I’ve spent my life being a planner.
That’s actually my professional job title and has been for over 25 years: strategic planner, brand planner, account planner. I’m good at it. I relish seeing any number of possible jumping-off points from where we—an organization, a brand, a product, a team—are. And where we might head.
I learned contingency planning from my family. To a fault, we hold onto multiple possibilities and paths into the 11th hour, and then some. So, it doesn’t bother me in the least to consider varying options, even those that conflict.
I gleefully analyze right and left-brained “data” to help decipher which direction makes the most sense. I listen to the facts and I listen to my intuition. Once I’ve taken all that into account, I act. I am decisive. I choose a path and then diligently work to execute a clear plan of action.
With that background, one might assume then that I always have a plan. Or at least some semblance of a plan. But I don’t. Okay, maybe I do, but it doesn’t look anything like the ones I’ve entertained in the past. Since I voluntarily scaled back my desk job six months ago, I’ve lived with far more open switches and loose ends than ever before. I no longer have a specific destination to head toward. And no timetable under which to get “there.”
Before jumping into the “semi-retirement” abyss, I daydreamed a lot—imagining it was going to be the best thing ever. Not to have to get on a plane nearly every week or attend countless back-to-back meetings. No longer chained to my desk, hunched over a keyboard 10 hours a day. Ah, freedom! To come and go as I please. Do what I want, when I want. This is most people’s definition of freedom. To be able to choose our “want-to-dos” and get rid of some of our “have-to-dos.”
Don’t get me wrong, on most days, my situation is a dream. Still, sometimes it feels like a nightmare. Until recently, one I think a lot of people couldn’t relate to.
But, in our new shared coronavirus reality, everyone’s plans have been dashed. Structure has been upended. Many routines rendered invalid. All by necessity. If you’re a planner type like me, based on my own experience tiptoeing into a world without plans, it’s going to feel entirely unsettling.
Let me digress for a moment. Long ago, when I was taking flying lessons, one of the licensing requirements was to make a solo “cross-country” flight of a minimum distance with at least two landing stops away from your home base airport. I was flying alone, in my slow, small two-seater high-wing plane, going from my first landing airport to my second.
And I got way off course. So far off course that I was lost.
This was in the days before GPS. Yes, there were some navigational instruments I had been taught to use, and the paper chart (map) on my lap. But I was terrified. My body was red-hot. Sweat poured down behind my sunglasses into my eyes. Everything was blurry—my vision and my thinking. I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that the elevator had dropped out from underneath me. My throat was constricted. My mouth, pasty and dry. My heart pounded out of my chest, deafening my ears. I could smell my own fear. It felt like I was going to die.
The one and only thing I could remember was an old aviation adage: “When all else fails, keep flying the airplane.”
So, by survivalist instinct, I did. I kept flying. I slowly, just barely, got ahold of myself. Enough to notice I was breathing. My respiration was rapid-fire and shallow, but it was there. The plane was fine. I was not going to crash. I still didn’t know where I was, but the earth hadn’t stopped spinning. The sun was still shining.
Jeezus, I was a complete f*ckin’ rookie. I was piloting within my flying capabilities, but my mental processing was severely diminished, and any in-flight problem-solving abilities were minuscule. I did the one and only thing I knew how to at the time—I looked for a sign. Not a sign from the universe. A real sign. I lowered my altitude (within regulations) enough to read the letters on a water tower. (Most water towers in rural Wisconsin have a city’s or town’s name on them.) The most reptilian, rudimentary response was my redemption. Hallelujah! I know where I am!
With that one bit of information, I could figure out how to appropriately course correct. I made it home. I safely landed, parked, and tied down the plane, then drove home. My hands were still shaking. I swore I would never fly again. Ever.
In the days that followed, my instructor called to check up on me. I didn’t return his calls. My brother, who is also a private pilot, inquired. I told him what happened. He gently said, “Did you really expect that you would know where you were 100 percent of the time? When I fly, I only know exactly where I am about every 15 minutes or so.” (Remember, this was before GPS.)
WTF? For real? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that?
Today, of course, we have GPS, and we know where we are virtually 100 percent of the time when we’re driving or flying. I did eventually go on to earn my pilot’s license, but my brother’s words of wisdom have stuck with me. Sometimes in life, there is no GPS.
Worldwide, right now, we are all struggling to wing it. We don’t know what the future holds. We cling to what used to be, what plans we had. We resist how unsettling uncertainty feels. But here’s the thing—potentially the best part about winging it is never having a planned end to your journey. It’s true that COVID-19 will regrettably bring an end to many people’s lives. That is beyond tragic. And we need to do everything we can to flatten the curve.
For those who remain, we can also take this time to accept—maybe even embrace—the unknown. Societally, we’ve all become so caught up in plans and schedules that we may have forgotten how to be spontaneous. Let’s use this time to try things new things. To slow down.
Let’s appreciate the fragility of life, be cognizant of where we’re at, and appreciate what’s most precious—our health, our love for each other, kindness, and compassion. Even while keeping our social distance, we can and need to stay connected with our families, friends, and neighbors. Our seemingly huge world is just a small spinning rock in space, and our fates on it are shared and completely intertwined.
Pema Chödron says, “Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.” There’s no question that leaning into the unknown isn’t comfortable. But sometimes, the best things in life aren’t planned.
Right now, each of us needs to wing it the best we know how—for ourselves, our families, our communities, and the world at large. We are one. We are not alone. We are winging it together. We’re not always going to know where we are. But if we stay calm and pull together, we can get there.
Wherever that ends up being.