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In Praise of Not Planning

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At a wonderful moment in the '80s romantic comedy The Sure Thing, in which a wildly unpredictable John Cusack tells a thoroughly controlled Daphne Zuniga that she doesn't know how to be spontaneous, she blurts out, "Spontaneity has its time and place." I have always subscribed to that view. I have taken pride in my ability to plan. Whether the plan is big (when and how to buy a house or get a graduate degree) or small (where and when to go on vacation and the details of what to do), planning plays to my strengths. Scope it out, write it down, follow the script. This has led, I like to think, to many accomplishments, and it has lent my life a level of control and predictability that I find comforting.

Yet, looking back, if I ask myself what were the most important moments and events in my life, almost none of them were planned. The afternoon I met my future wife, the days we conceived our children -- and the personalities and special talents they developed, the three dogs that pounced into our homes and hearts, finding those homes themselves -- not one of these was planned.

On the eve of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, my father had a mild heart attack. Clearly, that was not planned either, for the tragic moments that alter out lives are not. A few days later, in the hospital recovering, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The celebration so carefully planned never was; his final months were testimony to the unpredictability of our lives.

The morning after my father's heart attack, my uncle -- who had come all the way from the East Coast to California to celebrate -- handed me a slip of paper on which he had scrawled an old Yiddish saying. For my benefit, he said, he had written it in English: "Men make plans and God laughs."

At first, those words pierced my life as pinpricks. I was already in pain, so why did I need to hear this? But they made me think, which I suspect is what my uncle intended.

I've thought a lot since about how much energy I spend in plans and adjusting plans, and how that energy has been unavailable for other parts of my life. I've thought about how my nervous reaction to the disruption of my plans impacts those I care most about in life and how it forces them to live parts of their lives by plans they neither wanted nor conceived. I've thought about the role that serendipity plays -- and might well play to more effect in the way I live my life if I made room for it by spending less time planning

I've thought as well about how we raise children today, about how so many steps of their lives are planned, including each day itself, to ensure that they eat, learn, and even play "correctly." We act as if their lives, unplanned, will push them off of the solid trajectory of getting into the most competitive sports league, the best school, or the perfect job. I've thought about what this is teaching them about approaching life and wondered if all that planning is making them less resilient, less flexible, less open to the wonder in life that only comes in moments they leave unplanned.

As in so many things, life ought to be in balance. If planning is good, then so is not planning. I understand this, as I realize I planned last week to write a blog post on this topic. But I take heart in the fact that I did not know what words I would write until they began to come out of me a few moments ago.

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