We grow up – inevitably – with a strong attachment to a plan A, that is, an idea of how our lives will go and what we need to do to achieve our particular set of well-defined goals. For example, we’ll do four years of law school, then move out west, buy a house and start a family. Or, we’ll go to medical school for 7 years, then go to another country and train in our specialty of interest and hope to retire by fifty. Or we’ll get married and raise two children with an emphasis on the outdoors and doing good in the world.
But then, for some of us and at one level all of us, life turns out to have made a few other plans. A sudden injury puts a certain career forever out of reach. A horrible and unexpected bit of office politics blacken our name and forces us out of our professional path. We discover an infidelity or make a small but significant error which changes everything about how crucial others view us.
And so, promptly, we find we have to give up on plan A altogether. The realization can feel devastating. Sobbing or terrified, we wonder how things could have turned out this way. By what piece of damnation has everything come to this? Who could have predicted that the lively and hopeful little boy or girl we once were would have to end up in such a forlorn and pitiful situation? We alternately weep and rage at the turn of events.
It is for such moments that we should, even when things appear calm and hopeful, consider one of life’s most vital skills: that of developing a plan B.
The first element involves fully acknowledging that we are never cursed for having to make a plan B. Plan As simply do not work out all the time. No one gets through life with all their careful plan As intact. Something unexpected, shocking and abhorrent regularly comes along, not only to us but to all human beings. We are simply too exposed to accidents, too lacking in information, too frail in our capacities, to avoid some serious avalanches and traps.
The second point is to realize that we are, despite moments of confusion, eminently capable of developing very decent plan Bs. The reason why we often don’t trust that we can is that children can’t so easily – and childhood is where we have all came from and continue to be influenced by in ways it’s hard to recognize. When children’s plans go wrong, they can’t do much in response: they have to stay at the same school, they can’t divorce their parents, they can’t move to another country or shift job. They’re locked in and immobile.
But adults are not at all this way, a glorious fact which we keep needing to refreshing in our minds and drawing comfort from in anxious moments. We have enormous capacities to act and to adapt. The path ahead may be blocked, but we have notable scope to find other routes through. One door may close, but there truly are many other entrances to try. We do not have only one way through this life, even if – at times – we cling very fervently to a picture of how everything should and must be.
We’re a profoundly adaptable species. Perhaps we’ll have to leave town forever, maybe we’ll have to renounce an occupation we spent a decade nurturing, perhaps it will be impossible to remain with someone in whom we’d invested a lot
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Alain de Botton is a Swiss-born British philosopher and author.