Rant/Ramble of the Day: Thoughts on Plan B (not that kind)

Warning: too long and mostly un-edited.

After reading this post (read it, especially if you’ve every wondered why not to get a PhD), and then this one (also read it), something very particular stuck out to me:

You didn’t have a Plan B and that was stupid. What did you think would happen?

This strikes me an intellectually dishonest on the part of the people asking this question. Our society rewards drive, single-minded pursuit, having one over-arching mission of life (or at least appears to reward, in such a way as to discourage individuals from having many different goals and interests). The heroes in our society are the ones who(se narratives suggest they) dedicated their lives to achieving one great thing. Martin Luther King. Steve Jobs. Amelia Earhart. We don’t have any renaissance men or women anymore, not really. If we do, we have Noam Chomsky, and even he’s more of a two-trick pony. It is both impossible and dispreferred, in this day and age, to excel in multiple fields. No longer can a single public intellectual (or private intellectual, or academic) write and speak with authority and respectability in disciplines ranging from ethics to economics to ecology.

Partly, this is thanks (or not) to the general increase in knowledge that we as a species have accrued, especially in the centuries following the democratization of the written word and other technological progressions. It is much harder to know a lot (or enough) about a lot of things, especially when there is so much more to know about each of those things. As both breadth and depth of collective knowledge increase, achieving a sufficient amount of either becomes more and more difficult. But having a Plan B kind of depends on having enough knowledge (depth) in enough topics (breadth) to be able to execute an alternative strategy when your first one fails. And the inevitable outcome of this kind of widening of one’s scope as a contingency plan is that you will automatically be less knowledgeable about your Plan A, because precious moments you could have been using to bolster your Plan A skills have now been requisitioned by preparing for Plan B eventualities. As soon as you have even the rumblings of a Plan B in your mind, there will always be someone (or many someones) who have achieved a greater depth of mastery, albeit with less breadth, in your same Plan A. You thus sacrifice any advantage you may have had to them, and you are more and more likely to need your Plan B — all the while, your Plan B is someone else’s Plan A, and you are again already at a disadvantage for success in this area.

I’m not faulting people who are single-minded in their pursuit of one, lifelong goal. More power to them — I often wish I had this. I never have had an answer to those obnoxious questions like “what do you want to do/be when you grow up” and “where do you see yourself in five years” and even “what do you do”, since I’m always doing a million different things. Maybe if I were more single-goal-oriented, I would have more to show for my years of adulting than eight half-baked back-up plans and no future. But I don’t think I should have to be single-goal-oriented. I believe those of us who have a reasonable amount of breadth and depth should be just as valued as individuals who are lucky enough to have found “their true calling” and been able to pursue it. (Realistically, this is very few people indeed. And they all make me angry.)

Society, though, forces us into these mono-directional paths, even if they’re ultimately only beneficial or viable for a small subset of people. From the time we’re kids, and they tell us we can be anything we want (but never all the things we want); the compulsion to choose a major and by default, a career, before our brains have even finished developing, and woe unto us if we want to change our career paths anytime after, say, age 24; the ever-shortening tag-line we are pigeon-holed into describing ourselves with on the social media platforms that now dominate our personal and professional landscapes. There’s no drop-down on LinkedIn for “multiple industries” or “really good at lots of different things” or “let me explain why my life’s experience isn’t incoherent”. This is trite, but the fact that I feel compelled to have separate Instagram accounts for drinking wine, baking bread, skiing, and eating food is just a symptom of this phenomenon we’re suffering through in which having multiple interests can never be “on-brand”. Woe unto the LinkedIn job searcher who has all of her experience listed, because someone looking for a Data Analyst definitely doesn’t want a Writer, and vice versa.

They tell you to be well-rounded to get into college, yet somehow we should have hewed ourselves into sharp points and left our auxiliary, non-lucrative interests by the door by the time graduation rolls around. Back-up plans are for people who are doomed to failure. If we are focused enough, and try hard enough, and check all the boxes and follow all the rules, then we will succeed, economic and job market realities be damned. Because as soon as you admit a back-up plan, or as soon as you have a back-up plan, you are not dedicated enough. You must not really want “it”, because then you wouldn’t have made a back-up plan. What happened to “always be prepared” or whatever the Boy Scouts say?

No one, ever, has asked, “what’s your back-up plan?” and expected an answer other than something along the lines of “move to Costa Rica and open a hostel”, a fake-ass, unrealistic answer (for most people) if there ever was one. But that’s the kind of back-up plan it’s okay to have, the kind that really won’t come to pass anyway. Chances are, you can have this back-up plan safely because you probably haven’t actually started writing the business plan for your hostel in Costa Rica. You should never have a back-up plan that’s like, “well, I’m a linguist, but those jobs are few and far between, so I’m also looking for writing/marketing/PR/advertising jobs because experience”. Because that makes you seem less dedicated, and therefore like a bad linguist and a bad writer simultaneously. Because if only you were good enough and did more things better then you wouldn’t need a back-up. Right?

And god forbid you have experience or interests that aren’t relevant. No one ever asks “what skills do you have that you’re proud of but aren’t applicable for this job?”. I wish they would, because I have lots of interesting things to say. Once in an interview I was asked what I would do if I could do anything. That was probably my favorite question of all time, because it was the only time our career-driven job-search environment has shown cracks. It was the one time someone remembered to stop pretending that we’re basically just robots who have an impeccably curated set of skills — no more, no less — for this one particular track. The one time someone remembered to stop pretending that being a junior widget designer and coffee fetcher was literally everyone’s life goal.

Sometimes, we’re applying for a job because we need a job and it sounds interesting and like something we can do reasonably well. We also think other things sound interesting, and we can also probably do those reasonably well. Since when did that become not enough? We, as a society, always privilege specialists over generalists, and it’s pretty fucking annoying. And as Ms. Bartram’s experience shows, we probably won’t even hire the specialists anyway — so why even bother specializing? What’s the point of any of this?

As someone who always has a Plan B — and Plan C, and a Plan D — , I would like to not be punished for not being a specialist. (And I’m kind of a specialist in some things, so imagine if I were even less of that, how annoyed I’d be.) I would like for someone other than my parents to recognize:
(a) that having many skills and knowledges and experiences is beneficial and makes me a more interesting person (I think),
(b) that I don’t suck at Plan A just because I have a Plan B, etc.,
(c) that their assumption that having a Plan B means I am not dedicated to Plan A is completely fallacious (and they are a cog in a disintegrating social order),
(d) that not everyone is single-minded, and that’s okay. It’s better this way.