Practicing Your Backup Plan

We have talked a lot about trying to make life more “anti-fragile” and about creating more “slack” in life, and part of that is coming up with backup plans for when things go wrong.

Backup plans are seductive things, because we tend to start them with the idea of “what if something goes wrong? Well, then I’d do this…” and that makes us feel prepared. Unfortunately, it’s way too common for people to stop their pessimism at the “do this” part, whatever “this” may be – assuming that when this is done, this will work flawlessly.

I can give you a very real life example of the idea, because it happened to me this morning.

Imagine a Day Without Data

I recently purchased a phone expressly for work. I’ve been using it now and again, mainly at my desk at home. However, this morning I got called into Emergency Grandpa Duty to give a ride to daycare. I decided it would be fun to grab my work phone instead of my regular phone. I threw a podcast by Debbie Millman on it to keep me company and headed out.

Approximately 20 feet from my driveway I realized that I couldn’t remember exactly where my daughter and grandson lived (they recently moved). No problem, right?

“Hey Siri. Call Dani.”

Siri made her pretty colorful waves on my phone, but remained silent.

Huh. Siri doesn’t seem to be working. I will just have to call her. I confess, I was perhaps pushing the bounds of responsible driving as I pulled up the contact list on my phone.

But I pulled over then, because my daughter Dani wasn’t there. I hadn’t added her to this phone yet.

That’s ok. She’s always on Facebook! I can just contact her there. Unfortunately, the orange “Connecting” bar on my app just cycled endlessly.

At this point there was a feeling of panicky annoyance beginning to creep into my psyche. This should not be this hard was the main story, mixed in with a What kind of father are you, not even remembering your daughter’s phone number or address? and a healthy dose of You had work you had to get done this morning, you’re wasting time!

I pulled into the parking lot of a local coffee shop to try to hijack the wireless signal. It gave me a wifi signal long enough for Maps to tell me that it couldn’t find the street my daughter lived on (I would find out later that I misremembered the street name). Then the vagaries of the aethernet made me lose the wifi signal.

I decided to text my Personal Assistant and get the information through her. “Hey Siri, text – oh, dammit!” Siri didn’t work, remember? I pulled up the Messaging app, sent a quick text: Can’t find Dani’s address. Plz send it.

In Apple’s Messages app, there’s a blue progress bar that shows the message going, and it quickly moved across the screen…to freeze up about a quarter inch from completion. Why? Well, by now you have possibly realized what I realized then: the cellular data on my phone was not working. Which meant that all of the ways that I normally communicate, look up information, or even navigate my hometown were suddenly denied me.

And what’s funny about this was that when I got my work phone, I had thought of it as a phone I would rely on if things went wrong with my “regular” phone.

After an actual old-school voice phone call and some quick jogs of memory I found my way to my daughter’s house and completed my mission as Awesome Grandpa With a Car. But in terms of being “Tech-nomad prepared for any eventuality, I had failed my test-run completely.

Fail, Fail, and F*cking Fail Again

And that was a good thing. Because I was in my hometown, I was in a non-urgent space and time (regardless of what my anxieties tried to tell me) and I learned a whole lot about the limitations both of the phone and of my reliance on data. It makes me re-think leaving the house without a notebook with addresses and numbers and such in it. It makes me realize that my proprioceptive sense of my environment is pretty atrophied (and I’m not alone in that).

So my “Plan B” needs some work. And man am I glad I know that now, instead of when I really needed it. Having something fail under controlled conditions is the essence of progress.

Here’s how you can create your own practice run:

  1. Look around you. Look at what you rely on, on things you take for granted.
  2. Pick one thing, and write down what you’d do if that thing disappeared. Ask yourself: What would I do if this happened? How would I make do without?
  3. Arrange a time – an hour, a day, maybe a weekend – that you can shut down or ignore that thing. Turn off the furnace or air conditioner; pretend your car is broken; leave your purse or wallet at home.
  4. See how your plan works. Put it to the real test: can you still contact the people you care about? Can you still earn a living? Do the things you thought would support you actually do so?
  5. Take back the thing you were trying to do without (and take a moment to reflect on what a privilege it is to have it). Now, in a place of safety again, re-think your Plan B and see where it can be improved.

Repeat this process as often as you like, so that it’s a game, because I sincerely hope you never have to actually put your Emergency Plan into practice. But if you do…well, the more you practice, the easier it will get.

Please share your experiences, too! Not trying to fix mine; yes, I know how to fix phone service, now that I know what I missed. But we all have our own blind spots – what kinds of things do you take for granted? How can you practice anti-fragility?

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