Searching for meaning in Plan B Nation

Searching the Ox  -  I

Ear­lier this week, I wrote about how much hap­pier I’ve been since mov­ing back to my beloved Northamp­ton roughly a year ago. While I feared this would be just a tem­po­rary boost, I’m pleased to report that it’s proven far more sat­is­fy­ing and delight­fully sustaining.

At the same time, the past year has (not sur­pris­ingly) brought new chal­lenges. Apart­ment hunt­ing, nego­ti­at­ing a lease, find­ing movers, packing—these prac­ti­cal tasks amounted to a full-time job that left me lit­tle time for wor­ry­ing about larger and more amor­phous ques­tions such as What am I doing with my life? Once I’d landed on the other side, how­ever, they soon reclaimed cen­ter stage.

Regard­less of where you go for guidance—psychologists, reli­gious lead­ers, soci­ol­o­gists, friends—pretty much every­one will tell you that pur­pose is a key ingre­di­ent for a sat­is­fy­ing life.

In his cel­e­brated 1946 Holo­caust mem­oir Man’s Search for Mean­ing, Aus­trian psy­chi­a­trist Vik­tor Frankl went so far as to say that this search is our pri­mary moti­va­tion in life. But while the prin­ci­ple may be a sim­ple one, putting it into prac­tice can be far more complicated—and in cir­cum­stances far less dire than Frankl’s Nazi death camp. Frankl him­self rec­og­nized this in a pref­ace to the book’s 1984 edi­tion, where he glumly con­cluded: “I do not at all see in the best­seller sta­tus of my book so much an achieve­ment and accom­plish­ment on my part as an expres­sion of the mis­ery of our time: if hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the ques­tion of a mean­ing to life, it must be a ques­tion that burns under their fingernails.”

If any­thing our hunger for mean­ing has only grown more des­per­ate since Frankl penned those words. There may be peri­ods of our lives—sometimes long periods—when we don’t give it much thought. The big ques­tions are (tem­porar­ily) set­tled. The big deci­sions are made. What remains is exe­cu­tion, the liv­ing out of their impli­ca­tions through the days and years.

At other times, how­ever, the big ques­tions are right in our face—and, more and more that’s the case for those of us liv­ing in Plan B Nation.  More and more, we’re drop-kicked into unfa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions, left to make major deci­sions with­out mean­ing­ful guid­ance.  Our par­ents’ rules for decision-making no longer seem to apply. Friends give con­flict­ing advice. Depend­ing on our spir­i­tual out­look, we may pray or look inward for guid­ance, but often we still find our­selves com­pletely at a loss—at a loss and anxious.

Per­haps my favorite descrip­tion of this mud­dled state comes from a short story by the peer­less Lor­rie Moore. Describ­ing a baf­fled pro­tag­o­nist, she writes, “She hadn’t been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She’d been given a can of gravy and a hair­brush and told, ‘There you go.’”

A can of gravy and a hairbrush.

I can so relate.

In the first decade of the new mil­len­nium, an evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor named Rick War­ren tapped into this moth­er­lode of anguished con­fu­sion with The Pur­pose Dri­ven Life, now billed as “the best­selling non­fic­tion hard­back book in his­tory.” (The Bible, pre­sum­ably, is entirely fac­tual so not in the run­ning here.)

While I was raised as a Con­gre­ga­tion­al­ist I’ve spent lit­tle time in churches in my adulthood—except for a brief foray into Epis­co­palian­ism. (“We’re Uni­tar­i­ans who like liturgy,” our priest once said, describ­ing those drawn to this small and decid­edly cre­ative church.) Still, I couldn’t help but be curi­ous, so I ordered myself a copy.

The (trade­mark reg­is­tered) Pur­pose Dri­ven Life is described as a “40-day spir­i­tual jour­ney” that “will trans­form your life.”  War­ren urges us to read no more than one of the 40 chap­ters each day, but I decided that a sin­gle after­noon would have to suf­fice.  After all, I didn’t plan to do the pro­gram, I just wanted to get a sense of what it’s about—and indeed, it took just a few chap­ters to grasp its appeal.

War­ren claims The Pur­pose Dri­ven Life is not a self-help book, but while his under­stand­ing of the genre may dif­fer from mine, it strikes me as exactly that. In fair­ness, I found much with which to agree. In his anti-materialism, his belief in the para­mount impor­tance of rela­tion­ships over things, Warren’s is a counter-cultural voice, exhort­ing us to care for the planet as well as for each other. To that extent, I’m with him.

This only takes me a short way, though, and I’m soon baf­fled by Warren’s blithe pre­sump­tion that all we need to do is lis­ten.

Warren’s God speaks with unmis­tak­able clar­ity. The prob­lem isn’t that we can’t hear God but that we refuse to obey him.

If God asked you to build a giant boat, don’t you think you might have a few ques­tions, objec­tions, or reser­va­tions?” War­ren asks his read­ers, con­trast­ing our imag­ined obsti­nacy with Noah’s eager­ness to get right on that ark.

