Our plans for the future will eventually become straitjackets

Plan DesignThe year after I graduated from college, I went to my high school’s reunion weekend and I talked to a guy there who was telling me about his job, which was some kind of good, respectable, well-paying job–exactly the sort of thing I was trying and failing to find–and he told me that he had no idea how he ended up in his field. He’d just sort of stumbled into it. And that when he was my age, he could never have predicted what he was going to end up doing.

And that’s true for most people. My parents went and got PhDs and went to work in the fields that their education prepared them for, but they also describe a string of strange left turns that led to where they are. People have been telling me all my life, “You can’t predict what will happen.”

And I’ve nodded and said, “Oh yeah, of course. The future is unpredictable.”

And then I went ahead and spent years trying to predict my own future.

But recently, while I was driving across Nebraska, I suddenly realized, “Oh my god…the future is unpredictable! I actually don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I don’t have the slightest idea what’s going to happen to me.”

I feel like my vocational life has been rather more orderly than many peoples’. I started writing and submitting fiction in my last year of high school, and I’ve kept writing and submitting since then. I started to see a little success in my fifth year of writing, and now (coming up on my tenth year), I’m seeing a bit more. I wrote the starter novel and abandoned it. Then I wrote the second novel and queried it around to agents, etc. It’s all very much within the classical model of how a writing career is supposed to work.

But my life has still turned out very differently from how I thought it would when I was 23. I could never have predicted the years I’d spend in Baltimore or all the wonderful people I met in Oakland (through my former roommate). When I was 23, I went to Readercon and found it to be so cold and forbidding that I was put off cons for years. But, somehow, without trying particularly hard, I’ve gotten to know a number of people in the SF community, and con-going has, in the past year, been much less of a trial.

I definitely couldn’t have predicted the professional field that I ended up in (international development) or the skillset that I acquired. What a weird turn of events.

I could never have predicted that I’d become such a regular and ordinary person: someone who wakes up at 7 AM every day and gets his hair cut at some regular interval and leaves parties at midnight so he can go to bed and uses a scheduling app and makes to-do lists and watches what he eats and answers emails with alacrity.

Or that all these regularity would be so deeply enjoyable.

Anyway, all of that is trivial. What’s not trivial is that I’ve decided to stop making such complicated plans for the future.

I make these plans that are so intricate. They stretch out for years. And they have so many elements. So many applications and novels and connections and places and people. They’re like the map in Borges’ fable: my plans for the future are so large and intricate that they cover up the actual future.

And I’ve spent years of my life living inside these plans.

Which is cool and everything. It’s actually kind of fun. But it seems a bit silly to be so obsessed by things that are probably not going to happen. And what’s worse is that the plan becomes a straitjacket. The plan doesn’t account for all the things that I don’t know I don’t know

Forgive me, I can’t quite articulate the ways in which this realization is going to affect my decision-making. But I have a sense that it’s important. I’m not going to stop trying to position myself for the future. But I’m going to focus more on what I can do right now: the next steps. And I’m not going to ignore an opportunity just because I can’t see an immediate use for it.