The Things You Plan For (and the Things You Don’t)

House Bridge Collapse     You can pretty much plan for every contingency, right? Dream on! Murphy, the gent who wrote his famous law, is alive and well, thriving in the overlooked details of our best intentions.

I’ll bet the guy who planned to move this building down a rural highway made all the right plans — almost. He made sure the building was secure on its trailer. He checked the tire pressure. He made sure the tow vehicle was operating properly. He probably had the pilot cars in front and behind to warn motorists he was coming. He took care of practically everything! But one important detail he assumed would not be a problem turned out to be a REALLY huge one.

Unanticipated problems often surface despite our best efforts. I have a good friend who spent years in the direct mail business. She told me once that they had a client in Hawaii for whom they were doing a direct mail piece — tens of thousands of brochures bearing the company’s address. Only thing was, the company was on the Kalanianaole Highway. Not wanting to mess up such a complex name, the team proofread the address a dozen times to make certain they spelled “Kalanianaole” properly. Finally satisfied, they sent the piece to press. Only after the final brochure came back did someone notice that, while they had indeed spelled “Kalanianaole” correctly, they had misspelled “Highway.” The whole order had to be reprinted.

One of the keys to good planning is not to do it all by yourself. I can think back on several examples in my career where I thought I was taking care of all the elements of a project solo, only to overlook one or two really obvious, really important details — like ordering 2,000 sales folders for my radio station and finding out I had specified the wrong colors. (Teal green and magenta came out as baby blue and bubble gum pink — yuck.) Or the time as a junior officer in the Navy when I took custody of 20 copies of an important document that I was supposed to relay immediately to another ship, only to forget and leave them behind my desk — where we found them three days later after we had sailed away. (The admiral was not amused.) Or the time…well, you get the idea.

The wonderful Old Testament book of Proverbs says a lot about this — for example, “The way of fools seems right to them, but the righteous listen to advice.” Ouch! So Rule #1 is to surround yourself with good people and don’t make plans in a vacuum. Rule #2 is to control what we can control. Do your best to plan for every reasonable contingency. But try your best not to obsess unnecessarily — because remember Rule #3: Murphy was right.

Are You Staring At Your Ski Tips?

fallen-skier           I used to ski — snow ski, that is. I learned the basics of good old downhill skiing in 9th grade on the mushy slopes of Snoqualmie Summit, riding the ski bus once a week from the Washington Athletic Club. Back in those days (DANGER: NOSTALGIA ALERT!) we used to have to start tying our ski boots at about North Bend because it took so long. Yes, I said “tying.” Boots came with laces: only experienced, moneyed skiers had boots with buckles. Our skis had cable bindings, too, for that matter…but I digress.

Yes, I used to ski, and although I stopped skiing decades ago there is one lesson that our instructor (I think his name was Thor) kept drumming into us: don’t focus on the tips of your skis! As beginners that’s precisely what we tended to do. We would traverse the slope as far as we good, then make a clumsy, panicky turn and traverse back the other direction, all the while with our eyes riveted to the tips of our skis, as if that would somehow keep us vertical. As we started to gain a bit of momentum, still staring at those ski tips, we would invariably run smack into the side of a mogul and go tumbling, often popping our cable bindings in the process.

So Thor kept reminding us: don’t stare at the tips of your skis! Instead focus your attention down the slope. Not only does it help you point your weight in the right direction — it also helps you see those moguls coming up well ahead of time, so you can actually maneuver to avoid them. This was a revelation! Not only could we anticipate obstacles, we could — amazing, but true! — keep from running into them! By staring fixedly and fearfully at our ski tips we only ensured that, by the time we saw the mogul, we were milliseconds from running into it — too late to react. Looking down the slope felt counterintuitive at first, but it proved to be essential to generating any sort of rhythm on the way down the mountain. Once I had the nerve to try it, prying my eyes from those ski tips and gazing at the slope ahead, I finally started learning how to ski. (Not great, you understand, but much, much better.)

The metaphor for us seems clear. If we try to plow through our day staring at the tips of our proverbial skis, then all we ever seem to do is to react. The obstacle (a task, a deadline, a project, a problem) looms suddenly before us, completely unexpected, and our response is clumsy, awkward, unfruitful, maybe even disastrous. But as we start to lift our eyes and learn to gaze ahead down the slope, we begin to see those hazards coming. We become proactive — we anticipate. And as a result, we handle the problems better. We develop some satisfying rhythm, even some grace. And we don’t fall down quite so much!

Does every problem seem to knock you down, sprawling in the snow? Maybe you need to listen to Thor: “Stop looking at the tips of your skis!”