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.

Beware the zero-sum worldview

Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.
                                                                Steven Pinker

A little more than a year ago I wrote a short post about viewing life as transformative as opposed to transactional. Those who embrace transformation use experience and social interaction to build something new. Transactional personalities focus on maintaining the present.

I came across this contrast in terms of personal worldview and the potential for self-improvement. Its main context is business, with the idea that traditional leadership is transactional while new, better leadership is transformative. However, since that original post I’ve come to see these two ways of interacting with the larger world as important. Not because I think it divides people into good or bad; instead, it helps show the difference between static and dynamic personalities.

If you think of a transactional individual as viewing social life in the way an accountant views her ledger, all movement and apparent growth is an illusion. Give money to a friend, and they must always pay it back. Suffer an insult or damage, it must be compensated for by the other party. In the end, it all zeros out.

This leads to my main point: the biggest and most negative creation of a petty or tit-for-tat worldview is revenge.

Revenge (n.) – Any form of personal retaliatory action against an individual, institution, or group for some perceived harm or injustice. (source)

Revenge is a counter. If it isn’t in response to some prior wrong, it’s aggression. Historically, and persisting in some societies, blood feuds are an endless series of retaliations. One family or clan suffers an initial wrong, and a long line of kin suffer the reverberating consequences. In these feuds, there is no zeroing out. The ledger can never be perfectly balanced, because those killed and injured have a value that can never be fully replaced or countered.

The split between transformation and transaction may inform policy debates like capital punishment. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is one of the oldest written legal codes, and it sees the ultimate justice as being a retaliation. Though this appeals to many, some view great crimes as a chance to grow and change. To learn empathy and love for our enemies is to transform ourselves and the world. There is no learning in revenge, it is a base, short-term solution to a problem that may persist long after the crime committed, the sentence paid.