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  • Writer's pictureAnton Zemlyanoy

Beyond planning: what if making plans limits our careers?

(Spoiler: yes it does, and while limits have benefits, like channelling energy into a direction, they also come at a cost).



 


Inspired by stories of enriching sabbaticals and other unplanned discoveries(1), I wake up today thinking, what if I experiment with not planning my career with my usual rigour?


Up until now, I have been more inclined to plan, to take a proactive stance in shaping my life, so this question elicits signs of discomfort right through my body. In my first career as a fashion & portrait photographer (with clients like GQ, Elle & Chanel among others), I learned that if a shoot is not planned, the chances of reaching quality results are reduced. At the same time, I also learned that leaving room for experiments can take the whole shoot into unchartered exciting territories that have not been pre-envisioned, leading to profound results. But that's in commercial arts. Could this be also applicable to careers?



Actor Danila Kozlovsky photographed for GQ
Actor Danila Kozlovsky for GQ

A new set of questions.


Discomfort notwithstanding, a new set of questions arose today:


What do we potentially miss out on when we plan?
What can we notice when our weeks are not dedicated to acting according to pre-set plans?
And what is planning in the first place?

At this point, some distinctions are being called to be made. Distinctions between dreaming, having aspirations, setting intentions, setting specific/general goals, creating a plan to achieve them and planning a life in general. But I will hold these distinctions aside and return to the main point.


What if this year I plan some events (like a family holiday with people on different continents) and not plan my career? A somewhat unsettling thought, but my mind is at least ready to entertain it.


There are many additional inspirations for this thought to emerge now, but here is one from my kids: I think back to watching my two young sons learn how to walk: we "helped" the oldest one by holding his hands when he tried to take his first steps. With our second, we didn’t provide this physical support (having two young kids probably kept us too busy from jumping in to "help") and…. voilà - he wonderfully learned how to walk, fall, and recover, all by himself, without officially planning this to be a goal of the year.


So I was reminded: we are natural learners. Naturally curious, inquisitive, wanting to improve or to master a skill.

So, inspired by kids through whom it is easy to witness nature, I ask myself:


What if I trust this kind of nature within me to guide me to what is needed professionally?".
What if planning may actually get in the way of something important I am not able to yet see, and therefore, include in my plans?

Illustration of how plan may stop us from noticing opportunities outside


Unchartered territories


Another reason this thought is uncomfortable is because as I coach, I always ask my clients "What's the ideal outcome of us working together?" And only after answering this question, after making sure that the motivation is genuine, we start talking about plans to get there. So not asking this myself would mean travelling into a very unchartered territory, in contrast to my approach as a coach.


One thing I learned from adult development is that as we develop our minds, we grow our ability to hold ideas that seem like polarities, or opposites, without taking only one side or without our picture of the world collapsing(3). So this could be a good candidate to expand my mind.


I am 39 years old as I write this. Dedicating a year to this experiment surely will NOT make such a dent in my career. Right? To test the concept of not planning and to see what happens. Not as an act of apathy, but as an experiment filled with curiosity and creative tension(2). Will I gain more from this year than I will lose? Will my project stagnate without my "planning help"? Will it actually do better off? Or will something else come up that I can't even think of yet, as it is outside my awareness?


Or is it the question of timing?

To plan your garden at the right season, to put in the planting work and only then let go and trust nature to do the rest of the job? Have I planted enough and I am about to enter a season of stepping back and letting the seeds grow while I water the plants and get rid of the weeds?

And finally, doesn't all the above sound like some type of planning? Planning an experiment, planning not to plan - somewhat similar to the "20% time" at Google (4).


To add to the mix of possibilities, it could also be my prefrontal cortex adjusting work and life strategies as needed (5).


As is often the case, I have more questions emerge rather than answers. And as with any experiment, time will bring some of those answers to light...


An update from 05 Feb 2024

Inspiration from writers

This is something I recalled after publishing this post... Some writers pre-develop storylines for their characters. On the opposite side to this approach is to allow the characters in your book to develop the story with you, sometimes even for you. Trusting that through paying attention to how THEY want to emerge, the story will have very genuine and unique twists that you, as an author, could not have pre-planned. I think this year is about letting a certain mindset/a sub-character in me emerge that only comes out when my head isn't busy ticking the boxes of pre-planned action steps. Like a surfer paying attention to where the waves are moving and where they invite him to go next for that ride.


This post is dedicated to my brother Serge.


 

Footnotes


  1. Award-winning designer Sagmeister, S. "The power of time off" on TED; my first-ever (and the only one) stand-up, where I learned that I can make people laugh even when my pre-planned jokes aren’t funny; plus other stories of close people in my life whose life took surprisingly positive turns when they relaxed their planning muscle.

  2. May, R. (1975). The courage to create.

  3. Anderson, R. & Adams W. (2016). Mastering Leadership. Also the work of Robert Kegan from Harvard on the theories of Adult Development https://www.gse.harvard.edu/directory/faculty/robert-kegan

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