Leaving Room for the Unexpected

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Rummaging through a box of possessions recently, I found programs for theater productions from high school and college. (I did a lot of theater back in the day.) Most of those performance have dissolved into the haze of distant memory.

Some stand out, though. There was the time the set fell over in the middle of a scene in Wonderful Town and I ad libbed an appropriate comment. (The audience loved it.) Another time, I completely blanked in the middle of a monologue and took a ten-second pause. (Only the director noticed.)

It’s not just me. Theater people love to trade tales of near disaster and unexpected problems.

In theater, as in life, glitches are a chance for glory. Don’t fear them. Be ready to respond at your best.

How This Applies to Writing Projects

Whether you’re writing a book, a dissertation, or a series of blog posts, schedules that look reasonable on paper don’t always hold up in the real world. The longer or more complicated your project, the more chances there are for things to misfire.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky coined the term planning fallacy to describe the fact that most of us are pretty rotten at planning large, complicated projects. We are unduly optimistic, because we can envision the steps to a successful outcome, but can’t easily picture the myriad ways that things can go wrong. And go wrong they do.

Does this mean we shouldn’t plan? No indeed. Back up your files. Do your fact checking. Get someone to review your work. Take care of those risks that you can mitigate easily or that might lead to catastrophe.

But you’ll drive yourself nuts trying to anticipate and plan for every possible situation. You’ll have no brain cycles left for writing.

You cannot control every factor in the outside world. Seeking perfection is a fool’s game.

Instead, recognize the limits of your control. Make sure that the glitches aren’t fatal, that the project can survive hiccups and delays and problems, and that you’re ready to handle the unexpected with grace.

We live in a beautifully imperfect, unpredictable world. Plan for that.

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Make Room for the Unexpected

To respond with your best self, you need to dial back on the stress. Give yourself time and mental space to handle problems as they arise.

  • If you’re writing a book, leave room in the schedule for illness, technical problems, and other disturbances.
  • Allocate time for editing and revision, which usually take longer than you think they should.
  • If you’re publishing the book yourself, don’t let the ease of online publishing lull you into a sense of complacency. The processes of submitting books and checking proofs can take a few passes. If your schedule is tight, you’ll feel stressed, which makes you more likely to miss something important.

Seth Godin knows a thing or two about publishing. He’s written 18 best-selling books. But he’s not immune to minor disasters, even when working with a respected publisher. The first 250 copies of his latest book, This is Marketing, shipped with upside-down pages.

What did he do?

He blogged about it, of course. He found lessons in the problem and shared them with his readers. And his publisher (Penguin Portfolio) offered to replace the faulty books.

There’s a lesson for all of us in how this played out.

Change The Way You Approach Problems

Instead of dreading imperfections and hoping for flawless execution, stay open to the possibilities. Tell yourself, “I wonder what unexpected issue will crop up on this project.” Approach it with a sense of curiosity rather than dread.

When the project stumbles or the unexpected happens, ask yourself:

  • Who is harmed by this problem and how can I fix it?
  • How can I bring my best self to solving this problem, and handle it in a way that aligns with my values?
  • What can I learn from this and apply to future projects?

When approached with this perspective, inevitable misfires and hiccups become opportunities to learn, to improve your process, and to figure out something for the next time. You’ll lower your stress level.

And, perhaps, you’ll have a good war story to share with other writers.

Writers and the Planning Fallacy

Originally published at annejanzer.com on January 1, 2019.

Author, Writing Coach: Writing about Marketing, Technology, and Writing Itself (very meta). AnneJanzer.com

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