In the military world, it's perfectly
normal to have a backup or contingency plan, a Plan B as
it's otherwise known.
The United States has a contingency plan in place
in case a military conflict erupts in Venezuela; the Israeli
military, for strikes on Iran; the United Kingdom for
military intervention in Zimbabwe.
If the military, in its constant state of
preparedness, needs to be ready to tackle conflicts we
haven't even bothered to imagine yet, shouldn't we everyday
folk also have a backup plan ready to implement should our
primary plan not pan out as wished?
I'd argue that we should . . . for the
small potato stuff.
If your favorite Italian restaurant is overbooked the
night you intended to go there, you'd have an alternative in
the country you're intending to visit has had its main
international airport shut down by protesters, like what
happened in Thailand at the end of November 2008, then it's
really convenient having a Plan B option ready to roll.
But what about the big stuff?
Is it worthwhile devising Plan B's for those, too?
What do I mean by "the big stuff"?
Those are life-changing events:
your choice of romantic partner, your choice of work,
the type of life you want to lead.
I had a friend in childhood whom I've
since lost touch with.
We'll call him Stu.
During high school and college, he had a mostly on
again, sometimes off again, relationship with his best
friend's younger sister, Darla.
Stu got interested in juggling and met a fellow
juggler five or six years his senior named Eunice.
He told Eunice he really had strong feelings for her,
but hey, you only live once and he wanted to see how his
relationship with Darla played out first.
If things didn't work out with Darla, he told Eunice
he'd consider shacking up with her as his Plan B.
No extra credit given for guessing Eunice walked.
Stu is the exception rather than the rule
in that he eventually did marry Eunice anyway.
Darla refused to relocate to their hometown so that
Stu could assume his lucrative place in the family business.
With the Darla relationship played out in full, he
continued to run into Eunice at juggling events and was able
to win her back. Warning:
don't attempt this at home!
No sane person would agree to wait around while his
or her love interest explored more highly ranked choices
What about with a choice of occupation?
Wouldn't it be prudent to have a Plan B here?
One's choice of work, one could argue, is even more
important than choosing a spouse.
Realize you picked the wrong spouse after ten years,
just get a divorce.
Realize you picked the wrong vocation after a decade,
and you may find you're entering the labor market with
skills only suitable for doing more of the same sort of
work. The work
we decide to do largely guides the direction of our lives.
A person pursuing a career as an international
journalist will live a very different life than a used car
salesman or a doctor.
If you decide to start your own company, whether it
succeeds or fails, that choice brings about a very different
way of life than if you'd chosen to work as a bank teller.
To be perfectly clear, most of us don't
need a backup.
We don't try to become doctors when we know we're not
smart enough to get into medical school.
I actually know someone who couldn't get into medical
school. He did
have a Plan B but it wasn't so far off from his Plan A:
he opted for optometry instead of ophthalmology.
We know what our talents and interests are and we opt
to do something we're able to practice somewhere.
Even if we possess little natural or acquired talent
in the field, nowadays some school will accept us and award
us a degree. I
knew a girl who majored in engineering in university.
She had no aptitude for it and almost flunked out,
but she still got a job in it.
Another guy was able to practice dermatology because
he obtained his medical degree in the Caribbean.
For most choices of livelihood, it's simple enough to
practice without crafting a Plan B.
But to some of us, a Plan B can appear
Having lived in Los Angeles for so long and met so many
aspiring actors and writers and directors, I can readily see
how working on an alternate plan of action could look
Most of these aspirants never got work and, sadly, would
never get real work.
The playwright, David Mamet, doesn't agree with a
backup plan. He
wrote in his book, True and False, that:
Those with something to fall back
on invariably fall back on it.
They intended to all along.
That is why they provided themselves with it . . .
One could say, '"I am a fool, for I have not provided myself
with an alternative"; one could also say, "I see nothing
else worth my time," which is, I think, a rather
Those of you with nothing to fall back on, you will
find, are home.
On another blog I visited, the blogger,
Walt, said a Plan B was for losers.
"Successful people are a success because they are
very committed to their work.
The majority of them have made a definite plan."
When the famous, good-looking, and rich actor George
Clooney was asked what his backup plan was in case he never
made it in acting, he commented something to the effect of
"What backup plan?"
Before we make any conclusions whether a
backup plan is warranted, let's examine these comments in
Mamet's True and False was published in 1999 when
Mamet was 51.
Mamet was already a longtime success.
He'd started to enjoy the first fruits of success as
far back as 1974.
If Sexual Perversity in Chicago and
American Buffalo hadn't wafted the sweet smell of
success to Mamet's nose, and Mamet's plays were seen in
mostly empty community playhouses , Mamet would've had to
settle on a Plan B to pay his mortgage.
