The Magic 10-Year Plan | Cup of Jo

woman flowers portrait

When I was a teenager, I went to bed thinking in such detail about the future that it felt like a hallucination. I could imagine walking down a sidewalk between skyscrapers, hearing taxis honking and smelling fried onions from a food truck. The dream would blur and change. Then I walked through a field in a smooth dress, bent down to pick a flower, the sun staggered close to the horizon. The future felt like this: a field of wild flowers with endless possibilities, all ready to be picked once you find the perfect one.

The truth is that we know so little about where we want to be in 10 years. Despite the many psychics I have visited, there is no roadmap for the future. Sometimes it feels like you have very little control over where you can land. That, of course, is what makes the future both exciting and utterly scary.

In 2018, I came across author and artist Debbie Millman’s confirmation exercise called Your ten-year plan. In it, you imagine the details of your life, a decade before the exact point where you stand. Unlike other forecasting exercises, this one does not boil down to a neat list of goals or even desires. It is rather an act of clear hallucination, like the ones I used to practice before bedtime. The questions you ask yourself are specific: How many pets do I have? How’s my bed? What excites me? How is my health? Then you describe a day in your life, 10 years from now, with as much courage as you can summon. As Millman says, “Put your whole heart into it. And write as if there is no tomorrow; write as if your life depends on it because it does.” You read the plan once a year – and you let the magic do its thing.

I am convinced that there will be two types of reader reactions to the last paragraph: those who will roll their eyes and move on to the next article, and those who will immediately grab a pen.

My friend N. and I were the latter. At the time, we were at a crossroads in our lives, and quite frankly, playing for any escapist exercise. So lodged in our homes across the country apart, we wrote down our plans. I still have the document, three computers later, and open it religiously every spring. The plan itself has never changed, but so does my reaction to it, every single year. That reaction always tells me something about myself.

I will give you the bare bones in my 10-year plan: In 2028, I am in a cottage by the sea. I work for myself, designer romance novel covers (I mention “airbrushing pectorals” in the plan) and occasionally writes about food. I cycle and eat a lot of pasta. My daughter and I spend our evenings in our lounge and reading while we wait for my husband to come home from the brewery / bookstore he has opened in our small, progressive town. In my plan, I think I have been sucked, quite willingly, into a Nicholas Sparks novel. In addition to the actual framework and costumes of my future self, my vision embodies a sense of deep peace. An end to the itchy, need-to-escape-from-my-skin-feeling I’ve always had. No more climbing ladders. No more comparing myself to others. My future life feels like a clean sheet slowly falling over a bed on a sunny afternoon.

Two months after we wrote our 10-year plans, my friend N. came out as gay and transgender. They identify as non-binary. As they wrote about their future selves, they said, “I did not want to be an older woman any more than I ever enjoyed being a younger woman.” Part of their plan involved open their marriage and explore intimate spaces beyond the commitment they gave as a 21-year-old when they got married during our final year of college. I was privileged to witness the ways they have since embodied the intention of the 10-year plan, choosing to commit in the bravest and most honest way I have ever seen. Reminding me of the plan, they recently told me, “There was a self that I actually wanted to imagine a future for.”

It’s only four years ago, but for me I do not yet live in a coastal town and do not cycle as often as I had hoped. I do, though work for myself and sometimes writes about food. I do not design covers for novel novels, but I read many of them. I also eat a lot of pasta. In my own family, I have found a sense of comfort that makes me look less and less outward. I think I finally understand what emotional security means.

When I consider the 10-year plan, I am resistant to claiming that things “came true”. That phrasing suggests that I did not have much power of action to shape the life I have, or that N. did not do the grueling and ultimately revealing work of discovering himself. We did, and we both stand in different places than we once were.

But what has surprised me is that the core of my dream-slash plan is still true. I may not care so much what my furniture looks like or whether I have maintained my Korean skincare routine – both things I wrote about in unbearable detail in my 10-year plan – but in my daily life I feel waves of the perfect satisfaction I described in the plan. Does not always, because that’s not how life is – but much more frequent than I did four years ago. I think a lot has to do with the act of formulating a vision, and then continuing to read it every year, as a kind of recalibration of the self. A compass to the north that leads me slowly (sometimes imperceptibly) forward.

I maintain that the 10-year plan is magical. But it’s the kind of magic you weave for yourself, of determination, big leaps and, yes, sometimes privileges and luck. It stems from the alchemy of language and intention. Of hope and conviction.

And if one year in the future I open the document and discover that none of it is true anymore? If I run into my old plan and do not see a shred of my current desires? Well, then I’m just writing a new one. There are always more flowers in the field.

Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, will be published in 2023 by HarperCollins. She has also written for the Cup of Jo about books and motherhood and alternative fathers.

PS The Grand Canyon trickand what are your simple pleasures?

(Photo by Sophia Hsin / Stocksy.)

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