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When do you bail out on your Plan A for a Plan B? David Mamet says never. George Clooney claims he never had a backup plan, but he didn't need one. He was already successful at a young age. Is having a Plan B weakening your efforts on succeeding on your primary plan?


 
Home / Success & Failure  /
Is Having A Plan B All It's Cracked Up To Be?
Plan B

How good and detailed should your Plan B be before it risks usurping your main plans?


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 mind.   If 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 first.  

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 seductive.  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 tempting.   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 strengthening attitude.    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 detail.   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 director. 

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 making progress.  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 your target?  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 Marie.  She 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 first place.   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.   And winners?  They never quit making plans. 


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