When Life Has Other Plans

As hard as I have tried and as diligently as I have worked to control my direction through Life, as much as I have planned and anticipated and laid out my future, there have still been critical points where things simply did not go my way.

On many occasions over the past several months, I did not pass through the checkpoints that I had long intended to pass through. There have been moments where Life has sent me on crazy, unforeseen, unpredictable—even painful—detours.

And there will be many more, I am sure.

To resist Life’s direction only seems to make these detours more painful. My way may not be Life’s Way, and the sooner I come to embrace and celebrate that, the happier and more fulfilled I will probably be.

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I am cautious about preaching unearned wisdom. My only intent is to share my thoughts and experiences when I feel like I have something helpful—and dare I say original—to share.

When I graduated and received my commission from the US Naval Academy back in May 2020, I truly felt on top of the world. Things could not have been going better. I had graduated near the top of my class, got my first choice service assignment, and was about to start a new and exciting adventure with some of my closest friends. Pandemic aside, the plan I made for myself was coming together and the direction was clear. Full speed ahead.

Then I got pretty sick with C*vid-19. My bed was my companion for the better part of six weeks and I was in and out of the ER three times. Frankly, I considered myself a pretty healthy and fit guy, so I didn’t see that one coming. It was a pretty miserable time, but I was fortunate to make a full recovery. The plans I made continued along. This was just a hiccup, right?

Then my girlfriend of 3+ years broke up with me. I felt completely blindsided and that sucked pretty bad. This was really not part of the plan!

Okay, just a couple of unforeseen events, right? Although these seemed like pretty major detours at the time, the plan was not entirely lost. Some adjustments would need to be made and the plan would look slightly different, but I would nonetheless be able to carry on and pursue what I had originally intended to.

My training as a Nuclear Submarine Officer began in November 2020. It is now November 2021—one and a half years since I embarked on my career and over a year since I checked in to begin training…

…and I am no longer doing that thing which I set out to do. I am no longer training for the job that I chose and planned for over my four years at the Naval Academy.

And why not?

I worked my tail off for four years to prove my worth as a Naval Officer and demonstrate my potential for service on submarines.

I passed the technical interviews at Naval Reactors in Washington, D.C.

I sat across from the four-star Admiral that now sits where Rickover sat and he allowed me to join his community.

I even made it most of the way through Nuclear Power School with pretty high scores.

I checked all of the boxes I possibly could, but there is more to Life than checking boxes.

This is not a sob story. I am not telling this story to solicit pity or tout my past achievements. I am telling this story to illustrate that even when everything seems to be going right, even when everything is going exactly as planned, even when you control and optimize as much as you possibly can, there are still intractable factors and events beyond your influence that can and will send you off in a completely different direction than the one you had intended.

Or, at least, that’s what happened to me.

Several months ago, I learned that I have a medical condition which disqualifies me from service. And rightfully so! Work in the Navy, and especially on submarines, is largely characterized by a lifestyle which is in direct conflict with what I need to do in order to be a physically healthy guy. This means I will not be spending the next few years unduly suffering because of my own pride, ego, or misdirected ambition getting in the way of taking proper care of myself.

It has taken me a lot of time to see it this way. I was pretty pissed when this all started happening. I certainly had a victimized ‘Why Me?’ attitude.

‘Seeing the forest through the trees’ was really hard for me. I was having trouble finding the right perspective because I had become so hyper-focused on a single outcome—a single plan that could not be deviated from. This was a plan that I had spent so much time and effort preparing. Deviations were not allowed! I didn’t account for any.

But that’s what Life is; a series of deviations from the plan.

This experience has forced me to re-assess where my own measures of success and self-worth are coming from. It forced me to reflect and ask myself some hard questions. Where was I coming up short? In what ways was I neglecting important aspects of my own personal well-being? (There were a lot.) Where were my blind spots with respect to what I could and could not control?

The truth is that I was so caught up in this singular plan – so preoccupied with dodging individual trees that I was unable to zoom out and see a better way through the forest.

Life showed me.

