The Problems with Odyssey Plans

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If you’ve ever worked your way through Designing Your Life or attended a day-long or multi-day “Designing Your Life” workshop you will know that Odyssey Plans are the central part of the DYL process. The early steps in the process lay the foundation for building out your Odyssey Plans and the rest of the materials tend to be designed to help you explore one aspect or one specific life contained within the plans that you created. For many participants, the Odyssey Plans are the most enjoyable and memorable part of the Life Design process.

Yet for me, both as a student and as a facilitator, they’ve never really worked.

Sure, it is a fun activity and participants do enjoy visualizing three different life paths. And for me personally, after going through the Odyssey Planning process three times I’ve been able to mine some insights about why – if money and prestige were no object – I am interested in opening up a small neighborhood cafe or music venue. But the activity never seems to offer the same impact that its central position in the DYL process seems to suggest, and I think there are a several reasons why:

  1. There’s too much focus on “the plan.” If Life Design teaches anything, it’s that career planning doesn’t work. Instead people should continue to “try stuff” and “build their way forward” in the direction of their own personal True North. Odyssey Planning runs counter to this process by asking participants to sketch out five year plans that give the same weight to goals in years 2-4 as they do to year 1 (the immediate next step) and year 5 (the life at the end of the process).
  2. Plans 1 and 2 are framed as Plan A and Plan B. The instructions for the activity typically tell participants that the first plan they sketch out is the one they are currently pursuing. Then they are asked to imagine that the career in plan 1 is no longer an option, and to sketch out an alternative in plan 2. As I’ve found in working with PhD students, this framing device typically means that people never really interrogate their motivations behind their Plan A, and never fully explore their Plan B until Plan A no longer becomes an option.
  3. Plan 3 isn’t rooted in values (or in reality). Imagining what you would do with your life if money or people’s judgement weren’t an issue is fun and can lead to some wild thinking. But participants just completed a Workview, and most people find that money is an issue and that your work’s impact on others is important. So unless you really do win the lottery, Life 3 is often too fantastical to really be considered.
  4. Not enough time is given to the process. In a workshop format, participants often only get 15 minutes or so to sketch out their Odyssey Plans and another 15 minutes to discuss them. The DYL Studio devoted a couple of hours to Odyssey Plans. A course might dedicate a week. But fully imagining and interrogating three possible future versions of yourself is a process that could and should take several weeks.

This summer, my colleagues and I at the Johns Hopkins Life Design Lab are working to reimagine Odyssey Plans by addressing these limitations, while at the same time preserving the element of play and imagination that makes this activity so enjoyable. More on that in a future post.

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