Planning for the Future Without Knowing the Future
Planning ahead is good, but things don’t always go as planned.
My “baby” and hers arrived on the same day. Both were the products of long labor and nine months’ gestation. But hers was warm and cuddly, while mine arrived in a box with 29 others just like it. Somehow giving birth to a book is just not the same as giving birth to an adorable baby girl. But there we were one cold January day, two colleagues who had become friends and were now going to experience two sides of the work/life juggle.
My baby was a book about women, work, and productivity that had been the brainchild of my pastor. When he suggested I write it, I was in over my head trying to start a film company in the depths of the Great Recession. But as with all my other books, these projects were always the ideas of other people that eventually tackle me until I get them written. Right after I turned in my manuscript, my senior editor at said film company said she needed to talk to me. Suzanne looked happy. The newlywed glow had already worn off a few months earlier, so I knew what was coming: pregnancy.
That’s how I ended up holding Suzanne’s precious newborn girl on the same day I received my first shipment of The Measure of Success. Little did I know when I turned in that book that I would be experiencing the modern work/life juggle from the perspective of an employer. Suzanne’s husband was in ministry at the time, so her income was necessary for the family’s bills. We began to plan for how we could scale down her job and build in flexibility to care for her daughter. But I also wanted her to know that if she decided at the end of her maternity leave that she wanted to stay home full-time, that I would support that decision, too. I would trust God that He would supply another key employee, just as she would trust Him for the missing income.
As it turned out, Suzanne’s daughter was extraordinarily calm, started sleeping through the night fairly early on, and adapted well to our small office. She immediately became the bright spot of my day. But not every baby is so chill. Many of my friends with children born around the same time did not have the same experience. And not every boss is so chill about baby toys and nursing breaks. To expect this experience to work for every family would be futile. That season only lasted for about a year, as well. Once my favorite office baby hit her toddler stage, we both knew it was time to rethink our plan.
Imagining Multiple Outcomes
There was a time when women’s productivity was not at such odds with parenting. But that is not the world we live in now. I hope that will change in the near future, but I can offer no guarantees. What I do offer is this counsel for young adults — especially young women — that future success is often determined by your ability to think in multiple outcomes about your future. So as you launch your career in those first few exhilarating years after school, you need to stretch your imagination to think about how the choices you are making now will look if you end up with family responsibilities, if you remain single and childless, or if you end up disabled or chronically ill. The emotionally challenging aspect of this is that you have to cultivate faith in God so that you neither presume on your future nor fear what may come. Fortunately, Scripture directs us how to think about our future plans:
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.’ You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil (James 4:13-16, HCSB).
You see here that James is not busting on the person who has a plan. He is merely correcting the one who has arrogantly put all his confidence in that plan. Planning ahead is good, but it has to be done with humble understanding that everything is subject to God’s will.
So it is with how you anticipate your future. From all the women I have ever spoken to about this topic, not once have I ever heard someone say, “My life has turned out exactly how I expected it would.” But from my mid-life vantage point, I can confidently assure you that there will be many more blessings than you anticipate and many more trials. But through it all, God’s grace will be triumphant.
For now, most of you will need to plan ahead for the duality of life — how do I support myself now and into the future? What if I add a husband and children to this life? What if I don’t and I remain single? Is my profession something I can scale down if needed when I have a family, and then can I return to it later? What are the implications of debt on my future choices? Ask yourself these questions to test your assumptions, but hold your future expectations loosely.
Some of the most frustrated women I know are the ones who did not do this multi-track planning when they were younger. Women who never expected to remain single into their 30s are full of cautionary tales about their lack of planning to have a flourishing career, retirement savings, and a home of their own. They regret the years they were stuck on hold as young women, waiting for something that hasn’t yet materialized. On the other hand, women who have the powerhouse careers in their 30s but never thought about how to incorporate families are overwhelmed when children come along.
So make your plans, but do a lot of market research as you go. Ask people in the field you are considering for an informational interview, then inquire of them what their work-life balance has been like and what advice they would give you. Find out from your business and personal contacts alike what they wish they had done differently as young adults. Read widely in your field, following social media and trade publications alike. Ask your family and friends for their counsel about your personal strengths and weaknesses.
While doing your research and taking your next steps, pray. All your best research will only lead you to come up with a plan that might prove profitable, just as James says. But prayer will keep you seeking the Lord about those plans, and that humble dependence upon Him prevents the proud boasting that James condemns.
But what if you are not the Type A confidently-making-plans personality, but rather you are someone who often wrestles with making a decision at all?
Romans 14:23 has a life verse for you — for all of us, in fact: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” That’s the ESV translation. The HCSB version translates it as, “everything that is not from a conviction is sin.” In other words, if you do something to please other people, or because you fear their reaction, or because it makes you look better — or for any other reason than because you have faith that this decision or act pleases God and it is His provision for you — then you are sinning, plain and simple. Your ambitions are for something other than God’s glory.
This is really important. No matter your temperament, you will be tested in nearly every way possible in your future decisions. If you aren’t grounded in this important biblical principle, you will flounder — either unable to make a decision or regretting one you made for all the wrong reasons. Be firmly anchored in this truth as you move forward in life, and you will be spared a lot of heartache.
Proceeding from faith also makes your prayerful imaginations about the future all the more exciting, because you are anchoring your confidence in God’s leading and provision.
This article is adapted in part from The Measure of Success by Carolyn McCulley with Nora Shank (B&H Publishing). Carolyn is also the author of Radical Womanhood and Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? She is a producer/director with Citygate Films in DC and NYC.