John Scott - C'est La Vie and the Joy of Uncertainty

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I think it is time for some real truth in our lives. Can I get an Amen for that? I have been up for hours pondering something I learned six years ago, and I need to share it with you. Let’s start here: Who is the guy or gal way back in history who told us we should always pursue what we want and plan to always get what we want? Can anybody tell me who started this fad or owns the rights to the concept? Because when I get done here, I think you will agree they should go before a grand jury. It wasn’t Mick Jagger, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” so someone please explain to me, who was it?

Why do we have it embedded into our brains at birth that we should craft all these wants in our life? It’s a really heartwarming and nice concept, but is it reality? I am assuming, that like me, you had many plans for your life when you were young: pursue certain passions, visions of stature, wealth, careers, spouses or not, children (boy or girl wishes), living here doing that. We were and still are making all these plans in crafting our dreams and so called “passions.” This is all very noble and personal indeed, so I guess it feels good. The problem is that these plans never unfold exactly as they were envisioned. And when they don’t, we get disappointed as if we were entitled to them. Really? Where was that a rule? Then in a temporary quest to get some answers to this anxious detour, we rely on the words of some famous yet innocuous Frenchman, “C’est La Vie!” I’m told the proper English interpretation is “Well that’s just life, so suck it up.”

Let me share a life-changing experience I had six years ago in the summer of 2008, as I solo thru-hiked the 500-mile Colorado Trail. (For those of you who aren’t hardcore hikers, thru-hiking is hiking a long-distance trail end-to-end). I had sold a business just nine months prior, and was out to fulfill a lifelong dream. This was all part of a vow I made in my early teens to thru-hike the 2,600-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine when I turned age 50; at which time I had planned to have sold my business, made millions and retired. My first hint in 2008 was that I was only 48 and not worth the millions I had envisioned, and I was definitely not retiring at this time according to my wife and other reliable sources. So this trip of “altered plans” was to be my warm-up for the big trip, which I hoped to tackle two years later.

Obviously I had to start planning. So I spent the next two years “planning” my trek. Exhausting research on the best gear, the weather patterns, determining what my mileage and speed would most likely be, ideal campsites, planning and more planning, to meet my goals, my expectations, and my wants. Every detail covered to quell my insatiable desire to control the unknown, and more transparently, my fear of the unknown. I had every detail covered. I was the czar of planning. I knew each night where I was to camp, how many miles I would cover each day of the five-week trip that everybody else did in six weeks, what I would eat each evening, each calorie measured and carefully packed in numbered bags, and no, I know what you are thinking… I did not have a gun. All a perfectly acceptable process and reaction based on the axiom I posed above. I was available, a bit wealthy, I had Google as my research partner, I had the edge! I was heading into the great unknown on my terms for my dream and plan, so there was some anxiety and fear. Planning was the only logical solution. But as they say, something happened on the way to the forum.

So off I go with tears in my eyes having just kissed my wife goodbye. Heading from Littleton to Durango for five weeks of organized hiking, every contingency planned for, when unexpectedly my first curve ball emerges. I had reached my carefully selected inaugural camping spot at 1:30 p.m. Now what? So I artfully regrouped, chalked it up to anxious energy, and proceeded to try out this new ultra-light titanium stove and cookset I paid top dollar for. Freeze-dried dinner at 1:45 p.m.! That’s it… eat and ponder my plans.

Then Lint came into my life. This “dude” with tattoos up and down his arms and legs, who I later learned lived his life in youth hostels and dumpster dived for all his food and was carrying a 9-pound backpack in direct retaliation to my 45-pound pack, taps on my shoulder and asks if he can eat with me. I said, “Sure, it’s a free country.” Donning his smelly flannel shirt, ripped shorts, greasy bucket hat, and wielding a bamboo pole (I had two titanium trekking poles), he smiled and proclaimed “Hello I am Clint…what are you doing out here?” I was of course highly organized, proud and focused so I confidently bristled, “Hi, well I am headed to Durango some 500 miles down the road.” Clint, whom I later learned had the trail name Lint, offered “Well so am I!”

Thus began the 2-day trail relationship of the homeless guy and the semi-retired CEO. You see Lint, unbeknownst to me at that time, was actually famous. He had already hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail and my beloved Appalachian Trail, all over 2,500 miles each, and each one of them three times! This guy was royalty in my new milieu, one of only like two guys in the world who was a Triple-Triple Crowner! Are you kidding me? I was no longer in charge. 

