Abandon the plan
My favourite fairy tale is the one about the king who had seven beautiful daughters with long golden hair. A rich and handsome prince came courting, but could not decide between them. He said that he would go away for a year and a day, and on his return he would marry the one with the longest hair. Keen not to be seen to have a favourite, the king engaged a maid for each of his daughters whose sole job was to tend to their hair. The youngest daughter’s maid was a bit different from the others – she was rumoured to be a Romany – and did not join in the daily rituals of washing and brushing and plaiting. In fact, she kept her charge’s hair hidden under a scarf, which piqued jealousy and spite among the other sisters as they assumed it must be far longer than theirs.
When the prince returned, there was a great measuring, and the older sisters’ tresses proved to be exactly the same length. The mysterious maid then whipped the scarf off the youngest daughter’s head to reveal . . . hair cropped short like a boy’s. Relieved of any obligation to marry a capricious and exacting prince, she went off on adventures with the raggle-taggle gypsy of a maid.
The moral of this story is: throw over the plan and opt out of the competition – you’ll be a lot happier for it.
To my mind, planning is vastly over-rated, and it can often go seriously wrong. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink offers the telling example of a US military exercise in which the senior commanders, with all their sophisticated systems and technology , were pitted against a putative rogue state. The forces of this state did not rely on ‘intricate orders coming from the top’, and simply trounced the US’s military might with an unorthodox pre-emptive strike almost before the first order from central command had been issued. Freedom from a plan allowed for a creative approach to giant-slaying.
The trouble with plans is that they tend not to accommodate the shit that happens – something that was rather late in dawning on a Blairite policy wonk who didn’t understand why schools couldn’t meet the Government’s targets until he forsook Whitehall for the classroom and realised that there were 101 reasons why schools couldn’t automatically toe the line: numbers of children with statements, influx of children whose first language was not English, lack of support from parents, shortage of teachers, substandard accommodation . . . you name it.
On a personal level, I’ve always had rather an aversion to planning and goal setting. In a sense, the minute you set yourself a goal, you are also setting yourself up for disappointment if you fail to achieve it. How much more enjoyable and stress-free not to set one, muddle along, and then be pleasantly surprised when something good comes your way.
And even at a micro-level, overplanning can leave you open to meltdown. Like so many mothers with a full-time job, I used to pack rare days off with a minutely-timed schedule of activities and appointments to be undertaken. One such day was completely sabotaged when what I thought would be a 20-minute appointment at the vet’s turned into a squirming hour-long ordeal when she diagnosed a serious flea infestation and I was subjected to a stern lecture – well, more of a workshop, really – on the prevention and treatment of fleas in cats. The rest of the day went down the pan . . .
Finally, if anyone wants a quick and easy read on the power of randomness, I recommend Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake’s How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen, in which Tom brings down the well-drilled and disciplined sportsmen with his finely-honed skills of ‘low and muddy fooling around and . . . high and wobbly fooling around.’