A Hypothesis
No plan? That’s OK.

Business people holing construction plan Photo (detail): Fotoagentur WESTEND61 © picture alliance/Westend61

Let’s entertain a three-part hypothesis. It's just an intellectual exercise, but it's liberating, fun, and risk-free.

Maximilian Buddenbohm

The first part of the hypothesis is: “There is no plan.” Please accept this categorically, for the sake of argument. This sentence explains much of world history, presumably also whatever’s going on at the company you happen to be working for, educational policy, and maybe even the last few years of your life and of your relationship. If you just think this assumption through to its logical, radical conclusion, you’ll find it really does explain a great deal. The government doesn't have a plan, nor does management, your mayor, or the World Bank, and we certainly don’t either. 

One thing leads to the next  

Nope, there is no plan. If you apply this hypothetical – which, by the way, should be considered without malice, simply as a fact of life – to explain what’s going on over and over again, you’ll find it hits the mark with astounding frequency over the years. Because humans don’t naturally tend to plan things out. Because we seldom think more than a few steps ahead, two or three at most, and not very exactly at that, because we’re hardwired to react to situations instead: we look at the way things are, and only then do we take action. Our brains are still the way they were a gazillion years ago when we’d emerge from our caves in the morning and go out in search of low-hanging berries. Then, one thing would just lead to the next over the course of the day. So much for our capacity for planning, which hasn’t changed since. And depending on whether we rate our whole history to date as a success or not, that’s probably a good thing: after all, that history extends all the way to us now. 

Naturally, we keep our options open in case of bad weather, maybe even in case stock prices plummet or the other party wins. But these aren’t plans, they’re just intentions and a bit of tactical thinking. Plans are what the villains in James Bond movies hatch to take over the world in 27 steps or more: they’ve thought it all through, sussed it all out as no one else ever has. But these villains aren’t real. In the real world, plans generally pop up ex post facto – after the fact, when something pans out, people always claim it was planned beforehand. Then, we say we wanted it that way, we made it happen like that, it was all premeditated. We give rational explanations for our good fortune: even if we win the lottery, we claim we had a system. We play up our wishes and aspirations and, when we do achieve something, we say that’s just the way we wanted it. We’re sharp cookies, not children of fortune, which is very important for our self-image. 

Absurdly prescient planning 

The second part of our hypothesis is: “Everyone believes there’s a plan.” This explains almost all conspiracy theories, almost all vicious rumours at the office, and political commentaries in newspapers and on TV shows. Although it’s basically ridiculously improbable, we invariably deem individuals and institutions capable of forging, implementing, and even pulling off absurdly farsighted plans. But this presupposes that the planners are fundamentally different from us, since we’re incapable of planning that far ahead. So it’s all rather unlikely, but we absolutely want to believe it all the same. 

This may be a holdover from blissful childhood, when we were still convinced our parents had a plan. That was very important to us, it made us feel safe. Our parents will handle it, our parents will know what to do. We didn’t have a plan as children, children don’t need to, but our parents had one: they must have one, it was inconceivable that they didn’t. It isn’t till we become parents ourselves, waffling our way through daily life with our kids more or less cluelessly for years, that we realize something isn’t right – and perhaps never was. So we’re firmly convinced that there is a plan – but it’s not true. 

Paranoid delusions  

The third part of the hypothesis is merely a necessary clarification: “Everyone believes other people have a plan.” It’s important to point this out because it explains all our paranoid delusions that the other guy knows what’s going on, but we don’t. Not us, not our team, not the company we work for or the party we vote for. But the competition! They trick us, deceive us, betray us; they have a plan. You know the plot from every thriller or fantasy book, and it’s just as realistic. 

We spend an incredible amount of energy second-guessing other people’s plans, which in all likelihood don’t even exist. Like us, other people have nothing but wishes, goals, intentions, and tactics. But a plan? A plan that actually includes us, that accurately predicts our reactions, a superior intelligence that coldly and correctly sizes us up and anticipates our next moves, even though we ourselves haven’t a clue yet, at least not till we’ve finished this cup of coffee. Could this be true? And if not, what would that mean?  

The right move – with a little luck 

It means you can do whatever you want. Even if it means making mistakes. That doesn’t matter at all because although you don’t have a plan, neither do the others. No one will notice a thing. So just go ahead and do something, anything.  

With a bit of luck, one of your attempts just might pan out, the one important and right move to really get you ahead – and which you can claim afterwards was precisely your plan.  

That’s all there is to it.

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