What’s Your Back-Up?


Monday evening I watched Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation at the local $2 theater. It was a decent action thriller in the Tom Cruise / James Bond / Bourne Identity vein.

But my key takeaway came from the sequence in the Austrian Opera House:

[Spoiler alert] The villains send an assassin to kill the Austrian Chancellor. But they send not one assassin, but three – a second in case the first fails her mission, and a third to kill not only the chancellor, but also the first assassin if she proves disloyal and misses.

In their quest for certainty, these Mission Impossible villains prepared a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.

The lesson is clear: Always have a back-up. And a back-up for that.

In business school and consulting they call this “Scenario Planning” — any deliverable, be it a turnaround or crisis media plan – should have multiple options that account for different variables. Knowing these options—and the odds they’ll have to be deployed—is the very basis of decision science.

The client’s not paying you for a solution; they’re paying you for solutions – a plan for if things go well; if things go poorly; and if they go really poorly.

Same concept applies in dating. A recent article (via Buzzfeed or its ilk) listed those types of people, male & female, who are most likely to cheat. I’ll save you some Googling – it boiled down to “those with greater options.”

So your goal is to create options for yourself.

Easiest way to get a raise?

Present your boss with a legitimate counter-offer from a competing firm.

Want to be more successful dating?

Increase the number of potential romantic partners in your queue.

Washington, DC is particularly well-suited to this philosophy. By that I mean, it’s a town of overachievers and a populace vastly over-educated for the jobs they do.

So I learned early that the key to happiness here is in what else you have going on. Yes – people always ask “What do you do?” but the more interesting question is “What else?”

People here don’t just have jobs. They have their jobs, the weekend non-profit for whom they volunteer, their weekly coding Meet-Up group where they’re learning Ruby on Rails and they’re training for the Marine Corps Marathon – could-you-donate-thank-you-please.

Almost counter-intuitively, that sub-set of 20-somethings who temp were nearly always more well-rounded (and interesting) than their full-time counterparts.

Example 1: My favorite bartender at Capitol Hill dive bar Hawk & Dove quit to run Sen. Edwards’ presidential campaign in his home state of North Carolina. The lack of free drinks sucked; that this bartender left for a prestigious political job was awesome.

Example 2: I spent an amazing year as a temp litigation paralegal at a big DC law firm. We were looked down upon by the full-time paralegals. After all, if we were any good, we could have gotten hired full-time.

What these 23 year-old simpletons overlooked was our reasons for temping.

One friend was the drummer in a regionally-successful rock band that toured. Temping enabled him to quit for six weeks with impunity to go on the road.

Several friends used the mindless paralegal work to finance their stage acting between gigs – quitting every time they were cast in a professional show.

One had passed the U.S. Foreign Service exam and was simply biding her time before being called up for assignment.

The common denominator? All of them had worked out viable back-up plans (a day job as a litigation paralegal) that enabled them the stored energy to pursue their true passions in off hours.

Trust me when I say the paralegals temps were far more fun at a bar than their full-time counterparts.

But the crux is this – John Lennon once said “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”

So don’t waste it. Use your precious time to build your dream, even if you have to do so in the hours from 8:00 pm to 7:00 am.

Because you never know when you’ll need a back-up plan (or three).

Your Plan B (and C and D) might as well be your dream job.

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