Benjamin Errett is the author of Elements of Wit: Mastering the Art of Being Interesting and writes a weekly newsletter at getwitquick.com
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. This observation is likely the best thing Mike Tyson has ever said. It’s been widely quoted, perhaps most famously by Donald Trump to justify his improvisational leadership style.
“We can plan all this stuff out, but it’ll change. So let’s just not go through the effort,” the U.S. President told aides this year, according to a report in Axios. “We’ve just gotta fight every day and that’s how we win."
Across the Atlantic, Boris Johnson’s team has credited the same approach to 19th-century Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck.
Does the British Prime Minister have a plan for Brexit, Parliament, the future of the United Kingdom and what happens next month? As Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal this month: “The question reached one of his most committed parliamentary supporters, who replied: ‘Bismarck never had a plan, he always improvised.’ Meaning, I think: Mr. Johnson doesn’t have a plan, sometimes you can’t make one.”
This is nonsense.
The careers of Mr. Tyson and Bismarck – regrettably, they never shared a title card – each demonstrate the power of rigorous planning. You don’t win the Golden Gloves or become the Iron Chancellor by happenstance. And when the going gets tough, the tough endure by sticking to the plan.
Mr. Tyson explained as much in a 2012 interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel about the line: “If you’re good and your plan is working, somewhere during the duration of that, the outcome of that event you’re involved in, you’re going to get the wrath, the bad end of the stick. Let’s see how you deal with it. Normally, people don’t deal with it that well. How much can you endure, buddy? Most talkers, they can’t handle it.”
Bismarck could handle it. That fact deeply impressed Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit, an adviser to Mr. Johnson and the obvious source of the Bismarck revival. On his voluminous personal blog, Mr. Cummings has an abiding fascination with the Prussian leader he calls “the world champion of politics and diplomacy in the modern world.” As the grand master of realpolitik, Bismarck was famously wily, making and breaking alliances as he worked toward his goal of a unified Germany. If invading Denmark made that easier, then Copenhagen, here we come.
It’s not that Bismarck didn’t have a plan; it’s that he had a unique plan for every friend, enemy, grand duchy and occasion. As Mr. Cummings wrote in 2017, Bismarck “was always feinting and fluid, pushing one line openly and others privately, pushing and pulling the other Powers in endless different combinations.” Sort of like a great boxer.
Even if you improvise, you need to think ahead. When you look to the masters of improv, it’s clear that the best way to be alive to the present moment is to have spent the past hours in preparation. They want you to believe they’re making it up as they go, just as the magician wants you to believe the rabbit was always in his top hat. But they certainly start with a plan – and they always course correct. In other words, the best way to improvise is to do as little improvisation as possible.
“When you’re up there like a deer in the headlights, it doesn’t work,” Ian Roberts, one of the co-founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe, told me in an interview. “It’s not about throwing in jokes. It’s about understanding the larger game.”
Mr. Roberts and his co-founders published a comprehensive and not-at-all funny guide to the rules of improvisation – and there are many. The book is one big, flexible plan. It’s the whole ethos of what they do. Or as they write: “Since improvisers don’t use costumes or scripts, it often seems that preparation does not have a place in improvisation.” Guess what? It’s all planning.
God laughs when we plan, sure, but if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. And while military strategists are fond of the axiom “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” the original phrasing by Prussian field marshal and Bismarck pal Helmuth von Moltke was more subtle: “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.”
The false choice is that either you have a plan you unthinkingly stick to or you just wing it. The logical course is to strike a balance: Start with a strategy and tweak as needed.
Whether you’re delivering uppercuts or cajoling the Kaiser, the whole point is that you should have a plan. When Parliament punches you in the mouth, you adjust that plan. And if you’re hoping a blow to the head will dislodge a brilliant idea, both Mike Tyson and Otto von Bismarck would say you’re doing it wrong.
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