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The Folly of Planning My Entire Future

A few nights ago, I had a call with someone I've known for a few years. Ted contacted me to ask for some help with a situation he found himself stuck in. We met on a video call, exchanged laughs and caught up with what had been going on in each other's lives since we last talked a few months ago. He then elaborated on why he wanted to speak with me, after sharing the headlines in an e-mail he sent me last week.

Ted's mood changed as he talked. His smile had been replaced by a tight jaw and his eyebrows got closer together. I listened to him telling me that he'd become unhappy at work. His new boss and he didn't see eye to eye. The organisation seemed 'stale', devoid of new ideas. And after 6 years there he'd decided to leave.

He'd been asked to apply for a senior position in another company by a former colleague who was now heading up the North American division after being promoted 3 times in 4 years since joining. While it wasn't this person's decision who get the job, he knew Ted would be a good fit and had put a good word in with the decision-makers.

Ted interviewed well but didn't get the job. It went instead to an internal candidate.

"I'm in a mess now. I don't know what to do" he said.

He was staring at me through his computer webcam 3,000 miles away from me, visible on my screen in my office at home. It was the late evening for me. The halo light behind my computer was bright, making my face visible in my webcam. Ted had a resigned look on his face. His short, black wavy hair had the first signs of grey, but he still looked younger than his 42 years. The left side of his face was lit more than the right, the blue wall of his home office behind him had the light fade the same way.

"I've made my mind up to leave. Now I'm stuck" he said.

Ted carried on talking about his predicament. He explained how his and his family's future looked. That he and his wife couldn't move out of their 2-bedroom apartment into a house with a garden for their 2 young children. That they wanted a new sofa, but it needed to fit in with their future home's décor, and now that the house move was delayed, so was their new sofa. That they'd need to reconsider their summer vacation due to his work position. That his future was now at stake. That his partner's happiness was at stake. That his children's future well-being was at stake.

"I'm desperate to know what to do with this all Wyn" he said, with an exasperated tone.

"It sounds like you're disappointed about not getting that job" I said

"Yes – it seemed perfect for me: as if it were made for me!" he said

"And the way you're talking about it, it seems like it's the only job in the only company in the world you would want to do," I said, then I shut up. So did he. After about a minute, he said:

"Yes, you're right. That doesn't make sense now you've said it like that."

We carried on talking for a while about this and then I offered another thought:

"The way you've been talking about this, it's as if you should get every job you ever apply for."

Ted leapt on this "Yes, I think I should" then he paused. "That's a bit arrogant of me. And very unrealistic." He exhaled. His face softened.

We carried on chatting. After a while, I said:

"Ted, you're disappointed. That's it. Nothing more. And in the feeling of disappointment, it's easy to paint your entire future and your family's future with the same brush. What happens next will take care of itself. Monday's Ted will take care of Monday. September's Ted will take care of September. It's so easy for us to forget that." He sat back and his shoulders fell with a deep outward breath.

We talked more and he soon remembered one huge realisation about how feelings work in him and in all of us. Everything we, as humans feel, comes from what we think: now. We don't feel the future. We don't feel the past. That would be impossible.

We feel what we think now. Always.

He also said that the truth is, we never know how things will play out. We don't know which decisions will turn out well, or which would turn out less well. And he said that this work situation might be a blessing. And it would be impossible to know that today.

There's a scene in the movie 'Charlie Wilson's War' that nails this point. The 2 characters played by Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman are having a conversation during a party to celebrate their part in ending the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. Hoffman's character tells Hanks' character the story of the Zen master and the little boy.

The story goes like this: A boy is given a horse on his 14th birthday. Everyone in the village says, "Oh how wonderful." But the Zen master says, "We'll see." The boy falls off the horse and breaks his leg. Everyone in the village says, "How terrible." The Zen master says, "We'll see." Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight. But, because of the broken leg, the boy stays behind. Everyone says, "Oh, how wonderful." The Zen master says, "We'll see."

Every event in our lives is a "We'll see". Remembering this frees me from the illusion that I need to micro-manage my life. That there is no way of knowing what the right or wrong paths are. This does not discount my moral compass or my built-in wisdom that nudges me along the way. It does, however, free me up to live. To play the game of life, as described in my blog from a few months ago called 'We are always playing with the house's money.'

Given I can't know how things will play out in the future, and given that what I feel comes from what I think not from my circumstances, disappointments like the one Ted was feeling do not need to be paid attention to any more than any other feeling we might have.


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