I touched down in Rio De Janeiro. It was hot and humid and I was a sweaty mess.
Lugging my massive backpack I found a taxi which careened dangerously through city traffic to a hostel I’d booked for two nights.
My vague intention was to travel through South America, seeing how far I could get.
I was 24 and until then, having a plan in life had seemed antithetical to the carefree spirit of youth.
The normal template
Some of us are born known exactly what we want to do.
Childhood role play games do sometimes precede real life decisions to become a doctor or policeman.
In some ways, these individuals are considered the lucky few.
The majority of us, however, flail around, stumbling drunkenly in the dark, in one direction and then another.
This may happen well into adulthood until, after what may have been a hedonistic or versatile youth, we begin noticing the passage of time and wonder how to put our limited years to best use.
At this stage, life planning becomes increasingly common, with longer-term career and family decisions taking precedence.
And while we may chase opportunities as a young upstart, after accruing data from our life experiments, the incentive to optimise for optionality diminishes.
In other words, we slowly start to shift from exploration to consolidation.
As we learn more about the world and our place within it, we become increasingly comfortable in our own skin, our personalities developing stronger foundations.
While this is the normal format of morphing into a respectable human, there are certainly benefits to remaining flexible in our planning.
Let’s take a look…
For starters, it’s good to reflect on why we want to plan.
Predicting the future is a form of self-determination whose real function might be to assuage existential angst.
Fear of the unknown can certainly cause us to exert what little control we might possess to create detailed, if illusory, plans for the future.
Having a plan in life can also lead to overwhelming desire, and in turn, psychological attachment to our vision.
Again, this wanting can instil an intense work ethic and tremendous results, but also the corollary of failure and disappointment when our expectations aren’t met.
Furthermore, we ignore randomness in favour of our goals, overlooking opportunities to explore paths previously unconsidered.
While this undoubtedly yields significant progress in our chosen pursuit, it also makes us extremely rigid, ignoring the more playful aspects of life that only occur when we remain open to exploration.
You see, there are potential limitations in having a fixed idea for the future, especially from a young age.
And according to Malcolm Gladwell, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I was recently listening to a podcast by Adam Buxton and Malcolm Gladwell, where they discussed the difference between Picasso and Cézanne, who represent two contrasting approaches to their craft.
While Picasso was a precocious and groundbreaking young artist who produced some of his best work in his early years, Cézanne was the opposite, a late bloomer who only found a signature style at the end of his career.
Gladwell says we often venerate the Picasso’s of the world because they embody a clear narrative and plan of action.
However, he contends that there’s also much to be said for the unknown experimental approach, which places less emphasis on what should be done and more on “mucking around for a while”, including the creativity it can cultivate.
Undoubtedly these tinkerers, through their playful approach, can create groundbreaking connections.
Look at some of history’s most famous polymaths – if they had taken the likely advice of their day and specialised in one field, many of the contributions we enjoy today in art, science and philosophy, wouldn’t exist.
And for this reason, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in remaining open to possibility.
Interestingly, Gladwell also asserts that the trend of life planning at a young age started when our life expectancy was relatively low.
Now that we’re living longer, the expectation to chart our future at 18 years old is somewhat outdated.
Personally, I regard these pre-mature years as a time for investigation.
Certainly, my own life has changed drastically since that sweaty taxi ride in South America.
That said, what are the pros of planning?
Benefits of planning
While some people never leave the experimental phase of life, the planners have more focus and direction.
They know exactly what they want and they work towards it, allowing them to tap into the power of compound interest and enjoy accelerated skill acquisition and progress.
Even if your plan doesn’t unfold as intended, the act of planning itself is a good skill to learn.
It avoids analysis paralysis and provides a target, even if you’re unsure it’s what you want.
After all, taking action yields important feedback, which we can always use to course-correct if needed.
Planning also allows you to recruit those who share a similar outlook and philosophy.
Not only is this important in attracting complementary long-term personal relationships, but it also accelerates professional progress.
When you have a clear, communicable aim, your network will often offer vital connections, help and support.
Having a plan in life
The natural transition is experimentation followed by consolidation. This is certainly the path I followed.
Where I travelled, lived and worked abroad in my 20’s, I’ve now been based in the UK for a few years and since changed careers.
So if you’re either exploring your options or following a strict plan, know that neither is wrong.
The middle way, however, is often advisable.
Start by leading with the values of how you want to live. and embody these principles.
Next comes a loose vision; something you can at least aim at in the longer term.
It could be a craft, skill or career – ideally one you’re genuinely interested in and motivated not by extrinsic success, but instead a growth mindset, fuelled by curiosity.
This provides wiggle room to chip away slowly at your longer-term mission, while remaining open to possibility in the short-term.
I’ve also found it helpful to take this vision and break it down further into daily behaviours, which are my non-negotiables.
This makes my mission much more manageable and I know that as long as I stick to these habits, I’m making progress.
It also provides room for experimentation around these daily rituals, allowing guilt-free flexibility for exploration. The best of both worlds!
Both experimentation and planning are essential in creating a purposeful life.
It’s a symbiosis of curiosity and consolidation, vital components for the promotion of psychological and spiritual health.
Create your vision, but then break it down into more manageable daily actions to make progress.
Having locked in those vital habits, indulge your curiosity and never lose your youthful sense of adventure.