The Importance of Plan B, C, and Even D.

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:

“yes RT @GabrielTanaka To have a backup plan is to invite the possibility of failure into your conscious. Failure is not an option #F***PlanB

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.

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13 responses to “The Importance of Plan B, C, and Even D.

  1. (I’m sorry this got long. A short summary is, “I agree with what you’re saying, but I don’t think we mean the same thing when we say ‘Plan B’.” I hope I don’t sound like I’m disagreeing with the incredibly sane things you wrote; I’m just trying to explain what ‘Plan B’ means to me so you can understand why it has some people so fired up.)

    I completely understand your concern with the soundbyte version of F-PlanB. Twitter is a terrible place for nuance, and as a result, I think a lot of people are talking past each other. I saw a few people say, “I’m quitting my job tomorrow and pursuing art!”, but I saw many people say things like, “I’m going to start writing in the evenings and on lunch breaks again” and “I have no Plan B, but I have multiple Plan A’s” and even something like “I hate my major, I’m changing it to Accounting” (I can’t remember the specific thing, but it was really far from the artistic stuff that is the focus of most of the conversation).

    This is how I see it:

    “Plan B” isn’t a literal plan. My “Plan A” in life has multiple options, because I have multiple interests, multiple skillsets, and I don’t need to get paid to enjoy my hobbies (i.e. I will always play guitar and write music, even if it’s never my job). Plan A isn’t, “Quit my day job and be a rockstar.” It’s more like, “Work my day job and see if I can figure out a way to do the music thing for a living. Meanwhile, learn new skills at the day job because there is some fascinating stuff to learn there. Also, learn some things on the side because it is fun.”

    “Plan B” represents giving up without trying. When people ask, “What is your backup plan?” they aren’t just asking what your backup plan is. In my experience, if you shrug and say, “Haven’t thought about it,” the follow up is not something positive, like a reminder that life is unpredictable and that it’s good to have options. It’s always, “You know, only one in a million actually succeed at [whatever you want to do],” with the implication that you aren’t that one. I guess I’m saying that there is a difference between encouraging someone to have a backup plan and discouraging them from having a primary plan. I think the reason this is resonating with so many people is because a lot of us let ourselves be talked out of something before giving it a fair shot.

    I’m 27, married, have a dog and a cat. Quitting my day job would put my family at risk, and I’m not selfish enough to do that. So my “Plan A” can’t be “Quit my job and make music until the money rolls in.” Plan A is as simple as dedicating a couple hours a night to honing my skills and writing music instead of blowing the entire night on TV and video games. Plan B would be the TV and video games — giving up.

    As far as wealth/class/privilege goes, I say if someone out there has the safety net required to utterly throw caution to the wind and pursue some half-conceived plan, they should go for it. They’ll learn something and do better next time, or say, “oh well, I tried” and do something else. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them making the most of what is available to them.

    • I like a lot of what you say, but what I saw over and over again in the f***planb was a magical thinking that said “I will make it, because I will not allow myself to fail.” (The second quote from AP means exactly that to me.)

      And there were many people who definitely took it to the extreme, including AP herself. She had a later tweet which said “if you f*** up your life it will be the most glorious f*** of all time!”

      I have no problem with ANYONE pursuing a dream. I’ve been pursuing one for approaching 8 years now. I don’t believe anyone should give up their dreams either! But her initial quote was asking her what she would do if she didn’t make a living as an artist, and her response was that she was not even going to consider that possibility. That’s just irresponsible, and its an irresponsibility that I lived through.

      As for the privilege: I have no problem with people using what opportunities are available to them, as long as they recognize that not everyone has those same opportunities. Part of my personal plan involves building up a large safety net so that I can do that myself. (It’s actually still not Plan A for me, but Plan A for me involves decisions made in Congress and State Department, which is out of my control.) But many of the people say “f***planb” did not seem to even recognize that they had a safety net. Many even claimed to be living without one. Now, I assume they’re in group 2 (those with an unseen one) rather than group 3, but it’s disingenuous to try to convince others that your choice is the “brave one” when you have a back-up that others lack.

