Planning, Theseus, and Pandemics

Scott Brown

“It’s useless making plans, because things always come up and ruin them.”


If you’ve ever thought that, you’re one of many. It’s frustrating to spend an hour or so planning out your day or week, only to have someone reschedule that meeting you planned your afternoon around, or to have your manager call you into his office to discuss a new “number 1 priority” that renders the plans that you walked into the office with obsolete. And, as many of us are currently experiencing, worldwide pandemics have a way of calling our entire year’s plans into question.

With so many things just waiting to throw our plans into a tailspin, why even make one? It doesn’t seem like the universe cares much about what we want to accomplish, and at times it almost feels like by writing down our plans we’re actually jinxing ourselves; writing our to-dos into nonexistence and offering the universe a sacrificial target for her to aim her wrenches.

The answer, you might not be surprised to read, is yes, planning is still worth the time and effort, even though your plans often won’t pan out. at least not in its original form. Here it helps to think of a plan as what it is -- a vessel -- and to think of a daily planning practice for what it is -- vessel maintenance.

The Ship of Theseus

According to Plutarch, the ancient Athenians had an annual ritual of sending the ship of their city’s founder, Theseus, to the island of Delos and back. Delos was Apollo’s supposed birthplace, and the ritual was carried out to honor the god for keeping Theseus safe during a dangerous sea voyage. This ritual went on for many years, well after Theseus’s death, and constant repair was necessary to keep the ship seaworthy.

Theseus and Ariadne, from 'Game of Mythology' (Jeu de la Mythologie).

Theseus and Ariadne, from 'Game of Mythology' (Jeu de la Mythologie).

There was, theoretically, a point when so many rotten planks had been discarded in favor of new ones that not a single plank that comprised the ship had ever actually set sail with Theseus aboard. This had philosophers of the time pondering whether or not it could even be called the same ship. How could it be the same ship if not a single original plank remained?

Sixteen hundred years later, Hobbes would add a wrinkle to the question. Which would be the “true” ship of Theseus, asks Hobbes, if someone were to take all of the original planks and build a ship (albeit not a seaworthy one) identical to the original, and identical in form to the one that had been maintained over the years. Today, this thought experiment endures as a metaphor for our own identities as persons. Our cells fully replace themselves within an average of 15.9 years, with the exception of our cerebellum and some parts of our eye. What makes us the same person throughout our lives if there is constant cellular turnover?

So What?

As is often the case, the philosophical question is intriguing, but a bit esoteric for most of us. Pragmatically, what does it matter if the ship is “the same”? There’s no indication that the Athenians perceived Apollo as any less appreciative once this maintenance became necessary, so the bottom line is this: there was a ship, and with attention and effort given to keeping the ship seaworthy, that ship was consistently and reliably congenial to fulfilling the Athenian ritual’s purpose.

A plan is like the ship of Theseus. It’s guaranteed to require tweaks of all kinds -- some minor, some terribly frustrating -- but the alternatives (not having a plan, or having one but not ever “setting sail”) won’t get you where you want to go. The faster you identify the parts of your plan that need to be replaced, the better. So when your plan shows leaks, plug them. When parts of your plan turn out rotten, replace those planks with new ones. Does that mean the plan is the same plan? Leave that for the philosophers.

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