Planning and preparation are not the same thing

​Always have a plan. Always. Why? I don’t know. I heard James Altucher say that “a bad plan is better than no plan”, and he’s a lot smarter than me, so I defer.

But here’s the thing. I don’t like planning.

I hate it when people ask dumb questions like, “So Matt, where do you plan to be in ten years?” My instinctual response is, first, alive. That seems like a pretty good plan. Don’t die. But I don’t say that.

Instead, I mention some vague short term target and then embarrassingly state that I haven’t thought that far into the future. That’s a lie. Of course I have. But I haven’t planned that far ahead. And even if I had, I certainly wouldn’t share what I’d come up with.

That would be silly.

Planning, as an activity, relies on one significantly flawed ability: the ability to predict what’s going to happen. Yes, you can technically allow room for unforeseen circumstances, but by making a plan, you’re saying, “this is going to happen, so I’m going to do this.”

But preparation? Oh boy. I LOVE preparation. And no, they’re not the same thing. Planning is based on certainty, on (supposedly) predictable events. Preparation is focused on uncertainty, the unknown, the unpredictable.

Say you have a meeting with a CEO about a job opportunity. If you try and plan the way the conversation is going to go, several things will happen. One, you won’t be able to. You can’t plan a conversation. Two, you’ll come across as insincere and robotic, and your natural energy and personal traits will be overshadowed by whatever dumb script you’ve dreamt up. Three, you won’t get the job because of number two.

Now, how about you prepare for that conversation with the CEO.

Do research on the company; it’s history, it’s key team members, it’s market position, it’s rivals, it’s strengths and it’s weaknesses. Do research on the CEO himself; his history, any press or reporting available on him, how the company has changed under his leadership. And do some thinking about yourself; how your skillset can complement the team, how your experience can be put to use for them. Also, come up with ideas for innovations or new directions to explore and highlight some improvements you can personally implement for the company.

If you do all of that, how do you think the conversation is going to go?

Consider another example. A special ops team is assaulting an insurgent’s compound. Think they’re going to have a plan? You bet. Think that if their plan goes wrong, they’re going to be prepared for it? Of course.

The special ops team’s preparation is the years spent training, drilling, practising, learning and breaking down every single element of what they do. The plan is specific to the task or the opportunity at hand. The preparation is done to serve any possible situation that could arise.

See the difference?

Planning is based on our ability to predict and to foresee. Which is something we are awful at. Preparation, however, is done to aid us in the face of the unknown and the unexpected.

You can survive without a plan. But you cannot survive without preparation. Preparation protects you against unforeseen circumstances.

Want to be more effective? Plan less. Prepare more.