How many times have you been told to do something so you’ll “have something to fall back on”? We like to diminish our risk of failing by keeping a ‘Plan B’ at the ready. This way we can embellish our response the next time we’re asked what we’re doing at a dinner party; pretend it was always part of the plan.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Plan Bs; I like a good plan as much as the next guy. Knowing you have other options can be a good thing. It might even motivate you to give it your best shot, knowing you don’t have anything to lose because there’s always Plan B.
But depending on how you think of it, having something to fall back on can just hold you back.
Doctors and Artists
I was baby-sitting the girls whilst their parents joined mine for dinner. We had a few family friends who lived nearby, and since I was the oldest, I pretty much-claimed monopoly baby-sitting rights during my entire high-school life.
Cara must have been around six when she told me she wanted to be a doctor. How cute, I thought. Her Dad’s a doctor so I assumed this was just another one of the many things she had decided to copy.
She made my job so easy. Every single time I went over, all she ever wanted to do was draw. I’m not exaggerating when I say she’s a natural artist. Pretty much from the moment she was old enough to hold a pencil, she began to draw the objects around her with overwhelming ease; fruit, candles, toys, her little sister. Anything that caught her eye.
She could draw before she could write. Drawings that genuinely looked like something an artist at least ten years her senior would create. All I had to do was sit there and do my best to hold my jaw from dropping open in amazement. To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do anything with such flair. She is my definition of talent. Just raw, natural, talent.
So, it always confused me that this wasn’t made into a bigger deal than it was. She attended an all-girls private high school and her grades were always the top priority. Which, I don’t imply is a bad thing, but art was always something she just did on the side. She was also a great student, so medicine was an obvious choice. Whenever anyone asked what she wanted to study, that’s what she replied.
But as I walked to her house for a barbeque last summer, I caught a glimpse of her walking in the opposite direction. Her eyes were red, and I was sure she had been crying. I called out to her and picked up my pace to catch up. The moment she saw me she broke down in tears.
She hadn’t been accepted into any of the five universities she had applied to. She had just received the final letter; another rejection.
I assumed the reason she was upset was that she wasn’t going to be able to study the subject she wanted; at least not that year. Until she said, “I gave up taking art for nothing.” I hadn’t heard her speak about anything art-related for years, so naturally, I was confused.
She confessed that for years, she wanted to go to art school, but she never thought it was a serious option. She said her parents would never take her passion for art seriously. They had always encouraged her to secure a stable, respectable job. Making a good living in the art world was a pipe-dream, she thought. So her plan was to study medicine first, that way she’d have something to fall back on if she decided to pursue a career in art in the future.
I didn’t know where to start…who studies medicine as a Plan B?! We sat on the curb a little longer waiting for her eyes to deflate. I tried to think back to what I wish I knew ten years ago when my biggest worry was disappointing my parents.
And I told her this:
“Forget falling backward. There’s no ‘going back’ in life.”
There are different paths you can choose to take; different options, but they all lead forward. Keep your options open but commit to your path until it no longer makes sense to. Don’t dwell on what could have been, or on whether you made the right decision.
A Plan B shouldn’t be something you have to work for before you commit to your Plan A. It shouldn’t detract from your objective. It should merely be an option you could contemplate in the future.
If your Plan B is something like attending Med-school first — “just in case” — you’re stalling.
Plan B is a Safe Landing, Not a Safety Net
There’s a piece of advice Denzel Washington shared during his commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania really resonates with me. He said:
“I don’t want to fall back on anything. Except my faith. I want to fall forward. I figure at least this way, I’ll see what I’m going to hit.”
We like to have a Plan B to lower our risk of failure. We use it as a mental safety net. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past five years, it’s that if you’re not doing things you’re bad at; if you’re not getting things wrong and making mistakes; frankly, you’re not trying.
Whatever it is you choose to do, you’re going to get things wrong; at some point. You will inevitably disappoint people, you might inadvertently offend people, you’ll feel embarrassed and ashamed, and upset and maybe even useless.
If you’re following a particular path just because you want to avoid these things, you’re the one who’s going to be disappointed. Because all of these things are inevitable. Every single path you chose will involve disappointment, failure, doubt; they’re just part of life.
Some of these things might come at different stages depending on the path you decide to walk down, but they’ll be there. So don’t make decisions with the aim to avoid them.
Think of your Plan B as a safe way to break the fall when you decide to jump off the train.You’re jumping forward, onto the next thing, and your Plan B can smooth the transition.
It shouldn’t be a safety net that catches you when you fall. If you fall, just get back up. Why would falling mean you need to change course? If Plan A is still what you want to do, it doesn’t matter how many times you fail or make mistakes, just get back up; keep going.
Thomas Edison conducted 1000 failed experiments before inventing the lightbulb on the 1001st try. Reggie Jackson struck out 2600 times during his career; the most in the history of baseball. And nobody cares about the strike-outs, people remember the home-runs. Henry Ford became one of the wealthiest individuals of all time, yet he went broke five times before he succeeded.
By all means, keep your options open.
But don’t choose a particular course “just in case” you need it to “fall back on.”
If there’s something you want to do, go for it. Commit to it. It doesn’t need to be forever. It doesn’t need to be an immediate success. If you’re not naturally skilled, keep practicing. If you’ve made a mistake, learn from it. If you fail, try again.
But once you decide to start, commit. It’s the surest way to get the most out of every experience. Don’t dwell on what could have been.
Plan A should be your only real plan. Plan B is merely a thought you welcome once you decide Plan A no longer makes sense to you. Not because you’ve failed, but because you’ve reached a crossroads, and there’s a new path to consider.
If art school is what you want to do, commit to it. Do your best. If there comes a point where it no longer makes sense, you can consider med-school then. Until then, forget Plan B. Forget falling back.