Conventional wisdom suggests that you should have a backup plan when you pursue a big goal. However, research actually indicates otherwise. In this article, you will learn why a backup plan is a bad idea. Let’s begin with a quick story from a popular movie.
When A Backup Plan Backfires
One of my favorite movie scenes is from The Dark Knight Rises, a superhero film starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bane, a masked terrorist played by Tom Hardy, defeats Batman in a fight and takes him to an underground prison where escape is virtually impossible. Only one prisoner, a child born and raised in the prison, has ever escaped.
Inmates are allowed to try to climb out of the prison by scaling a huge wall. They typically tie a rope around themselves for safety and protection, in case they fall on their way up. Bruce tries to make the climb, but he slips when he is midway to the top. His back is badly injured when the rope around his torso snaps back as he falls.
One night after his fall, Bruce awakens from a nightmare. He tells the prison doctor that he is afraid of dying in the prison while Gotham burns. The doctor responds by saying “Then make the climb.” Bruce smirks and asks “How?” Then the doctor adds “As the child did… without the rope.”
Bruce then makes his next attempt without the safety and protection of a rope. This time, he is able to climb to the top and escape from the prison. 1
A Backup Plan Is a Plan for Failure
Sure, the prison scene in The Dark Knight Rises is just a movie. However, it serves as a powerful metaphor for achieving any big goal in life. When we fall/fail, it is often not because of a lack of ability. Instead, we often fall/fail because of self-doubt.
We think failure is possible or maybe even likely, so we come up with a backup plan, like Bruce Wayne’s initial use of a rope. Having a backup plan might seem logical when success is not guaranteed. However, think about the psychology associated with having a backup plan. You are telling yourself that you might fail- which is not what you should be thinking when you are pursuing a big goal. A backup plan is actually a plan for failure.
What Researchers Have Learned About Backup Plans
Don’t take my word for it or Batman’s. Scientists have also demonstrated the dangers of having a backup plan.
Research from the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that simply thinking through a backup plan can reduce your chances of achieving a goal. In a series of experiments, participants were given a task and told they would get a free snack or be able to leave early if they performed well. Some participants were then told to think about other ways to get free food or save time later in the day if they didn’t perform well in the study.
The people instructed to make backup plans ended up performing worse on the task. A follow-up experiment found that the presence of a backup plan had reduced their motivation to perform well. 2
Summary and Final Thoughts
When a goal is truly important to you, go all in and commit 100%. Do not waste any of your time, energy, or focus thinking about what to do if you fail. A backup plan is actually a plan for failure. It reduces your confidence and your motivation to succeed. As American actor and film producer Will Smith says, “There’s no reason to have a plan B because it distracts from plan A.” 3
About the author: Pete Leibman is the Creator of StrongerHabits.com. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, executive recruiter, athlete, and peak performance coach. His work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com, and over 500,000 people across the world have read his articles.
- Here is a YouTube link to the scene from The Dark Knight Rises: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5zdmA7HSoE
- You can read more about the backup plan experiment here: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160811155913.htm
- Here is a short video clip of Will Smith talking about backup plans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d20ya_xzkKk