From the age of 10, I had wanted to be a lawyer. I was going to university to study law, after which I would move to the US and would practise as an attorney in California. That was my life plan, and it was axiomatic. I chose high school courses which supported it. I wrote university application essays based on this tenet. I was offered positions at three universities to study law, and I got the exam results necessary to do so.
On the day that I received my A-Level results, aged 18, I had an epiphany. I asked myself why I wanted to be a lawyer, and had a hard time answering the question. When I really analysed what I felt was the most appealing aspect of the career path I'd been working towards, I realised that it was the opening credits of L.A Law. It was the idea that every argument I made would be shot through with glamour and a saxophone. I recall the very clear moment lying on my bed where it occurred to me that I'd based my life plan on the soundtrack to a TV show and a dramatic license plate.
I suppose it would have been easy enough to shrug, complete a law degree and go on to be a lawyer, but it didn’t feel right. I could equally have been very angry with my younger self for employing less-than-critical thinking.
Instead, I adapted.
I really liked my PlayStation, and had enjoyed teaching myself enough Visual Basic for Applications over the previous few months to automate an Excel spreadsheet. Five minutes after my realisation, I called up the university admissions office and requested a transfer from law to computer science, which was granted over the phone. I would not be a lawyer. I would instead complete my BSc and become a video game developer.
I didn't realise it at the time, but this decision was the start of a pattern that has since become apparent over the course of my adult life, to whit: no single significant plan I've ever made has ever turned out the way I thought it would.
Towards the end of my BSc, I realised I didn't want university to end, so instead of applying to junior developer roles at game studios, I undertook an MSc in Computer Science. A couple of months before the end of that program, I came home drunk at 2am one night and checked my email, where I found a message from a friend suggesting I look at a job teaching English in Japan. I duly composed a cover letter, attached my resumé and hit send. I woke up early the next afternoon with a hangover and an invitation to interview. Three months later I was living in Japan. I graduated in absentia.
I planned to live in Japan for a year, but stayed for two, and then following that planned to take a long, slow trip back through South East Asia to England, where I would find a job. Instead, I had a dream that I was at a party with all my Australian teacher friends, and bought a one-way ticket to Melbourne.
Two months later I arrived in Perth, having already changed the ticket, and then proceeded to backpack for a few months until I ran out of money. I took a job as a programmer in Brisbane expecting to earn enough in a few months to fly home. I stayed for nearly 5 years.
Now, clearly, growing up as a white, middle-class English boy, and as the only child in a household that was focussed on a university education, I had advantages that were significant and rare, probably even more so than I can comprehend. I do know that I have been extremely lucky.
But here is what I suspect is universal: Planning is a useful skill, but its efficacy is locally bounded. Planning too far into the future is not planning at all, it's prediction. And if supercomputers can't predict the weather in a week's time, how can you predict your future in a system as complex as the global society with its myriad irrational members?
Far more important than planning is adaptability. The ability to readjust to changes in the world (and in yourself) is significantly more beneficial than trying to know exactly what you are going to do in every circumstance. Adaptability will help you find a greater measure of happiness.
Slavish adherence to a plan brings pressure. When plans inevitably collide with a changing reality, being beholden to a set of self-imposed rules creates tension that is unnecessary.
Closely related: acceptance that many things are out of your control. Letting go, for me at least, has lead to serenity and serendipity.
I still make plans, but each one is a MacGuffin. They are horizons to move towards, to strive for, to seek. And like the horizon, each plan is not a fixed point, but an infinite range of points. They are in sight, but out of reach. I have arrived at a lot of interesting places trying to get to each one.
Worth stating for the record: Commitment is different from planning. I don't mind if plans change, but I try very hard not to break commitments. Whether something is a commitment or a plan is usually obvious from the degree to which others are relying on you.
Most recently, I planned to live in Vancouver with my girlfriend Emily. Along the way, we got sidetracked, married and settled in San Francisco where I'm a working as a software engineer. I made a commitment to Emily, but not to Vancouver. We plan to move to Germany in the future. I sometimes wonder how that will turn out, and am glad that I don't know.
So make plans. They help focus the mind, and give you a purpose and a destination.
Then adapt, and flourish.