Necessity and futility

Necessity and futility

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Plans are important because they make the ground feel firm under our feet. They map out a possible way forward. In the absence of planning, life just becomes one long crapshoot. Plans are necessary because they help us to get started. They start us off on a trajectory.

Ultimately, plans are exercises in futility. All plans will change; no plan is impervious to the forces of fate.

Redundancy: A terrifying word for many people, when applied to employment. In this note, I don’t want to dwell on the idea of redundancy in the context of people and their jobs. I want to talk about plans, and what makes them redundant.

Some of you reading this will have been made redundant from your jobs. Due to the sudden downturn in the economy because of COVID-19 and the lockdowns, some of you will have seen not just your role disappear in the organisation you happened to be working in, but in all other organisations in your sector. My ex-colleagues in the arts sector saw their sector close down almost literally overnight. In March of this year, arts advocate Esther Anatolitis wrote:

“In the past fortnight, we have seen our self-generated income for the year vanish. Work that has taken years to develop has been lost. Livelihoods have been jeopardised. Businesses closed…. The scale of loss across the cultural and creative sector is unprecedented – and devastating.”

An article in The Conversation, comments that many arts workers are grieving having seen “a lifetime’s commitment evaporate.” It is not just jobs that have been made redundant, but whole life plans or career paths have been made redundant too. Blasted out of the water.

So, I want to talk about the redundancy of plans.

When a plan that you have lavished years of thought, sweat, guts, and hope into is suddenly disrupted it hurts. It can be bewildering, dismaying, frightening, frustrating. It can be a cause of grief and deserves to be grieved if the plan was something you had layered physical, creative, intellectual, emotional, or psychological effort around.

But, alongside this natural and valid grief, perhaps it is helpful to consider a paradoxical thing that is a signifier of all good plans. Please bear with me for a digression over the next couple of paragraphs.

Good (by which I mean useful or effective) plans are prone to being made redundant. In his article, The end of winning: Why future belongs to losers, entrepreneur Tim Leberecht says “That three-year plans are a thing of the past the very moment they are written.”

Why? In part, because the better a plan is, the more it carries its own seeds of redundancy.

Truly effective plans start changing conditions once they start being implemented. How fast or slowly they change things, and whether that change is incremental or radical, will depend on the plan, its objectives, and the conditions under which it is being delivered. But good plans do change things. And as soon as conditions surrounding the plan are changed by the implementation of that plan, then that original plan starts to become redundant – an artifact of the old (now changed) conditions it was originally formulated to deal with. This is why, when planning, it is important to mindfully monitor progress and to be prepared to allow your plans to evolve and change, to embed space and contingencies around an inevitable shift in your planning process.

But what if you didn’t choose change?

If your job has been lost due to an economic downturn, then that is not change you chose or which the implementation of your plans brought about. If your sector has shrunk to the extent that you may not be able to return to your old way of working within it, then that is not change that you implemented. Your original plans for your career have been made redundant, along with your job. And this is not a redundancy that organically arose out of the effectiveness of your own plan, but a redundancy that has been imposed by overwhelming external events. This is why the forced redundancy of your plan hurts, why it feels like a body blow, why it has a psychic violence. This is why grief is understandable: the potential of your own plan to change itself, to seed its own evolution, has been cut short and you will not be able to see that plan through to fruition. You are forced to make a new plan, maybe in conditions which none of us understands yet (and which are probably still in a state of flux) while coming to terms with the sudden loss of the old one.

This is hard. I wonder – I hope – it is of some small comfort in your grief to bear in mind that redundancy is a hidden feature of plans – if your old plan had been allowed to continue to flow it would have made itself redundant, anyway, sooner or later.

This may be cold comfort if you are feeling awful at having been forced out of your industry.

“Suspension: The Stoics, echoed by the phenomenologists, called it “epokhē.” It’s what happens when the object of your intention is taken away and you’re left with the pure structure of intending. Life feels more like that every day.” ~ Haun Saussy

Living with this “pure structure of intending” is hard, for it is living in a kind of limbo, which seems to draw on a lot of energy just to enable that suspension. But this floating state is necessary, and not to be confused with a state of stasis. Your plan – that list of actions – might have disintegrated, but your structure of intending doesn’t have to. And it is out of that state of suspension, which is another way in which grief can make itself manifest, that more tangible aims will start to form.

In his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

“Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption.”

Cave is talking about sensing the dead – as spirits or dreams or memories – but, with apologies to him – I am going to borrow his words to talk about dead plans and the ideas that lay behind them.

Let your grief over your devastated plans remind you of your original intentions. Use your time in suspension to re-examine them. Will you carry them forward and find new ways of realising them? Or would you prefer to find new sources of inspiration? You may not feel that you have a lot of agency right now, but you do, at least, have the power to do that…


This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

You can buy The next day here.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

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