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Simple Plans Make for Boring Stories

A while back, somebody on my LinkedIn feed posted this meme, which has been making the rounds on the internet for years now, in blog posts, and on social media. It illustrates the difference between “your plan” and Reality.

Most people who see this for the first time either chuckle or groan. Maybe both. The professionals out there who are in charge of project management mostly groan. Because it speaks a truth about how Reality tends to get in the way of things like planning and deadlines and budget caps.

Scottish poet Robbie Burns painted a similar picture to this one, but with words, more than 200 years ago. In one of his poems, a farmer talks to a mouse that he’s just unintentionally frightened out of its cozy home by running through it with a plow.

Here’s a de-Scottished version of two stanzas from that poem:

Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.

But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

You’ve probably heard some version of those two bolded lines quoted at some point. They were even the inspiration for the title of one of John Steinbeck’s most famous novels, Of Mice and Men.

For businesses and people, making plans is always a risky proposition. Because of course, we can’t predict the future. And as we’ve all learned this year, the kinds of things we can’t possibly know in advance are potentially more far-reaching than simply bad weather or market fluctuations, or consumer buying trends. Faced with this, it’s easy to look at Reality as the enemy. To view it as the party crasher who shows up and pours a giant bucket of water on everything, sending people home soggy and dissatisfied.

Why can’t Reality ever just let us have fun? Why can’t things be easy? Why can’t we pedal our bicycle casually to the finish line, then enjoy the rewards of our efforts without all the drama and complications?

Sometimes, of course, it does happen that way. Sometimes, not often, everything goes exactly according to plan. Especially if we’re the kind of person who makes a point of planning for every contingency … and making contingencies for those contingencies. Barring extreme circumstances, it is possible to achieve exactly what we set out to achieve in exactly the way we set out to achieve it.

But who wants to hear that story?

One of the oldest and most well-known tales in the Western world is Homer’s Odyssey. It’s an epic poem that chronicles the adventures of a soldier/king from Greece who encounters any number of monstrous and magical obstacles while trying to return home to his wife and son after fighting in the Trojan War.

Map courtesy of Shmoop University

Let’s face it, though. If the story of Odysseus was that “he left Troy and sailed directly home,” nobody would have cared about it, much less translated it dozens of times over the past two millennia. That’s because it’s the unexpected and inconvenient bits that make things interesting.

It’s human nature to become more engaged when faced with a story about somebody (or some business) overcoming slim odds, surmounting formidable obstacles, or rising to face a daunting challenge.

But why?

Well, most likely it’s because when we see or hear about or read the details of somebody else (real or fictional) going head to head with Reality and winning, we project their success onto ourselves. We identify with the protagonist and see ourselves in them. Which then gives us permission to succeed too, and makes us feel a little better about the fact that our own plans may have “gone askew.”

So if your small or freelance business has managed to achieve its goals in spite of unexpected challenges, then you should consider sharing that story with others. Not in a boastful way, of course, but generously. Show your clients and the others out there what’s possible. What’s more, when you tell that story of how you reached the finish line and achieved your planned goals by the less direct route, don’t be stingy with the details. Because the same steps you took might be ones that wouldn’t ever occur to other businesses.

And in the current climate, with Reality crashing down around our ears in new and exciting ways from one day to the next, we can each use all the extra inspiration we can get.

Randy Heller
Randy Hellerhttps://randyheller.com/
Randy Heller is a writer and storytelling guide for small and solo businesses who aren't sure where to get started. Randy began his career with a Master's degree in Creative Writing and a love of computers, which then translated into 25 years as a digital marketer, web developer, and Marketing Director. Most of those years were spent in publishing, bibliographic data, trade magazine, and libraries space, always keeping him close to the world of written words and ideas that are his lifeblood. In 2018, Randy shifted gears to focus entirely on writing and storytelling and is now able to leverage his natural creativity and decades of corporate marketing experience and insights to help small businesses pursue their dreams. He can be found posting weekly about the secrets to business storytelling and owning one's personal narrative (often with a decidedly nostalgic bent) at StoryHeller.com, as well as on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (see links above). He can't wait to meet you and ask that magical question: "So ... what's your story?"

4 COMMENTS

  1. I studied the Odyssey at school and I told it to my grandchildren during the lockdown precisely because they began to understand that reality can be full of unexpected events and you should never ask yourself why my project has to face so many challenges but we must be ready to accept the ephemeral, the unexpected and the feeling of insecurity we feel when faced with the unknown.
    We must be aware of the fact that, although we do not like the company of uncertainty, this one comes to visit us every now and then. The unexpected will continue to happen. The important thing is to work on accepting events to gain momentum, move forward and, of course, continue to grow.

    • I was somewhat obsessed with mythology in general and “The Odyssey” in particular back in my college days, Aldo. In part because I was an English major, and my favorite literary era was the Romantic poets, who were constantly referencing mythological figures and stories. And they were doing that because those myths worked so well symbolically and metaphorically to describe what was happening in their own hearts and minds. One of my top 5 favorite poems is Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, which is told from the point of view of Odysseus (now with his Roman name) many years after his legendary adventures, looking back and trying to find the way forward.

  2. Great story, Randy. We do face a very interesting challenge in the Great Reset. Prior personal work has made this journey somewhat enjoyable because I can watch what is happening around me yet not be consumed by it. Life for us, my wife and I, has been good over the last year and business is growing for both of us. I look around though, and I see so much suffering that is from a mindset incompatible with transcendence. Perhaps we can find better stories to tell soon. That’s what we’re here for, right?

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