      • Wow, I did NOT see AP say “if you f*** up your life it will be the most glorious f*** of all time!” Okay, yeah, I totally get where you’re coming from and I understand the concern now.

        Last night, I was irritated that so many people seemed to miss all the great things I was seeing people say. I’m guessing I’ve missed more than a few utterly insane things that have been said (obviously I missed one from AP, and I follow her!).

        I feel like people with a huge variety of nuanced viewpoints are converging around two poles and shouting at simplified versions of each others’ views. Maybe the discussion needs to move to blogs now… Twitter is to conversation as bumper stickers are to political discourse. I strongly suspect that there is more agreement than disagreement when you get to the bottom.

        • Just to be as absolutely honest as possible, here’s the exact quote:

          @FluoroNinja if anybody f***s their future due to striving towards a passion, i’d say it was a probably a fantastic f***.

          (Uh, yeah, still trying to maintain a work-safe blog. Kind of hard to do when discussing AP, but…)

          • Huh… you could almost stretch it to be a joke about the future being good in bed. But even if that was the intent, that’s not how it comes off in this context.

  2. I thought I would totally disagree. I saw all this negativity to #fuckplanB and got mad.

    Now I know it’s because we letter our plans differently. Plan A to me has always been to just keep living, I consider plan B to literally be to commit suicide. Plan A to me doesn’t mean, no back ups, nothing to fall back on. If the goal is to stay alive and not give up trying to do that, then failure is death. Sometimes you get set backs in Plan A. I just adapt, and make it fit again. Because I don’t want to die yet. It took 2 suicide attempts for me to figure that much out. I have debts to pay back and things to do.

    As for a career plan, that’s peripheral. I do what I have to, whether it’s my dream or not. But by my definition, Plan B isn’t an option.

    • Jane,

      Yeah, we’re lettering things pretty differently. I was referring specifically to people for whom Plan A is some variant on “I’m going to go be wildly successful at my chosen field”. For those who have to focus on 1) keeping a roof over head, 2) food on table, 3) not cracking, and most importantly 4) not dying, it makes sense that there is only Plan A. There was a time in my life when 1,2, and 3 were the only goals I had (see the aforementioned year as teller), and it took me a long time to set up any plans beyond that.

      To (probably misquote) my friend Beth: “As long as we’re living, we’re winning.”

  3. And there’s another side to F*cking Plan B: the other people who get hurt. There’s a massive irresponsibility to abandoning Plan B half way through. I’m the child of someone who said F*ck Plan B, and if I hadn’t been abysmally lucky I’d have been the destitute one. I can’t imagine that now, but it’s true.

    Telling people to F*ck Plan B is dangerous. It’s not brave, it’s selfish. Plans A, B and C and all the way through Z need to work in harmony with real life and real people.

    • Thank you. That was the other thing tickling the back of my head, but I didn’t get it down. I’m fortunate that my mom always considered providing for us the most important thing she did, and that she knew she had almost no safety net. (My father died when I was a small child, her parents were both indigent, etc.) While not perfect, she ALWAYS had a Plan B in case something happened.

      I’m curious about your use of “abysmally lucky”. While I’m glad that you are not destitute, I fear that there is reason not to rejoice in your luck due to that word “abysmal”.

  4. In compliance with Rule #2 of the Internet, I feel the need to explain something that just happened. I approved and then took down a comment made by a reader. I was conflicted from the beginning, as it seemed like an over-the-top attack on Ms. Palmer and had some awful things to say about her husband, Mr. Gaiman, as well.

    I originally decided to publish it in the interest of free speech, with my own comment stating that I disagreed. In the end I took it down as it was:
    1) Gratuitous in its venom
    2) Contained some extremely offensive language
    3) Verged on libelous.