Making plans is an effective way to achieve goals, but planning too much or adhering too strictly to them can get in the way of living well when circumstances change, as they often do. I found that it is important to revisit these goals and be honest with myself about whether they still align with my core values and with what I want out of Life – or what Life wants from me – in these new circumstances.

My intentions remain the same as they have always been: to leverage my abilities in an impactful way wherever I go, to work on solving important problems, and to help other people suffer less. I still intend to fulfill my responsibilities faithfully and dutifully to the extent I am able. I do not intend to let future plans get in the way of what is truly important, nor do I intend to let any future goals come into conflict with my own physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

So what, you may be wondering, is the plan now?

There is no plan. There is just Life.

Thank you to Cecily, Fish, and Noah for helping me communicate my ideas.

Take The Next Best Step

What is the best way to act in the face of uncertainty over the future?

How should I handle the sometimes paralyzing anxiety that comes along with trying to plan for the unknown?

A handful of events have taken place in my life over the past several months which have led to major deviations from the plans I had made for myself. Some of these changes have made me anxious about the uncertainty of my future and what to do next—or where to even begin. This anxiety sends my frontal cortex into overdrive; thinking about all of the possible decisions, actions and outcomes that will put me back on a path towards my goals. This tends to result in a kind of mental paralysis that keeps me from doing anything altogether. The planning, the details, the possibilities, and the unknown put me in a state of overwhelm that can be difficult to break out of.

The problem is this: you will never know the future. You can make plans all day, but they will never execute with 100% perfection. There will always be hiccups, detours, and monkey wrenches that get in the way of the otherwise flawless plans that we lay out for ourselves. This is not to say that planning is useless or ineffective. Looking ahead, laying out your goals and milestones, and accounting for bad things happening are a very necessary part of getting what you need and achieving what you want in this life. However, making plans may not always be the best use of your time, especially if planning gets in the way of doing or if the plan itself cannot be conceived in the first place. To realize this is one thing, but to act in spite of this realization is not always straightforward.

I have, with deliberate practice, developed a strategy that usually pulls me out of this pit of paralysis. The way to break out is to take the next best step in the direction of greatest importance, as defined by your current priorities (if you don’t know what your priorities are, you should figure them out, but that is a post for another day). Based on your current circumstances, the information you have, and your current abilities, the best thing you can do is move in the direction of your choosing.

Simply determining what the next best step is helps to keep me grounded in the present. I can recapture my agency by shortening the timeline and reminding myself that the only things I have power over are my thoughts and actions in this very moment. Nothing else. Nobody else. Nowhere else.

You can leave the details for later. You can detach yourself from future outcomes and focus only on the process of acting in the short-term. Try to avoid getting so caught up in the details that you paralyze yourself from even starting. It does not matter that you don’t have the whole thing planned out or that you don’t know where you’re going to end up. It’s okay to not see the whole picture—sometimes you have a paint-by-numbers (if you’re lucky), but most of the time you have a blank canvas. Painting by numbers will produce a pretty picture, but it never results in a masterpiece. You have to start with a blank canvas to create something exceptional. But you have to start. When the alternative is inaction or paralysis, the best thing to do is to narrow your focus and shorten your projection to the most manageable view that allows you to further your cause.

I am not going to say that this is always easy. The idea of the next best step is simple, but right action has a tendency to be difficult. The trick is, however, to focus only on what is right in front of you. That’s it. Not all of the other steps that come after it—this is the fast track to becoming overwhelmed and things tend to devolve rather quickly after that. So, if your next best step is making you feel this way, you probably haven’t broken it down enough. The more you break it down—the more manageable each step becomes—the more the plan actually unfolds as you act.

You are not in charge of the future and there is nothing you can do about the past. The only real power you wield is the ability to control your actions and make decisions in the present moment. Thus, given the circumstances, your abilities, and the information you possess right now, all that matters is moving—even if ever so slightly—in the right direction.

Do what you can with what you have where you are.

Take the next best step.

Am I wrong about something? Did I miss anything? Do you agree? Disagree? Have questions or critiques? Post your response in the Comments section below.

