I am very, very hopeful that, when I leave the office this evening and get into my Ford Fiesta, it will start when I first turn the key and that all four tires will be inflated. It gets regular maintenance and I expect it to start. My plans, including the amount of time I schedule for various commutes, revolve around the expectation (Plan A, as it were) that the little car will be ready to roll.
Sometimes, she is NOT ready to roll. She might have a flat tire, or a dead battery (Florida heat is rough on batteries). So, just in case of various emergencies, I have a jack, spare tire, some tools, a can of tire-inflator, a quart of oil, some water, jumper cables, a fire extinguisher, an owner’s manual and my AAA card. I also have a Bible and Rosaries for other sorts of emergencies. I would vastly prefer not to resort to any of these Plan B’s alone in a parking lot at night, but every so often I have been happy to have them readily available.
On a much more critical scale, military and police personnel have to have plan B at the ready in case of a worst-case scenario. Let’s say you are a special operator and you and your comrades are supposed to slip in silently, extract an American hostage or two, and slip out with the same seamless, silent efficiency. That would be Plan A: no one on your side gets hurt and maybe not even too many of the enemy. If enemies have to be hurt, they cooperate by succumbing very, very quietly. Plan B, entailing air support and extra personnel and a whole lot of messiness, is far from optimal. Plan A is effective if nothing goes wrong. If anything goes wrong, then you need Plan Bs. Plan Bs have a higher likelihood of success in the case of an uh-oh situation than Plan A, but are far less desirable.
Most of us don’t have to worry about extracting hostages or inflicting deserved mayhem on an enemy. We have to muddle through, discerning our purpose and doing our best to live rightly. Do we, who don’t have any expectation of being caught in a gunfight, need a Plan B? It’s become quite popular, especially in the business school world, to assert that a Plan B is an excuse to let Plan A fail.
I would argue that Plan B is part of the backbone of successful planning. Consider, for example:
You have promised your small children that, if everyone cleans up their bedroom by 9 AM Saturday, you will all go to the zoo! Yay! You had better have a Plan B already presented to them, too, in case of rain (as in, if it rains, we will postpone the zoo and have lots of fun doing “X” at home). You do not have control over whether or not it rains on your zoo day, but you have control over creating alternatives that account for circumstances beyond your control. Would you rather have Plan A – a sunny, fun day at the zoo? Absolutely; but if it’s wet, cold and dreary, kids who are able to be disappointed but know that all is not lost are easier to deal with than children who are whining because “you promised we could go to the zoo,” and claim they care not that it is raining and all the animals will be hiding inside, out of the weather. You promised.
There are thousands of possible examples: the college application that is Plan B if the desired, and worked-for, scholarship at your Plan A school doesn’t materialize; the back-up work plan if it takes longer to get a job in your field than you’d expected; the gift you will get for your child if the most popular toy that holiday season is out of stock. Would you rather get a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, a great job that starts exactly two weeks after graduation and be able to score Tickle Me Elmo, the latest Transformer AND the talking pony? Yup, yup and giddy-yup…but those are not all within your control.
The business school model against Plan A, very interestingly researched by Doctors Shin and Milkman, focuses on short-term goals with brief time periods. One test, for example, was that some participants were asked to consider a Plan B if they failed at the brief task while doing the brief task. If you have 10 minutes to unscramble sentences, and the reward for success is a free snack and some are warned up front that, hey, you might want to think about where else on campus you can score some free food in case this doesn’t work out for you, those participants might be a bit distracted from the task at hand. You have given them two tasks. That doesn’t mean they were not motivated for Plan A (the free snack) but rather they had to do two tasks at once: the task for the free snack and figure out where to get free food if the buzzer went off before they finished the first task. This is one of several experiments in their research. Other business writers have emphasized the belief that asking people on a project to have a plan B is like giving them permission to fail at plan A.
This is an interesting perspective and very narrow in its focus. There are risks in over-generalizing the findings of any particular piece of research, something Doctors Shin and Milkman know. Unfortunately, readers who see a non-academic’s cheerful, “Hey, if you develop a plan B you plan to fail,” misstated summary of Doctors’ Shin and Milkman’s work might leap to the conclusion that Plan B means Bad Plan. That is not what the researchers concluded.
I would propose that there are a few common reasons for a bias against adequately thinking through a Plan B when preparing to execute Plan A. These are by no means comprehensive –
- “I have done everything that success requires and so I am entitled to success.” Ah, the entitlement myth, in which a benign and biased-towards-you universe bestows what you have earned even though there is far less of whatever you want available than there are hard-working and deserving candidates. Hundreds of people might apply for that scholarship, and all of them have great GPAs, hours of non-mandated community service and glowing endorsements from their local Mother Teresa. Yet the committee (and its computer program) can only give the scholarship to one applicant. Scholarship, job, internship…failing to achieve that one, ideal Plan A doesn’t mean you personally failed. It means that you didn’t get Plan A, probably for many reasons outside of your control.
- “I am terrified of not meeting the expectations of those close to me (parents, often) and so most pour everything into Plan A. Anything less than absolute success means I have failed them – and myself.” This speaks to the narcissistic parent (“I am a perfect parent and you, my ought-to-be-perfect child, are the Exhibit A in proof of my perfection”) projecting the need for boundless success and admiration onto the child. Spouses can do this to one another, and children might fall victim to Pygmalion coaches or teachers.
- “If I have a Plan B, it will surreptitiously make me turn into a lazy slug who will fail to put in the effort required for Plan A.” This is the, I can’t trust my own strength of character theorem, and one can only say in response to this, “Know thyself.” However, lack of a Plan B is not going to singlehandedly turn an unmotivated sloth into a laser-focused, goal-oriented powerhouse. If you know you need to work on your intrinsic motivation strength, now would be a good time to start.
- “Plan A is my heart’s desire and I cannot bear to consider life without it…so I will just not consider the fact that Plan B might be necessary.” This is idealistic and romantic, and if you are not a good-hearted male under age 21, you probably need to accept a teaspoon of reality. If you are a good-hearted male under age 21, I will cut you some slack. That is the healthy age range for passionate idealism with a dose of immortality myth. The rest of us have to deal with the reality that life changes constantly. Your robust good health, your vision and hearing, the career you love, your neighborhood…will all change. If there is not a Plan B, you will have the alternative of crushing despair on top of the burden of grief, time after time after time.
I began this essay, spurred by a friend’s report of an adult daughter who, failing to get the job she’d applied for after college, is moving back home without any particular plan. Apparently, there was no Plan B. This led to curiosity about the “Plan B” issue in general, and discovering Shin and Milkman’s research. Not long after I began this essay, the book Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant was released. I am looking forward to reading Option B and have no idea of its contents other than it was born within the heartbreak of unexpected grief and the part of the grieving process that requires that we shift to an alternative vision of our future.
Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC
Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.