Thursday, April 1, 2010

Efficient Planning? Effective Planning?

It was a classic case of “You Can’t Get There From Here.” We were picking up our daughter from a mountainside retreat, and figured we could include a detour to another foothill town while we were in this part of the state. We had mapquested our route, but had been irked to see the required path included a half-hour backtrack along the main north-south highway to the junction with the main east-west highway before we could continue on our way. There had to be a more direct route!

Fine. We’ll just ask one of the local people at the retreat house when we get there. No sense wasting all that time with such an indirect route. Unless....

The route on paper looked a little flatter than it did when our rubber met their road. There was this little matter of a few hills in the way. “As the crow flies” only works for crows.

I’m afraid the same hindrance works its way into a lot of paperwork for planning. Especially the plans involving our family’s so-called three-year challenge. At one point, I had been awakened to the fact—at that time, in three years—we would be moving from our usual life and routine to some very different possibilities. Those possibilities looked so huge, I felt the great need to get started then, planning for the next step. So what if it was only another step; from that vantage point, it looked like a massive one!

And, as time always does, it passes and leaves us wishing for still more of it to catch up with what is left undone. So, here I am, facing the end of my homeschooling career with my daughter’s high school graduation only two months away. While I am concerned for her and what she is going to do with the rest of her life, I panic when I realize I have no plans in place for what I’m going to do with the rest of my life!

Being the designated navigator for many trips, I’m used to planning routes. When going from start to finish, pick a line (a road) that most directly connects Point A with Point B. It’s that simple. That’s what we call efficient planning.

When it comes to applying this technique to real life, especially something so personal as applying it to my bumpy life, the efficiency becomes more dull, uninteresting—wait a minute, who am I fooling here?—threatening. There are mountains hidden in between these here points, these Points A and Points B. You don’t understand! Insurmountable challenges, risks, sabotages conspire against my better intentions. At least, there have been enough of these usurpers to fill up the allotted time frame. And then: failure. That is the risk when facing the demanding Efficiency taskmaster.

Zigzag has never made for efficiency. Heading in one direction, only to find out you must U-turn and head in another direction, is never the highest efficiency. But it may allow you to qualify for effectiveness. And that may be so, thanks to how our own brains work.

I was recently reading about the wonders of the mind, revealed now thanks to the gifts of technology. Several studies demonstrate that learning to play a musical instrument, of all impractical things, enhances brain function. A 1996 review by the College Entrance Examination Board showed that students with experience in musical performance scored higher on both the verbal and math sections of the SAT than the national average. One university study even claimed that music majors had the highest reading scores of any students on their campus. Several other analyses reported significant correlations between the number of years of instrumental music instruction and academic achievement in totally unrelated fields such as math, science, and language arts. In studying the undergraduate majors of applicants to medical school, one researcher found that 66 percent of music majors who applied to medical school were admitted. Those Point A To Point B plodders, the biochemistry majors? Only 44 percent made the cut.

In citing these and other studies of musicians, psychiatrist Daniel G. Amen observed in his book, Making a Good Brain Great:

The world’s top academic countries place a high value on music education. Hungary, the Netherlands, and Japan stand atop worldwide science achievement and have a strong commitment to music education. All three countries have required music training at the elementary and middle school levels, both instrumental and vocal, for several decades. The centrality of music education to learning in the top-ranked countries seems to contradict the United States’ focus on math, science, vocabulary, and technology.

So there is another way to get from Point A to Point B. The way to get there from here is not always a straight line, especially when we look up and discover the mountain in our way. The zig and zag of life may not be efficient, but can provide enrichment and insight. Perhaps that is why—yet only after the U-turn of hindsight—we can call it effective. But we can’t always call it planning.

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