Is it possible to have a plan for life?

Attention is the rarest and purest forms of generosity.

–Simone Weil (the quote from Weil was brought to my attention by my friend Carolyn Veith)

This past week, one new conversation partner told me, “I had a plan for my life and I didn’t stick to it. Now I feel awful.” Her assumption is that a meaningful life would have to be one that was realizable in the future and, in the meantime, that the present will require of her immense fortitude, serving as a means for this external end. Her implication in the second sentence is that she lacks the willpower to follow through on her plan for life. She fears she lacks the strength or resolve. I want to show her that something else is at stake.

But wait: here come the experts! Enter first the cognitive therapist who will claim that she must train her will to act more effectively at the same time that she learns to be “more reasonable,” to “lower her expectations.” Habits and expectations, he will say, mind your habits and expectations! Enter here the life coach who will troubleshoot the plan for bugs and micro-manage the means she employed with a view to determining whether some more effective means might instead be implemented. Chew more vigorously, take more bites, but by God plan well you must!

Ahem. Tap, tap. Let’s bring the philosopher on stage and let him have a go. A bit of swagger here, some swagger music please for our longhaired hero. He begins:

All parties at the table assume that the idea of planning for life falls well within the ken of the faculty of volition: to will or not to will; to choose prudently and to avoid obstacles; to be motivated always by the consciously free will;  and to persist, as ever, in willing till the end is fulfilled. In addition, they assume that instrumental reasoning does and must hold sway. This is the form of reasoning according to which the means and ends are analytically separate, the one occurring in the present, the other manifesting itself in the future, the acting and acted upon means serving to bridge the gap between the two. (An example of instrumental reasoning: Tom exercises for the sake of having hypertrophic muscles. An aside: Tom is a dolt. A further aside: Andrew was once Tom. Ergo…)

I doubt all of this very much. My hypothesis is that “having a plan for life” is a conceptual and logical error because, by my lights, it is not possible to have a plan for life, a plan for the future. In place of a “plan for life,” I wish to put a “way of life.”


To see why we can’t possibly have a plan for life, let’s consider some  garden variety cases where we typically talk of planning.

Case 1. “I am planning a meal for my family.” I take it the concept of “planning” involves, at a minimum, arranging certain kinds of food in a certain sort of order. My plan may include making some kind of a salad, bread, pasta, and desert for dinner tonight. Saying that I am “planning” to make this kind of meal seems to me perfectly reasonable.

Case 2. “We are making plans to meet at the movie theater at 7 p.m. on Saturday.” “Planning,” in this case, means something like “agreeing to do whatever is generally necessary to meet each other at this place and this time.” Here, planning could well be synonymous with making a promise. “Planning” also seems to presuppose the qualifier: “under normal conditions.”  Under extraordinary conditions, it would be utter madness for you to meet me at the movie theater when your mother had just been hit by a car. The basis for a good Monty Python skit, though.

Case 3. “It is likely to be cold in the morning but get warmer throughout the day, so I am planning on dressing in layers.” “Planning,” in this case, seems to mean “preparation for foreseeably changing conditions in order to protect oneself from, e.g., being too cold or too warm.” Reasonable enough.

Right. So far, so good.

It would seem, e.g., that wedding planners, event planners, and caterers get paid to make the proper arrangements for an upcoming event. Front office workers, e.g., get paid to schedule appointments. And various forms of “storing up”–savings accounts, CODs, investments, etc.–are “set by” in the event that X should be befall one, where X is something very bad indeed.

And what do all these cases have in common? There are at least three shared features (there may certainly be more):

1. Planning has to be very finite in scale, i.e., in terms of time (Wednesday at noon) and place (this coffee shop near Central Park). Some examples of possible jokes: a wedding planned approximately 31 years from now; we plan to meet on Tuesday around Australia.

2. Planning has to be concerned with what is generally foreseeable or likely. A weather report saying that there is a 70% chance of rain today tips us off to the idea that we would have reason to prepare for rain by wearing a raincoat.

3. The plan must lie within our human capacities. I cannot, even in principle, plan to become a Martian tomorrow or ever. I spent the first 5 years trying to be one, only to spent the next 25 sitting fairly pretty with the idea of being all too human.

Now then: does a concrete plan for life (or a concrete plan for the future) satisfy these 3 features? It does not. A plan for life is indefinite in scale. It falls beyond the range of the foreseeable or likely. (Try planning for Judgment Day. Pack galoshes and kevlar vests.) It lies beyond the scope of our human capacities, as if we could make the indefinite future sit and heel before our all too human wills.

But if a plan for life is a conceptual error, what motivates us to hold onto it?


I am of the view that claiming that a concept such as planning is overextended, misapplied, or misunderstood can be, and often is, a vital spiritual exercise. Conceptual analysis can be vital, to be sure, inasmuch as it may show us in what “native soil” a concept is at home and in what transplanted soil it is bound to die. However, conceptual analysis only goes so far, since it fails to consider what reasons we might have for wanting to create and stand steadfast by plan for life in the first place. Why, in other words, do people hunger for life plans, why are they gripped by them, and why do they pay copious amounts of money to people who promise to make these life plans into a reality? (Damn me. In a former life, I would have been an excellent swindler.)

I can imagine two very basic reasons for holding to the concept of a life plan.

