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Matters of Life and Steph: “Sounds Like a Plan”- Musings from a Children’s Writer

“Loves doing things in the spur of the moment.” “Always up for adventure.” “Ready at a moment’s notice.” These phrases have never been used to describe me. And they never will. I am not a spontaneous person. If, however, you want someone who’s reliable, dependable, and methodical, I’m your gal. I’m a planner, plain and simple. 

But sometimes there is only so much planning that one can do.

Which brings me to the life lesson that I have learned (and re-learned) over the years: being organized and prepared for life works most of the time, but recognizing and embracing unplanned opportunities can often lead to wonderfully surprising results. So try not to over-orchestrate your entire existence. 

Here’s my story…

Plan-it Earth

Ever since I was a child, I have been great at time management. (Full disclosure: my mother once taught a middle school class called “Study Skills” so I may have had an unfair advantage.)  

Before I even knew Stephen Covey existed, I had already lived by his aphorism: “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Whenever I had a test, I would make a study schedule. If there was a paper due, I made sure that I had plenty of time to outline, draft, and edit my work.

My strong study skills served me incredibly well throughout my school years. Even with my very active social life in college, I was quite successful at balancing work and play. But towards the end of my junior year, I worried that I may have deprived myself of an academic rite of passage: the cramming experience.

So, I decided that for one class—not in my major of course—I intentionally didn’t do all the preparation that I normally would before the exam. Sure, I’d made an outline (after all, a leopard can’t change its spots), but I purposely avoided reviewing it until the last minute. See? I even prearranged acting hastily.

Being the planner that I am, the afternoon before the final, I made a special trip to the dining hall to buy my “cramming supplies.” I wanted my cramming experience to be perfect.  

Caffeinated soda was at the top of my list. I got a can of Mountain Dew (rumored to be the most caffeinated soda available at the time), two Dr. Peppers, and a cola of some sort. I also got some chips and a bag of candy. That seemed like the perfect cramming menu. Just in case, I added some bottled water and a banana. A little bit of nutrition to balance out the junk food seemed prudent.

Fizz-ically unfit

After a carb-loading pasta dinner (while I wasn’t actually running a marathon, my brain would be), I set off to the library. The soda cans clinked together loudly as I walked. I was going to pull my first all-nighter!

I found a quiet spot in the library where food was allowed, and carefully arranged my soda and snacks. Then I hunkered down to study.

As the hours ticked by, the excitement over my planned cramming experience soon turned to fear. My outline was longer than I remembered. At around eleven o’clock and two sodas in, I understood why I didn’t cram. The cramming experience was too stressful. I was petrified that I wouldn’t know all the material before my exam in the morning.

Plus, I felt awful. As in, physically awful. I was tired, the chips weren’t filling, and my stomach felt bloated from all the soda. I realized too late that cramming wasn’t for me.

At four o’clock in the morning—with my head spinning and my eyes bleary—I vowed that I would never be doing this again.

As it turns out, my exam grade proved that the cramming experience wasn’t for me. Thankfully, I had done well enough in the class before finals that my grade was still decent. But I knew I could’ve done better. After that, I promised myself that I would go back to my tried and true “plan-what-you-can” ways. And for the most part, I did.

Deloitted to meet you

Fast forward to the early 2000s. I’m a few years into my career as a management consultant at Deloitte. I was newly married to my husband, who, at the time, worked about twenty-six hours a day at a prestigious law firm. (Essentially, my husband was paid for legal cramming.)

I, on the other hand, intentionally avoided working at a law firm because I didn’t want the long hours and stress. Boy did I get it wrong. As a consultant, not only did I have long hours and stress, but I also had to travel every Monday through Thursday. 

One year, I was staffed on a long-term assignment at a major, Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company. It was considered a great project for which I was lucky to have been selected.

