Warning: I am quoting from some Twitter feeds, including from a semi-famous indie musician. I try to keep this Safe For Work, but there will be some quoting (with appropriate Bowdlerization) of some NSFW language.
Yesterday, Amanda Palmer tweeted
“at 24 my folks gave me the “what’s your plan b” talk. i said if all failed id be a massage therapist. i was lying. plan b was not an option.”
This quickly morphed into a huge thread, labeled with the hash tag #f***planb. It was also followed by:
For those unfamiliar with Amanda Palmer, she is a very successful indie rock musician. She was a member of the Dresden Dolls (best known for “Coin Operated Boy”), and has been very successful in her solo work. She has done well for herself and it makes sense for her to be inspirational for others, especially aspiring artists.
That said, this is the worst advice many young people will ever hear.
“Failure is not an option” sounds great. In fact, it’s been used in a stupid number of movies because it sounds so good. However, it assumes that somehow success and failure are perfectly under your own control. It assumes that through willpower alone, you can ensure success. Planning for failure becomes instead “inviting the possibility of failure”.
Failure is a possibility in all cases and times. There is very little in this world that is fool-proof. The famous strategist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder is famous for saying “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. This is not to say that planning is useless, but instead that it is impossible to control for all the variables in any plan. In particular, every venture in the world requires other people, and you can never assure that the countless others required will go along with you. To believe that you can control every variable that goes into success is pure fantasy.
This is personal experience for me. I graduated from college 7 years ago, with a firm Plan A. I was going to be a diplomat. I had taken the Foreign Service Officer’s Exam, and I knew I had done well on it. There was no Plan B. I did not need a Plan B, because I had never failed at anything I put my mind to.
Two months later, I had my rejection letter and no idea what to do. I took a job to keep food on the table and sorted out my life. I had no money, no savings, decent amount of debt (just got married!), and no job. Plan B ended up, by default, being a mad scramble for some kind of permanent work. I worked as a bank teller for a year. I hated it, and I spent the entire time scrambling to make a new Plan A. I was fortunate, because I made it through, but at massive cost.
I learned, the hard way, that Plan B is always a possibility. I have learned that I need Plan B, C, D, and so on. This time, when I got my Master’s, I had my top choice career (still diplomat!), a back-up (Plan B was joining the military), and something to do in the meantime (teach test preparation). Since then, Plan A was shelved, I pursued Plan B, Plan B was thrown out entirely, the old Plan A came back, etc. I even turned Plan Never into Plan Now, by turning some minor freelance work into a full freelance business. I have the “elaborate plans” that (according to the advice above) I’m supposed to throw away to make the main career more likely. I’m fortunate to be back to Plan A (well, Plan A Mark III), but I will not be homeless if it fails, because Plan Now is working, and I have more plans to put in place if Plan Now stops working.
However, even just being bad advice was not enough to really stick in my craw the way this did. There is also the class issue. I highly dislike the use of the word “bourgeois” in any context other than the most literal, but the following sentiment struck me as highly accurate:
“#f***planb is bourgeois nonsense; it really means “I can always move back to mama’s”. People who can’t do that have more than one plan.” –gimelresh
Those who have much can risk much. Those with stellar resumes or family connections or even just a family that can take them in can risk everything they have on a glorious gamble, because they know they will be taken care of. If you do not have that assurance, you can end up destitute. By destitute, I do not mean “I have to eat ramen occasionally to make ends meet.” I mean homeless and starving. Or, if you require any kind of medical care, dead.
Only three kinds of people operate without a safety net. The first are those who are supremely confident in their skills with good reason. They have practiced working for decades with their safety net, and know they will not need it. They make it look effortless, because they’ve already fallen several times. The second group are those who are faking it. They know they do, in fact, have a safety net, but instead try to hide it to look more impressive. You do not need a net if you are on a wire.
The third are the ones who fall to their deaths because they thought they were in group one.
In short: Plan B is essential. Plans C, D, and E are useful as well. Ignore anyone selling you anything different.