Don’t worry this one won’t be about abortion. I was listening to an excellent podcast called The Hidden Brain recently and the subject was backup plans (episode 8). It is worth listening to, but I’ll save you some time and summarize. Basically the program discussed research that showed that people who have back up plans tend to not be as successful in their primary plan or “plan A”. I have written blogs posts in the past that look at the value of taking risk versus staying safe, and so this subject caught my brain’s attention. It seems to me that developing a backup plan is something that runs along the lines of playing it safe. Yet by playing safe we might end up more likely not getting what we really want in life. So what’s the right answer? Is there a right answer?
First I began to wonder, why do we do we develop a primary goal to begin with? The primary goal represents our own hopes and dreams and in theory represents what we really want out of life. A primary goal should also lead us to a feeling of security while also maximizing our happiness. At least that’s what we think. It makes sense that without a backup plan our only choice would to be put ourselves entirely into making this goal work, persevere and never give up. Having a plan B might make it difficult when things get hard. With any goal that is hard to reach there are setbacks, frustrations, moments of doubt. There is absolute value in being able to push through those times to reach one’s goal.
If our plan A is what will make us the happiest and the safest, why do we then come up with a plan B? I often council my students to have backup plans when applying for graduate school, like picking a few schools with perhaps lower standards so that if they don’t get in to their top choices they will still have a graduate program to get into. There is a lot about having a backup plan that seems prudent, and this, to me, is simply because we can’t know the future. We don’t know all the variables. A student with a 4.0 GPA may still not get into the graduate school of their choice, because it is unknown how many positions they will have open, whether they might opt for a student they know better because he/she came from their program, whether there aren’t other extracurricular experiences that might make one candidate more desirable than another than just GPA, or perhaps a student’s interests simply don’t match up with a professor who has a graduate student position available. Now if a student could afford to put their life on hold, and didn’t have to worry about money, it might be a worthwhile tactic to keep applying to the same school you want each year until you get in. The higher the risk of a primary goal, the more perseverance will likely pay off provided you actually have the skill. The reality is that seldom do we have the ability to always stick with something long enough when we are in need of resources to be able to survive. In addition to that an inability to understand all the variables that can lead us to success, we may also overestimate our own ability. As a professor I have certainly come across many of these students also. Having a backup plan is crucial when a primary plan is even less probably in achieving because the person has overestimated their own ability. Of course it could also be that my ability to estimate somebody else’s ability may be incorrect as well. Either way, I think there is an equal amount of positive arguments that could be made for having a backup plan.
I tried to think about whether I am person who makes backup plans or not. I think that, in general I do not, although I would say part of the reason for that is that I am not sure I have had very specific primary goals. I wanted to be a meteorologist and become a professor. I guess I added some specificity to that over time, but I never really said, I have to live in a big city, or in a particular area, I have always tried to be realistic beforehand in what the uncertainties are, and so even though I never had a backup plan, I never set my sights particularly high. Of course this one possible solution to living life by only having a plan A, and that is to make sure plan A isn’t really that hard to achieve. This could also be seen to be a questionable strategy as having lowered expectations can also have its pitfalls and is something I would like to follow this post discussing in greater detail.
One study that was discussed in the podcast was one that found that students whose parents paid for their tuition did on average worse than students whose money came from other sources such as student loans or their own pockets. This study concluded that the reason was simply that students whose parents paid for tuition weren’t as driven because they had nothing to lose, and the security of their parents in case school didn’t work out. As a college professor I have certainly seen this ring through. While there are some students who work so much to put themselves through school and thus as a result end up doing poorly because they have too little time to study, in general the students who perform better are ones who either pay for tuition themselves or who take loans out and know they will have to pay it back. However I was one of those students whose parents paid my tuition. My family was not wealthy and while the cost of tuition in Canada compared to the U.S. was less and I lived at home, my parents had put a little money away each month since my birth and that came to enough to put me through 4 years of college. Unlike the results of the study, I did fairly well at school, I felt the exact opposite of a lackadaisical attitude precisely because my parents were putting my through college. It was not my money I was using. I don’t really want to waste my own money either, but in the end it’s my money and I can live with it if I end up wasting some, but to waste somebody else’s hard earned money that they put away and did without many of the creature comforts themselves to give me brighter future…well this increased my sense of responsibility to do well in school. I suppose I did have the security of staying at home until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I really had no backup plan but being a meteorologist and then eventually becoming a professor. Regardless it doesn’t seem like in all cases having a safety net is necessarily counter to achieving what we want in life. When I look at my own life, I know my parents taught me the value of money, even if it wasn’t my own, and more importantly I loved and respected them and would never want to disappoint them by doing poorly in school and throwing away their money. Maybe it’s because I knew that they didn’t have much money to spare that made me respect the fact that they were paying my tuition more.
I am not sure I can conclude anything concrete from all this as I am still in the exploration phase of this idea, but it seems to me that in the end maybe whether we have just a plan A, or both a plan A and plan B isn’t the most important thing. Maybe what matters most are the values we are raised with. One can still achieve a plan A, even with a plan B provided we recognize that plan A simply doesn’t get achieved without putting our full effort forward. Maybe our default to a plan B is simply because we really didn’t want plan A enough. I know plenty of students whose plan A was given to them by their parents and has very little to do with their own plans for themselves.
Are you the type of person who makes a plan B or do you usually just make a plan A? I am interested in learning how your plans have worked out, so please feel free to leave a comment.