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Don’t Plan Your Life

The post I wish I had read before my 20's.

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This morning I woke up with my toe in a dog’s mouth.

He’s a mastiff the size of a horse with a head bigger than a basketball which constantly spews drool from an endless reservoir of slime. After chopping my toes off, I realized that in no way was this what I had planned to be doing with my life at the ripe old age of 28, but here I was, dogsitting for a family from church while they’re out of town.

That’s an odd way to say that I’m really glad my life has gone the way it has and I cannot bring myself to understand ‘planners.’ I’ve never been the type to set goals or to attempt to gaze into my own deep future, deliberating where I’ll be in 5, 10, or 60 years. It’s easier to look back on where I’ve been and marvel at the weird and wild doors which have opened without my trying. When I was fresh out of high school, did I think that I’d be speaking at a camp in Scotland or teaching history to Middle schoolers in Guatemala? Of course not, yet I was doing both of those things this year.

I don’t want to rant against people whose natural tendency is to make plans and stick to them; those people become great dentists, lawyers and pilots, which the world needs. However, I’ve often felt ostracized—whether overtly or covertly—for not having a ‘plan.’

There are the Leslie Knope types who can see up their paths all the way to the grave and know exactly where they’re going and what they’re going to do to get there. It’s easy to look at them and feel inferior in some way, like they’re a better class of person and have a better life. Just because their 401k may be a bit more swollen than yours.

Or because they know what a 401k is.

We often feel pressure from our parents, teachers, counselors, or our competitive peers to map out our future to a tee and stick to it. Some of us, however, have dimmer torches which only let us see a few footsteps up the path.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

For example, as a non-planning person, look at my life and where my non-planning has brought me. It took me 6 years to get a bachelor’s degree but that’s because I kept putting school on pause to hop to other countries and work with different organizations. I hit all 6 inhabited continents before I was 21 and (I like to think) understood the world more richly because of it. I am writing my fifth book—one of the others was a #1 best-seller. I was homeless several times, both intentionally and accidentally, and even co-founded an organization in Nigeria during one of those periods.

I have worked somewhere in the ballpark of 40 jobs, not because I can’t keep them, but because I kept moving, or wanting to try something new. Because of that, I can talk to a barista about pouring perfect latte rosettas; a rock climber about which belay device to use, or a pastor about some theological issues we’re walking through.

Now returning to complete my Master’s Degree, I’ll enter my 30’s just as ‘equipped’ as my peers who took the traditional route, but with vastly different experiences. I don’t want to say better or worse—I’ll let you decide—but I could not be happier, now on this side of my 20’s and looking back on them.

I don’t write all this to brag, but to say that if even a meandering schlub like me can get stuff done, you can too. I never set out to do any of those things, yet they happened nonetheless. The world spins madly onward and the future comes at you whether you’ve planned for it or not, so like countless other pieces of energetic writing out there, I want to encourage you to make the most of it; carpe diem, seize the day.

Are you like me? Do you swell with angst every time someone asks you what your five year plan is, as if it would actually happen anyway? I write this in the hopes of quelling your fears about the future. Maybe you’re just starting your 20’s as I near the end of mine, and you have no idea what awaits you beyond graduation. Maybe you don’t even know what to study.

Here are a few things I would think through as you approach that precipice.

‘Not planning’ is not the same as ‘not working.’

None of this is meant to encourage you to sit around in hopes wild things happen to you while you’re Netflixing from your couch. They won’t. Life happens when you’re out and about and meeting people and saying yes to things. One of my most common prayers has not necessarily been foresight or complete knowledge of the future, but simply for God to open the right doors and close the wrong ones.

There have been numerous times I thought I had a great job lead, or a cool opportunity just to have the door slam shut in front of me. I often responded with anger, but as time went on, I’ve realized that this is just one of the ways God communicates with us: He leads us in the right directions and away from the wrong ones. It probably means that if that job in NYC had worked out, my life would have exploded, so it was for my good that it didn’t!

Many of the best things that have happened to me dropped right into my lap, like my job in Guatemala, and my job as a paddleboard instructor on Cape Cod. (Don’t say yes to everything though—I was also offered a hefty wad of cash by Playgirl to do a photoshoot, but turned them down for obvious reasons.)

Pray and pray a lot.

Pray for wisdom and discernment.

James 1:5 tells us that when we ask for wisdom, God does not find fault but gives it generously. I think the reason for this is because wisdom is the one thing He could give to everyone who wants it and the world would get better as a result. 

Experiment with things, for two reasons:

The only way to know if you’ll like accounting is to go and do it for a while. How will you know if underwater welding is your thing? Become an apprentice and do it for a year. Maybe you like the romantic idea of being a barista, but after being yelled at by angry customers for a month, you find it’s not quite the right fit. Better to find that out about something before studying it for 4+ years.

The other reason is to see if you’re good at it. Maybe you really like photography, but after a bit of exposure (see what I did there?) you find that you just don’t have the eye to do it professionally. This takes humility; you’ll need people who can tell you that it’s not a good fit for you, and hopefully these same people will also tell you what they think you are good at.

For example, I have worked construction jobs in 3 cities, and all 3 of my bosses basically told me it’s not my thing, some more kindly than others. On the other hand, I have been speaking and writing for a while and not only do I love to do it, but I get told that I’m pretty good!

I think our 20’s are for this very purpose: To experiment and discover. I don’t think it’s helpful to pressure others (or ourselves) to have all 80 of our years mapped out by graduation day. I do think it’s helpful to encourage

bravery,

risk,

hard work,

hard prayer,

and humility

and everything will work itself out, even without a plan.

e

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2 comments on “Don’t Plan Your Life

  1. Beth Kirkham

    Thank you! I’ve enjoyed writing! We’ve had similar experiences and it helps me to better understand my daughter’s path (who is also a writer, a poet)

    Like

  2. Ethan! This was the very post I needed right now! I am a planner and (I’ll admit it) I do have the next 10 years (or so) of my life planned out. However, the Lord has been teaching me the last 10 years that planning is good…but…don’t hang all your hopes, dreams, desires, and happiness on those plans because His are always better. I am definitely going to be taking your advice (as much as a planner can) and not plan my life so much. Maybe…just…5 years instead of 10… 😉

    Anyway, God bless and thanks for your encouragement and thoughts through this blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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