There are two kinds of people: those who view life as a dichotomy, and everybody else.
Ok, all joking aside, let’s put this another way: there are two very prevalent ways of looking at life. In one, life happens to you, you are carried along by a series of events called “luck” (whether good or bad) and wherever you end up is…well, where you end up. Sometimes people look at that as a good thing (“This is where I’m supposed to be“) and sometimes it’s an incomprehensible fate (“How on earth could it have come to this?“).
In the other model, you are the captain of your fate! Your every action determines what direction you are going, and so whether or not you get there depends on how well you plan. Take the long view (“50,000 feet up” in David Allen’s Getting Things Done) and then work down through layers of strategy to the minimal tactics of to-do lists and schedules and such.
Plans, Schemes, and Results
When Amy mentioned “Choose Your Own Adventure” as a metaphor for life planning, I was thinking of that latter view, and how much I mistrust it. One of my favorite quotations is the good old “…best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley,” which is, in my opinion, one of the least-said and most-needed pieces of advice for any young person.
Yes, go ahead and have dreams, plan and work all your life to achieve them. That’s what life is all about.
There’s just no guarantee that your plans and your work will actually get you where you want to go.
And if by chance it does…there’s no guarantee that when you get what you want, it will be anything like what you imagined.
Before someone chastises me for being pessimistic, please note that I did not put any value judgements on any of those statements. Where you end up – whether what you planned, or completely different – can be better than anything you could have imagined. In my experience, while imagination is a powerful thing, it is only a pale reflection in a dusty mirror of the wonder that is reality.
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
– John Lennon
The Story of Me
But then another idea occurred to me: if we like looking at life as narrative, maybe Choose Your Own Adventure can be more like movie night. You know the question: What are you in the mood for? Comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy, dramedy, historical drama, comedic historical romantic biopic…the choices really are endless.
This is where we come back to improv as life. There is a great game called “theatrical styles,” where the performers act out a scene – a “neutral” scene – and as different genres of theater are called out, they change the tone of scene to match. You can find many examples of the game on YouTube from the hilarious Whose Line is It, Anyway show, but it’s pretty easy to get the idea.
The “neutral” scene is really just life, as it’s happening, with no value judgements put on it. By choosing our adventure – which genre we’re going to be in – we change how that feels. I’m at the end of the run, there’s a hill right before my house, I’m tired, I’m aching…
…but I’m a Marine, dammit, and no lame-ass hill is going to keep me from reaching my objective. My brow furrows, my feet pound into the pavement, my arms pump as I feel my chest burn with anaerobic determination. The hill will be mine…
Conversely, you can look and see what adventure you’re in, and decide whether or not you want to stay there. Barney, from How I Met Your Mother, summed that up in a very popular quote, but an older version is “Fake it til you make it.”
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that we’re always “faking it” even when we don’t realize it – the placebo effect, self-fulfilling prophecies, and the basic idea that if you want something, believing that you can have it is the single most essential requirement.
It’s not to say that you will get it. But if you don’t actually believe you can have something, then even if you get it, odds are you’ll find some way to put yourself in a circumstance where it goes away.
Because that’s the story you’re telling yourself.
Choose Your Own “Choose Your Own”
Before I wrote this blog post, I had a lovely conversation with Amy and asked her what exactly she meant when she mentioned “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Guess what? She wasn’t thinking about any of the things I’ve written about.
Those books, regardless of the paths you take, always end up in pretty much the same ending. So when I have to make a choice, I make it with the knowledge that in the end, I’ll be where I need to be. – Amy Red (paraphrased)
There’s a whole lot of stuff inside that simple idea, and it’s a pretty useful way to look at your life, especially when things gang aft agley. I actually think it’s a concept I have adopted pretty well in my own life, which looks nothing like what I imagined in my youth (pre-internet) and nothing like what I imagined even a year ago.
Still, it’s a good life, with meaningful work and loving friends and interesting events. I always hesitate before making new plans, though, because of the fact that none of the plans I’ve made in the past have come to fruition in the way I intended.
So rather than make plans, I try to make whatever action is next the right one. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I have faith that if I continue to make authentic choices in what I do, the place I end up will be the place I need to be – wherever that is.
It’s one of my favorite zen concepts from the Japanese art of archery:
The master of kyudo draws the bow, looses the string, and what the arrow hits is called the target.