We have reached Peak Planning … the declining Marshmallow Test advantage

We’ve finally reached “Peak Planning.”   

yes, we have reached “Peak Planning”

For the last 2000 years, one of the most important skills someone could have was the ability to plan ahead.  Those that could plan ahead would reap massive awards, those that didn’t would starve in the winter.  

But there has always been a tension between the forgetful creative genius (the absent-minded professor type) and the Planner.  Of course, the most successful people were the combination of the Planner AND the Creative Genius (like Bill Gates and like Warren Buffett) … but that is a real rarity. For the last 2000 years, you were MUCH better off being the planner than the creative-type unless you were the BEST creative in your field.  The 1,000,000th best planner still did very well.

The Planner is typically someone who is really good at seeing the likely future and making plans to address it.  For instance, 2000 years ago, it was really important to plan for winter.  Things did not grow in the winter so one needed to store food.  In fact, thinking about food was extremely important because harvests were not certain so you would need to save grain from a good harvest to cover an eventual shortfall year.  

The forgetful creative genius (the absent-minded professor) was at a big disadvantage in society because of their lack of planning skills. At the same time, the Planner (less creative but very good at logistics for the future) was needed for most tasks. 

While both skills (planning and creativity) are important, the future will need more creatives types and less planners.

A history of the Planner advantage

Being a Planner 25,000 years ago (as a hunter gatherer), while important, did not pay huge dividends.  You mostly wanted to avoid being eaten by lions or bitten by poisonous snakes.  And you had a limit to how much you could succeed because humans where generally confined to small tribes of people.

But as the farming revolution spread and we domesticated, planning became more and more important.  By the time the Renaissance and (later) Enlightenment hit, Planners could rule vast lands or get very wealthy.

Napoleon would have passed the Mashmallow Test

Napoleon Bonaparte surely would have passed the Marshmallow Test.

Then came the industrial revolution and Planners became even more in demand. Alfred Sloan, the famous CEO of General Motors, was an incredible planner.

But planning was not just important in becoming a successful business person. Planning was ESSENTIAL in every-day life.  

In 1990, the people with great social lives were the planners.  If you did not not plan to meet your friends, you might not be able to meet them.  In the pre-mobile phone era, you needed to be constantly planing ahead.  The rewards, both economic and social, went to the planners.

And yes, there were still some extremely successful forgetful creative geniuses like Einstein.  But Einstein had a brain like Einstein.  He was an exception.  

Even the most famous 20th Century artists were Planners

People think that “creative geniuses” are not planners. But in the 20th Century (the century were planning mattered most), most of the great artists were planners.

Warhol was a planner. Picasso was a super Planner. And other “artists” are planning machines.  The successful comics like Seinfeld and Chris Rock were always planning.  Most of the best actors, musicians, etc. have been Planners. Planning was how you got ahead.

Until recently.

In fact, we’ve reached Peak Planner.

Today, it is easier than ever to do something in the last minute.

Want to watch a TV show? Not that long ago you’d have to plan to watch it. Seinfeld was available to watch only on Thursday at 9p. Later, when DVRs came, you’d still have to plan by setting up your DVR. Non-planners often had to resort to watching infomercials. Today, you just go watch the great show whenever you want.

Want to go on a good vacation? It is actually possible to plan the whole thing that day.

Restaurants? Yelp + OpenTable = instant gratification.

Need a ride to the airport? You can call a Lyft or Uber a minute before.

Want food? The biggest problem is picking from one of the 400 apps that help you do that.

Want to meet a special someone? Swipe right on Tinder.

Even businesses need less planning. When I stated LiveRamp in 2006 I had to plan ahead to buy servers. I remember the day when we moved our colo to a new host and we had a checklist of over 250 items. I fondly remember the celebration when we completed the move. But need more compute power for your application today? Simple to spin up more instances on Amazon Web Services.

You don’t even need to plan for office space — WeWork gives you office space on demand.

And you can even get workers on demand through UpWork and Mechanical Turk.

On-demand services are built by Planners to give non-Planners an advantage

The best planners are working themselves out of a societal advantage because they are spending their time planning logistical companies that give small benefits to other planners … but very large benefits to the absent-minded professors.

Coordination is getting easier and easier

Coordination … especially between 2–10 people … is getting easier and easier. Not that long ago, if you wanted to meet someone you’d have to spend a lot of time coordinating it. You’d break out a map and plan your route. You’d call them a few days ahead of time and meticulously plan where to meet.

Today your mobile phone takes care of all of this in real-time. No need to coordinate. It is Planning for Dummies.

The Marshmallow Test will not be as important 50 years from now

The famous Marshmallow Test predicted that people who were good at delaying gratification would be more successful. These are people who better appreciated the value of compound interest. But in a future world where planning is not as needed as today’s world, delaying gratification may not be as important. 

I’m a planner and I benefitted from it.

And yes, you can still get big economic benefits if you plan.  I pay half price when I buy my GoGoAir Pass on the ground instead of in-the-air.  I can save a lot of money by packing a chocolate bar rather than buying one at the airport.  But the benefits to planning, while significant, ain’t what they used to be.

Yeah, I plan meticulously to queue up my reading so that I always have something good to read. I save book and movie recommendations from people. But while this lack of spontaneity has generally served this Generation Xer well, it is likely not a core skill that someone born in the last decade should be focusing on.   

Summation: While people that do well on the Marshmallow Test will still have an advantage … that advantage will be much smaller 50 years from now as it was 50 years ago.

Note: This is adopted from my 2017 Quora article on Peak Planning.

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