Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Plans Suck

Plans suck, but its June and everyone is graduating and everyone needs a plan!

I’ve always thought it was extremely important to have a plan. I don’t know if it was my parents, teachers, or coaches that told me this. Or maybe I heard it in my commencement address… Regardless, I thought plans were important.

When I graduated from high school at 18 – with the sun shinning on me while I sat charged and excited all dressed in white – I came up with the following plan while tuning out my commencement speaker:

Graduate from college with a 4.0 and make U.S. Olympic Team by 23-years-old. Retire from sport. Work fulltime for three-five years. Get MBA at Sterns School of Business before 30th birthday. Then become the best financial analyst the world has ever known. That was my plan, and I was going to stick to my plan. Everyone sticks to their plan, right?

It wasn’t until I was 33 and in labor with my first son that I realized plans are worthless. You see, when you’re pregnant the doctor tells you to write out a labor plan that will detail how you want your labor to go. Perfect I thought – this is what I want: (1) No drugs – I’m super tough, how hard can labor really be? And, (2) I want my husband at my side caressing my head and counting the seconds during each contraction. Easy, right? Contractions are suppose to last about 60-90 seconds and then you rest for about a minute while your husband gazes lovingly upon you before it starts all over again. Labor was going to be like a 10-hour intense and painful mountain climb with my devoted husband at my side. PLEASE – at 7AM contraction number one started, and never stopped, or so I felt. After wanting absolutely NO ONE to touch me, talk to me, or even look at me, I had a baby in my arms at 9AM. I didn’t breathe through my two-hour-long single contraction – I screamed at the top of my lungs. Remember how I said I was tough and didn’t need drugs? Well I screamed for drugs while literally foaming at the mouth! My husband said I sounded like a crack addict begging for anything to just take the edge off, and no one brought me anything, and I was pissed!

My labor plan, just like all my plans, was worthless. Let’s scroll back to my original plan because as you can see having a kid at 33 wasn’t part of that plan. It was 2000, I was 23, and the Olympics were in three months, but first I had to make the U.S. Olympic Team at U.S. Team Trials. In the sport of whitewater slalom (my sport) one female from the U.S. would be able to race in the big games. U.S. Team Trials, day one: I crossed the finish line with the fastest time. I was in first. A good start to a three-day race. Day two: I had another great run going. In the last 30 seconds I crossed a wave, caught my edge, and flipped over – breathing water in the sport of whitewater slalom is not fast. My dreams of making the Olympic Team were over. Literally – in that split second when I flipped the first part of my plan I’d had since I was five-years-old was gone – gone.

At the finish line I was embraced by my brother who said, don’t worry there is always the next Olympics. I nodded. He was right. Maybe I could just extend my plan to include another four years of training. I was only 23. Why was I rushing off to Wall Street? I had about 60 undergrad credits left. I could finish college while training for the next Olympics and then get a job and then get an MBA and then become the best financial analyst in the world. It was settled – that was what I was doing.

Again – plans are worthless. Trying to make the Olympic Team and go to college at the same time was a stupid plan. I half-fasted both. I did graduate with a 3.98, but I missed out on key internships that would have greatly increased my career in lieu of World Cup competitions. And my training suffered greatly too. I showed up at the 2004 Olympic Trials a shadow of what I was in 2000. I still ended up second, but my rival who had beaten me in 2000 ran away with the Olympic spot and went on to win the Silver Medal in Athens (click here for my rival's amazing story).

Less than two weeks after racing at Olympic Team Trials in Athens, Greece, I started working at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in Washington DC. I was 27. I still wanted to get my MBA before I was 30, but I couldn’t get into a top MBA School without at least three solid years of work experience before applying. My plan was pushed out – I would work at the SEC till I was 30 and then head off for my MBA.

I’m laughing out loud right now – that plan was completely worthless. The ultimate plan ruinner happened – love. I fell in love with Ryan, my best friend and started dating him in early 2005. Ryan, having tried to make the Olympic Team as well, wouldn’t be done with his undergrad for another three years. I wasn’t willing to get my MBA in Washington DC. I wanted to get it in NYC where I would eventually walk Wall Street as one of the best, so my MBA got pushed back again. A marriage and pregnancy later, I realized that I was never moving to NYC to get my MBA.

In 2009, at 36 weeks pregnant, I threw out all plans when my husband and I moved to Hood River, Oregon, a tiny town on the Columbia River. I had my last day at the SEC on a Friday, got on a plane to Portland on Saturday, and waddled off the plane with my swollen belly determined to come up with a new plan. Surely I could still become the best financial analyst while living in Hood River with no MBA and a newborn…

Four weeks later when my labor plan completely failed me, I had my glowing revelation that plans are not only worthless, they suck. And I want to tell everyone this because its June and in June everyone graduates from either college, high school, middle school, elementary school, and even pre-school and each kid has to come up with a plan – their next move – their path to success. I have a great buddy that’s 14-years-old. He will be a Freshman in high school next year and he has to decide right now whether to take Algebra II and Geometry together during his Freshman year. If he doesn’t, he will not be able to take Calculus his Senior year, and if he doesn’t take Calculus his Senior year he might not be able to get into his college of choice, and if he doesn’t get into his college of choice, he might not be able to get a top engineering job, and if he doesn’t get a top engineering job, he might not be able to invent disappearing dog poop spray, and if he can’t invent disappearing dog poop spray, he definitely won’t be able to invent disappearing cat poop spray… (Did you ever see that stupid moive?) The later example is supposed to shed light on how quickly plans can get silly. Try this on for size: My 14-year-old buddy doesn’t take Algebra II and Geometry at the same time, and he doesn’t get to take AP Calculus his Senior year, and he doesn’t get into MIT, but he does get into University of Washington, and because he went to University of Washington and not MIT he met his best friend, and together with his best friend on one random night when neither of them had any plans of any sort they figure out how to reverse the acidification of the ocean and save the Great Barrier Reef.

My point is: Dare to imagine your next achievement when your plan doesn’t work.

Now, if you really most know – I still make plans because I do believe plans are important - doesn’t mean they don’t still suck - but they guide us, push us, and inspire us. However, if you are like me, be prepared to ditch them because all plans expire the second you take action. And in the second they expire, keep your mind open so you can see the next opportunity that is dangling in front of you.

PS – when your plans don’t happen the following side affects may happen:

1) Tears – its devastating when plans don’t work out. Many tears were shed when I didn’t make the Olympic Team. However, thanks to my failed Olympic attempt, I am that much more devoted to seeing my plans to become a writer come true.
2) Humble Pie – It doesn’t taste good, but when your plans don’t work out you usually get a slice and often emerge a better person. This year when my son attended Pre-School Graduation, my plan for the night did NOT entail my perfect three-year-old son taking a closed fist to a little girl’s head and making her sob. When I told my friend – who happens to be the mother of the 14-year-old that I mentioned above – she said the sooner you realize parenting is the most humbling and unplanned journey of your life, the better and more understanding parent you will be.
3) Revelations – Failure is a good thing. Every single time you fail, you do emerge with more knowledge and better chance of success in your next plan. Remember: Dare to imagine your next achievement when your plan doesn’t work.
4) Listen to your commencement speaker: I bet if I had listened to my commencement speaker she probably had mentioned something about the perfect plan never working out and how that’s a good thing:) 

Me racing at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

Me and Ryan in 2005. And yes, Ryan came with the 90 pound wolf-like dog.

To view Sarah's middle grade fiction book click here: Paperback and Kindle