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Are We Just Making It Up As We Go Along?

Trial-and-error may more strongly control our lives than do foresighted plans.

Cable news viewers are now being relentlessly inundated with advertisements for financial planning services. As retirement nears, middle-aged viewers are cautioned not to be caught unprepared; without proper planning, their golden years might turn out to be leaden.

Nevertheless, even the most carefully conceived plans can and often do go amiss. Indeed, one prominent financial planning firm, Raymond James, was recently slapped with a $17 million fine for money laundering. What is their pithy catchphrase? “Life well planned.”

The fallibility of planning was famously noted in 1785 by the renowned Scottish poet, Robert Burns. In To a Mouse, Burns wrote:

The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

The failed schemes of mice were whimsically animated by the 1990s plucky cartoon characters Pinky and the Brain; the failed schemes of men were hilariously portrayed by the bungling film stars Laurel and Hardy who were active from the 1920s to the 1950s. Most of the calamitous plans of these comedic protagonists ran headlong into the law of unintended consequences: namely, that actions can yield unexpected and unfortunate results.

Even if assiduous preparation provides no assurance of success, one must nevertheless assess the wisdom of entirely eschewing careful planning. Do we tend to put much stock in the actions of those carefree and freewheeling souls who nonchalantly “take life as it comes,” “go with the flow,” or “wing it?” No. We generally deem these people to be thoughtless, reckless, or shiftless.

Such harsh assessments are captured by an increasingly popular meme: “Just making it up as one goes along.” This phrase has been derisively deployed in such films as The Life of Brian (1979), The Master (2007), and The Other Side of the Wind (2018).

This phrase has also been applied in a variety of different ways in print.

Wikimedia/Public Domain
Ernest Hemingway: "Sometimes you make [the story] up as you go along and have no idea how it will come out."
Source: Wikimedia/Public Domain

In her cuttingly sarcastic piece for the April 25, 2017 issue of the Washington Post entitled, Trump’s foreign policy – making it up as he goes along, Kathleen Parker writes: “Foreign leaders and local … pundits, might as well take a vacation for the next few minutes until President Trump’s next foreign policy ‘strategy’ surfaces from deep within his amygdala. For to presume a strategy when Trump toys with potentially lethal nations … is to imagine that a toddler has given grave consideration to the gravitational aspects of toppling his brother’s Lego edifice.”

In the May 21, 2018 edition of the irreverently satirical Babylon Bee, we read that: “In an honest, impromptu homily delivered Monday, Pope Francis admitted he is just making most of his theology up as he goes, ignoring thousands of years of official Church doctrine in favor of ‘whatever pops into my head at the time.’ Pope Francis confessed he doesn’t really know much official doctrine, stating that he’s more of a ‘shoot from the hip kind of guy’ when it comes to weighty topics of morality, salvation, God, and eternity.’”

Considerably greater insight into the roles of planning and extemporizing can be gleaned from the observations of Geoffrey Himes. In his 2005 biography of Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA, Himes writes: “Like all great storytellers, Springsteen creates the illusion that he’s just making it up as he goes along. In fact, … he tells the same basic stories night after night. He adjusts them a little each time, as he learns which lines get a reaction from the crowd and which fall flat. He’ll subtract lines and try new ones.” Here, we can more clearly appreciate the intricate interplay between the façade of spontaneity and the shaping of behavior by its consequences.

Storytelling is only one part of Springsteen’s multifaceted performance; however, it is the entirety of Jerry Seinfeld’s much admired stand-up routine. The relaxed and unpremeditated style of his comedy routine belies the careful crafting that goes into it. In an article by Jonah Weiner for the December 20, 2012 New York Times MagazineJerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up – we learn much more about the art of becoming a stand-up standout.

Weiner writes: “Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. ‘It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,’ [Seinfeld] says. ‘I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it. A lot of [my stand-up routine] is piecework; tiny things in my bits where I’m looking for a little fix, where something isn’t quite smooth. A lot of stuff I do out of pure obsessiveness.’”

Weiner continues: “Seinfeld likens his fine-bore interest in jokes to his longstanding infatuation with [small cars like] Porsches. ‘People ask me, Why Porsches? A lot of it is the size, same as with [comedy] bits. The smaller something is, the harder it is to make, because there’s less room for error.’ In high school [Seinfeld] took shop classes, even after a counselor told him that collegebound kids didn’t need to, because he wanted to know how machines fit together.”

Many of Seinfeld’s colleagues deem him to be a comedic scientist and a consummate craftsman. He works doggedly and meticulously at his craft. “A laugh to me is not a laugh. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when [the audience’s] attention has moved off me a little.” If a joke fails to connect, then Seinfeld is obsessed with finding out why and fixing it. “The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” There’s no direct route or foresighted design to Seinfeld’s perfect joke: it’s a trial-and-error process all the way.

Blackwell Galeries / CC BY 2.0
Famous illustrator Al Hirschfeld: "Life isn't a science. We make it up as we go."
Source: Blackwell Galeries / CC BY 2.0

Is writing jokes a unique creative realm? Certainly not. Speaking in an accompanying video produced by Jenny Woodward for the December 20, 2012 New York Times MagazineHow to Write a Joke – Seinfeld suggests that the process of writing jokes is very much akin to songwriting. Likely not by happenstance, the Academy Award, Tony Award, and Grammy Award winning composer, Stephen Sondheim, penned these lyrics for a remarkably appropriate song – Putting it Together – which strikingly echoes Seinfeld’s method of crafting jokes:

Bit by bit, putting it together

Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art

First of all you need a good foundation

Otherwise it’s risky from the start

Every moment makes a contribution

Every little detail plays a part

Having just a vision’s no solution

Everything depends on execution

Putting it together.

Art isn’t easy

Every word, every line

Every glance, every movement

You improve and refine

And refine each improvement.

Ounce by ounce, putting it together

Small amounts, adding up to make a work of art

What it takes is time and perseverance

Dealing with details along the way

Working for a tiny compensation

Hoping for a thunderous ovation

The art of making art,

Is putting it together.

And that is the state of the art.

What can we conclude from these various considerations of planning and improvising? First, lives can never be ‘well planned.’ The vagaries of life are inherently complex and uncertain. Although we may exert every effort to plan ahead, we must continually amend our actions to contend with unexpected exigencies of immediate importance. Failure to do so might effectively prevent our even being alive to enjoy the fruits of any long-term plans.

Second, our current behavior is at least as likely to be affected by its past effects as by its projected results. Indeed, without being able to call on our prior experiences, we would have no basis on which to forecast and prepare for future events.

Third, the intricate interplay between past and future critically leverages adaptive behavioral mechanisms which we human beings share with nonhuman animals. The brains of both humans and nonhumans have evolved as indispensable weapons for doing battle with nature’s many challenges. Contemporary science continues to shed new light on those mechanisms, bringing into bold relief just how strongly we are bound to obey natural laws of behavior.

So, to answer the question with which we began: Are we just making it up as we go along? Indeed, we are! However, this reality requires no apology. We are highly intelligent and flexible beings, not mere flotsam tossed about by choppy waters! We must adapt to a world filled with both perils and opportunities. Our success is not assured; yet, we can improve our chances by nimbly adjusting our actions as circumstances warrant. This necessarily trial-and-error process can sometimes seem haphazard and awkward. However, it generally serves us well and should command neither laughter nor ridicule, but respect.

References

Wasserman, E. A. (2019). Precrastination: The fierce urgency of now. Learning and Behavior, 47, 7-28.

Wasserman, E. A. (2016). What we make and do can evolve with no end in sight. This View of Life.

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