To Plan Or Not To Plan

5653“It is the dichotomy of surrender and pure intention. To get out of the way and let the creation flow is to remove all constraints of what the dance should be and how the dance should act.” -Giselle Mejia

They say if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

They say life is that which happens while you’re busy making plans.

They say that to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

These sayings don’t exactly instill confidence in knowing how to proceed with life. Should we make plans or shouldn’t we?

Is it binary? Does it have to be one way or the other?


My experience with this issue has been mixed. At times, I have been overly reliant on plans. As a 13-year-old in junior high football, we adolescents formed two lines for a practice tackling drill. One line was the tackler, the other was the runner with the football. As my partner and I inched forward to our turn, I devised this elaborate set of jukes and spins that I would unleash upon my tackler. But when the time came, he simply stood there and watched me dance around in those over-sized shoulder pads. And when I was finished, he ran at me full speed and slammed me into the ground. Some things in life can’t be planned.

I’ve had this same difficulty trying to plan actual dance moves as I lead in salsa dancing. Sure, I can plan out a few moves and be technically correct with them. But if I’m scripted, I’m not listening to the music, feeling my partner, and letting the act take me. And one has to “get out of the way” when dancing as Ms. Giselle Mejia states at the top.

not me
not me

One has to do the same with life. And as a counter to my over-planning tendencies, I’ve discovered the joys of the unplanned life when traveling.

Leaving behind the day-to-day routine, putting your home projects aside, and then refreshing your environment have all lent themselves for me being able to enjoy improvisation as a lifestyle when on the road.

Fly into Guatemala City and take a bus to Antigua with only some money and a few belongings. Find a place to stay, find some things to do, and bump into the some people (locals or other travelers) while doing these things. Then one of them suggests a few days in Panajachel on the shores of Lago de Atitlán. Cool, let’s go. This truly is an exercise of curiosity, experimentation, and exploration by way of spontaneity, of moving with the winds of life.

One typically can’t — nor would I want to — live one’s whole life this way. For there is the other side of the coin that typically shines when one domesticates — the projects, the family, the career, the home, the routine. The plans. Ah, here we are.

To some, this list of “responsible, grown-up stuff” might sound constricting. But what work can be accomplished when in a permanent “travel” mindset? To be happy, I think one needs to produce, to build, to earn. We’re made to work.

So how about a blend?

When I returned from living in China, I had just enjoyed a three-week trek around that country going with the flow of the “winds of life.” Just before traveling around China, I had enjoyed almost a year there, where I tried to maintain that day-to-day, up-for-anything, improvisational attitude while domesticated, working in my city Zhuhai.

But now I was back home in Minnesota, and I wondered if I could maintain such a mindset back in “real life.”

I wrote the following after being home for a year or two, as the epilogue to my book about living in China:

“Naturally, a domesticated life hasn’t allowed for such concentrated movement and variety as my time in China. But established efforts invested in career and long-term relationships fulfill a different need for personal and professional growth, and I’ve learned that the drama and excitement of life — that life brings to you — doesn’t end with responsibilities, occupation, age, or domesticity. I think excitement ends when I use these factors as excuses to overfeed my hunger for activity and adventure with the food of vicarious existence — by living through others.

I love travel, but I don’t need to wait for my next departure to let go and let life. Let go of the burdens, participate in whichever way I am inspired to do so, and soak in every precious moment along the way.”— Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China

Or, as Ms. Mejia puts it, this is about blending “surrender and pure intention.”

Now back from East Africa for over a year and continuing to work on that balance of improvisation while responsibly planning one’s life (of not wanting to fall back into my trap of over-planning every juke and spin), I recently embarked on an exercise to directly attack my hesitancy to go with the flow. I started taking an improv acting class.

Up on stage with nothing but an acting partner and a one-word prompt from the teacher, improv is like walking on a tightrope: just keep walking (keep moving with your ideas on stage); and don’t look down (don’t become self-conscious about where you’re taking the ad-libbed conversation.) In other words, don’t psych yourself out. Just go with it.

Within this realm, I think, is where plans come into play. Here, I can then entertain some notions about what I might say next on stage, about my next steps on a project in Minneapolis, or about my next moves while touring a distant part of the world. Planning within an improvised life.

This article was adapted from my weekly email to family and friends. If you’d like to be included on this list, shoot me an email at and let me know. And while you’re at it, tell me a little about yourself:)

What say you?