A Life Schematic or Just Winging It?


Were the most important decisions of your life all the result of cold, hard math? Or did you ever follow your gut?

How did those decisions turn out? Did your grand strategies collapse under unforeseeable circumstances? Did your enthusiasm for impulsive or intuitive commitments wane? Or have your preparations proved fertile? Have your feelings guided you to joyful, surprising experiences?

Did the nature of those decisions make it more or less difficult to adapt to new circumstances later on?

We conservatives regularly discuss all kinds of careful designs for an individual’s life: retirement plans, courtship and marital customs, educational paths, social networking strategies, etc. I wonder if we emphasize such planning too much or too little.

To what extent should life be mapped? What things are better discovered or responded to on-the-fly? How important are improvisation skills? What is the role of emotions in life, if not to direct us?

I think perhaps that ‘The grass is always greener on the other side.” The statisticians of the world wish they had been more impulsive. Free spirits wish they had made more plans.

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  1. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum

    Good question, Aaron…Physical limits tend to make one plan; spontaneity can be a wild ride, unfortunately.  <grin>

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  2. Frozen Chosen Inactive
    Frozen Chosen

    The most important decision I ever made was choosing a wife and I went with my gut.  Been married for 29 years and it’s turned out pretty well I must say.

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  3. Majestyk Contributor

    If you fail to plan… plan to fail.

    • #3
  4. Casey Inactive

    As far as I can tell, nothing much ever happens.  Best to just be.

    • #4
  5. user_88846 Member

    If the grass seems greener somewhere else, then it pays to find out what’s fertilizing it.

    It’s limiting to believe that decisions must either be based on “cold, hard math” or “follow[ing] your gut.”  Both math and instinct play a role.  The wholly gut driven person will follow every whim and wind up in the poor house.  The wholly math driven person will know that most things will fail—in the long run, we are indeed all dead—and will lapse into analysis paralysis.  Life, however, is inherently risky.

    So I’ll explain how I try to make big changes.  It takes both instinct and some math.  Your gut wants to take a chance, so you make small gambles.

    Making a decision starts with your gut.  You know that things aren’t ideal, and that delaying a choice is itself a choice that might be limiting.  Running the odds means that you try not to make an irrevocable decision at first, but you try to gamble with some low stakes.  Two examples from my own life.

    First, I graduated in the teeth of a recession.  During my finals week, my college lost power in the rolling blackouts that hit California.  So relatively few people in the state were hiring when I got my diploma.  My gut said that leaving California was needed.  The math said that the best metro area was Washington, DC.  I had money saved up, so I gambled and went to Washington, D.C., to see if I could find work.  I registered with multiple temp agencies, tried several dead ends, and eventually found permanent employment.  Note, however, that I didn’t buy real estate and could move back with my parents if DC didn’t work out.  It was a gamble, and it worked out after a few false starts.

    Second, finding a significant other.  I gave up on online dating and decided that I needed to increase the numbers of people I was seeing in order to couple up.  And I did indeed find someone.  Here’s the how I raised the numbers:

    • I joined an amateur sports league
    • I joined the board of an organization I liked, which made me a go to person for fellow board members and interested people.
    • I’d force myself to try to ask someone I met—through either the league or the board—on a date at least once a week.
    • I tried to go to a house party at least once a month
    • I had personalized business cards made up with my contact information and title (“Geek”) made up, and I handed them out to potential dates.
    • If someone asked me out, I’d say yes to at least two dates. (I eventually modified this to one if the date ended badly, such as when we had to argue about tipping the waiter.  In my book, if you stiff the waiter, you’re a bad person.)

    Tl:dr Make lots of small gambles: even though most will fail, some will eventually pay off.

    • #5
  6. Misthiocracy Member

    Most early decisions were based on following my gut, chasing my dreams, and following my parents’ “as long as you’re happy” guidance.

    I started making progress and actually being happy once I switched to making decisions based on cold, hard, math. That was about five to six years after having graduated from university.

    • #6
  7. MarciN Member

    I advise a management-by-objectives scorecard. You write your objectives across the top and your options down the side. Then you give scores to the merits of the options as they align or don’t align with your objectives. The highest score wins.

