In a Scottish poem, ‘To a Mouse,’ Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley.” Which translates to “The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” When things don’t go to plan, we can either hope the plan somehow will magically work itself out or figure out ways to confront reality. I’ve tried (and failed) with the former approach many times; now, I’m beginning to think the latter is more prudent.
In the age of early dot coms, Odeo was a budding podcasting platform. The company, like other startups, was founded in someone’s apartment and soon hired fourteen employees and acquired office space. Around the same time, Apple launched Itunes, an industry game-changer. Itunes threatened to (and would indeed soon) decimate the competition, including Odeo.
Faced with impending doom, Odeo had to find out a way to stay afloat. In a now-famous brainstorming session at Odeo, an employee came up with an idea for a social platform based on someone’s status. The employee’s name was Jack Dorsey, and the platform was called Twitter. You may have heard of it.
With a market cap of $50B+ as of this writing and a user base larger than the United States population, Twitter is a classic example of how to pivot when things don’t go to plan.
Twitter’s story is not alone. A majority of personal, professional, and corporate success stories are a result of pivots. At the heart of these stories is the art of letting go of disappointments and finding the will and power to transform failures into accomplishments.
Because let’s face it:
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
Turning lemons into lemonade isn’t new advice. And like most advice, this one is easier to dish out than take. In fact, of all the counsel you can give someone at a time of crisis, telling them to make the best of a bad situation will never go down well. I know. I have the battle scars to prove it.
That said, it is solid guidance, though. And best given and taken when life is sunshine and roses rather than when feet are dangling over the fire. Like a pilot who hones their emergency-landing skills during training, learning how to react when things don’t go to plan is best done when life is humming along smoothly.
Ready to learn to make lemonade? Let’s first identify if we have any lemonade-making tools and skills already.
Have you spent any time perfecting one of these “talents?”
- Folding a fitted sheet, so it looks exactly like a flat sheet
- Mastering the water bottle flip so it lands perfectly on its base every time
- Ability to take 13-min naps regardless of where you are
- Solving a Rubik’s cube in under 5 seconds
- Creating the biggest bubble while chewing gum
- Recognizing fonts (enough said.)
If you said yes, or have other flairs that resemble those listed above, I’d urge you to consider devoting some of your valuable time to figuring out how to respond to unforeseen circumstances. Unlike the somewhat questionable (my opinion) list of “skills” above, learning how to react when it all turns to custard is an essential life skill to cultivate. Your sanity depends on it.
Five things to do when things don’t go to plan
Cardinal rule of life: It’s not that plans may go awry. They will.
Ill-advised coping strategy: Finding someone to blame the problem on or hoping it will resolve it magically.
Recommended coping strategy: It’s a bit more complicated. Keep reading.
Plot twists happen in life. It’s never a matter of if but when things will not go as planned. Under such circumstances, while we may not have the ability to control the outcomes, we are all bestowed with the capabilities to choose how we react. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.
Instead of kicking and screaming in the face of the unexpected, here are five key practices that can transform us from petulant child to Zen monk.
1. Acknowledge disappointment
Let me start by apologizing to you—on behalf of your coworkers, neighbors, family, the store clerk, the government, and others. I know you had high hopes for them. I’m genuinely sorry for the disappointment they’ve caused you.
Now, can we move on?
If there is one constant in life, it’s being let down. The sooner we acknowledge we’re disappointed, the sooner we can get on with life (even if the glass-half-full person in you says it is to another disappointing venture.)
Sometimes, we are disappointed by trivial matters, like someone not showing up on time to a meeting. It’s incredible how something that minor can set us back all day. At other times, it’s earth-shaking events, like a terminal diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, that can completely upend the most well-laid plans.
It’s easier to acknowledge and recover from a minor impediment than from life-altering events that don’t have an undo feature. Dealing with the grief from the loss of a loved one or facing a terminal illness requires far deeper conversations and greater support from friends, family, and experts. So, I’ll park those for another time and instead focus on the everyday grievances that consume us.
Instead of reacting to relatively minor hindrances with the same fatalistic attitude as we’d in the face of an actual disaster, it helps to put things in perspective. What matters today may mean nothing five years from now. And, morbid as it sounds, in the long run, we all die, anyway. So, none of it really matters.
So, let’s not waste time being like the disgruntled employee asking HR what names we’re allowed to call people. (True story).
