You’ve seen the witty aphorism on the wall behind the cashier in the random local business: “A failure to plan is a plan to fail”, but as partially true as that might be, I’d add “and if failure’s not in the plan, it’s not a very good one.” As an overarching template on reality any plan occludes the world, often makes it more difficult rather than easier to negotiate and succeed in it. A plan is a map you’re placing over the very ground it purports to represent, and the more exact it is, the more it hides and less flexible you become.
One early winter, when I worked on a large commercial farm, the boss had a late arriving “plan”, deciding in December to construct a new corral for the hundred head Angus herd. The ground was already deeply frozen, so we had to chip away at the earth with a sharp metal bar to make postholes, the conditions multiplying the work by a factor of at least ten. That taken care of, the remaining construction proceeded as does much work in cold temperatures: frozen fingers, frozen wood, short days all contributed to a lengthened-out project we eventually completed after world-class amounts of grumbling.
The boss’s “plan” denied reality—had it been implemented in the spring when the soil was still moist the job would have been easy, and even if we’d dug the three feet deep holes in the fall when the soil was hard and dry it would have taken far less time than using a bar to chip away iced up soil a square inch at a time. The plan might have been a good one except for one thing: it was placed in a hierarchy above reality, trying to make itself a fact that superseded all others. A plan, to be a good one, always has to be subservient to the real world. That means it can only be intended rather than slavishly followed. When it comes up against resistance, it may need to be changed, but most people just try to use more force to bully it through—keep doing what they’re doing but doing more of it, rather than admit they’re wrong.
On a farm, having a plan means being prepared to alter it almost immediately. Anything beyond a slightly fleshed out intention may become a waste of time—a pleasant waste, I admit, so not entirely without worth, but nonetheless a distraction from one’s original intent. An effective plan-that-isn’t-a-plan means understanding the real world and how everything in it has thresholds, ranges, breaking points, and other characteristics that can’t be altered—no matter how elegant the plan to overcome them might be. Nothing, from ephemeral market forces and client wishes to more tangible, physical objects on the farm, nothing escapes the boundaries of its existence. Chemicals have their range of efficacy, tools have a threshold of use, each client has a level of tolerance toward quality and behavior, each employee has specific abilities and emotional limits.
And, of course, all your plant species have ranges: temperature needs, sunlight needs, daylength needs, irrigation needs, and more. No plan supersedes their requirements. They won’t germinate at a lower or higher temperature, grow outside their climatic needs, live with less water or more than they’ve evolved for, and your plan, if it intends otherwise, will simply be an elegant structure in your mind or computer or notebook.
This may seem mundane and obvious, but in this moment in history a couple trends, seemingly contradictory but often held simultaneously in the same mind (if not the same breath), get in the way of directly perceiving the world and placing oneself within the boundaries perceived. On the one hand, doing the “extreme” (be it eating or athletics) and “thinking outside the box” is so popular that natural limits which cannot be exceeded get lumped in with social and imaginary ones that can, and on the other hand, the exponential proliferation of virtual technologies boxes in with maps, lines, apps and templates the same reality the “extremists” are trying to escape. Thus, a way of being that might be productive in one sense becomes counterproductive in another: it may be good to play with your toys outside their intended use in innovative ways, but is it ever good to break them?
“Rules are made to be broken” is a rallying cry for the resentful as well as the innovative, the revolutionary as well as the simply destructive, but break the rule that your engine needs 5 quarts of oil and not 3, or that tulips require 12-14 weeks of cold temperatures, or even that your client expects you at 10 AM on Tuesday and the value of understanding and obeying natural and societal rules becomes evident. Our attitude toward living can be the plan that inhibits it if we fail to refuse the facts as they present themselves to us.