1. We long to lead meaningful lives, but we posit (the German here is good: setzen–to place or put over there) the essential or meaningful out there, over and against the life we lead here. Hegel wrote insightfully of this form of life which he called “unhappy consciousness.” The basic setup is that our inessential lives are separate from the essential (God, the meaningful, plentitude, fulfillment, utopia, the afterlife, the summer home in Maine, the perfect family, and so on). It is also important that the inessential does not partake at all of the essential, and yet, being inessential, it is put in the service of providing access to the essential. The inessential is, as it were, the “slave” of the essential.

In these terms, the puzzle is insolvable, not to mention a source of continual strife. For how can one kind of substance (the inessential) “be put in touch with” another kind of substance (the essential)? That would be bizarre! Hegel’s first proposal is this could happen through work. In his phenomenological investigation, he observes how the one who works strives toward the essential, only to find that the essential continues to fall just outside or well beyond his grasp. This realization may lead the striver to think that it is not the general structure that is at fault but the level or extent or amount of his efforts that is to be blamed. Best to work harder then. No? Nothing? Still no good? Then best to try a different means. No? Nothing? Hmm…

Unhappy consciousness is now frustrated and so thinks it better, after all, to wait for the essential to approach it. He waits, does unhappy consciousness, getting older all the while, yearning for the Messiah to return. He waits for Godot but without signs of his arrival. No? Nothing? Pointless?

The puzzle, once again, is insolvable in these terms, for the essential either recedes as I strive toward it or it does not approach as I wait for it to arrive. Perhaps, the problem lies not with the will but, as I suggested at the outset, with the understanding. Sorry to say, there is no way to win in the terms set by “unhappy consciousness,” no matter how hard we have tried or are willing to try again. We can always fail and fail harder, but this is the way of madness and despair.

 2. The second reason is far scarier, however. We fear that the lives we are currently leading are not actually worth leading. This fear drives us to reason thus: either we continue to lead this form of life and hence fall into despair (the terminus is suicide or, simply, “soul death”), or we make a plan for life and stick, come what may, to it. Yet if it is true that to make a plan for life is to fall into a conceptual error, per point 1 above, then it seems to follow that we must fall into despair. And this is indeed quite scary. What to do now?

We needn’t be tempted by this conclusion since the argument is valid but unsound. The first premise, either A or B, either this way of life or a plan for (another) life, should be rejected. Care to go with me in search of some lovely and loving third option: a way of life, here and now?


Let’s remind ourselves of a simple fallacy. We tend to infer from the claim that way of life P has gone under that (our) life full stop has gone under. The suicide’s claim is that the end of this way of life is the end of life period; thus it is best to kill oneself. Not so.

Our horror stems in large measure from drawing this erroneous inference. The truth is that way of life P’s going under can very well open us up to the idea that way of life P was not that good after all and so there may very well exist a way of life Q that could conceivably fulfill our basic life needs. I know there is.

The temptation, at this point, is to posit way of life Q as being “over there” and then to return to “unhappy consciousness” for another go around. We can learn; let’s learn together. We need to remind ourselves, therefore, that however way of life Q is to be it mustn’t be posited in a space and time beyond the here and now. It follows that way of life Q must be one that we can inhabit, one we can live out in the here and now. Way of life Q must allow for the mundane cases of planning sketched in 1-3, but it mustn’t get caught up in that old saw about planning for the future, giving all for the sake of some impossible future plenitude.

So far, so good. It’s nice to know that way of life Q must be with us and we must be with it. (Reader, are you still with me?)

You have no doubt already picked up on the line of thought I am following. To spell it out further: a plan for life seems to be concerned with invariant arrangements–with having a sense of ‘finishedness’ and possessing that ‘finishedness’ for good and with holding what we have forever–whereas a way of life is focused on a way of being in the world: on our comportment toward the world, on the qualities of our lived experiences, on our generous attentions, on the way in which our life “hangs together” in the long present.

At this point, it will be said the I am urging us to “live (only) in the present.” But this is true only if “living in the present” allows for a specific understanding. It does not mean “maximize pleasure!” nor does it mean “treat each moment as if it were a discrete instant unrelated to past or future.” What, then, does it mean?

It means be a good friend now, where attending to your friend’s needs is both full (all there is) and a culmination of a past inquiry (all our experiences with her friend up to now). When I reply to my friend, I can only attend to her fully, here and now, if I have no desire to be elsewhere than with her for as long as we are together. But attending to her, here and now, is also the “memory” of all the conversations, exchanges, and interactions we have had up to now. She is not an atom posited before me but a flow of overlapping pasts rolling into the now that we two inhabit.

Extend this line of thought to any activity that actualizes entirely our way of being and the result would be that our lives are faring well. Extend it to doing meaningful work, here and now; to having good relationships (friends, neighbors, lovers, children), here and now; to tending a decent home, here and now; to being attuned to nature, here and now; to inhabiting a hospitable world, here and now; and so on.

But how do we ensure that the future is in keeping with this fullness, this fecundity, this experiential plenitude? Easy enough: we keep attending, perceiving, acting, working gently, and attuning every day of our lives. In this way, the future, so to speak, will take care of itself. Besides, we are going to die someday and there is no sense in planning for that.