Reframe your problem as a challenge.
Okay, full disclosure. This strategy used to drive me (and still does) insane.
I once had a project manager who’d say the cliched “Challenge. Not problems” phrase. Ad nauseam. Each time I heard him say it, I’d think to myself: “Ugh! Not again.”
Sadly, for me, science has proven that such reframing indeed helps—something about opening our minds up to learning new ways to do things.
When things go right, it’s hard to figure out why, but when things go wrong, it’s really easy - Steven Soderbergh
Most of us don’t like to admit this fact—when there is very little resistance, there isn’t much learning. When something is handed to us on a platter, or things are too easy, we can turn into automatons.
Again, I know this from experience. I have fluked my way through many problems. Ask me to solve some of those problems again, and I’ll draw a blank. On the other hand, when I’ve had to work and rework a pesky issue, I understand how and why. It helps cement the learning. This kind of learning allows us to create repeatable processes and growth that serve us well for decades. Not to mention the associated confidence boost we can get from such knowledge.
3. Everything happens for a reason.
Do you know what Marilyn Monroe said? (Well, it turns out there’s no proof she said it, but see how just invoking her name got your attention?)
Everything happens for a reason. Good things fall apart, so better things can come together.
This is one practical philosophy to believe in. Regardless of where you fall in the traditional faith spectrum—believer, non-believer, agnostic—simply thinking things happen for a reason helps defuse otherwise loaded situations.
The wounded trader
Here’s a parable that I heard as a child, which has stuck with me through the years.
A trader traveling through some dense forests in a neighboring kingdom was once robbed. Not only were his possessions taken from him, but he was injured through the incident. To add to his woes, the king’s men, upon finding him, mistook the trader for a spy and jailed him.
That same night, there was an attempt on the king’s life, and it was believed that the attacker was someone who’d escaped from the jail. Fearful and delusional, the king ordered all men in custody to be executed. But, the law of the land did not allow for those with physical disabilities or injuries to be executed. Therefore, the injured trader was given a reprieve for a few days; his execution had to wait until his wounds healed.
During that time, the palace managed to uncover the culprit responsible for attempting to murder the king. The trader’s life was spared, and he allowed to go home free.
That’s when the trader was grateful for the injuries he had sustained through the robbery. They saved his life.
Believing everything happens for a reason is a great way to let go of expectations and attachment to results. (Assuming, of course, you did your best in the first place.) If nothing else, it helps us rationalize setbacks and move on in life.
4. “Until it’s lost” syndrome
Sometimes it takes something to go wrong to realize what we have going right. That’s when we learn to practice gratitude for the little things.
It’s called the “until it’s lost” syndrome. Like your car keys. I bet you hadn’t given your car keys a second thought until they went missing!
On a more serious note, I read a study not so long ago that parents tended to hug their children more when there were terrible events such as school shootings.
Not to get too dark there, but most people have end of life regrets about not valuing what they had—relationships, health, time.
When things don’t go to plan, our rationalizing selves somehow redirect attention to other areas of our life that are going to plan. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
Sometimes no cloud means no silver lining.
Do what your GPS app does when you miss an exit or a turn. Recalculate your route to your destination. Or if you’re too far gone, maybe it’s best to get back home and try another day?
Yes, it may be a bit more involved, and you may have to get on the equivalent of 405 freeway in LA again in peak traffic, but sooner or later, it’ll help you get to where you need to go.
Because really, what other choice do you have?
Never let a good crisis go to waste – Churchill
In terms of things not going to plan, it’s hard to beat the second world war. Towards the end of that crisis, Churchill with Roosevelt and Stalin (an unlikely alliance) took steps, among other political initiatives, to strengthen the role the United Nations would play in the world.
Good things can come out of some terrible events.
Plot twists are bound to happen. It takes almost as much energy to concoct Plan B as it does in wishing Plan A would somehow work when it clearly isn’t showing any signs that it can.
Ideally, we’d all be self-aware to realize what many religious scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita, says about simply doing what needs to be done with no expectations. However, since most of our minds are more monkey-like than monk-like, that kind of equanimity is hard to come by without a lot of effort and practice.
In the meantime, the next best thing is to learn to cope with setbacks using some of the strategies mentioned above.
Failing all of this, we have another option available to us.
When things go wrong, just go to bed.