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.

Chalk dreams

Written on rough
concrete, begging for
groaning with the stress
of elder trees whose roots
have been growing since
the sidewalk was merely a
distant blueprint

each letter takes form,
the energy drains into
slate-colored tiles

the off-white substance,
once as long as an old man’s
weathered hands
grows smaller and humbler
until there is nothing left

but dreams and aspirations
waiting for the infrequent rainstorm
to wash it all away

One person can move mountains

It is clear that the work of one person can have great implications on a vast number of people. Often we think of this in the lens of power relations- “Great Men” who conquered, built, and live on in myth and legend.

Those are rare exceptions. Most people who do great change labor away in relative obscurity. They’re motivated on a more personal and local level- not to change the world as a whole but make a small part of it a little bit better.

India gives us a good example, with individuals or small groups building roads and tunnels from scratch in order to better connect them to the rest of the world. Despite government neglect these cases have rural people with basic tools literally shoving mountains aside to make the lives in their community easier.

The road built by Dashrath Manjhi.

The most famous case is Dashrath Manjhi, who spent 22 years chiseling a path through a hill, over three hundred feet in length. Due to the long and difficult travel to the nearest hospital, his wife died enroute, and he began a constant effort to make sure such a thing never happened again. He finished in 1982.

Ramchandra Das
Ramchandra Das

He’s far from the only case; Ramchandra Das was inspired by Manjhi’s work and completed his own one-man tunneling effort in 2009. His work was prompted by an interaction with Manjhi himself:

I pleaded with Manjhi to cut the hill that isolated my village. He chastised me and told me to be a man and cut the mountain. I followed his order.” (source)

They are part of a series of unofficial civilian-built roads and tunnels.

This isn’t to say that the developing world should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and fix their problems themselves. Hell no. But it’s amazing to see what dedicated people can do, and how we can learn from their example. People like Manjhi and Das challenge us to examine our problems and figure out innovative ways to solve them ourselves.

Archimedes was right. Give someone a place to stand, and they can move the Earth.

Uninspiring inspiration

Over the past few weeks I’ve made an effort to sync up with the WordPress poetry community. I’ve started submitting poems for blog that showcase creative work. I’ve started following poets that like my work to study their forms and as a matter of courtesy. Each night I look through the (huge) feed of all WordPress poetry and comment on a couple specimens.

What I’ve run into is a split- blogs that showcase original work (that is, by the person that runs the blog, or with their consent) and “inspiration” blogs that showcase images, quotes, and poems not of their own creation.

Now, positive thinking, inspiration (of generic and Christian flavors), and self-help are not new. In fact, the post-war United States has become in some sectors dominated by an industry and media empire dedicated to getting people amped up and ready to tackle the world. The fact that it has persisted indicates that people use such writings as a kind of well. You go out, get discouraged, than come back.

Tom Lehrer sarcastically called early positive thinking guru Norman Vincent Peale a “great philosopher.” I find all these books, tapes, television shows, and wall calendars thoroughly uninspiring. Perhaps not the scam that affiliate marketing and reverse mortgages are, but just…vapid. Inspiration came to great individuals because of long contemplation and historical context. Buddha did not become enlightened when he felt like it- it took many years, experiences, and evolutions to become the near-legendary teacher we still remember two and a half millennia later. When a great orator like Eugene V. Debs gave his spine-tingling statement to the courtroom that sent him to prison, it is given power by the context. Why was he sentenced? For speaking against American involvement in World War I. Why did the United States care? Why was he willing to go to prison? I feel empowered to change the world through in-depth knowledge, not a post of a sunset with a quote by an author that shows up on my Facebook feed.

I don’t want to denigrate the inspiration industry, or those that find it useful, but it just seems to be…tired. There are only so many quotes that energize people without context. Only so many beautiful sunsets before it all blurs a bit. Selling inspiration as a commodity just seems…uninspired.