“Fight every battle everywhere, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before.”
These words were spoken by Petyr Baelish, also known as Littlefinger, giving counsel to Sansa Stark in series 7 of the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones.
He’s advising her to play out all the angles, to imagine all possible futures, so that she can prepare for them. Given that she’s had some pretty rough moments in the show up to now, it seems like sensible advice.
Or Does It?
When I worked in economic policy, we used to call this “scenario planning” — the next best thing to having a crystal ball.
The politicians we worked with wanted to know what was around the corner, what the economic situation had in store, and therefore what response they should be preparing.
The world was (and is) complex, especially when it involves the moving pieces of the economy and political institutions, forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, and scenario planning — looking at a range of possible outcomes and their relative likelihood — became the way strategists and policy advisers made sense of an uncertain future.
Invariably though, while scenarios allowed us to model alternate futures, resources that might come in and out of government, and which parts of the electorate might be affected by them, the future, when it rolled around, usually had something unexpected up its sleeve.
The Ultimate Preparation
While life isn’t an episode of Game of Thrones (thankfully!) there are parallels in how many of us play out scenario-planning in our lives.
We think about careers, about relationships, about life plans.
“Will I be happier in job X or job Y? Is this person my soulmate? Is now the right time to have children?”
We make decisions based on what we think is coming, we try to avoid future risks, and we choose the lifestyle we hope will make us happiest in the long-term. It might be diverting, even reassuring in the moment, to plan for all possible scenarios, but can we really outwit the unexpected?
Prepare to Do Battle
Of course, in times of war (fictional or otherwise), it makes sense to ready one’s army and understand the ways of the enemy. Just as in life it makes sense to ‘sharpen the saw’ as Stephen Covey called it; to master the skills of our chosen profession and develop a deep understanding of the ‘human operating system’.
But, since we really are playing a game of uncertainty, how can we prepare for that future? How is it possible to be prepared for scenarios we can’t predict?
Human ‘Flight’ Mode
As I write this, I’m watching swallows outside my window. They’re ducking and diving, chasing insects or perhaps engaged in a catch-me-if-you-can game. It’s hard to tell if they have any motivation, but they seem to be having fun, following each other’s movement like a free-flowing dance.
The swallows are aerial gymnasts, they’ve mastered the skill of flying, yet their game seems to be something they are responding to in the moment.
It reminds me of young children running around a playground with no fixed objective other than having fun. They probably don’t even have ‘fun’ as an overt objective; they’re without thought, without intention, they’re being themselves, naturally.
This, I think, gives us the answer to the question of planning for a future we can’t predict.
The Playground of Life
Many of us still live life as if we know what’s coming — some of us even think we can control what’s happening to us! But this isn’t how the world works, and we humans do better when we accept that.
When we stop over-thinking and over-planning, when we stop running those scenarios and managing that future imagined risk, that’s when we become free to enjoy life.
Just like the children in the playground, we’re more likely to thrive if we have less on our minds.
When we’re open, we can see opportunities, and life becomes that glorious playground, full of rich experiences, and, yes, a few nasty tumbles.
If we show up more prepared to live like that, who knows what things of beauty we might create along the way.
I strongly doubt that George RR Martin is constraining his imagination, so why should we?