When my children were in middle school and high school, we lived quite a ways out in the country. I was commuting into Sacramento, over an hour away, for work and then providing afternoon and evening transportation to various extracurricular activities for the kids. I drove in excess of 3,000 miles every month. I had this uncanny ability to arrive to pick my kids up, wherever they happened to be, at the precise moment I estimated. Whether inclement weather, road construction, unpredictable traffic conditions, mattered not, if I said I was going to be there at 3:02, I pulled up at exactly 3:02. It bordered on spooky.
I have spent the past quarter decade in a career I sort of half-wittingly, and unwillingly, fell into. It was only ever to pay the bills, just until I figured out what I really wanted to do. And it still is. I’m an accountant. An auditor, more specifically. Not an I.R.S. auditor, I’m a financial statement auditor, the kind of auditor a company hires to come in and audit their financial statements for compliance with certain standards and expectations. I’m a friendly auditor. Or I was. Now I teach audit software skills. I teach audit methodology. I teach audit.
Auditors plan. Auditors plan like military strategists. Don’t think for a moment I’m joking. If you are ever involved in a financial statement audit, be aware of the fact that every number, every variance, every interview, every document examined, goes into developing the most strategic, most detailed, most well documented plan. Just be aware of the fact that if you offer the auditors a donut with chocolate sprinkles, it will probably trigger an action in the audit plan different than if you offered a donut with rainbow sprinkles, like perhaps assigning more experienced staff, or altering the nature, timing or extent of testing of a certain financial statement area. I’m kidding. But not. There are plans and they are detailed.
So, I plan.
My question, though, is whether for every plan, should there be a backup plan, a “plan B”? You know, in case things don’t work out, there is a fall back plan. I’ve decided not.
Five years ago, I embarked on a quest to lose weight. I had recently left a long, fattening, and increasingly unhappy marriage. I traveled extensively for work, which meant eating in restaurants for every meal while away from home, not having a steady routine for sleep or exercise, and only being home a couple days a week, and so, celebrating, by eating out or indulging in “comfort food”. I looked to food for comfort, for solace, for celebration, for boredom. I wasn’t obese, but I was unhealthy, miserable, and uncomfortable.
I adopted a fitness guru, Jillian Michaels, and thought her books and materials were clear, practical, logical and would, more than any others I’d read in the past, be most likely to offer lasting, lifelong, life-changing, results. I ate more healthy selections both in restaurants and at home. I paid attention to portion size. I found a way to exercise every day. I adopted a mantra, “WWJD? What would Jillian do?” The sizes dropped, one after another. In the course of a year, I found myself swimming in my wardrobe four different times. I had to buy four completely new wardrobes in the course of a single year! It was awesome. I jettisoned every piece of ill-fitting clothing as it was replaced. I remember the shock and horror expressed by most of my friends and family. “Why would you get rid of the clothes that became too big? What if you gain the weight back again?”
I tried to reassure everyone, this thing I was doing wasn’t some “fad” diet, this was a lifestyle change. The weight was gone with my old behaviors. It had been a year. I was confident with my new self and had no intention of ever allowing myself to return to my old ways, or shape. I figured, by donating all my too large clothing to charity and not having them to slip back into if I slipped up, would put more impetus on watching my “p’s and q’s”. If my new jeans were beginning to feel a bit tight, it was an indication to take immediate action. Having a “plan B”, a whole wardrobe of roomier clothes, would make it easier to stray from the original plan. It was a plan for failure. It facilitated failure. It resigned to it, made failure an expectation, an eventuality. That was five years ago. I’m still the same, smaller, size, my weight and shape has fluctuated some, but very little. Not once, in five years, have I had to replace a single item in my wardrobe with a larger size. There are currently, out of two dozen pairs, only two pair of jeans in my closet that are a wee bit too tight and, so, my plan is to be a bit more careful with portion size and second portions of certain things I’ve been allowing, lately, like beer. And wine. I’m watching my “p’s and q’s”.
As an auditor, when we plan an engagement, as we gather evidence and information, if we discover a risk we hadn’t planned for earlier, we don’t have a “plan B” to revert to. We don’t abandon the original plan for some lesser plan. We edit the original plan to include steps to address the new risk. The rest of the original plan remains in place. We enhance the original plan, we shore it up, make it more robust. We simply adjust.
I believe this is how we should manage all the plans in our life; from career plans, to plans to improve relationships, to plans for activities or vacations, to plans to learn a foreign language, whatever the plan. Make a plan for exactly how you want things to go. Don’t have a plan for failure. If the original plan doesn’t work out 100%, and, truthfully, few do, simply adjust the plan, enhance the plan, make it more robust, shore it up.
