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The best laid plans…

…of mice and men go oft awry (English translation) from a poem by Robert Burns called “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough.” It was the inspiration for the title of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. 

This is just another way of suggesting we live in the present, a practice that is worthy if only because, as implied above, we have little control over outside circumstances that can conspire to cheat us of our desired results.

That’s not always a bad thing, and it may even better than achieving our primary goal. But most of us are so focused on the hoped-for prize that we don’t notice we might have gotten something even better by not getting the prize. This is true whether it’s taking a trip, planting a garden or drawing a picture.

Often we are so sure what our primary goal is, and for good reason. Some situations depend on good planning and intended result. Without them, we  might be acting carelessly. But assuming there is nothing huge at stake, how often do you find yourself focusing on what went wrong when you don’t get what you intended?

After a grueling breakup, for example, when you’ve picked up the pieces of your life, you might realize you are much better off. In fact, maybe the ending of that relationship caused you to try something you’d always wanted to do. We all know that what seems bad at first, naturally diminishes with time. And that any situation has its costs as well as its rewards. This is not to suggest that living on the street, for example, is preferable to living in a house. But living in a house does come with responsibilities like fixing leaky roofs and paying utility bills.

All things are not equal. But not all things are as unequal as we think.

Appropriate mourning and adjustment periods aside, what if we recognized not six months or a year later that we aren’t so bad off, but in the moment? What if we remembered that there is always a positive outcome, even if we don’t quite know what it is going to be at that moment?

If you’ve ever been a slump after losing a major project or been annoyed that your trip to Venice was derailed because of train strike, you probably know the amount of negative mental energy you expended. Perhaps this lasted only a few minutes. Other times our obsessive thoughts last hours or even days. But losing that major project might have meant a summer free from working nights and weekends to meet a crazy deadline. Not making it to Venice might have meant discovering an untrammeled little town with phenomenal food.

To some, brushing off unintended results might be second nature. But to others, the primary aim might often seem like a non-negotiable. This idea hit home to me when I first started becoming aware that all undesirable situations have some positive outcome. Once I realized that the secondary results were as good or perhaps better than the primary goal (which are almost always different from one another and, therefore, easy to miss), I started paying more attention.

Then I began putting the idea into action before the primary goal (say, winning a major project) was in sight. I found that simply because of that mental shift—that reminder that if I didn’t get A, then (unknown) B will happen—the amount of obsessing over the loss was greatly diminished. Don’t get me wrong, I still get very disappointed. Often it’s at those small irritations in life, like a store being closed when you most need something. 

But since life almost seems to guarantee that our best laid plans will go awry, a little practice in non-attachment can go a long way. You never know which unintended goodie you’re missing while you’re spending your time kicking yourself.


  1. Jay Cosnett says:

    Nice post! I’ve been getting quite the lesson in lemonade making, as you might say, which I know isn’t exactly what you’re talking about, but it’s at least related. And there are lots of positive unintended consequences to be found in even the most profound losses, though at this point, I think I’m too much in the middle of it to really know which ones are going to end up being the real gems and which ones will look in hindsight to not have been that positive after all. Knowing that I have absolutely no perspective on such things now is actually kind of freeing, since my default obsessive-compulsive nature wants to rate everything, estimate probability of attainment and consequence of loss, and calculate best- and worst-cases in some analog nightmare spreadsheet from hell.

    Now I consider the day off to a great start if everyone has clean clothes on when we go out the door. Beyond that, well, I can’t really say I have a freakin’ clue!

    But I do really like the idea of *before* something is “won” or “lost” (hating that whole winners & losers thing, anyway) being open to unintended consequences from any of the possible outcomes. Very Zen w/out making me want to gag, which is rare. Something to look forward to, I suppose. (As well as the unintended consequence of possibly not getting there…?)

    • Jay, I love your comment that “knowing I have absolutely no perspective on such things now is actually kind of freeing.”
      We put too much emphasis on knowing, thinking, rationality that we forget that not knowing is sometimes the smartest
      thing we can do.

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