The backup plan

Kanisa George -
Kanisa George -

Kanisa George

HAVING A dream and the testicular fortitude to go after it is not only a desirable quality, but a rare force characterised by an overwhelming air of gumption.

We are repeatedly encouraged to go after our dreams and, in response, we strategically alter our reality to reflect what we want to accomplish. As much as we laud the idea of reaching the pinnacle of our desires, dreams are funny business. Dreams can be a mercurial, fickle, untameable beast that erodes our expectations and tramples our plans for our future.

When our future lives hinge on the realisation of our dreams, we can sometimes stand to lose far more than we'd hoped if our dreams don’t come to pass.

Following the "keep your eyes on the prize" maxim, only to be faced with the harsh reality of not claiming the fruit, may result in the proverbial fish-out-of-water scenario that can throw one for a loop.

It's not that our dreams were too big or unattainable; sometimes life and all its exigencies may position you on a path away from the one you intended to traverse.

Strip away the fear, mistakes and all the other factors that fight tooth and nail against our dreams. When we get to the nub of things, some aspirations unfortunately remain in the realm of our desires.

In a perfect world, our dreams dance like a million fireflies in our realities, and the line that separates us from them is a non-existent figment of our imagination. But in an invariably unpredictable world where what we can achieve and how far we can go to achieve them are tainted by the unexpected, should we place all our bets on the dreams that spark within us and an other-worldly incandescent light, or should we adopt a more practical approach and place some of our stakes on a backup plan?

Should our dreams fail to come to light, is the backup plan our most faithful ally?

Depending on who's using it, a backup plan might be a game plan directed at achieving the same goal, only using a different medium. As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome, and even if the road you're on might be closed, a backup plan can act as a detour to get you to where you need to be.

Occasionally, an entirely new plan might be required, and having a backup plan in the woodwork that takes you on a new journey, bound for a new dream altogether, can help you still accomplish an overall fulfilling life.

For some, successfully taking life by the horns turns on how well you handle plan B. It's all about adaptability. When a well thought-out plan is fixed in place as a contingency, rather than the knee-jerk reaction of running around trying to decode unsuccessful situations, the odds of quickly getting back on track might be in our favour. Maybe the thing that sets us apart when failure makes its acquaintance is how we cope with plan B rather than how we manage plan A.

Those of us who wholeheartedly believe in the value of our dreams might be tempted to think that any thought of a backup plan might impact the vigour and potency of our dream's worth. The mere fact that we have a safety net to guard against potentially devastating outcomes might lessen the value of our dreams, and we may approach them in a desultory manner. One must question whether a backup plan undermines performance.

The results of a study by Jihae Shin and her co-author, Katherine Milkman, published in the Harvard Business Review, highlighted the very real impact of a backup plan on one's primary goal. It showed that when achieving a goal requires work, not luck, making a backup plan can hurt performance by reducing the desire for that goal.

Their study showed a shift in participants' mindset. They became less motivated with the prospect of a backup plan on the table, so they put in less effort, which hurt the results of their primary task. While the study undoubtedly showcases the psychological comfort a backup plan brings and reduces perceived uncertainty, those participants who had well thought-through backup plans reported devoting less effort to the goals they were trying to achieve.

Shin's and Milkman's findings represent an astronomical shift from the views previously espoused. When we prepare for eventualities, do we adopt a less committed attitude to our primary goals?

Does it automatically follow that you may be more likely to fail if you prepare for failure? Behavioural researcher Ross E O'Hara, PhD, asserts that backup plans draw tangible and psychological resources away from your primary goal in the planning and execution stages. This follows the results of a series of studies on the backup plan paradox, which revealed that backup plans undermine our goals by gobbling up finite resources.

What it really comes down to, at least from my perspective, is how much you are investing in your primary goals vs your backup plan. If equal or more attention is given to your backup plan, then it stands to reason that your energy isn't focused on the task that should take precedence. What it comes down to, just like everything else in life, is the balancing act.

For those of us who haven't mastered the art of multitasking, hold off on creating a backup plan until you've put as much effort as possible into your primary goal. Success and our ability to claim it depends on several factors, and not making a backup plan might be beneficial in helping you put your best effort forward.

On the farther end of the spectrum, having a sense of security because of a well thought-out backup plan might give some people the confidence to take risks and go the full distance with the knowledge that even if they fail, there is a perfectly placed cushion to soften the blow.

There is no correct answer to this dilemma, and just like the changing nature of life, your desire to achieve your goals and whether this should be supported by having a backup plan should move with the ever-changing currents in your life. Maybe your backup plan might become your primary goal, or you'll achieve your goals without a backup plan. I guess the real takeaway, backup plan or not, is to keep making steps to improve yourself and the quality of your life, come what may.

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