I was on a vacation to the east coast lately, to visit my daughter and son-in-law, in upstate New York. When I began to plan my visit I told them I wanted to do two things, for certain, during my week there; I wanted to see the horses race at the Saratoga Racetrack and I wanted to summit Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York state. I was so certain about summiting Mt. Marcy, I’d actually drafted the witty social media posts I would make memorializing my accomplishment. It was all but in the books before I even boarded the plane. I planned for it. I packed my hiking boots, my hiking socks, my day pack and hydration system, my trusty water-wicking wool shirt, my emergency trail items; headlamp, knife, cord, multi-tool, etc. I brought with me everything I’d bring on a day hike up to the top of a far higher mountain, here, on the west coast. I’ve summited a few west coast mountains, some over twice as high as Mt. Marcy, in the past few weeks alone. I had a solid plan.
As the week in New York unfolded, my daughter and I fell into our usual pattern of behavior; do, see, eat, drink, repeat. We went to the horse races, we went to a polo match, we went shopping, we dined, we wined, we revisited our favorite spots in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she lives. We had so, so, so, so, much fun. The night before our planned trip up Mt. Marcy, we stayed out a bit later than we should have. As our plan to summit Mt. Marcy fell on the last day of my trip, before flying home, the week’s activities were taking a toll, I’m sure, on our physical, mental, and emotional ability to perform at our peak in such an endeavor. As we stayed out entirely too late the night before, and had put off accumulating and organizing all the necessary provisions for our planned task until the morning we were to depart, and, because my alarm went off only a couple of hours after managing to drop off to sleep on my somewhat less than perfect, though free, air mattress on the basement floor, we got off to a very late and groggy start. We’d planned to get gas the night before, while out, but neglected to do so as the evening wore on into late night.
Further, this plan, perhaps, not as solid or well-executed as most of our plans, failed to adequately research the drive time or to check the weather for the day in the vicinity of Mt. Marcy. You see, originally, our plan included my son-in-law who would have painstakingly organized all those last bits of details. He had to adjust himself out of the planned trip the day before the trip because of a sore knee. So those last details were kind of dangling and, truthfully, were kind of in the way of our plan to enjoy that last night in town.
We set out a full three hours later than planned. We detoured into town for gas and some additional snacks. We made our way to the interstate and headed north and drove and drove and drove, the navigator telling us the trip was a full hour or so more than we really imagined. Or had planned for. As we drew closer and closer and closer to Mt. Marcy, in the Adirondacks, in upstate New York, the sky grew darker, cloudier and more and more ominous. About three quarters of the way there, my daughter asked me if I’d brought my packable rain gear. Um. No. I’d meant to, I’d planned to, but in the last moments of packing, I’d forgotten. She had extra rain gear at home, but we hadn’t thought of the necessity for it, for both of us, until now.
She asked me what we should do, as in, should we devise a “plan B”, like hike somewhere else, less challenging, not as far away. I’d thought of this, too, but figured the time it would take to research another, lesser trip, would be better used in attempting the original trip. That was my plan, it was our plan. She’d hiked to the top of Mt. Marcy, ill-prepared, before, she knew the challenge, the trail, the conditions, and had tried to communicate them to me, but perhaps I didn’t listen as carefully as I should have, or I was cocky at my ability, emboldened by all my recent, successful, mountain ascents.
We passed through a couple of mountain towns in the last miles before reaching our trailhead at the Adirondack Loj. One town boasted a very popular appearing outdoor store. I considered detouring in to purchase some rain gear, but the parking lot was completely full, we were totally late, and I’d asked my daughter if there was a similar store on sight at the Loj. She said there was. We adjusted the plan accordingly; I’d just pick up a rain poncho at the Loj store and we’d be set, according to plan.
As for our timing; we knew the approximate mileage up to the summit, we knew when the sun was likely to set, and we knew our historical, average, hiking pace. It “mathed” out. Given the number of miles, even with the ascent, the hours of daylight available, and our hiking pace, we should be able to summit and return to the car by just about dark. Our original plan had included dinner back in town, but we were willing to adjust it for this.
