Posted by bob on August 31, 2023

In everyday life, as well as engineering design, we really need to always have some kind of backup plan. These plans give us the ability to cope with sudden unexpected changes in our situation.

Another associated word is ruggedness, but that is more about the ability of a design to deal with stresses of a type we might encounter in a normal operating environment, but cranked up to a magnitude beyond normal.

Given economic uncertainty, experts recommend that people should keep a financial reserve of 6 to 9 months (or more) of income. That is a really tough goal for younger folks and often is difficult even for middle-age to older folks. If you make a plan to save half of your income every month, you still need 12-18 months to build up that reserve. Unfortunately, for many people, their income is too small to allow saving half. As the portion of monthly income set aside gets smaller, the duration required for advance saving gets longer. Many folks are just not able or willing to give up enough income to salt away an emergency fund in a short time frame.

A backup plan can cover anything. A common exercise is to consider “what would happen if we suddenly realized that our house is on fire.” You could be threatened by flooding, tornado, or other environmental catastrophe. The idea stays pretty much the same: What will you grab on your way out the door? Do you know which direction you would walk (or run) if the car won’t start?

A typical response is to state that first we would make sure our loved ones are able to get out that door with us. But after that, it can be really tough to decide which possessions are so valuable or irreplaceable that we would delay our escape to make sure we have them. Some people spend a lot of time thinking through their plan and then create a “go-box” to grab and run. A bigger and heavier go-box reduces the odds of it (and you) making it to your next destination.

Backup plans are also synonymous with data storage. Keeping backup copies of your digital life can make disaster recovery easier. But then this creates new risks by itself. We need to think about encryption to secure sensitive information, possible physical damage to storage media, and how much work is required to keep those archives up-to-date.

There are some backup plans that you should never discuss openly. If you talk too much at work about your fears of an impending company collapse, you might put yourself on a list of folks the company decides to let go early. You don’t want to discuss your theoretical next girlfriend with your current girlfriend, wife, or both. Sometimes it is better to put a lot more effort into improving your situation today instead of imagining an unlikely rescue for tomorrow.

Backup plans need to be realistic. I was thinking of Rod Stewart’s song Maggie May where he speculates about stealing his daddy’s cue and making a living out of playing pool or perhaps finding a rock-and-roll band. Both plans suggest unrealistic youthful expectations and yet sometimes we all harbor such fantasies. A career as an astronaut, professional athlete, or (yes) rock star require years of preparation, some level of natural talent, and statistical odds that make them an extremely poor backup plan for most of us.

Developing a wide variety of skills is another form of resilience. You are more likely to find people needing your problem-solving skills and experience if you know how to do more than just one thing. That means that you will have to try and fail at some new things before you become proficient enough at them for other folks to rely on you to do that thing for them.

Don’t give up on yourself. The house (probably) isn’t on fire yet, so now is the time to start planning ahead.