What’s Your Plan, Stan?

January 21, 2009
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By Peter Bennett

charles-lindbergh1You certainly don’t have to look far to find that all great achievers are incredible planners. Charles Lindbergh didn’t become the first human being to fly solo across the Atlantic by winging it. After a hard day of work preparing for his historic flight, a friend caught him staring out the window into the darkness, when he should have been asleep. “What are you doing?” the friend asked.

“Practicing” Lindbergh replied.

“Practicing what?”

“Staying awake.”

When Tom Brady was a second-stringer for the New England Patriots, he wasn’t just riding the pine, content to collect a paycheck. He was an active understudy, preparing for his breakthrough moment. When quarterback Drew Bledsoe was sidelined with a bad back early in the 2001 season, Brady was called to strap on his helmet and led the Patriots to not one, but three Super Bowls. Not bad for a sixth-round draft choice!

The great ones instinctively know the 5 Ps: “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance” and its corollary: “Proper Planning Promotes Powerful Performance.” Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, winner of 10 NCAA titles, spent more time preparing for practices than he spent at actual practice. By being totally prepared, he wasn’t wasting his time or his players’. His drive to succeed was preceded only by his will to prepare. Similarly, Bill Bowerman, the legendary University of Oregon track coach and co-founder of Nike, never sent his athletes into a race without giving them a precise plan for success.

To gain the success you want, you need more than your hopes and dreams. You need a plan. “Riches don’t’ respond to wishes,” wrote Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich. “They respond only to definite plans, backed by definite desires, through constant persistence.”

For a moment, consider what can happen when people don’t plan. After his glory days were over, Red Pollard, the rider of the great Seabiscuit, had to work as a valet and shine shoes for a living. Boxer Joe Louis, who held the heavyweight title for 106 months, had to rely on the favors of others, including working as a hotel greeter at Caesar’s Palace. On a broader scale, look what happened in Vietnam and Iraq when the nation lacked a clearly planned entrance and exit strategy. More recently, prestigious Wall Street firms like Lehman and Bear Stearns fell because their executives never adequately weighed the downside of putting too much capital at risk. They jettisoned the art of planning for the gospel of greed. By failing to prepare, they prepared to fail, sinking our economy into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Look at your own life when you don’t plan. Maybe the result is as harmless as not getting the college class you want or your favorite campground during summer. More serious, perhaps your career has stalled because you have no plan for improving your skills and making yourself more marketable. The time to start digging your well is before you’re thirsty, not after you’re parched. Or as Yogi said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else,” and as we all know, some of those places aren’t very pretty.

To keep that “somewhere else” at bay, you need to develop a plan for your life. When you wake up in the morning, or better still, before you go to bed at night, ask, “What’s my plan?” If you don’t have ready answers, take a good hard look at yourself. Make sure you’re looking at facts, not fads. In this self-assessment, seek honest, helpful guidance from sources you trust. You can handle the truth! Let Sun Tzu, author of Art of War, be your inspiration. He said, “One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be in danger in a hundred battles.”

Danger is more likely to appear if you don’t do anything. Think of your plan as a road map to get you where you need to go. That doesn’t mean you can never leave the highway. Build a plan flexible enough to anticipate life’s unexpected twists and turns. Also be aware of key alternate routes in the event your main route is blocked. Mountaineer and naturalist John Muir took a roundabout route to realize his great promise, but he was never without a plan. After walking from Louisville, Ky., to Cedar Key, Fla., he crossed the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba, with a plan to catch a steamer to South America to explore the Amazon River. When no boats were leaving for South America, he instead caught a boat bound for San Francisco via the Isthmus of Panama. For almost the next half century, Muir dedicated his life to the study and preservation of the American wilderness, and in particular Yosemite Valley. Today, Muir, also the founder of the Sierra Club, is known as “The Father of National Parks.”

Check off the mileposts as you go on your special journey. Break your journey into smaller pieces to make your trip seem less overwhelming. By chunking down your plan into little pieces, the impossible becomes possible. When you have a plan, you’re already half way home before you start.

When you plan — when you “strategize” (from the Greek word for general) — you take control of your life. Have you ever noticed how much you get done on the day before you go on vacation? Well, that’s the state of readiness and preparedness that you always have to be in. When you’re ready and executing your plan, you’re poised to take advantage of opportunity. The more prepared you become, the “luckier” you’ll get!

As somebody who’s prepared, you don’t have to be like Sony’s legendary founder Akio Morita, whose calendar was booked a year in advance. Simply start preparing for what you want to accomplish tomorrow and the day after. Have fun with it. Is a holiday or anniversary coming up on your calendar? Why not call your favorite restaurant ahead of time, select the courses and pay the bill ahead of time! Think of how impressed your special guest will be. All it takes is a little planning. If your career has hit the skids because of your lack of work experience, volunteer to work for free. Add an audition to your erudition, and you’ve just improved your plan to get the job you want. If that plan doesn’t work, try another. But always have a plan.

If you care about yourself and if you care about others, you’ll be a planner, just like that top coach, terrific teacher, and great leader you respect and admire. If you think about what made them all so outstanding, you’ll see they were all planners. They took the time to care. Planning conquers fear, builds courage, and creates possibilities. If you believe as George Elliot did that “it’s never too late to be what you might have become,” you’ll start planning today.

Automaker Henry Ford was a consummate planner. Before his Model T was a success, he went back to the drawing board many times to refine it. As part of his improvement plan, he introduced an assembly line manufacturing process to improve quality and lower costs and paid his workers a wage proportionate to the cost of the car, so that they would provide a ready-made market for his product. Ingenious!

“If you don’t think of the future, you won’t have one,” Ford said bluntly.

Start planning your future today. When your hopes and dreams are fueled by a plan, there’s no limit on how far you’ll go.

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