Every Sunday night, I would prepare for the week by dragging out my “travel toboggan” (I gave my suitcase this nickname because it looked just like a toboggan). Packing for work quickly became a breeze because I left everything but that week’s clothes in the toboggan. For months on end, I lived out of my travel toboggan. I calculated that I saw my husband for about seventeen hours a week thanks to my travel and his demanding work schedule.

Given our lack of time and flexibility, planning for vacations was rather challenging.

There’ll always be Paris

Knowing that there would never be a good time for my husband and me to go away, we nevertheless, planned a four-day trip to Paris in April. We each gave our employers plenty of notice, thinking that we should be able to get away for just a long weekend. I had everything worked out on my end—we’d travel from Friday to Monday, and then I’d head back to the client site a day later than usual.

On Thursday, I said goodbye to my colleagues, promising to bring them back souvenirs.

As soon as I got home, I began converting my travel toboggan to my “Paris toboggan.” Just as I shoved one last pair of shoes into the bag, my husband called me. His tone told me that he had some unfortunate news.

“I’m so sorry. I’m stuck on a deal. We’ll have to postpone our trip to Paris.” Insert sad trombone sound effect here. Why, oh why did it have to be this weekend he got stuck on a deal?

After angrily punching the air, I sighed and said, “I understand.” And I really did. I knew that my husband’s clients had to come first—no matter how perfectly planned our vacation had been.

Powerpointing in the right direction

When I dejectedly showed up at the train station that Monday, my co-workers were sympathetic.

While we tried to reschedule our Paris weekend once more, that too got canceled due to my husband’s work.

Life went on.

Then, about six weeks later, an hour before I was about to board the train back to New York City, my husband called me, brimming with excitement.

“What are the chances you can go to Paris tonight? All expenses paid, thanks to my client.”

“Go to Paris? Tonight?” My mind started racing at this surprising news. “How?”

“There’s a seven-thirty flight we can still get on.”

“Seven-thirty flight? Tonight?” I repeated.

My kind manager overheard the conversation.

“I think we can hold off on presenting your work to the client,” she said. “You should go to Paris.”  

According to my quick calculations, if I was going to make a seven-thirty flight, I would only have fifteen minutes to pack once I got home. That’s assuming the train arrived on time.

It was all so last minute. But, oh, I really wanted to go to Paris. And it seemed like it was now or never for my husband’s availability.

In that moment, I decided that I was going to make that seven-thirty flight. Even if I had to sprint down the runway and jump onto the plane’s wing. (Kidding.)

I quickly made a list of all the things I’d need to pack. If I followed my list exactly, I knew my travel toboggan could quickly be converted to a Paris toboggan. With fifteen precious minutes, I could make this unplanned Paris trip work.

Let the (potato) chips fall where they may

Thankfully, the stars aligned, and the train wasn’t delayed. With lightning speed that I didn’t know I possessed, I packed for Paris. I was going to get an “A” on this cramming experience.

My husband and I agreed to meet at the airport. Passport in hand, I recall my heart racing at the speed of a hummingbird’s as I hurried to the gate. The flight was just about to board. It was scary. It was totally out of character for me. It was…strangely exhilarating.  

Planning and preparing will always be a part of my DNA. I find comfort in control, even if control is illusory. But as I discovered with my third attempt at going to Paris, knowing when to ignore even the strongest organizational instincts can make for magical, unscripted memories.

Would I have enjoyed Paris as much as I did if we’d gone as planned the first time around? Maybe. OK, probably. Paris is amazing! But the “third time’s a charm” trip was made infinitely more special because of its spontaneous start.

While I support natural endorphin highs, I’m not suggesting that you try skydiving or attempt to climb Mount Everest tomorrow. But every now and again, give yourself grace to let the chips fall where they may.

And if you are using actual chips (like potato, corn, or tortilla chips), don’t overdo it.

You don’t want to get high blood pressure from all that sodium.

Have you ever done something out of character that ended up being an amazing experience? Please share your stories with me in the comments section.

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