Is planning overrated?
I'd say that I'm a planner. I like the idea of setting a goal, making a plan, and working towards achieving it. When we travelled, I probably spent as much time planning and researching as we did travelling, and that was part of the fun. It's fair to say that I feel more comfortable when I know where we're heading and how we're planning to get there.
It's therefore ironic that many of the most influential decisions in my life have not followed that same goal setting and planning process. Instead, some decisions have been based on a slightly weird criteria, while others were a case of simply saying a positive "let's go for it" rather than a safer "no". It's also fair to say that, at the time of making the decisions, we had no idea as to how significant they might be or to where they would lead.
Was this fate? If so, is that the best way to go, and is the goal setting and planning futile in comparison? I don't believe so, setting goals, making and executing a plan is still one of my cornerstones, but
the way we respond when faced with unexpected events or decision points can have just as big an influence on our lives as the best laid plans
The way I look at it is that
while fate or luck might have presented us with a decision point or opportunity, it's up to us to grasp the opportunity and to then make a success of it
I remember talking with a colleague who asked what my career ambitions were, kind of like the "where do you see yourself in five years time?" question. I replied that I figured that so long as I worked hard, was reliable, diligent and always did my best, then it would be noticed and good things would happen. There was a look of pity on his face, just prior to him telling me how wrong I was. Well, I started out on the bottom rung of the ladder as an accounts clerk, and when I retired it was from the position of finance director. I may be biased, but it seemed to work pretty well for me.
I've said numerous times that a treat of early retirement is having the time to think about things. That includes reflecting on my own experiences, and some of the decisions and actions that turned out to have a huge effect on the direction of my life. At the time, I had no clue of the longer term consequences of these choices, but with a combination of perhaps luck, fate and some of my own hard work these, some seemingly innocuous choices and actions, turned out to have a huge effect.
First real job
At eighteen, with no thoughts of going to university, I had to get a job. After leaving school at sixteen, I'd spent two years at the local vocational college studying a practical business and finance course. I looked at the jobs page in the newspaper (remember those days?) and circled an accounts clerk position. Maybe I could do that. Fortunately, they thought so too, and I started a week later.
That sounds normal, so what was so key about this?
they enrolled me to do my professional accounting qualification
That tiny detail, which had nothing to do with me, set in motion my finance career. Without it, I wouldn't have been able to secure the subsequent jobs (and international work permits they required), and I suspect I wouldn't have been able to retire at 47. Was this down to fate, luck or, once enrolled, the hard work I put in to pass? Maybe it was a bit of all of them. Anyway, huge thanks to my first employer, they made a massive difference.
A bus...what's that about? By this time I'm twenty-one, and trying to buy my first house, for which I had to sell my car to make the deposit. It seemed a good idea, until I realised I couldn't get to work without my car - I never claimed I was smart!
Fortunately, I had a solution, I'd get a new job, close to my new house. I had some experience and, best of all, I was cheap, a winning combination that quickly got me three job offers. So which one to take? The one that had a free bus that stopped in my town and took the workers to the office of course. That was my only consideration, not the job, not the prospects, but that the employer offered a free bus.
My only consideration...they offered a free bus
Well, it turned out to be an inspired choice. They were a great employer, I had a great boss, and it was that employer that started my international/expatriate career. Fate? Luck? My hard work?
There are a couple of reasons why this sticks in my mind. It was my first overseas posting, where we spent almost four years in the capital, Kingston. But just as notable, was how the decision got made. I was minding my own business, getting on with my work, when my boss asked if I had a moment. I must be oversimplifying, but the way I remember it was pretty much:
Boss: We have a vacancy in Jamaica, we thought of you, what do you think?
Me: Yeah, sounds good, I'll do it. Bye.
The key here is that I said yes, and then I made it work. In fairness, Sally had a lot to do with making it work too. Plus the support of that great boss that I mentioned (in fact, I've been lucky to have some good bosses throughout my career).
Over the years, as we've worked around the world, I can't count how many people have said that I'm lucky to be working in these locations. Maybe I was lucky, but it also required me to say yes to the opportunity, not necessarily to stick with the safe option. My feeling is that most people, given the same chance, take the safe route and very few say yes.
By the way, while Jamaica sounds fabulous, and it was, Kingston is not the place you see in the holiday brochures or internet pictures, it's much different from those images. Second, this job was a huge step up, to swim rather than sink took serious effort and long hours. It might have been doggy paddle at times, but I kept my head above water. While taking the job with the bus lead to this opportunity, saying yes to the Jamaica opportunity was converting a possibility into a reality.
A restructure, resignation, and new country
Sometimes, an obstacle can turn into an opportunity. In an internal company restructuring, my business unit was merged with another. I went from leading the finance function of my unit to being the deputy in the enlarged combined business. Being the deputy didn't bother me, the problem was that it didn't feel like a proper job and I lost my enthusiasm for going to work.
If I was enjoying work less, what would fix that? We were back in the UK at this time, and we concluded that we enjoyed our overseas life more, so I'd look for a job internationally. I had interviews for roles in Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Algeria and probably some other places in between. I usually got a call back, even a medical at one point, but I seemed to be
an expert at making the short list of two but not being the final one. The key was that I didn't give up
Then a job opportunity in Dubai came along, and I got it. We said it was only worth going if we stayed three years or more - it ended up being thirteen. Sally loved it, the kids enjoyed it, and I'm certainly not complaining, it was a good time in our lives. We were there through booms and busts, it was mostly first world with occasional aspects of the wild west, but it's also where we earned and saved the vast majority of the money that got us to financial independence and retiring early.
Was it fate or luck that took us to Dubai? Would Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria or Algeria have been better or worse. Was it our hard work and flexibility as a family that made a difference?
It was meant to be a vacation apartment
Now we're living in France...how did that happen? Well, we went to Austria on holiday one summer for a week and enjoyed spending time in the mountains. At the same time, we'd been scared away from the stock markets so we had a lump sum of money that we didn't know what to do with. You're probably ahead of me...the natural solution, why not buy a holiday home in the mountains? We'll use if four weeks in the summer and maybe we can learn to ski for a week each year in the winter. The rest of the time, we'll rent it out as an investment.
So that's what we did...almost. We bought the place in the mountains, it turned out to be in France, not Austria, and when it was ready we took possession, but forgot to leave.
We never had a plan to live in the apartment, nor to live in France, but that's what we're doing.
Was it fate, was it luck? It certainly wasn't part of our plan, that's for sure, but as you've seen from the other examples, that almost seems to be a common theme.
I love a good plan, but it seems that many of the most instrumental decisions have occurred almost by accident. But what hasn't been an accident is how we have grasped those opportunities to make them a success. I like looking back and reflecting on how certain things came about and how they turned out. It's also interesting to see how it is carrying forward into my early retirement, where one of my aims is to try to be a little adventurous (at least by my standards), which often starts by trying to say yes to something where the safer option feels like saying no.
Do I think we always need a plan? I probably err towards saying yes, I think they're helpful, and I suspect I'll always have one close at hand, but it seems that the unplanned and unscripted side of life is just as important.