How To Not Plan Your Life

I have three academic degrees in the biological sciences. Anyone with multiple degrees in anything is a bit of planner so no disrespect to academicians in other fields; in fact you may relate to much of this. However, in contrast to writers, sculptors, greeting cards designers, landscape architects, opera singers, etc. science has far fewer origin stories along the lines of:

I took my first art class in junior year and somehow it just stuck. I was almost never out of the studio after that. I was really into masks and 3D functional sculpture, so one summer I sold all my belongings so I could go to a residential puppetry course in Italy. I worked my way around Europe for a few years building any kind of theatrical object needed. Then, while working on a claymation film I met someone who connected me to Lucas films and now I’m a monster designer for screen blockbusters.

Clearly, that’s a bit over idealized, but the point is you won’t find such kismet in science careers. After all you can’t just take Gross Anatomy on a whim, get hooked and from that day forward ‘almost never be out of the operating room.’ You don’t tour a continent assisting on whatever experiments seem interesting to you and wind up the Department Head of Physics at a university. Nope, from your earliest interest in the sciences there are paths mapped years in advance for your education, and often professional certification.

If you become a researcher, even though you eventually get to innovate you still have to apply for grants months (or years) in advance which will cover 3 to 5 years after (if) it is awarded. You don’t just plan 1 amazing experiment you plan a chain of them. In short, to work in the sciences is to become a planner. And that planning deeply permeates the rest of your life. It is such an ingrained habit of your work life that it seems unnatural not to apply it to elsewhere. This planning habit comes with a lot of stress but it also builds this incredibly comforting (if false) sense of being able to control everything.

So you can imagine my confusion (and then, paradoxically, utter panic) when I came to the realization this year that I have reached a point in my career when I no longer have to plan 5 years in advance. I am in the career I want; further training for me is primarily on-the-job; there are multiple options in terms of growth and advancement in my role and they are all pretty interesting so I don’t have to map a narrow path, I can just work and keep an eye open for the next opportunity.

It is liberating -and terrifying- to be in this new position of having to break that perpetual planning habit.

I share because it’s glorious over here. And I encourage you to look at your life, career, desires, and expectations. You might be closer than you think to being able to step away from the 1, 3, 5 year plans. If you can’t give it up on the career front maybe you can put it aside on the home, relationship, or other aspect of the ‘having it all’ front.

These are the same idea(l)s that we have all heard forever: staying present, savoring the moment etc. It is difficult to give up that (false) sense of control and a habit that has worked for a long time. It’s uncomfortable to be leaping forward into life without that “net” of plans, goals, milestone achievements, and other metrics of success. But when you can get there no “success” is more luxurious than sleeping through the night without your mind chanting tomorrow’s to-do list; or a day when you pause to smile and feel a moment of joy before it passes; or allowing yourself to lose track of time looking at something beautiful and not feel guilty and call it wasteful afterwards.

So find something next week and unplan it. Let someone else choose the restaurant; invite someone to drop by “whenever” and mean it; do something in the moment the urge hits you, just because you want to, and let yourself fill with glee at the joy of it. Repeat these actions until you find the balance between things you must prepare for (gas in your car, having clean water) and letting life just happen. The beauty that unfolds is a continuously inviting reward.


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