watch every bit fall into place, every step of the way.
The thing that I’ve found is that the steps only fall into place in hindsight. Whatever happened is the only thing that did, as opposed to Whatever happened is the only thing that could have. But it’s easy to mistake the two. Rather than keep on trying to predict the future, I’ve found it much more rewarding to embrace my skills at improvisation and adaptation.
If you’re not so sure that’s the kind of thing you’re into, don’t worry. Give it a try.
You can always make it up as you go along…
* Or maybe it was Von Moltke. I get them confused.
** Ok, you got me. It was Robert Frost***. Next time I’ll look him up on IMDB.
***Or maybe it was Burns. Frost, Burns, same thing, right?