He probably would've wound up teaching playwriting
or English literature at a university, quite a distance from
being a published author, Hollywood screenwriter, and film
George Clooney didn't fail long enough as
an actor to have to come up with a Plan B.
He landed his first recurring TV series role on the
short-lived show E/R in the 1984-85 TV season, at
only age 23. He
then picked up a recurring role on the successful TV show
The Facts Of Life from 1985-87.
From 1988 to 1991, he had a recurring role on
Roseanne, followed by a regular role on Bodies Of
Evidence in 1992-93 and Sisters in 1993-94.
Clooney was doing better than most working actors.
By the 1994-95 season he hit the jackpot when he
became a regular on ER, a gig that lasted 6 years and
launched his multimillion dollar movie career.
If Clooney had continued to remain a starving actor,
as most do, you're darn tooting he would've had a Plan B.
With his studly good looks and aversion to marriage,
he would've made a great boytoy for a rich sugarmommy.
Walt the blogger is right in one respect.
Successful people succeed because they are committed
to their work.
An uncommitted person isn't likely to succeed.
But let's face facts.
Not all committed people are successful.
According to graphs at
Smallbiztrends, half of all new businesses fail after 4
years and two-thirds after 10 years.
No doubt many of these failures occurred because the
businesses were mismanaged, the ideas poor, the products not
innovative, the founders uncommitted.
Many, but not all.
In some admittedly small percentage of these
failures, the businesses did everything right.
They hired the best people, and these people worked
round-the-clock hours, and yet the businesses still failed.
Silicon Valley is full of brainiacs and venture
capitalist firms, and not all these startups succeed.
It's easy to look at the David Mamets, the
George Clooneys, the Oracles, the Microsofts, the goggles,
and the Paypals and see what they all had in common, and
then soundly conclude that undying commitment alone, without
a Plan B to recline on, brings about great success.
And yes, undying commitment is a requirement
of great success.
It just doesn't guarantee it.
History is written only about the winners.
We never hear about the losers who practiced similar
philosophies and never achieved any lasting success.
If you wanted to be certain of finishing a
project, you set yourself benchmarks and deadlines.
Without those, you've got no gauge of whether you're
Should you declare, "I am going to lose weight," without
declaring how much weight you want to lose and the date by
which you want it lost, how can you ever say you've reached
Even if you do manage to lose a few pounds, you still can't
comment you're successful.
The achievement of losing five pounds can be a
success or a failure depending upon how it's measured.
Five pounds lost in a month when your total weight
loss goal is six pounds is excellent.
Five pounds lost over a year when your weight loss
goal is thirty pounds is terrible.
In the 1960's television series That
Girl, Marlo Thomas played an aspiring actress named Ann
continued to aspire for 5 seasons and never got
significantly closer to making it before the show was canned
in 1971. Should
Ann have had a Plan B or was devising something to fall back
on her way of "invariably falling back on it," as Mamet
would say? I
think, like any goal, Ann would've needed a way to measure
if she were making progress on an acting career, her Plan A.
After one year, she could've set her sights on an
off-Broadway play; after two years, a Broadway role; four
years, a movie or TV series.
Even if she met none of those goals, just shooting
for them anyway she might find after four years she was
making a decent living as a working actress, her goal in the
Why, at any point in the agreed upon length of the
Plan of four or five years, should she have a Plan B?
But if the Plan A has run its course and
no progress is made, you're darned right I think there
should be a Plan B.
Not to fall back on, but which to move on.
Not all the ideas we come up with are good ones.
There comes a time when, if the ideas don't pan out,
they must be abandoned, and new direction taken.
Successful startups change direction regularly,
metamorphosizing into companies very different from the ones
that were founded.
It's how they survive.
In other words, I believe you should only
be committed to one real plan at a time and give it your all
while the plan activity period is active.
The backup plans you create during this period aren't
so much complete directional changes a Plan B would warrant,
but alternative ways to get your goals in Plan A achieved.
These backup plans would be better called Plan A2,
Plan A3, etc than a Plan B.
For years, I was at odds how to reconcile
these two opposing viewpoints.
Everyone knows the old saying
"Winners never quit and quitters never win."
On the one hand, you can't achieve great things
without concerted effort and dedication and commitment.
On the other hand, if you continue to fail while
putting forth the best of your effort, dedication, and
commitment, and then become amenable to tossing out your
Plan A for a Plan B, are you admitting that you had a lack
of wherewithal all along?
Plan B's have their rightful place, and
that's at the end of the lifespan of a failed Plan A.
Most winners have failed -- A LOT -- before they can
legitimately call themselves winners.
It's true enough that quitters never win.
They never quit making plans.