    • #7
  8. das_motorhead Inactive

    I have a strange blend of the two. I’m a scientist by training, so I love me some data. Unfortunately, I’m also inherently very indecisive and I want to make everyone around me happy. The combination of the two means it’s pretty easy for me to end up paralyzed. So, for a lot of stuff, I just trust that my background/knowledge/experience/whatever is enough to give me a pretty good gut instinct, and then go with it.

    Now, if any of you want to vote on whether I should take my wife to the burger joint or the Mexican dive for the MNF game tonight, I’m all ears.

    • #8
  9. Guruforhire Member

    I have a direction and not a script.

    Life is too fluid to have a plan.  Having a direction is a different story.

    • #9
  10. Casey Inactive

    MarciN:I advise a management-by-objectives scorecard. You write your objectives across the top and your options down the side. Then you give scores to the merits of the options as they align or don’t align with your objectives. The highest score wins.

    And when you’re done with that you’ll look up and find yourself married with two children.

    • #10
  11. das_motorhead Inactive

    Guruforhire:I have a direction and not a script.

    Life is too fluid to have a plan. Having a direction is a different story.


    • #11
  12. user_1700 Coolidge

    The question resonated with me – I often tell folks that I’m 48 years old and 24 years into my professional career, so maybe it’s about time to map out a life and a career plan.  8^)

    Luckily, most (not all) of my choices have worked out well, in no way that I could possibly have foreseen.

    • #12
  13. MarciN Member


    MarciN:I advise a management-by-objectives scorecard. You write your objectives across the top and your options down the side. Then you give scores to the merits of the options as they align or don’t align with your objectives. The highest score wins.

    And when you’re done with that you’ll look up and find yourself married with two children.

    Three.  :)

    • #13
  14. Seawriter Contributor

    Ummm . . .  yes.

    I have done both over the course of my life.

    Decided I would marry Quilter the first time I met her.  (Doesn’t get more impulsive then that.)  Then sat down and planned how I would do that. (We were both in our teens, and my plan could not expect to come to fruition until I was at least in my early 20s.)

    Ran the numbers and decided on the type of education I was going to get (I got a degree as a naval architect and marine engineer.  It was a stable field in engineering.) Then followed my instincts to take a job in the Space Shuttle program. (A really crazy decision in 1978-79.)

    And so on as my life went on.  Best way to put it is I have always followed the two rules of wing-walking:

    1.  Never let go with one hand until you have a firm grip with the other.

    2. There are times when you have to let go with both hands, jump, and hope for the best. Recognize when that time has arrived and jump.


    • #14
  15. EThompson Inactive

    Guruforhire:I have a direction and not a script.

    Same. I was an English/French major but found my true calling in the business world. My education helped hone my analytical skills and my intense curiosity about NYC as a child (probably due to all those Eloise books I read) brought it all together for me. As you say, it wasn’t scripted, but there was always a general outline. :)

    • #15
  16. neutral observer Thatcher
    neutral observer

    Going with the flow has been good for me.  After college I took the first job I was offered while planning to go to grad school.  (I was going to restore paintings or something like that…a little foggy on exactly what I wanted to do).  Somehow I ended up being trained to write software and found I loved it!  When you first start out, take a job, show interest, and be open to all possibilities.  Who knows what good things can happen?

    Unfortunately, I was also open to a few too many possibilities in my dating life, so the lesson I learned is sometimes you have to date the dregs to appreciate a good vintage when it comes along.

    Life is uneven but can deliver good things if we just give it a chance.

    • #16
  17. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto

    This is going to be highly personal.  Some of us are just better at improvising than we are at planning.

    • #17
  18. Stad Coolidge

    neutral observer: Unfortunately, I was also open to a few too many possibilities in my dating life, so the lesson I learned is sometimes you have to date the dregs to appreciate a good vintage when it comes along.

    Good to know I’m appreciated!  Hehe . . .

    My plan was also to go to graduate school, but I didn’t relish the thought of another two years of classes, so I joined the Navy.  And what happened?

    I spent the next 18 months in the Naval Nuclear Training Program pipeline, full of classes, exams, and oral boards.

    The big difference?  I was PAID to do it, and that made all the difference in the world . . .

    • #18
  19. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy

    Some of my worst ideas were ones that sounded rational when I concocted them. In particular, my first foray at grad school was in a History PhD program. I had the languages, I read and wrote well, and I’d even found a good dissertation topic.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have an academic temperament. The work and rework needed to convert my first major paper into that dissertation struck me as fecal dorodango.

