John Maxwell: Have a Plan

UPDATED: May 13, 2024
PUBLISHED: November 13, 2012

John C. Maxwell discusses strategic personal growth in his new book, The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth. The following column is adapted from a chapter in the book.


Most people allow their lives to simply happen to them. They float along. They wait. They react. And by the time a large portion of their life is behind them, they realize they should have been more proactive and strategic.

I hope that hasn’t been true for you. If it has, then I want to encourage you to develop a stronger sense of urgency and a pro-strategic mindset. As you plan and develop strategies for your life and growth, I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned that have helped me in the process.


1. Life is very simple, but keeping it that way is very difficult.

Despite what others might say, I believe life is pretty simple. It’s a matter of knowing your values, making some key decisions based on those values, and then managing those decisions on a day-to-day basis. And at least in theory, the longer we live and the more we learn, the more experience and the more knowledge we acquire—well, that should make life even simpler. But life has a way of becoming complicated, and it is only through great effort that we can keep it simple.

A few years ago I attended a conference on global strategies for leaders. While there, I asked Neil Cole, president of Iconix Brand Group Inc., for advice for designing a strategy to develop leaders globally. He replied, “The secret is found in simplicity.” He then shared three questions that he sees as key to making such a strategy work:

› Can the individual take the information and apply it personally? This is a profound requirement: The strategy must transform the soul of the leader.

› Can it be repeated easily? The strategy must be so simple that it can be shared with others quickly and clearly.

› Can it be transferred? The strategy must be transferable globally, applying in all cultural contexts.

Cole’s response made such a strong impression on me that I later used those questions in my own leadership.


2. Designing your life is more important than designing your career.

Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon says, “Many people worry so much about managing their careers but rarely spend half that much energy managing their lives. I want to make my life, not just my job, the best it can be. The rest will work itself out.”

I think Witherspoon’s advice is partially correct: If you plan your life well, then your career will work itself out. The problem is that most people don’t spend very much time planning their careers either. They spend more time planning for Christmas or their vacation. Why? Because people focus on what they think will give them the greatest return. If you don’t believe you can succeed in your life in the long term, you’re not very likely to give it the planning attention it deserves.

Planning your life is about finding yourself, knowing who you are, and then customizing a design for your growth. Once you draw the blueprint for your life, then you can apply it to your career.


3. Life is not a dress rehearsal!

I’m a longtime reader of Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts. Schulz captured the feelings of many people in a strip in which his Charlie Brown character says to his pal Linus, “Life is just too much for me. I’ve been confused from the day I was born. I think the whole trouble is that we’re thrown into life too fast. We’re not really prepared.”

Linus responds, “What did you want… a chance to warm up first?”

There is no warm-up for life, yet that’s the way many people seem to be treating it. Each of us goes on stage cold, with no preparation, and we have to figure it out as we go along. That can be messy. We fail. We make mistakes. But we still need to give it our best from the very start.

We don’t get a rehearsal for life. We have to do the best we can in the moment. But we can learn from others who have gone before us and found success. They should inspire us to plan as best we can and then give our all. Comedian Fred Allen once said, “You only live once. But if you work it right, once is enough.”


4. In planning your life, multiply everything by two.

My outlook on life is primarily optimistic, and as a result, my expectations for myself and others tend to be rather unrealistic. Over time, I’ve learned that the important things in life usually take longer than we expect and cost more than we anticipate. That is especially true when it comes to personal growth.

So what do I do to compensate? I multiply by two. If I think something will take me an hour to do, I plan for double to stay out of trouble. If I think a project will take a week to accomplish, I allot two. If I think a goal will require $1,000 to fund, I set aside $2,000. Two isn’t a magic number—it just seems to work for me. I’ve found that multiplying everything by two infuses realism into my optimism.

I’m aware that I’m an especially impatient person, but I think all people naturally desire for things to come to them quickly and easily, including personal growth. The secret isn’t really to want more or want it faster. It’s to put more time and attention into what you have and what you can do now.

Give two times the effort and energy to growing yourself. And allow yourself to grow slowly and with deep roots. Remember that a squash vine or tomato plant grows in a matter of weeks, produces for several days or weeks, and then dies when the first frost comes. In comparison, a tree grows slowly—over years, decades, or even centuries; it produces fruit for decades; and if healthy, it stands up to frost, storms and drought.

As you develop strategies for growth, give yourself the time and resources you need. Whatever amounts seem reasonable to you, multiply them by two. That practice will help to keep you from becoming discouraged and giving up too soon.

Most accomplishments in life come more easily if you approach them strategically. Rarely does a haphazard approach to anything succeed. And even the few times a nonstrategic approach to achievement comes to fruition, it’s not repeatable.

 Strategies and systems are a way of life for me. Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth, says that systems permit ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results predictably. But without a system, even extraordinary people find it difficult to predictably achieve even ordinary results. I totally agree with that.