Balancing between planned and spontaenous

There are two ways of thinking about success in life, which I will explain using a historical example.

One could say that Apollo 11 was the pinnacle of America’s space program. It did something nobody had done before and was previously thought impossible. It also succeeded. It did exactly what the plan said it should do.

Yet there is a second camp, which includes me, which thinks Apollo 13 was the apex of the space program. I say this because it was an example of ingenuity and improvisation, mixed with good prior consideration of potential problems. It is one thing to take a bunch of very specialized components and do exactly what they were made to do. With Apollo, success was certainly the most likely option, especially over any particular failure. What the odyssey of 13 showed was these same components can be repurposed to do something completely different.

In life, all actions and results fall in a continuum between planned and improvised. We often have very specific life plans laid out, with both small and large decisions made well ahead of time. Of course, life plans of any time span and complexity rarely work out, because we cannot predict the actions of others, nor of the universe in general.

There exist people at the far end of the continuum for planning. They fear change and uncertainty, and want to gain control. Others may choose pure improvisation, never committing to any particular course of action until the moment arrives. You probably occupy the middle ground.

Both planning and improvisation are useful, but also incomplete. The disparity is more likely to create conflict in social relationships than synthesis. It is important to acknowledge reality. No matter what we do, our lives will still be over 95% improv, as even minor details like conversation are unpredictable. But the 5%ish that is planned helps anchor us and makes the improv meaningful. In Apollo 13, the detailed plan had to be thrown out, but simulations and worst-case-scenario analysis helped keep the situation from spiraling out of control. This backbone saved the astronauts, but the rigid thinking built by a purpose-built system also nearly killed them.

The Taoist concept of wu wei may seem to fit mostly with spontaneity, but it can encompass both ends of the spectrum. The “non-doing” aspect is also balanced with actions that are natural and not forced. Not all good plans fit the natural flow of things (The iconic quote by George Bernard Shaw:”The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”), but the natural flow should be duly considered. We seek to avoid conflict, but struggle is necessary, and often just. We are forever dynamic within this continuum, seeking both control and realizing it is often an illusion at the time.

Trump and the Luxury of Failure

As expected, even a small sliver of Donald Trump’s tax returns proved to be interesting and infuriating. The rise and fall and rise (and fall, and rise) of Trump serves as a primer on success and failure in America.

The business fortunes of Trump have oscillated from runaway success to total disaster multiple times. However, the situation gravitates towards money- his fortunes are rooted in the money and connections he inherited. Thus, even when his net worth was well below zero, he could act in a way that most broke Americans could never. Failure as a celebrity real estate mogul seems to resemble deferred success. And as his tax returns show, massive loss can be turned into gain. Never mind that most American carry around debt for years, if not their whole lives.

But the ability to fail is in itself a privilege. Many Americans fail once financially, and never return to a place where it could happen again. Hardship is not a short, confined phase in a larger journey, but rather becomes built into the structure of life.

Yet seeing the continuous wave of protests against police violence in cities, it becomes clear that whole population can never fail, for the system has not and will not let them succeed. There is no money for food, childcare, the same benefits that well-off children and their families have. The school system is dysfunctional and higher education is both remote and expensive. Deindustrialization, trade pacts, and outsourcing have stripped communities of decent work with benefits. Reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted a few weeks back, his case studies lacked the money to both pay rent and do anything else. Kids attended a dozen different schools, grew up more often in the streets than in the home. Hardship was passed down generation to generation.

In America, only the wealthy can succeed and fail like Donald Trump has.