Freshmen year of college – I had it all planned out. I was going to pledge a fraternity, meet my friends for life, get straight A’s, follow my international studies to DC, graduate the top of my class, and find the love of my life. My master plan was beautiful.
Then, life happened. I like boys, not girls. Government work isn’t for me and LA has a shortage of greenery and a surplus of concrete. It only took a few months at college to realize my master plan was worthless. Without a plan, I felt frozen as anxiety, self-doubt, and depression took hold.
I regained my footing by spring semester – a series of months that changed my trajectory in life – but you know what I realized?
One: girls are difficult.
Two: policy is confusing.
Three: if is LA isn’t for me, I can move wherever I want.
I thought to myself: what good is a bad plan anyway?
See, I was born a planner. Since as early as I can remember, I’ve choreographed my life to achieve the goals I place on my horizon. Planning can be great; it can provide structure and motivation to propel our achievement. I attribute many of greatest accomplishments to my ability to picture the future I want to live in, and work backwards to plan the steps to realize that vision. Setting that clear intention has given me clarity and peace of mind.
Yet, planning has a dark side too. Each time the starting pistol fires and I race towards my next goal, I feel blinders rise in my periphery. A wide landscape of light and opportunity tunnels to single point in the distance. The outcomes in this race are binary; reaching that point is success, deviating is failure; progress is ecstasy, changing course is, well, disappointing.
I’d like to think there’s another way. One where you can have direction and motivation while also acknowledging that, sometimes, you’ve picked the wrong plan. Embracing that the same experimentation that leads to disappointment can also lead to discovery. Believing that a future of fulfillment lies ahead, if you’re willing to search out and find the right path to take you there.
I see a world of searchers and planners. Planners organize their lives from the top-down, devising a master plan and arranging each step towards achievement. Searchers chase signal and attraction, making short term decisions that seem promising, knowing full well they might lead nowhere. I was born a planner; I now consider myself a searcher.
I first came across this mode of thinking in one of my international relations classes at college. An author by the name of William Easterly explains two approaches to foreign aid. Planners set developmental goals and then work backwards to decide where to invest resources. Searchers use local context to experiment with different investments, channeling more funding to those that are working, and cutting those that aren’t. Easterly argues that the best approach is somewhere in the middle.
Let’s put this in context; imagine you’re looking to find a romantic partner. Planners decide exactly what they want in a partner and where they see themselves in 5 or 10 years. As they go on dates, they score new prospects against this set of hopes and expectations, evaluating their chances at love. If this sounds robotic, let me tell you from firsthand experience, it still happens. It’s led me to rule people out before giving them a chance. Searchers, on the other hand, may know what they’re looking for, but, more than anything else they chase what feels right. Dating with fewer expectations, but not lower expectations, can lead to discovery. A bachelor myself, I may not be one to give love advice; but, it feels like searchers are onto something.
Now, before we all go “full-searcher,” let’s remember that Easterly recommended a balance of the two approaches. If you’re following the searchers path and “going with the flow,” you may lose any direction at all. Full searchers can learn something from the planners of the world and incorporate some high-level structure into their lives to explore full heartedly but also avoid wandering aimlessly. I can see this every day in the way that Crisis Text Line’s supervisors and counselors work together to adapt effective counseling techniques to our texters’ needs. It’s this combination of structure and searching that saves countless lives.
You get to decide where you fall on the planner to searcher spectrum. As a former planner, though, there’s one thing I can say for certain; happiness isn’t obtained by masterly crafted plans. I used to be miserable, telling myself that if I execute my plan, then I’ll be happy. If I get into Stanford, then I’ll be happy. If I get a promotion, then I’ll be happy. If I find someone to love me unconditionally, then I’ll be happy.
Happiness is a state of being, not an accomplishment. We deserve to be happy today, whether we’re searching for plans, following plans, or somewhere in between.
It’s been a long time since my master plan fell through Freshmen year; but, words can’t describe the ecstasy that I feel knowing that failure led to this fulfilling journey.