We reached the Adirondack Loj. We committed to our revised plan by paying the ten bucks to park for the day. The sky was dark, cloudy, damp and ominous. It had rained off and on during the entire last hour of our drive. My daughter brought Aston, the pup, to accompany us, and was tending to his needs as I went shopping in the Loj shop. I looked like a California mountain summiteer; I wore running shorts and a tank top. I still had my flip flops on, with plans to switch to my full-on, lace up, ankle supporting, mountaineering boots. I’d been told the trail was more rugged than the west coast trails I was used to and had planned accordingly. Unless backpacking and bearing a significant amount of weight, I usually opt for old running shoes over full-on hiking boots when I hike. Running shoes were not part of today’s plan. But, entering the Loj store, I looked, admittedly, like a goofball. Everyone was bundled up in layers of technical clothing; pants, shirts, jackets, rain gear, gators, hats, ponchos, pack covers, the whole deal. I looked on every rack and every display in the shop. I squinted at the labels hung next to empty hooks on the displays, but, as I didn’t bring my glasses, couldn’t make out the letters for those missing items. I looked and looked and looked, all while trying to look casual and competent, I couldn’t find any rain gear. I finally asked, and was informed they’d recently sold out. Those blurry labels adjacent to those empty display hooks were, apparently, where rain ponchos would have hung.
I returned to the car we paid ten bucks to park for the day. I told my daughter the store had sold out of rain gear. We revisited “the plan”. I still was not ready to devise a “plan B”. We’d planned to hike Mt. Marcy, we were here, for better or worse, that was the plan. I was invested, we were invested, and that’s what I wanted to do. I said, “Let’s just go and revise the plan as needed.” I changed into my proper hiking pants, laced up my proper hiking boots over my proper hiking socks. I adjusted my trekking poles to the proper height and made sure my daypack included all of the proper things, with the one exception of rain gear. My daughter prepared herself, properly, as well. We made sure there was adequate water and provisions for us, and for the pooch. She’d planned carefully for his company by bringing a bungee-style leash that secured around her waist, as he was required to be leashed, and she’d need both hands free. The pooch, too, had made this hike before. I was in good company. It was part of my plan. The revised plan. We agreed on a “turnaround time”. If by 3:00 PM, we weren’t at the summit, we would turn around and head back for the car in order to make it before dark. We had headlamps and all that would be necessary to hike at night, but going downhill, in the rain, with the puppy dog, would be more challenging than just hiking in the dark. Our re-revised plan.
We set off. I observed the signs, the mileage to the summit, the trail, we were in good shape. It would be a long day, but a rewarding one. I’d decided to put my water-wicking wool pullover on to start with. It was raining. My daughter had her rain jacket on. We hiked and hiked and hiked. The trail was wide and soft and sloped upward gently. We met, and passed, all kinds of other hikers. We hiked and hiked and hiked. We conferred, a couple of times, at junctions, trail crossings and water crossings, and made decisions collaboratively. We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. It rained. It was warm, though, and I was very hot with my dampish, water-wicking wool pullover on. The clouds gave way, finally, to broken sunshine and we stowed our outer layers away in our packs for later use, potentially, or not.
We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. After one stream crossing, the trail took on a new form; boulders. It actually resembled a stream bed, complete with water trickling down the center, making the varying size and shape rocks, slick and slimy. The trail was well-marked with round, blue, trail markers fastened to trees. It was clear we were on the intended trail, though it resembled more a seasonal stream than a trail. The very sparsely spaced mileage markers added additional confusion; after hours and hours on the trail, we seemed to have only hiked a couple of miles. I didn’t let any of this discourage me, but the reality of reaching the summit before our turnaround time seemed less likely. But, still, here I was and with a goal in mind. Had I known the mileage markers were “as a crow flies”, and not in “trail” or “walking” miles, I’d have had better information to apply to the plan.
The trail became steeper, and rockier, and as morning passed into noon and beyond, there were more people heading back down the trail, from points beyond, like the summit, than there were heading up. I felt, at this point, I was amongst the fools, chasing a folly, of reaching the summit of this mountain while daylight was still available. And I felt like everyone passing us, in the opposite direction, silently agreed with my self-bestowed judgment of “fool”. While it wasn’t raining, there were still clouds, and through the dense tree line, and not really knowing the direction we were headed or the direction the trail would turn, it was difficult to gauge whether the clouds were gathering, or dispersing, would hinder us, or hide from us.
We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. The trail got steeper, and rockier, and more strenuous. The toll of too many nights without adequate or comfortable sleep, the overindulgence in food and drink, the reckless abandon of appropriate physical activity and pre-hike hydration practices were beginning to become evident in my energy level, or waning energy level, I should say. And I was hungry.
