Just show up.
The most rewarding phases of my life have stemmed from this simple mantra.
I have a confession to make. I have never had a five-year plan. I’ve read GTD and the Action Method. I know all about the importance of setting goals and formulating an actionable plan to reach those goals. Plans, I know, can be highly effective; certainly they can be motivating. But sometimes a plan is an unnecessary detour. Sometimes a five year plan is just that — a plan. Sometimes you just have to show up.
In my experience, showing up has proven to be 100% more effective than planning from afar. Many of my friends have pretty serious life plans. Work in finance X years before running for office. Acquire X level of leadership and Y higher education degrees before launching a startup or non-profit in X sector. Get X degree, work on X political campaigns, join the White House Staff by age X.
I have no doubt my friends will be successful (love you guys!), but that sort of life-planning isn’t for me. I start to compare. I over-think it. I get distracted by what I think I should be doing in the future, rather than what I want to be doing, right now! That sort of planning leaves me feeling anxious, not productive.
I don’t think we have to micromanage the future if we can recognize the overall picture. IMO, we (Americans? Millenials?) tend to confuse plans with goals. We use plans as a crutch. They can be useful, sure, but they can also provide a false sense of security. It sounds good to have a plan. It sounds like we are getting things done, even though we are just talking about what needs to be done. Plans are easy to hide behind.
I’d rather follow a hunch. Scratch an itch. Go with my gut, and just show up. The best moves I have made in life so far have been a direct result of just showing up. That has always been more productive for me than any exercise in establishing a five+ year plan.
My non-planning has taken me from Cambridge to Paris, to Baltimore, to Paris, to New York, to San Francisco. I graduated college in 2008, just as the economy began to take a tumble for the worse. I had a vague, romantic notion about living in France and working in the art world. I didn’t speak a word of French but spent my senior year of college reading the great 19th-century French authors (in translation, the horrors!) and writing about French painters of the same century. My grand one-year-max plan was to snag a traveling fellowship, move to Paris, and spend a year researching artist studios and maisons littéraires — the live and work spaces of some of France’s greatest creatives.
It was a great plan, but I didn’t get the fellowship. I could have given up the idea, but I decided to go to France anyway and figure it out when I got there. I took a French class, limited my American friends to two California girls, and insisted on practicing broken French with anyone who would listen until someone would hire me. I got a job at a gallery a month into my French class and spent one of the best years of my life as an art dealer in Paris. Thankfully, no one ever told me it might not work out; I was either too naive or too confident to think failure was an option, so I just showed up and worked it out.
In 2009, I did have a plan, a six-year-one, to be exact. I left my petite chambre in France and returned home to the States for a PhD program. 2.5 years and 2 Masters degrees later, I quit my program. This was the single most important decision I’ve made in my professional life to date; I would still be a graduate student today had I not allowed myself to quit and step back from the path to academia. (I could write a whole blog post on the value of quitting.)
I quit not knowing entirely what I was looking for next, but I had a hunch the NYC startup scene was where I ought to be. I had grown bored with the gallery world but heard whisperings that something interesting in art and tech might be happening there. Would that mean working with creative coders? Digital marketing in museums? Working at an e-commerce for art startup? I didn’t know, but I wouldn’t know any better from reading blog posts. I packed my bags, sold some belongings, and moved to New York. I hit the pavement and lined up informational interviews, chatting with founders about what they were building and how they were building it. Most of them thought I was wildly over and under-qualified at once. (So you have two Masters degrees…in the humanities?) A month later, I expanded my search beyond art-related startups and found a great match with a small startup named Sonar. It is now defunct but was an incredibly formative experience.
Last month, after two years of the startup grind in New York, I packed two bags, put the rest of my belongings in storage, and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco. Maybe it’s a function of getting older, maybe it’s hearing constant chatter about goal-setting in the blogosphere and among my group of friends, maybe it’s having gone to my five-year reunion and seeing where in life my peers are, but this move was harder to make. For the first time, I felt like I needed “A Plan.” I thought about trying to get a job from New York — I built a funnel, tapped my NYC network for connections on the West Coast, but progress was slow-going. I plodded on in New York but felt myself wasting time. I didn’t want to keep telling people I would be moving to SF “soon.” I wanted to do it!
So I went back to the method that’s always worked best for me: I decided to just show up. No job, no apartment, just a few wonderful friends that would welcome me as I tried to make this place my new home.
I have now been in San Francisco for one month and five days, and it has been the smoothest transition of my life. Less than a week before I flew out to SF, I met a friend of a friend who was visiting NYC; we’re now roommates and I feel super lucky to have landed such a great place with such great people. (Given the rental crunch in SF, to have secured housing in <2 wks is a huge deal.) On my second day in town, I updated my LinkedIn profile to the SF Bay Area. On my third day here, a recruiter reached out. Several interviews and less than a month into my stay in SF, I accepted an offer. I start at LinkedIn next week and couldn’t be more excited about it.
On the face of it, it looks like everything has gone according to plan. But the truth is, I never really had one. Every move has felt like a move in the right direction, but the details have always been hazy; none of this would have happened if I hadn’t decided to just show up. I might still be in New York, planning to make the move once a job was lined up, or once housing was secured, or, or, or. Sometimes you just have to go for it and make your own serendipity.
Historically, that’s worked well for me. I’m not saying it will be easy. You’ll need direction, you’ll need a strong support network, you’ll need the financial means, the hustle, that heady cocktail of confidence, optimism, and naiveté to do it. Give yourself a time frame to test out the waters if you need to and rationalize a back up plan if that helps you get going. Take a beat to listen to your instinct— it’s there for a reason. Humor yourself and fancy yourself invincible; surround yourself with people who believe this to be true. When the time comes, accept the fact that you are not, and will probably have to take an odd job here or there to get yourself going. Appreciate the fact that no one has told you “you can’t” or asked if you are “sure.”
If you’ve got that, don’t wait. Don’t worry about outlining a plan. Sometimes the best you can do is show up without one.