Backup Plans

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My eldest one came, pulled up a chair and flopped down on it. She had just returned from her painting class.

I knew something was bothering her, or she would have proceeded to her room to change and freshen up before talking to me. I was in the middle of writing a tricky kind of paragraph so continued writing. Which is not to say I was not conscious of her sitting and simmering silently beside me. She waited for me to finish so she could talk.

When I completed my paragraph, I asked casually how her class was. She told me it was fine. I knew she needed to think things through before she will tell me what it was. Sure enough, after nearly ten minutes of heavy breathing she said, “Ma… er… today Sir was saying something.”

“Achha”, I said. “About what..?”

“About the BFA course… I mean I told him that I had decided not to do BFA and then a diploma in jewelry designing but was going for a degree course in jewelry designing directly. He didn’t like the idea.” She finished at last dejected and confused.

“Why..? What is he saying…?” I asked. I had a fair idea what was coming up.

“No… he is saying I should do BFA first and then go for jewelry designing. That way, if I changed my mind about going for jewelry designing, I could do something else. At least I will have a backup plan.” Her voice had taken  onthe same half-belligerent half-querulous tone as her teacher must have used when he talked to her.

This article is not about the teacher, the teacher is incidental. This article is about our obsession with having backup plans.

For me, the word backup can only be associated with strategy… not with goal. I will never understand what people mean when they want to have backup goals. I have never heard or read about any successful person who didn’t go for his goals with a single minded devotion and a fanatical focus. They don’t have backups. They know what they want… and what they will never settle for anything BUT. They do not have backup goals. Fall-back plans with goals will ensure only one thing… that you will fall back. It is the ultimate escape clause… it is the surest way of sentencing yourself to a mediocre life. I hate the concept. If we compute loss of life in terms of lives not lived to the hilt, I am sure we will find that there have been more lives lost to this obsession with backup than to wars.

I am sure you’ll find that an exaggerated statement. I don’t. To have the capacity to have a great life… and to hold yourself down to the lower level of a mediocre life… is to renege on life. Its worse than death. At least there is a cleanness about death. This is the worst kind of betrayal simply because it serves no purpose at all.

Lets say I want to go to Pune to attend a book fair. I’ve never been to Pune and I consult travel agent on how to get there. I finalize my travel plans and book my tickets. Do you think I ought- simultaneously- to make a backup plan to go to Nagpur also just incase I am not able to get to Pune..? Nope… there is no book fair in Nagpur but I can go and wait there until one happens na..? Are you calling me a nut…? I ought have a backup STRATEGY to get to Pune but to have a backup DESTINATION…?! I am sorry… my limited intelligence blows its blessed brains out at this point.

After working as a jewelry designer, if my daughter finds that it is not as satisfying/ fulfilling as she thought… she can always do another course or find something else to do, can’t she…? Will they have banned studying by then…? Or will she have lost her brains…? I changed tracks after 16 years in one profession. The work I do today has no similarity to what I was doing earlier. To attempt reaching a goal with a divided focus, to run for 2 finishing lines simultaneously- not even in the same league, seems a sure shot way of reaching neither.

I remember the daughter of one my professors. This happened in 1980s, she was a couple of years senior to me in school. She was truly brilliant. She wanted to study medicine and be a doctor. Yet she took math, physics and chemistry as her subjects in 9th because her father, a physics professor, wanted her to have a strong base in physics which was logical enough. Bio students somehow don’t manage to be very comfortable with physics… though I am sure there are exceptions. When she completed her 11th, she appeared for her pre-engineering test. Yes, pre-ENGINEERING I said. She got through, but didn’t go for it of course. She changed her subjects in 1st year and took biology, physics and chemistry. Obviously she appeared for her pre-medical entrance and got through that too. She went for that finally and became a doctor.

I have never understood why she appeared for her pre-engineering entrance test in the first place. You could say it was because she wanted to have practice appearing for an entrance exam. If she wanted practice she could have given herself sample tests for pre-med entrance test. Even in those times there were plenty of sample papers available- though there were no coaching classes. Coaching classes were for dunces. Can you believe she cleared her pre-engg and pre-med both on her own steam… with no help from anyone…? I told you she was brilliant…! It was not for practice she gave the pre-engineering entrance exam. It was just to have a backup plan.

Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico is a legend. In 1519 he landed in Mexico with 500 men. He knew he was outnumbered by nearly 300 to 1. To prevent his troops from retreating and to give them the do-or-die ultimatum, he set fire to his own ships. His troops had no option but to win… or to die trying. No prizes for guessing the outcome of that battle. Of course they won.

A child on the threshold of the most difficult decision of her life is confused as it is. She is scared… she is plagued with doubts. She is fearful of the choices she is making. She is not sure of what she wants or whether she will regret her steps later. To such a child, you say, “Oh, I think you should have a backup plan too you know… just in case you goof this one up…!” Don’t you know you are giving her the message that you don’t have faith in her abilities..? That you suspect she will fail…? Then you wonder why the youth of today- barring a few evolved souls- are so uniformly confused and have no direction in their life…! When did you let them choose ONE path and teach them to put all their effort, all their focus and all their attention on just that one thing…? When did you reassure them that their plans are not cast in stone… that if THIS turns out to be the wrong choice after all… they can change later and that won’t be the end of life…? What is it we are raising… kids or super computers for God’s sake…?!

Human beings change and so do their priorities. Why the desperation..? Why do we give them this you’re gonna miss the bus feeling all the time…? When will we teach them that while you are pursuing a goal, that goal should remain fixed but the strategy can be flexible…? When we stop teaching them that they get only one chance at making a success of their life..? Why the hell don’t we have respect for their intelligence and resilience..? Why don’t we show them that there are millions of options… and unlimited chances in life…? What is it we keep protecting them from… failure…or life…?

We don’t protect them from failure… by teaching them to make backup goals… we prime them for failure.

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Written on: 27th Feb 2010

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