    To the commenter: If you reword it to be less offensive, I will allow it. But, as it stood, I could not in good conscience keep it up.

  5. DolphinedSea

    I absolutely agree. I got terribly depressed due to a job and way of life that really wasn’t me (along with undiagnosed mental issues that are now being addressed). I decided to quit my job as a recruiter/headhunter and return to school to get my four year degree in fine art. I’d previously been to and left college for a film production major.

    Near the end of my degree, I was in serious talks about becoming an international student recruiter (I’d moved from the US to the UK to go to school), and in the midst of these discussions the art institute was bought out and became part of a large university. Suddenly there was no position for me. My safety net, my parents, also lost their jobs on the same day, and unbeknownst to me, had taken out a mortgage on the house to put me through my last two years of school when I had run out of money and assets. They had no Plan B, and mine had just fallen out from under me. The entire reason I wanted the recruiting job was to stay within my network of artists and friends, so that someday, I might segue into my Plan A of getting my MFA and becoming a full-time artist and art professor. There was no Plan C for me, so I returned back to the US. We would have lost our house at one point had I not totaled the car, using the insurance money for my hospitalization for a mortgage payment. Also unplanned. And I’ve had to help care for a close family member with cancer.

    I still practice art and identify as an artist, a self-identification that no plan has a bearing on, but am currently on disability for mental health issues, receiving a small bit of money each month and rather poor healthcare until I can get back on my feet. This plan did not have a letter attached, but I’ve been able to pay off a generous amount of debt. I also saw my credit plummet from this, which makes it hard to apply for jobs, loans, and apartments. I’m still working toward a feasible Plan B that can get me to my Plan A. I know emotionally that I need my Plan A to survive, but without B, C, D-Z, there’s no way to make it there.

    Especially amongst artists–people involved in the arts, there seems to be the sentiment that you’re not committed to your art if you’re not doing it 100% of the time, living or dying by it. In recent history, most of the over-romanticized “starving artists” died of suicide, Spanish influenza or tuberculosis in their 20’s and 30’s. I spoke with a former course leader at one of the leading art institutions in the UK, who would reject an applicant for the BFA if he or she mentioned that teaching was an option in the future. They had to plan to win the Turner Prize to get onto the programme in most cases. Even the MFA I’m looking at “doesn’t produce teachers; it produces artists.” So have all the professors by that logic failed in some way? Are they not artists? Of course they are. They are still practicing art, and teaching to support it, utilizing every resource they have to continue their art practices. There is no failure in that. It’s responsible dedication to Plan A. I’ve learned the hard way not to say ‘f*** Plan B’, especially going from having a very comfortable middle class safety net to a monthly disability check under a roof we no longer own. And I’m still better off than many.

    I’d say never to lose hope for Plan A, but as you said, given life’s variables and unpredictability, it is dangerous, selfish, and irresponsible to yourself and those who might rely upon you (or possibly be forced to support you when Plan A doesn’t go as planned) to throw caution to the wind and drop your other alternatives. Don’t so could put Plan A permanently out of reach.

  6. DolphinedSea

    That last line was meant to read: Doing so could put Plan A permanently out of reach.

  7. My Plan A has always been to “recover/heal/fight my mental health issues, then worry about other things.” I dealt with debilitating mental health problems throughout college that overshadowed any career goals I might have had. My life has been like an out of control truck. It’s certainly going somewhere, just not where I direct it to go.

    Now I’m finally overcoming my mental health issues and coming into a Plan A. My Plan A is to go Business School and then start a new career in Equity Research or Portfolio Management. Plan B is to work in Web Design and Internet Strategy for political campaigns. Plan C is to start my own company in the field I’m in now, which is SharePoint Engineering and Development. But in a different way, they’re all Plan A, because what I’m worried about most is that my mental health issues come back, and then I’ll fail in any of the above.