The Devil Plays With Five-Year Plans

Thu, 31 May 2018

Janet Webber
Executive Director, SFU Public Square

We all have moments in our lives that we never forget. Instances that we recall as pivotal turning points, powerful experiences both scary and exciting, and things people have said to us that we seem to come back to again and again. As SFU Public Square is about to celebrate another birthday, I found myself reflecting back on my journey and how I came to be involved with this exciting project.  

I have a vivid memory from when I was 17, on my way to finishing high school. My father, frustrated by my apparent lack of direction, and only now with the benefit of time do I understand, quite fearful for my future, provided me with a stern warning: “If you don’t make decisions for your life—you’ll be stuck with only what’s left over."

I’m sure what he was trying to say had much more wisdom and nuance, but what I interpreted it to mean stayed with me as I moved through my life. What I thought he was saying was that if I didn’t have a solid plan, a firm and clear direction for my future which I was constantly working towards achieving, I was going to end up living a second-rate life, one over which I didn’t have any power, and that wouldn’t result in me seeing any real success.  

As a result, I have always been jealous of those that seem to know exactly what they wanted to do. Those that create “five-year plans.” It’s not that I didn’t try, not that I didn’t want a life calling­—it’s just that nothing ever emerged, it wasn’t how things seemed to work for me. When a cool opportunity came my way, I pursued it, when a promising door appeared before me, I walked through it. You can definitely say that the last thing my career has been is clearly defined.

Another powerful remembrance, also from years ago, was from my last day of classes in the Semester in Dialogue program at SFU. My professor casually asked me “What are you doing next?”, to which I quickly responded with “Coming to work for you!” He was surprised and asked me if I indeed did actually need a job—which I did. He quickly whipped out a pen, wrote an e-mail down on a piece of paper, and the very next day, I had an interview for what turned into a very exciting seven-year position with a national leadership program. That job provided amazing experiences and possibilities for me, and I developed relationships both personal and professional that I still call upon today. Up until that day, I had no idea that the organization even existed. If I had had a five-year plan, I can guarantee, that job would not have been in it.

For many years, I considered getting that job as just a coincidence. And because of the wayward nature of my career, my reality has been very different from what I imagined it was supposed to be. As a result, I’ve spent much of my working life doubting myself. I believed that I wasn’t measuring up, and that these seemingly random possibilities were just lucky breaks…

What I know now is that my performance in my classes and at my jobs, my personality, my curiosity, my skills, my competencies, and my willingness to learn and grow—these very attributes—are what has allowed for these amazing options to come my way.

I have been creating these opportunities and making decisions for myself all along.

The last six years at SFU Public Square have been incredibly fulfilling. Due to the collaborative nature of our work (and despite all our planning), new projects are always emerging and we are never totally sure of what exciting possibility might come next. This changeability has led to some truly incredible events and unexpected collaborations. In the end, this is work I’m really proud to be a part of, and if I’d had a “plan” this wouldn’t have been part of it. But it’s not lost on me that my previous experiences directly led me here.

So my advice to myself, that I still need to be reminded of every once in a while, is that it’s okay to not have a fully defined plan. By approaching my career with a keen eye to new opportunities, new ideas and people, I have not led myself to an inferior life—as measured against some societal scale—but instead to one for which I am afforded the power to define my own success, according to my own values, and on my own terms.

Here’s to six fabulous years, and the many more to come.