Backup Plans


Why backup plans are a bad idea and what we should do instead.

“Burn the boats, we are here.”

When James Corden spoke with Marc Maron, he said the only thing he wanted to do was become an actor.  Maron said this was a good idea because, “if you have a plan B, you’re just a hobbyist.”

Other people have said this too. In Sick in the Head, Jordan Peele reflects:

“When I moved to Chicago, I was like, All right, I want to be a sketch comedian and my power is going to be in the fact that I’m going to dedicate myself completely. There’s not going to be a fallback, you know? I’m going to watch people give up and I’ll still be there, learning from it all, and if I stay with it, I’ll be successful.”

Jim Norton said this attitude forced him to focus on comedy. Casey Neistat said much the same. It was make it or bust – and this perspective was part of the reason for their success.*

Plan B is a bad idea because it distracts us from plan A.

Research now shows this too. A group of researchers gave students a series of difficult puzzles to solve. The reward for solving them was to leave early from class. Some students got the puzzle. Others got the puzzle but were also told to brainstorm other ways to get the reward if they didn’t finish the puzzles.  

NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast explains that the students’ with a plan B (other ways to save time) worked less on the puzzle than those that had no plan B. From the show:

“And what we found is that the group who had thought about a backup plan, about another way that they could save five minutes today, achieve significantly less success on the task we assign them. They worked less hard, they solved fewer puzzles, and this was significantly fewer than people in either of our control groups.”

That sounds a lot like what Peele, Corden, Maron, Neistat and others have guarded against.

Rather than plan B, there are two other things you can do.

Don’t develop plan B, enhance plan A.

Rather than spend time on plan B, spend time on thinking through plan A. Chris Dixon compared starting a company to completing a maze. The best founders, Dixon observed, were those that thought through what obstacles might be ahead.

Stanley McChrystal called this “red teaming.” Jason Zweig called it the planning fallacy.

No matter the name, successful people think through what might go wrong and plan accordingly.

And get ready for turbulence.

No matter how much you work on plan A things will go wrong. Chris Dixon said that nearly every company he’s been involved with has almost failed. Random stuff (like Google releases a similar product) comes up, Dixon says.

There’s too much randomness to plan for everything. Neil Strauss released a book when Hurrican Katrina hit shore. Trip Adler showed up at Y Combinator with a ride sharing app.Naval Ravikant says that part of his success is thanks to randomness.

Like the weather one month from now, we don’t know what’s in store. The best we can do is to understand that the rain won’t melt us.

The takeaways.

Having a plan B means you’ve doubted too much and planned too little. Think through plan A as thoroughly as you can and develop a mindset of creativity and resilience to solve new problems that will arise.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

*See the notes for Tadas Viskanta for an explanation of part of the reason thinking.

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