When in doubt, land long

How to plan for things to change

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong had a decision to make.

The Lunar Module’s onboard computer was guiding the craft toward a crater’s edge, and a field of boulders “the size of Volkswagens,” according to biographer James R. Hansen.

Buzz Aldrin, monitoring the computer readouts, announced that their distance from the surface was approaching 500 feet.

Over the radio, Armstrong softly spoke: “I’m going to...”

And at that moment, he took over manual control of the lander.

Scanning for a flatter area in which to land, he could choose to go left, right, stop short, or go over. He joked later, “I thought we might just have to find somebody’s backyard to land in.”

So what did he do? Mike Collins, who was in the Command Module orbiting the moon, said it best: “When in doubt, land long.”

That is, when you don’t know for certain that changing course is the safest option, go further.

Perhaps our marketing efforts are working—they’re getting us closer to where we want to be—but we’re disappointed that we’re not there yet.

Or our sign-ups and conversions are growing, but we’re frustrated that they’re not where we’d hoped they’d be by now.

Or we’re getting closer to our revenue target, but we’re unlikely to hit it by the date we’d projected, and we’re getting nervous.

In each of these cases and more, we have choices. We can dramatically change course and steer ourselves into new, uncertain territory. We can give up on our goal and stop short of our achievement (having paid the fare, but not arrived). We can become disappointed and disillusioned.

Or, we can keep moving forward toward better territory ahead. We can recognize progress for what it is, and understand that perhaps our goal was not wrong, but that our precise target or timeline was insufficient or inaccurate.

A turn left or right could have taken the lunar lander into even more dangerous territory, where visibility was worse. Stopping short could have left them in a perilous position on the edge of a crater. But straight ahead—past the planned landing spot—provided a much clearer view of what was coming up.

So Armstrong guided the lander over the crater’s edge and the boulder field and gracefully landed in a flat area further downrange.

If things are working, just not fast enough, the problem may be our patience and our preparation, not our mission. NASA indeed had planned for things to not go according to, well, plan. The lander could both be manually steered and it carried extra fuel, just in case.

And our own plans must have room for adjustments, too, so we can keep going past our original projections. Our timelines must be flexible, and our resources—including our patience—must not be exhausted by a single attempt. As one historian wrote, “A plan, like a tree, must have branches—if it is to bear fruit. A plan with a single aim is apt to prove a barren pole.”

If you are making progress and are headed in the right direction, remember, like Armstrong, that your goal was to get there safely.

The exact target and the exact timeline were meant to be motivators and guides—they were not the mission.

Little else in human history took more energy and effort to plan than the Apollo 11 mission. Absolutely everything conceivable was accounted for in painstaking detail.

And yet it still came down to one person’s last-second adjustment to save it from certain disaster.

No plan, no matter how considered, is perfect. If everything has to go perfectly, at the perfect times, for us to succeed or to be happy, we’re planning to be disappointed.

But when we give ourselves time and when we plan for interruptions, interference, and unforeseen circumstances, we’ll eventually end up where we wanted to be.

The Apollo astronauts had studied the moon’s topography. They had analyzed photographs from previous orbiters and flybys, and they believed that they had an understanding of what they would find when they arrived.

And yet what they finally saw with their own eyes was very different from what they’d expected.

It was more treacherous, but also more colorful, and so much more beautiful than they’d ever imagined.

Look ahead and keep moving forward to better territory.

And when in doubt, land long.