Many successful people will cite a simple need for having a backup plan: life is invariably unpredictable and complicated.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2013, Ilene Gordon, the CEO of Ingredion, a Fortune 500 company, opined that being successful as a leader is all about “having a Plan B.”
Gordon expands on the pitfalls of not having a backup plan: “Have a Plan B, because Plan A doesn’t always go well, or maybe it’s derailed by a competitor or somebody else’s new product or some type of regulation.”
That’s fair in business, but what if you’re pursuing a creative career? A specialized career outside of business?
Again, nothing is guaranteed. Your ability to successfully pivot without completely abandoning your passion is likely dependent on the level of sacrifice you’re willing to make.
Many guitarists may feel content teaching guitar to kids part- or full-time. Likewise, many may finish medical school, only to decide that they don’t want to see patients all day. (Careers that would still put such an individual’s degree to use would include being a medical photographer or medical sales representative.)
When deciding whether to pursue your craft full force, you should be in tune with your level of “risk tolerance,” to take a term from the world of investing. Do a thorough cost-benefit analysis.
I would start by determining whether you’re willing to lose not only money, time, and pride, but friends. Calculate your probability of success, and be honest with yourself. Deciding to give your project or career a trial period before deeming it as having potential or being a waste of time may be a smart move.
For those who are resolutely determined to be successful, some research suggests that there are real perils to having backup plans.
To present these dangers, something must first be clarified: to eventually “settle” for a backup plan almost always implies that at one point, you had a more prestigious, better paying, or better fitting option available.
Backup plans convey a sense of security to those who hold them. Safety and comfortability are often not conducive to success, particularly when the goal in question takes unbridled effort— and a bit of luck— to achieve.
We see this phenomenon with a number of athletes and entertainers. The former, if forced to attend college, will often only attend for a year, knowing that they are sacrificing an opportunity at an education for what they perceive to be bigger stakes.
If a given athlete played the traditionally safe route— staying in school— they could get injured or lose their coveted draft status.
As for that empirical evidence, studies have found that merely thinking about a backup plan reduces one’s level of performance.
Think of it this way: if you decide you have only one option, you have no option but to make that option work.
Of course, for many careers, “making it” is not purely black and white. In my craft of writing, for example, it’s not like I have to make The New York Times Best Seller List to be successful. Maybe becoming a respected journalist, or even a poor-poor man’s Vonnegut would suffice.
All in all, it’s hard to create a hard and fast rule in certain fields.
Is Settling Bad?
In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with settling. You can still live a successful and happy life without absolutely maximizing your potential.
While some experts argue that nearly anyone can make it to the top of their chosen field with the proper personal branding, establishing— and maintaining— said branding is a demanding task, particularly if your natural talent or motivation is somewhat lacking.
I think most of us can agree that happiness is the end goal in life. Why not pursue something that’s not only largely in your control, but much more likely to improve your quality of life?
A healthy marriage, for example, has been linked to better physical health. Not only do many married couples recuperate better from disease, but they generally live longer.
Even just being in a functional committed relationship is associated with generally positive psychological and health outcomes.
Settling should by no means be looked at as selling out. In many ways, settling can be the best course of action, particularly if you’re simply not going to make it in your profession, for whatever reason.
Plus, it’s important to remember that very few truly call all of the shots like Jerry Maguire.
Visionary entrepreneurs may make the bold decisions that guide their company, but they are still indebted, directly or indirectly, to both their shareholders and customers.
The same goes for other creative types. Musicians don’t have complete free reign; they are captive to the desires of their label. Authors, on the other hand, must appease their publisher.
Becoming overly-wed to your project or career, an approach that is often required to reach levels of excellence, can certainly lead to imbalance in other parts of your life. It’s a trap that is all too easy to fall into.
In my view, it’s best for the vast majority of us to have backup plans. Unless you have ethereal talent and drive, it’s pretty imperative to have some fallback plan, even if it’s just working at a fast food joint.
(In fact, I would make the argument that if you do turn out to have the requisite talent and drive to be transcendental in your field, a completely undesirable backup plan could serve as motivation in the form of fear. After all, no one wants to be working a dead-end, minimum wage job past their early 20s.)
Remember, it’s ultimately your job to be happy with your life when it’s all said and done. Making decisions to appease others is a fail-safe way to be unhappy. It’s up to you as to what your backup plan will comprise, but on some level, it’s impossible to avoid having one.
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Daniel Steingold is a writer from Los Angeles, CA who’s an advocate for alliterative artistry. Admittedly ambivalent towards social media, he halfheartedly hopes hospitable humans heap plentiful praise upon his prose periodically posted to Facebook.
His two known writing projects, one used and one abused, are The Article Review (thearticlereview.com) and A Wiki a Week (awikiaweek.com), respectively. He enjoys learning about everything under the moon, because, well… the sun BURNS his ghostly white skin.