Backup plans: Moving on when your intended path doesn’t work out

I expect to laugh through my tears when I find out that I haven’t been accepted to graduate school for a master’s in clinical psychology, my first choice of available post-graduate programs.

What makes me so sure I wont get accepted? For one, it’s one of the most competitive psychology programs in Ontario. Let me paint you a picture: approximately 110 people apply to Queen’s (yes, I know, boo Queen’s) for clinical psychology and only about five get accepted.

Also, my marks aren’t exactly stellar, not to mention the fact that I don’t have an undergraduate psychology thesis. It’s required at many clinical psychology post-secondary institutions (including Laurier), and preferred at most of the others, whatever “preferred” means.

Then get one, right? If only it was that easy.

It means I would have to stay back at Laurier an extra year. Don’t get me wrong, I love it here, but I feel that I’m ready for the next chapter in my life.

So what do I do when I’m relatively confident that my idyllic path isn’t going to pan out as planned? That’s what backup plans are for and I’ve got a plethora of those.

First, I’m going to do everything I can do to make myself at least a semi-competitive clinical psychology master’s student candidate.

I plan to do volunteer work, conduct experiments for professors and read up on the supervisors I’m interested in working with, should I miraculously get accepted. I also have to attempt to improve my grades and write the GRE.

Is all of that a total waste of time when my chances of getting accepted are so slim? I don’t think so. If it doesn’t pay off in how I intend it to, it will surely pay off in another way. If nothing else,
I’ll gain experience in a variety of settings, meet new people and learn the invaluable lesson of work ethic.

If you were to ask Steve Jobs, Chief Executive Officer of Apple, I bet he’d say something about connecting the dots like he did during the commencement speech he gave to Stanford graduates in 2005.

After he dropped out of school, he attended a class about calligraphy that, at the time, didn’t seem all that practical. In retrospect, Macs and PCs probably wouldn’t have all those fancy fonts if it wasn’t for him dropping in on that one class.

My point, in case it wasn’t crystal clear, is that who knows how what I’m doing now will affect my future. Take writing for The Cord, for instance; maybe I’ll end up being a professional journalist and writing features for a living (backup plan numero uno).

I’m also planning to apply for journalism (I kind of mentioned that), ethics in print journalism (it’s philosophy), bioethics (also philosophy) and maybe teachers college. If all else fails, I’ll just go for my MBA, as I’ve heard that’s pretty easy to get into. (Just kidding, biz kids).

Plans, plans, plans

Every morning, okay, sometimes early afternoon when I finally wake up and after he’s already been up for hours, my roommate asks me: “What’s on your agenda today?”

It’s nice that my roommate is interested in what I’m up to and, naturally, I love to talk about myself, my life and my day, but every day he asks this same question.

Sometimes I don’t know what to respond. Do I have to have an agenda every day? Can’t I have an agenda-free day? Isn’t there any value in spontaneity anymore?

Yes, I could just say “nothing,” but that, along with anything else I could’ve said, ends with “how about you?” and that follows with him listing 101 things he plans to do that day to improve his life and the whole gosh-darn world. Talk about intimidating.

He’s the type of guy who makes lists. I make lists too, for almost everything. I like lists. I often don’t accomplish everything I write on them, which is okay – they’re still nice for general guidelines.

A lot of times I write stuff I’ve already done, just so I can check it off right away and feel mildly accomplished.

I make day lists, week lists, year lists and even life lists. My life lists change a lot. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m making backup plans or if it’s because my interests change.

Regardless, with every list I make, I always have a backup plan and, curiously, it’s the same for every list. If my original plan is to complete everything that’s on my list, my backup plan is not to.

So far I’ve had absolutely no trouble accomplishing one or the other.

Some are good, some are bad

Some plans are good, but with others you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
Case in point: me applying for clinical psychology. So why do it? Well, there is a chance I won’t fail, and if I do, I have backup plans for that.

Besides, isn’t failure supposed to be good for you in some twisted sentiment?

I believe “character-building” is the term often used to describe this so-called phenomenon.
According to Winston Churchill, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” and that’s not too hard to accomplish when you’ve got a variety of exciting backup plans.