Special thanks to Caroline Buzzard for her help with communicating my thoughts.

There Is No Such Thing as “Self-Made”

Why do I insist on doing things on my own? Why do I refuse the help and support of others for the sake of independence? A good argument can be made for personal growth and learning, to an extent. Sometimes it is truly beneficial to struggle alone for a while to achieve some kind of breakthrough or revelation. However, it seems to me that more often than not, I am too quick to adopt lone wolf status and resolve to do things by myself. I allow ego to decide that I don’t need anyone else’s help, because to accept help would be to admit deficiency or shortcoming.

I often find myself thinking about overcoming obstacles, facing challenges, and solving problems in terms of ‘Me vs. ___.’ But what about ‘We vs. ___?’ Or ‘Us vs. ___?” Why not make it the team’s problem to solve? My friends’ challenge to face? My family’s obstacle to overcome? Instead, I am inclined to dismiss collaboration and insist upon shouldering the burden myself and going it alone.

Maybe it’s because—on some subconscious level—I feel I have something to prove. To myself, to my family, to my friends, to the world. Is it to prove that I am strong, worthy, capable, independent, undeterred by challenge? That I am in some way a superior being to my ancestors before me who got by with a tremendous amount of help and are the only reason I am here today? Maybe it’s because I am afraid I will be judged as stupid or incapable if I ask for help. For some reason a part of me thinks that admitting I need help and asking for it makes me weak or dumb or incompetent.

There is no such thing as “self-made.” The truth is that everyone gets help. If you got any kind of education you had help. If you were born in a hospital you had help. If you were orphaned and raised by wolves—I am sorry and also impressed—guess what? You still had help. I am not a self-made anything, and neither are you. Everything I am and everything I have accomplished or overcome is the result, directly or indirectly, of the collaborative effort of many people.

Help comes in different shapes and sizes. Some types of help are easier to ask for than others. When I’ve needed to learn something, I sought teachers and coaches. When I was feeling lost and needed advice, I leaned on family and friends. When I’ve needed to escape or understand, I looked to books written by authors trying to do the same. When I was injured or ill, I sought the help of trained physicians. During especially challenging times, when I’ve struggled with mental health and anxiety, I turned to the help of a therapist. I did not achieve anything on my own. I had parents, a sister, friends, teammates, teachers, coaches, mentors, bosses, doctors, and even authors there to help me every single step of the way.

And yet, there are times when I still find myself feeling ashamed to ask for help or admit that I need it. The messier life gets, the more internally focused I become, the harder it is to turn outward for help. I still feel slightly uncomfortable writing this with the intent for others to read it. I still feel the need to show the world—even those closest to me—how strong and capable and independent I am.

But I am here to admit something: I am human, I am flawed, I am vulnerable, and I need a lot of help. If you’re reading this, you’re probably human too—and you should consider thanking whoever helped you learn to read. You are not self-made. You didn’t get here on your own. And here’s the big one: behind every single person who has helped you is a whole team of people who helped them. Consider how many people you have helped in some way, small or large, over the course of your lifetime. Try to count them on two hands. I bet you don’t have even close to enough fingers—or toes—to count the people you have helped this week alone.

We all need help. We all got to where we are with a tremendous amount of it. As a species we evolved to work together, lending a hand where we can or reaching for the one that is outstretched in our time of need. Remarkably, we are that much stronger, more capable, and independent because of it.

I am here to tell you, in this new blog of mine, that it is okay—expected, even—to ask for help. And if there’s something you don’t need help with, I hope that you will offer yours to someone who needs it, because nobody can do this solo.

You are not self-made, and neither is anybody else. It’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

Am I wrong about something? Did I miss anything? Do you agree? Disagree? Have questions or critiques? Post your response in the Comments section below.

Special thanks to Noah Evans, Caroline Buzzard, and Daniel Fisher for their help in communicating my thoughts.

Thank you to my friends and family for their encouragement in the launching of this space, and to Rhys Parry for his help with launching this site.