Why Not Having a Plan Can Be the Best Plan of All

This weekend I went back to Princeton University, where I was a student over twenty years ago, to give a speech. As I traveled to the campus I remembered a single question that haunted my last few months of schooling: now what?

I had no good answer. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a plan.

Which, as it turns out, might have been a pretty good plan after all.

Mark Zuckerberg and his college roommates were computer science students without any real plan. They started Facebook because it was fun, used their talents, and was a novel way for Harvard students and alumni to stay in touch. Zuckerberg never anticipated it would host over 400 million members. And he had no clear idea where the money would come from. But he kept at it until, in 2007, Facebook let outside developers create applications for it, and game developers started buying ads on Facebook to keep attracting players. Hardly Zuckerberg’s strategy in 2004.

And when Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, started writing code in 1996 they had no clear plan or idea how they would make money either. But that didn’t stop them from starting. It wasn’t until 2002 and 2003 that AdWords and AdSense became the company’s money-making platform.

Last week, in Don’t Get Distracted by Your Plan, I wrote about the importance of staying flexible, about the dangers of sticking too closely to your plan. But what if you have no plan?

That’s the situation so many of us face — not just when we graduate — but throughout our lives. Even those who grew up in the generation when people stayed with a company 30 years are now, thankfully, living long enough to have second and third careers. And the younger generation is switching jobs every few years, often changing careers entirely. Yesterday’s plan may not work today. My yoga teacher used to be a casting director.

The limitless options we encounter make it difficult to create a plan. In a study led by Sheena Iyengar, a management professor at Columbia University Business School, one group of people were presented with samples of six different jams available for purchase while another group was presented with 24 different jams. The 24-jam group showed much greater interest when sampling, but the six-jam group was 10 times more likely to actually purchase a jam. We’re 10 times more likely to take action when choice is limited!

It’s easy to become paralyzed when so many choices exist. We can’t decide among them so we end up not choosing.

But life goes on, and no choice becomes the de facto choice, and suddenly we look back and feel like our talents have been wasted. We leave the store without buying any jam at all.

We need a way to get started now, to move in the right direction, even when we don’t have a plan.

So what makes people like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin so successful? Some of it is opportunity. Some if it is persistence. And some is sheer luck. But there’s another set of ingredients that encourages opportunity, persistence, and luck. I call them the four elements. Success will favor you if you:

  • Leverage your strengths
  • Use your weaknesses
  • Pursue your passions
  • Assert your differences

Zuckerberg, Page, and Brin loved technology and were great at it. None of them operated alone — they partnered with people to offset their weaknesses. And, in style as well as substance, they offered unique approaches that differentiated them and their companies from anything else out there.

For me, at Princeton, it was outdoor leadership. My strength was group dynamics. My weakness, a neurotic safety consciousness, was, in this situation, an asset. I loved being with others in the outdoors. And, having grown up in New York City, my urban outlook brought a unique perspective to teaching people who were also new to the outdoors.

Still I had no idea how I was supposed to turn any of that into gainful employment. I couldn’t see how it would provide a career for me in the long term. I couldn’t see raising a family while living in the woods. It was far from perfect. So I almost threw it all out. I almost went to law school.

But I didn’t. Instead, I chose to stick with what I was doing, experimenting to improve my focus on the four elements while changing those things that detracted from them.

One thing I experimented with was doing outdoor team building with corporate groups. I could do that while living a more stable life. And it leveraged my differences even more — I knew more about the corporate world than most others in outdoor leadership.

So I started a company. One decision led to another. Eighteen years later I’m still changing my business, morphing it to take better advantage of my strengths weaknesses, passions and uniqueness. What will it look like in three years? I’m not sure.

The entire path need not be clear. Most successful people and businesses have meandered their way to success by being willing to exercise their talents in ways they never would have imagined at the onset.

Here’s what’s fortunate: you’re already doing something — whether it’s a job, a hobby, or an occasional recreational pastime — that exploits your strengths, allows for your weaknesses, gives you pleasure, and uses your uniqueness.

Start experimenting where you are.