Every morning at 6 am, my wife and I step out for a walk. The intent is to walk for an hour, get our quota of physical activity, and catch up on conversation. As we step out of our home, we have a choice of two alternative routes we can take for the hour long walk.
The first option – let’s call it ‘the long road’ – is to take a circuitous 6 km walk around the area we live in. It’s a path that circumnavigates the entire neighbourhood, going past an assortment of villas, apartments, then around the office buildings and the local shopping complex, and past a temple and a school, finally bringing us back home after completing one long loop. A full 60-minute walk it is.
The other option – let’s call it ’round and round’- is for us to walk from home to a circular garden that’s about six minutes away and then do four rounds of the garden – each of which takes about twelve minutes – and then walk back home along the same path, completing the hour long morning ritual. Both the routes have their own charms, but I’ve noticed something interesting about the two choices.
On days when we take the long road – we are quickly lost in conversation, and don’t really think too much about the walk itself, or the time or the distance. Once we decide to take that circumnavigation route, we know that it will be an hour before we are back home. There’s no other way out.
But when we take the option of doing four rounds of the garden, something strange seems to happen. After completing the first round, one of us will feel a slight tightening of the calf muscle. After the second round, I swear I can magically sense the aroma of the home-made filter coffee beckoning – and I can’t wait to go home! Sometimes as we complete round two, the wife will say “I am feeling tired today’ (‘ah, didn’t really sleep too well last night, I think’) – and then look longingly at the road that will take us back home. Often, after the third round, I am convinced that it was in fact round four we just completed – and not round three – so it’s time to head back! Result? Most days when we go round and round the garden, we actually end up walking for less than an hour! The intent is always the same. Walk for an hour. But the presence of an option to walk for less than an hour actually means that the outcomes are different. We take the soft option!
And that set me thinking. Maybe this happens to us in other walks of life too. The existence of an option – an alternative – often makes us deviate from our chosen path, leading to sub-optimal outcomes. Success comes through grit, through sticking it out, and staying the course, even when the going gets tough. Giving up is easy. And when you have an option, it gets easier.
Businesses and leaders love having a Plan B. That’s the alternative that they can resort to when the preferred path – plan A – appears to be a tough, long haul. The consequence? At the first hint of trouble, we give up on our stated strategy. In fact, forget the first hint of trouble, we imagine there’s trouble, and almost seek out trouble when there’s a tempting Plan B in sight! Choice then isn’t always a good thing.
Reminds me of what happened several years ago, in the third century BC. General Xiang Yu sent some troops across the Yangtze river – to fight the Qin dynasty. And once they landed across the river, General Yu ordered the ships to be set ablaze. He then told his soldiers the hard truth: “You have a choice, young men. Either you fight to win the war. Or you die.”
Maybe a good idea for us to burn our ships too. We cling on to our escape routes, and our plan B’s – because we treasure the safety of retreat to the risks of progress and the challenge of achievement.
Take the long road. Burn the ships. Have a plan B? Junk it. And you’ll suddenly discover new ways – and new energy – to make Plan A work!