There is an entire book I have been asked to write about my trip and my lessons from Lint. That is forthcoming. But for this shorter writing I need to share just one crucial lesson Lint taught me, a loving simple truth about life, maybe a gift from him to me, now to you. After we ate our mid-afternoon meal that day, and I was relaxing for a long evening having met my plan, Lint abruptly rose and said “Let’s go.” Of course I soldiered up and on, and off we sped westward. Then a horrifying fact set in as I chased Lint ahead of me with my 45-pound pack. I was crashing my plans. Crap, this was going to change everything. You see my reliable sources in Google had assured me that most people hiked 15 miles a day on such trips. I of course deemed myself different from most people and would establish my superiority by hiking 18 to 20 miles a day. Lint and I would end up hiking 29 miles on this day. Oops!

You see later that evening as we debriefed and I was figuring out Lint’s heroic history and wrestling with my new expensive ultra-light tent, I was explaining to him that my plans were for this and that and to meet my wife at such and such a road on such and such a date; that I had meticulously planned all this and now chaos was about to ensue. Lint just laughed at me and lovingly shared this simple truth with me. He said, “John (actually he had donned me Spot, my new “trail name”), why did you make so many plans for this trip? You’re out here in one of the most beautiful places in the world, for a lifetime trip, to unwind. You have thankfully said goodbye to TV, phones, the internet and crazy people. Why on earth would you make plans to reach certain places at certain times?” I was like “Really dude, are you serious?”

He went further, “ You see Spot, I have learned that setting timetables and goals out here just does not work. If you set a mileage goal for this day, it gains you nothing. Either you get there and nobody cares the next day, or more likely you don’t achieve your plan and then you just set yourself up for disappointment. And why would you purposely engineer anything in your life, especially out here, to be disappointing?” That is a really good question Lint. And then the truth set in! How sweet those words were, ministered from the homeless guy to the CEO….wow!!!

Just for the record Lint also showed me that half of the things in my 45-pound backpack that Google assured me I could not possibly live without were fear-soothing nonsense, thus dropping my pack weight to 18 pounds at the first pull out. Thus further enabling me to produce an average of 26-28 mile days and finishing my entire trip in just 20 days! This my friends was a pristine and totally complete meltdown to my carefully engineered two-years of planning.

So let’s put this in action for our lives today. We make all these plans over our long lives. We engineer them to death due to fear of uncertainty. Agreed? Then when “life” happens we get mad and disappointed because we were told this planning stuff would work. Do you see now why we need the grand jury? Is this challenging you? OK, I am going to push the car completely over the cliff… sorry folks, we are overplanners. There I said it. And it is just causing more and more anxiety and hurt in our lives. (And some of you call me a financial planner. No wonder I can’t sleep tonight!).Think of all the hours we plan for success and contingencies (like holy Google and I did), when that precious time could have been spent with loved ones, or just being grateful for all the cool things we have in our lives. Like Lint said, “This time, this place, this moment.”

All this anxiety and researching, masked under the desire to know it all so our plans never get hurt, is plain and simply hurting us. What’s it all for when we already know the plan rarely happens? I am pretty sure when you were reading the first couple of paragraphs of this writing and reflecting back on your early life plans, you probably mused, “Well, John’s onto something here. Things indeed turned out very different, but hey, it’s been a good run and I like my life.” That’s right… it all turns out pretty well, darn it! So then tell me, why all the fear? What did we gain from all that? What did we gain from all that time taken away from the ones we love, from those moments (really hours) that instead could have been used to gratefully reflect?

Can it be that maybe this really is the truth? I have learned so from a penniless guy who is content living simple and is testing these facts in a pristine environment. Your call here, but the reality of all this is that we will truly begin to live life when we mature to the Joy of Uncertainty instead of the insidious way we worry through life. What can possibly be gained by worry when there is so much good stuff happening to you every day? Plans ultimately foster worry. Joy and gratitude do not. Like Mick Jagger cries in the same song, “But if you try sometime, you get what you need.” C’est La Vie and the Joy of Uncertainty!

There’s some truth, Lint’s truth for us, to reflect on as we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving 2014.