Parents tell children to take an umbrella when the forecast calls for rain. Coaches emphasize that chance favors a prepared mind. Counselors say to plan for the worst and hope for the best. But is preparation really that important? Why not just show up and wing it?
I considered these questions last week as I prepared for a particularly challenging case.
Although natural talent, timing, luck, and chance do play a role, preparation readies us for difficult times and unexpected events. Preparation smoothly facilitates action, akin to a shift to autopilot. Actions under pressure can seem like they occur as second nature. Three key elements of preparation are time, expectation management, and breadth of prior experience.
Malcolm Gladwell outlined the importance of the time element of preparation. In Outliers, he emphasized the now controversial 10,000 hour rule as a crucial threshold needed to become an expert. According to Gladwell, shooting free throws for 10,000 hours in an empty gym should make that one-and-one with the game tied in the last seconds that much easier to convert. Ample time spent in the early phases of a project heightens the chances of eventual success when it counts. He who sweats the most in peacetime, bleeds the least in wartime.
The ancient Stoic philosophers deftly managed expectations as part of their daily preparation. They anticipated disruption, pain, struggle, and suffering. This represents not a pessimistic but a realistic view of everyday life. In Meditations, The great emperor Marcus Aurelius writes, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly…” Marcus was perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but indeed, schedules go awry. Bosses yell. Trains arrive late. Co-workers drop the ball. By downregulating expectations, we are prepared when those undesirable things do occur. In such cases, it is as if things just went according to plan. No big deal. If things go better than that, well - it is a bonus!
Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, admitted that his breadth of experience as an adolescent prepared him for the many difficult decisions of his political life. In a letter to Dean Acheson in 1962 he writes, “I had to study whether I wanted to or not. Read the Old & New Testaments King James translation three times before I was fifteen, and all the histories of world leaders and heroes I could find. Our public library in Independence had about three or four thousand volumes, including the encyclopedias! Believe it or not I read ‘em all – including the enclo’s. Maybe I was a damphool [damn fool] but it served me well when my terrible trial came.” It is hard to imagine a more difficult trial than his decision whether or not to drop atomic bombs on his fellow human beings. By reading broadly, Truman had the fortitude and decisiveness to act, controversial as his decision may have been.
Sometimes it is not the goals we plan for but the unanticipated surprises that demand a response. Spend the time, downregulate your expectations, and read. Your future self will thank you.