A year ago, I gave a presentation that could make or break my second semester English grade. Like most college-minded high school juniors, I knew that I couldn't afford screwing up this presentation.
I spent hours designing the best looking PowerPoint presentation, rehearsing twice in front of the librarian, writing down responses to potential questions from the audience and even researching jokes online in hopes of wooing my teacher and classmates. Nothing could go wrong, I convinced myself.
But things did go wrong, terribly wrong.
"Good morning everyone. Today, I am going to talk about Gatsby and the Corruption of the American Dream," I blurted with my head held down.
As I stood in front of my classmates, I felt my legs and hands shake uncontrollably, as if they had a mind of their own. Instead of slowly explaining my points as rehearsed, I rushed through the PowerPoint slides and made incoherent arguments. The jokes (which I probably convinced myself were comedy gold) ended with awkward silences and at-least-you-tried expressions.
Why does it seem that our detailed plans never go according to, for lack of a better word, plan? According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Social Cognition, researchers pointed out that "making a specific plan is not always helpful for attaining goals, due to a trade-off between openness and specificity. While plans make people more likely to act on a goal, they may also cause people to cease looking for useful alternatives."
And yet, we're still obsessed with making detailed, one-year, three-year, five-year or even ten-year plans. Some parents begin paving their child's pathway to college by sending them to the best elementary, middle, and high schools. Others sign their child up for a myriad of extra-curricular activities. The torch inadvertently passes to the next generation of students who strategically choose the "right" clubs or the best way to polish their CVs in order to chart out a successful career path.
I must admit that I fell victim to the perils of overplanning. After being rejected from a dream school a few months ago, I knew that I wasn't going to let history repeat itself four years later. I spent the next few weeks entranced in deep thought; I'll self-study the GRE during summer, pre-write the college essays two years ahead, intern at McKinsey and Company in my third year, and become the President of the Model UN Club. Here I come, Harvard Graduate School!
I felt an added sense of security, but something about the plan irked me. One evening, as I was half tucked in bed and clicking through Youtube, I stumbled upon an interview between Conan O' Brien and Chirs Pratt. Conan asked Chris how it was like being a door-to-door coupon salesman for two years before becoming an actor.
Wait, what? Chris didn't go to some acting school in New York?
Chris took a deep breath and laughed, "I think there are major lessons to be learned in door-to-door salesman that you use as an actor. You know, in terms of dealing with rejection and walking into a room of strangers and being on and enthusiastic and stuff, and I was good at it".
And suddenly it clicked. The plan didn't feel right because I was limiting myself to one pathway, a route that I thought would clearly impress the graduate school admissions panel (didn't I learn anything from Shawshank Redemption?). I wasn't willing to let my passion guide me, to take chances, and to keep an open mind for unexpected experiences. By overplanning, I was only setting myself up for failure.
Earlier I spoke with two friends: a first year engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania who loves photography and a recently admitted student to Stanford who dances day and night. Contrary to conventional wisdom where one must have ten or more years of experience before listing an activity on the Common App, they picked up a passion in high school. Their passions took an unexpected turn and ended up becoming an integral part of their college applications.
I will be the first to say that setting goals is a good thing. But in a world where college admissions are increasingly unpredictable, in a job market that is always evolving, we take comfort in a false sense of security by overplanning.