“Failure is not an option,” is another good quote. I used to think it meant that you can’t (read: better not) fail. Now I take a more light-hearted approach and see it as saying you can’t (read: can’t) fail, because failure is impossible — especially if you’ve got a backup plan for failure.

That, of course, depends on your interpretation of what it means to fail.

Is “failing” a test or a course really “failing” in the grand scheme of things? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s kind of liberating. Let me give you an example.

When I was in grade 11, I got 55 per cent on a chemistry test. When I found out, I pretty much broke down. I thought I was nearing the end of the world. I wasn’t, but it sure felt that way.

I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I was actually surprised that there were no drastic changes to the fabric of the universe. Looking back, it seems glaringly obvious, but at the time, I thought it was downright miraculous.

So then, why is failure not an option? It’s because you just keep going and going through these so-called “failures”, just like that Energizer Bunny.

Another reason to have backup plans, aside from being prepared in case of failure (which we pretty much determined is impossible anyway), is if you become disenchanted with your original plan.

That is, you may be well on your way to becoming a doctor, or doing whatever it is you want to be doing, but you find that is no longer your passion. As long as you have backup plans you have the opportunity to find a new path without feeling completely lost.

Expectations trap

You may feel disheartened if your long-term plans fall through, until you realize that you had blinders on and there is a whole world of options for you to discover.

You might realize that the path you are on is a result of societal or parental pressures and expectations.

Our society seems to say that if you want to be successful you need to have a postsecondary education (though Steve Jobs, who never graduated from university, could attest to the opposite).

Your parents may say you should go to law school at the University of Toronto, for example, but when you follow the plan that society or your family laid out for you, along the way you may become disillusioned with your path.

For this reason, backup plans aren’t just good for replacing your original plan, should you fail or become disillusioned, but they are also an important tool in the way that they can demonstrate to you if what you are pursuing is really what you want to be doing.

Backup plans do this by showing you options and making you consider different things.
If you research a variety of alternatives and still decide to stick with the path your parents have laid out for you, you will know what you are missing out on and by making this informed choice you will have an awareness that would have otherwise gone to the wayside.

Of course, no matter what you choose to do, you will be missing out on something since you can’t do everything, but at least, with the awareness of your options and potential backup plans, you won’t be missing out on the things that you really want to do.

Undergraduate academics and backup plans

In a practical sense, backup plans and academics mesh well. Richard Elliott, associate dean of science and priorities and planning coordinator, suggested that students keep their options open starting in their first year of university.

“Almost all university programs require you to have a full credit in a certain discipline in order for you to go on in that major so a good thing to do is start your first year with five potential majors.”

That is, in your first year you should plan to take a full credit (usually two classes) in all your courses, including electives, so that you will have a significantly easier time changing your major should you make that decision. That’s four backup plans laid out for you right off the bat.

In the words of Elliott, “Today’s elective might be tomorrow’s major.”

Furthermore, “If you really want something you should keep after it, but you should also keep your options open and not approach academics with tunnel vision,” continued Elliott.

“What troubles me is people who try to map out their whole life by putting blinders on and preventing themselves from seeing alternatives.

That can be very demoralizing for some people if or when they realize that’s not what they want to do or academically they can’t do it any more. That’s why it’s important to keep your options open and have backup plans.”

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both”

This is a not-so-famous but equally inspiring line from Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.

Although I’m sure it can be interpreted in a number of different ways, I’d like to take it in the direction that expresses how backup plans aren’t always backup plans.

Let me rephrase: sometimes a backup plan is only a backup plan because you can’t do two things at once.

That is, sometimes the backup plan is just as appealing as the original plan, but you’ve got to choose one and, call it fate, you end up doing one and not the other.

That is, if the first plan falls through for whatever reason, you’re just as content doing the non-backup backup plan.

I think people who have several non-backup backup plans are the ones who get lucky. That is, when at least getting lucky is equated with getting and doing what you want.

Of course everything is going to work out for you if you’re happy no matter what you’re doing.
In conclusion: get lucky.