We’d made so much progress, thus far, and much like negotiating one’s way through traffic on a congested highway, you really hated to stop, for any reason, and get passed up by those you worked so hard to get around. We’d passed groups of hikers who sprayed DEET on themselves, while hiking, creating a cloud of DEET in their wake, which we couldn’t help but inhale as we went. The only thing worse than the smell of DEET is the taste of it! We’d managed to make our way around a couple from Canada who smoked cigarettes. While hiking. Spewing cigarette smoke for us to breathe until we maneuvered our way successfully around them. It was not a good strategy, presently, to stop for nourishment and let these unsavory, poorly behaved hikers regain their positions in front of us.
But, I was spent. I needed food. And, it was 2:30 PM, a half an hour from “turnaround” time. We hadn’t really verbalized this reality, but it was there, and it seemed, now, time to take a break and revisit “the plan”. We fed the pooch, munched on some of our own provisions, and deliberated for a good ten or fifteen minutes, how we might adjust the plan. It was absolutely clear we would not summit before 3:00 PM. Our choices seemed to be; shun our very prudent turnaround time and just go for it, or turn around and head back now before it started to rain, again, making our descent down the steep, slippery, rocky trail with the enthusiastic pooch pulling us (her) down the trail, or hiking on upwards, until our 3:00 PM turnaround time, likely not making much additional progress, only to have to then negotiate our way down that much more terrain. There was thunder rumbling in the distance. Our nature, my daughter, and me, would be to “just go for it”, so it was with uncharacteristic temperament that we decided not to forge on to the summit, but to just turn at this point and head back down. But, rather than abandon our plan, completely, and call this a failure, or defeat, we altered our plan.
A mile or so back, along the trail, at the last discouraging mile marker we passed, at a fork in the trail, there was an arrow pointing to “Indian Falls”. We revised our plan to hike to Indian Falls rather than to the top of Mt. Marcy. It was not a “plan B”, just a wise revision to the already partially completed, original plan. To mitigate any notion that we were, in any way, wimping out, we agreed, had we both had appropriate rain gear, and had not brought the sweet, adorable, rambunctious, pooch, we would have carried on, summited Mt. Marcy, and hiked, like triumphant bad asses, back to the car, in whatever conditions Mother Nature tossed our way; rain and dark and treacherous trail.
Thunder rumbled, again. We bundled up or snacks, donned our daypacks once more, and began the first steps downwards. The smoking couple met us, still heading upward, we conversed with them momentarily on the likely duration of the rest of the hike, both in time and distance, the likely conditions, the changeable weather, the treacherous descent in the dark. The man wore cotton jeans and a cotton Old Navy t-shirt, his daypack was awkward, askance on his frame, large and purple and looking like it came off the “back to school” aisle at WalMart. His female companion was overweight and wore a way too tight black, Lycra, yoga outfit like you’d see worn at a mall in New Jersey. Her carefully done hair and makeup also did not make her appear to be the more skilled outdoorsperson of the duo. He seemed to seriously take into consideration the challenge that lay before them should they continue on. She, however, as we headed on down the trail, was heard to all but beg him to get to the summit. I still wonder if they made it.
We slowly negotiated the slippery boulders down, steeply, to the fork in the trail, and took the trail off to Indian Falls. It was a short leg of trail that quickly cleared the trees, opening to a stream that ran across impressive slabs of rock, then tumbled downward, out of view. Across the falls, with canyons between, loomed Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York state. It loomed so large above us, compared to our present position. I craned upward and wondered just how many more miles, how many more hours, we’d have before us if we had chosen to persist. I’ve no doubt we could’ve done it, and would’ve had a lifetime of stories to share for the accomplishment, but, in this moment, on the sunny rock, next to the rushing stream and the cascading falls, I was completely happy, completely content, in our plan. Our revised plan.
Our trip was not a failure, it was a complete success. We had a wonderful time carrying out our plan, and, as wisdom and acquired knowledge and facts dictated, as they always do, an alteration to the original plan. I am so grateful we didn’t plan to have a plan to fall back on, had we decided not to carry on with our plan. “If we stay out late and wake up late, instead of going to Mt. Marcy, let’s just …” I loved Indian Falls and am so grateful I got to hike there and spend time eating pistachios and sharing a beer with my daughter and the pooch. It is a day I’ll not ever forget, and a “plan B” would have deprived me, us, of that experience, of that joy, and of the lessons we learned that will help us as we devise our plan for our next attempt at Mt. Marcy! Yes, we plan to return, and to summit, and to triumph, and, had we not carried out this revised plan, we wouldn’t have as much valuable information in masterminding our next plan!
That’s the plan.