In high school and college, I heard lots of talk from friends and teachers about “having a life plan.” Five-year, 10-year, 15-year plans: Career moves, marriage, children, whatever it was you wanted in life, you needed to have a clear set of goals to get there. Everybody stressed the importance of having a predetermined path to get to a specific place where you thought you wanted to be.
Over and over again, I’ve seen friends who couldn’t meet the goals outlined in their “life plans” and suffered great anxiety and disappointment because of it.
Through the course of my job, I’ve had the privilege to interview a large number of people who have been deemed “successful” by the world at large: company CEOs, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, athletes, coaches, television personalities, etc. People who have reached the top of their field, according to those around them. And I’ve started to see a common thread running through all my interviews.
They didn’t have a “life plan.” They didn’t follow a set of goals to get to where they are today. In many cases, they aren’t even in the fields they intended to be in and wound up where they are largely by happy accident.
Bill Rhodes, president and CEO of AutoZone, was hired into his first auditing job (which later led directly to his AutoZone position) not because of his auditing skills, but because that company had an interdepartmental golf challenge each year, and Rhodes was an all-star college golfer.
He is CEO today, ultimately, because he could hit a golf ball. (He’s an excellent leader and has done great things for that company, but we’re just focusing on the beginning steps here.)
Houston Gordon, a nationally-recognized trial lawyer, took the exam to go to law school because his friends were taking it, and he happened to have enough money to pay the exam fee. Then, while in law school, he joined the National Moot Court Team because a friend saw a flyer and wanted to try out. He didn’t even know what the word “moot” meant! (Told me that himself earlier this week.)
His experience on that team led directly to a position with the Army JAG Corps in the ’70s, during which time he served as primary defense lawyer for Lt. William Calley, a case well-known by those who grew up in the Vietnam era. That case in turn changed him from a tax lawyer to a trial lawyer, and he went on to change the national laws and procedures for half-a-dozen different legal charges. He’s consistently named one of the top-100 trial lawyers in the country, is the winner of dozens of awards and is highly sought-after by clients all over the nation.
No life plan. Just enough money in the bank to take the law school aptitude test.
So I’ve come to this conclusion: having a set “life plan” probably holds us back from many things. Houston Gordon intended to be a professional basketball player. Think of how different the legal world would be if he’d been successful on that path.
I think it is of more benefit to teach our high school and college students to have a good enough educational, spiritual, physical and emotional foundation to be able to accept new opportunities when they come and take the chances that may be offered along the way. Who knows, maybe the person who could have cured cancer ended up teaching mathematics at a high school somewhere because that was his/her original “life goal” and he/she never even considered any other field.
Be open to change. Don’t fear opportunity. Maybe taking life by the horns is the best way to get where you’re truly meant to go.