Your life isn’t a joke, but if you can plan your life the way good humorists tell jokes, you’ll be able to make out of it whatever you want.
Here’s what I mean by that.
A Tale of Two Tale-Tellers
When the newly shot-down pilot was thrown into the crowded barracks with the other prisoners of war he was surprised to find that all the rest of them had been there so long that they had started giving numbers to all the old jokes and just shouting out the number without telling the whole long story. One guy would shout out, “Number 31” and everyone would howl with laughter. “That’s a good one, someone would say.”
But when one fellow called out “26!” hardly anyone laughed. The new guy said, “what gives, why didn’t anybody laugh?”
“Well,” said one old timer, “some guys just can’t tell a joke.”
But what’s the difference between somebody who can tell a joke and somebody who can’t? Bear with me now. I promise this has to do with planning and life-hacking.
A bad joke-teller would try to tell that joke above, but go at it with low confidence. He might stammer, or pause to remember part of it, or say something like “Wait! I forgot this part. Let me go back.” By the time he reached the punchline, it would fall flat and leave everybody, including him, disappointed.
By contrast, the good joke teller spins the yarn with confidence. She never seems to make mistakes, instead weaving the warp and weft of the tale into a pattern that’s memorable and entertaining even before it reaches the punchline. And when she does, everybody explodes with laughter.
Then you have people who know they’re bad at telling jokes (or think they are), and refuse to even try even when people ask them to. And then there are those master joke-tellers who do it wonderfully, without any apparent effort.
That’s the whole spectrum of joke-tellers, from the naturals to the non-starters. Everybody falls somewhere on that spectrum.
But regardless of where they fall, they all like to laugh. Everybody feels jokes are worthwhile, and the exceptions aren’t folks we want to hang out with anyway.
And Thus It Is With Planning
Three professionals were in the bathroom standing at the urinals. The first, an architect, finished and walked over to the sink to wash his hands. He then proceeded to dry his hands very carefully. He used paper towel after paper towel and ensured that every single spot of water on his hands was dried. Turning to the other two, he said, “As Architects, we are trained to be extremely thorough.”
The second, an engineer finished his task at the urinal and he proceeded to wash his hands. He used a single paper towel and made sure that he dried his hands using every available portion of the paper towel. He turned and said, “Engineers, are not only are we trained to be extremely thorough, but we are also trained to be extremely efficient.”
The Planner finished and walked straight for the door, shouting over his shoulder, “In the Planning Department, we don’t pee on our hands.”
They say failing to plan is planning to fail, and I tend to agree. It’s possible to “wing it” for mediocre results. If you’re very talented, or in a field with low demands, you can even make it to average without plans. But if you want to excel, to live the life you want on your own terms, you have to plan.
As it turns out, planning your life is a lot like telling jokes. It’s an art that can make things a lot better (or at least more fun) once you’ve mastered it. Also, many of the same characteristics of good or bad joke tellers apply to planning.
Peoples’ relationship with planning falls on the same spectrum as peoples’ relationship with telling jokes. You have good planners who seem to breeze through it, successfully organizing their time and executing their plans. You have bad planners, who struggle with the process so much they get very little useful out of it. And you have people who refuse to even try because they think they’ll just fail.
And of course the planners who won’t and those who effortlessly attain planning nirvana without any apparent effort, who actually seem to derive comfort and peace from the process.
The spectrum is the same as with jokes, only the stakes are higher.
How to Plan Like a Comic Genius
The key to telling a joke, really to any kind of public speaking, and to planning for your goals, is the concept of punchlines and linchpins.
A bad joke-teller recites a joke they’ve tried to memorize like a script, relying on perfect memory and recitation to make the joke happen. At best, their delivery is wooden and stilted. At worst, they have to backfill and redo over small mistakes they ruin the joke.
A good joke-teller understands the details are less important, that only the punch line and a handful of points must be on point. Everything else is flexible, and can be shifted according to audience reaction, need to cover up mistakes, and in-the-moment inspiration. In the end, their joke is vibrant, responsive, entertaining, and funny….it’s successful.
Bad joke tellers view the text of the joke as a rigid, set-in-stone path from point a (the beginning) to point b (the punch line). That makes the entire process vulnerable to even small variations or surprises, and even if the joke gets a laugh, it’s not very much fun to tell.
So, How Does This Work With Planning?
Too many people view planning like people who can’t tell a joke. They think it’s a locked-in, rigid cage of intention from which any variation is “cheating.” With that view, they can’t imagine living a life with those kinds of constraints.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the super-effective planners. They know how to set aggressive goals, then reach them with an infinitely flexible set of benchmarks that gets them where they’re going, no matter what kind of detours get in the way.
In between are the rest of us. Folks who can tell a decent joke, but won’t be going on tour with Jim Jeffries or Samantha Bee any time soon. But we can learn from the masters and make our joke telling and planning mojo that much better.
So…go and make a joke out of your life, my friends. Sweat the big stuff and watch the small stuff flow. You’ll be glad you did.