Years ago, when I worked at Big Shipping Company, I talked on the phone almost almost every day with an Account Executive named S. We were assigned to different cities, but I provided support for many of his customers. We talked about what to do with this one or that one, how to get shipments through Philippine customs, and, as the years passed, about our personal lives.
S was a master of keeping on keeping on. He had been born in the town he had lived in all his life, and he understood that he would die there. He had been with the company longer than I had been alive, and took whatever assignment he was handed. Like many of us there, he sometimes spent years on assignments he hated. Regardless, S. always came in on plan. He had also been not-particularly-happily married longer than I had been alive, and intended to stay married until either he or she passed on. A vow was a vow, he figured. Among the many things he and his wife disagreed about was where their daughter would go to school, and he was ferocious in his advocacy of letting her go out of state to the Very Good Big 10 she had gotten herself into rather than keeping her at the shoddy in-state college her mother favored because it was close by. (He won.) He spent one day each weekend hanging out with their son. Lord knows what vices he had, but whatever they were, he managed them well and kept them out of sight. When I left the company, he was in the middle of giving up smoking.
S did not have a life I wanted, but he was someone I very much respected. He didn’t blindly dedicate himself to any of these things, but once he had made a decision he stuck to it come hell or high water. He slipped all the time, but he was better than anybody else I knew at jerking himself up short and getting back on his chosen track. One day, I was whining about not being able to get my act together for the semester and he said, “Ooooh. You can’t be doing that. It’s time for you to go have a meeting with yourself.” Meeting with himself, he explained, was the only way he managed to make things work.
Up until then, I had never bought into the notion of goal-setting and 5-year plans and periodic reviews. Calling those things by those names still makes my skin crawl a little. But I could go have a meeting with myself, and so I did. And when I got done, I knew what I wanted to do for the next couple of years. I knew how and when I wanted to finish my BAs and what I wanted to do with them. And I did indeed haul off and do everything on that list. When I finished, I made the next big list and started on it.
That was two years ago. In the meantime, I’ve made little lists and plans — semester plans, project plans, moving plans. It wasn’t until last week that I noticed that I had finished all the big items on that last big plan: finish master’s thesis, get accepted at first-choice PhD program, live through first year of PhD work, establish research agenda. Lately, I’ve been staring at several big life decisions and muddling around for months with them. On Tuesday, I woke up feeling more directionless than I had in years, and I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t made any decisions. And then I thought about Sherry’s frequent posts about planning, and I thought about S. I got a legal pad and a blue pen and took myself to a local grill and had a meeting.
I had no idea what would come out of it — I just hoped for a plan to get through the summer. When I got done several hours later, I had a summer plan, a one-year plan, a four-year plan, maps of my three fall seminar papers, and a chapter outline of my dissertation. No wonder I had been so confused, with all of that rumbling around in my head. (I hadn’t even known that I was worried about or working on the seminar papers. This is not the first time my mind has done something like this to me.)
So now comes both the hard and the easy parts. Hard, because it’s all, well, work. A bunch of work, in fact. But easy because I’m a pretty good work monkey. Once I’ve managed to get my gears wound up and myself pointed in a definite direction, I’m good at marching forward until I reach whatever goal I’m aiming for. And I really like crossing things off lists. Now I just have to find a way to shake off this summer indolence and get to work.