Fred DeLuca began what was to become the billion-dollar Subway Incorporated company with $1,000 and a high school diploma. But that’s not today’s punchline.

Here’s the quote in an excellent Inc. Magazine interview that got my attention. DeLuca was busy hammering partitions and rolling used refrigerators into his first restaurant, when:

Somewhere in the middle of construction, somebody came by and said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m building a sandwich store.” They said, “You know, you can’t just build a sandwich store without getting some approvals.” I walked to town hall and said, “I have to get some kind of license for the store I’m gonna open.” The lady behind the counter said, “We need some kind of plans for your store.” I said, “Well, I don’t have any plans.” She said, “If you could draw something out, that would be great.” So I drew a sketch, gave it to her, and she stamped it, and that was it.

Reproduced with permission from The Billionaire Bootstrapper, an interview by Tom Nawrocki in the July 2006 issue of Inc. Magazine. Copyright ©2006 by Mansueto Ventures LLC. All rights reserved.

That’s not what They teach you in grade school, middle school, high school or college. And for the most part, I agree with Them, but that quote brought something else into focus:

When I taught studio art at my son’s Reggio Emilia school last year, one objective for our students (4-to-8-year-olds) was to get them planning—thinking ahead, making conscious choices, stretching their rationale, etc.

Well, there was one 7-year-old who just loved to be in there (studio was voluntary most of the time), building things, engineering things, pulling materials together in increasingly elaborate ways.

For two months, when he began to work, I asked him, “What’s your plan?”

At first, he complied with a hurried sketch. But it wasn’t very long before he’d simply eye me (or not even look up) from his fevered work, and insist, “I don’t know. I just want to build something.”

Finally, I decided to back off. It was clear I would either end up driving him out of the studio, or at least take a critical element away from his process. Something was driving him forward, not holding him back. Each piece outshone the last in complexity and resourcefulness.

“Maybe it’s OK,” I thought. “Maybe right now, this is what he needs.”

He was not the only one of my students who had trouble with plans, but he was the most engaged of those. And he was the one who taught me that, as often as we tell ourselves a project with no plan is doomed, sometimes it’s the plan that kills the project.

And maybe the project is the plan.

I figure Fred DeLuca did have at least some sort of plan. Maybe it was a verbally-based plan, or a tactile-kinesthetic plan, or something completely ineffible. It worked.

Now he can hire others to sort out milestones, work breakdown structure and risk. But it’s critical to respect your process—your strengths, your muses, as well as your weaknesses and your little devils.

If you don’t know what those are, find out.


3 Responses to What’s Your Plan?

  1. Eric says:

    I tend to go along with the seven-year old’s method, though not by choice really. Although I have drawn out plans on occasion, I frequently just start building, and adapt as I go. This drives my wife nuts.

    When I was building my greenhouse, she came out to watch. After about 45 seconds, she looked around and said “Where are your plans?” Me: “Plans?”

    That’s how it usually seems to go. I think I get some kind of perverse thrill out of making changes on the fly, and coming up with ideas as I build.

    But I think for big projects, I probably do prefer plans in advance.

  2. Brenda says:

    Very inspiring! Thanks, Penina.

    It leaves me thinking. Sometimes the joy of creating is all, it’s enough. Sometimes a plan is really helpful or required. In a joyful expression of something, as Angela says, sometimes the plan emerges. As you say, sometimes rules are counterproductive to the creative process.

  3. Angela says:

    I love this Penina 🙂

    I especially like the interview with DeLuca.
    I know for me, many times the plan takes shape as I participate
    with the Creation.

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