    It turns out that I’m better at juggling a portfolio of things and optimizing it. I’m not so hot at deeply focusing on one single task until its perfect. For example, as soon as I had finished that first paper, I wanted to move on to another topic. I guess it was another bright, shiny object to study and collect.


    • #19
  20. user_44643 Inactive

    Mount up and ride to the sound of the guns!

    • #20
  21. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby

    I am very analytical. My tendency is to go with the choice that leaves the most options open. The big professional decisions there were my decision to get an engineering underrate education, and then a law degree.

    Undergraduate: Engineering. You could pursue engineering as a profession, but engineering also can open doors to lots of other things. And if during school, you decide engineering isn’t right, it’s easier to switch from engineering to something else than to go from something else to engineering. (I at one point planned on eventually getting to medical school, but freshman chemistry told me I was never going to get near the field of medicine. :-) )

    When during engineering school it became clear I would not be good at engineering per se, but I liked the technology, do I get an MBA and manage engineering, or go to law school and generate legal protection for the results of engineering (patent law)? I chose law school because the “powers that be” might let someone with a law degree manage, but an MBA could not do the law without going back to law school. I have very much enjoyed the law aspect of technology (which I have now done for 33 years). And, I have ended up with a very business-oriented view of the law of technology.

    Romance was a different story. I figured I’d identify a likely candidate for marriage, and date for several years to be sure I had the right person. God said, “no.” Mrs. Tabby and I were married 18 months after meeting, with 12 of those months being 1000 miles apart owing to my school. I was helped there though because my mother and my brother, my life-long best friend (a female who functioned as a sister), and several other long-time friends thought Mrs. Tabby was perfect for me. My mother said if I didn’t marry her, my mother would disown me and adopt Mrs. Tabby. S, in a way I guess I did do the analysis, but via the feedback of others. 33 years later, I can assure you they were right.

    • #21
  22. Mr Tall Inactive
    Mr Tall

    Interesting question. I’m an INTP in the Myers-Briggs system, and I redline the needle on both the ‘N’ and the ‘T’. Usually, I’m quite analytical and dispassionate, but the two biggest decisions I’ve made (taking a job in Hong Kong, and deciding to marry my wife) were total gut-level jobs.

    Both worked out pretty well: I moved to HK almost 25 years ago, and have no intention of leaving, and Mrs Tall and I are coming up on our 19th wedding anniversary.

    I chalk it up to God sometimes heavily encouraging us when we would err by following the ‘best’ path, i.e. the one that seems to us most logical and ‘safe’.

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  23. EThompson Inactive

    I moved to HK almost 25 years ago…

    Lucky you ! but I’m worried about my favorite city.

    • #23
  24. user_986247 Inactive

    After years of deliberating over potential marriage prospects (time is ticking, should I settle?) with no resolution or joy, I recognized my future husband within 11 hours of knowing him.  I wish I had that degree of conviction with other important decisions, but that was the only one.  Otherwise, it’s a shot in the dark, by faith.

    • #24
  25. PsychLynne Inactive

    I often hum the words to .38 Special’s song:

    Hold on loosely, but don’t let go

    If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control

    Ok, there’s more to it than that, but not that much.

    • #25
  26. Ross C Member
    Ross C

    I don’t believe that people generally plan for the important decisions in life in the traditional sense of planning.  So if we are talking big adult decisions like:  Should I marry this one?; Should I buy a house?; Should I take this job?; Should I have another child?; we largely just wing it.

    It is not fair to say we just wing it, but we rely on intuition and prejudices (not in bad way) based on our and our parents experiences.  Subsequently our parents used their parents so there is substantial ancestral continuity you might call cultural knowledge.

    Think about who you married or what job you last took.  Did you gather up 3 likely candidates and make a list to figure it out?  The last time I changed jobs I needed a new job by a specific date and so I moved from CA to TX.  The plan was to ensure employment.

    Now when things work out on our decisions then we say our plan worked QED.

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  27. virgil15marlow@yahoo.com Member

    I guess it depends on how far in advance you consider a “life schematic.”  I make plans, but there are usually not more than two or three years out.  I guess for me, mostly winging it.  Marriage, a child, a job I’ve been at more than 29 years, owning a home.  Other than that I don’t know what constitutes major life decisions.

    • #27

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