And that’s where he loses me.

Because the thing is, if God were speak­ing to me—and I knew for sure that this was God—I’m pretty sure I’d be fine with build­ing what­ever boat he (or she) wanted. And I’m pretty sure the same would be true for most any­one read­ing the book. (Or at least almost any­one: My friend Jennifer—a law professor—insists she would indeed take issue with this heav­enly direc­tive, explain­ing she’s not trained in ark-building, though she’d gladly write a paper.)

But this doesn’t seem to be how God usu­ally speaks, even to those of us des­per­ate for guidance.

Not that we don’t wish he did.

I’m reminded of a scene in The Movie­goer, Walker Percy’s National Book Award-winning 1960 novel. “Don’t you see?” the despair­ing Kate Cutrer asks her cousin Binx. “What I want is to believe in some­one com­pletely and then do what he wants me to do. If God were to tell me: Kate, here is what I want you to do; you get off this train right now and go over there to that cor­ner by the South­ern Life and Acci­dent Insur­ance Com­pany and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people—you think I would not do it? You think I would not be the hap­pi­est girl in Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi? I would.”

For most of us, like Kate, clear direc­tion often proves elu­sive, how­ever much we long for it. That was cer­tainly the case for renowned writer Dan Wake­field, a nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist and screen­writer who, after decades of athe­ism and hard liv­ing, redis­cov­ered the reli­gious faith of his youth. Some years later, he recon­nected with a child­hood friend, a woman from his home­town of Indi­anapo­lis (which also hap­pens to be my home­town, but I digress).  After years of tumul­tuous rela­tion­ships, Wake­field believed he was finally on the right path, on the road to which God had led him. The cou­ple married.

And then, almost imme­di­ately, things fell apart.

In his soul-baring spir­i­tual mem­oir How Do We Known When It’s God?, Wake­field reflects back on this painful time, writ­ing: “The hubris of imag­in­ing we’ve ‘got it together,’ fol­lowed by a jolt of real­ity that plunges us back to earth, is prob­a­bly one of the most famil­iar and often-traveled arcs of human expe­ri­ence. And yet we think each time, ‘This is dif­fer­ent, this time I’ve really got it right.’”

Wakefield’s expe­ri­ence got me to think­ing about how we go about pur­su­ing our goals—how we decide what to do next. It’s all well and good to say, as the evan­gel­i­cal War­ren does, that we should just do what God tells us—or some sec­u­lar equiv­a­lent of this—but what does this really mean?  At the most basic, prac­ti­cal level, how do we go about this? And, most imme­di­ately, how should I go about it?

The notion that there exists some absolute truth to which we should look for guid­ance per­vades Amer­i­can cul­ture.  For Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians like War­ren, it’s God. For those of a more ecu­meni­cal bent, it may be Your True Self, Your Inner Voice, or some gen­eral force for good.

But not every­one buys such the­o­ries. Along­side the wide­spread view that there exists some pre-existing and essen­tial truth is a less well-traveled but par­al­lel track known as con­struc­tivism. As con­struc­tivists see it, the self is some­thing that we cre­ate, not some­thing that we find. Until we’ve con­structed our self, there isn’t a self to con­sult. Until then, to para­phrase Har­vard pro­fes­sor Robert Kegan, we’re no more than the col­lec­tion of beliefs taken on from “impor­tant others”—parents, teach­ers, peers, celebri­ties, employ­ers, to name just a view. And because these per­spec­tives so often diverge, we often find our­selves in trouble—caught between con­flict­ing demands with no way to choose between them.

Make a lot of money, but don’t over­value mate­r­ial things.

Put your­self first, but also put your fam­ily first.

It’s impor­tant to look your best, but don’t think too much about how you look.

Be assertive but modest.

As the old say­ing goes, you can’t please every­one—and yet, with­out quite notic­ing, many of us in Plan B Nation can’t seem to stop our­selves from trying.

But while the con­struc­tivists’ the­o­ries make a lot of sense to me, they still leave the biggest ques­tion unan­swered.  If we’re charged with “con­struct­ing” our selves, how do we best proceed?

I’ve spent much of the past year thinking—and reading—about this ques­tion, and more and more, I’m con­vinced that life in Plan B Nation isn’t some­thing that can be planned or neatly charted out.

Rather, we need to “live into” our new lives—to dis­cover our pur­pose through try­ing things out, regroup­ing, then try­ing again. The process isn’t lin­ear. It’s often messy. But it’s also necessary.

And in fact, the process may not be all that dif­fer­ent from how we’ve always lived.  After exten­sive research into suc­cess­ful mid-life career tran­si­tions, orga­ni­za­tional behav­ior expert Her­minia Ibarra con­cluded that the tra­di­tional “plan and imple­ment” model is at odds with real­ity. Fac­ing a major cross­roads, would-be career chang­ers often spend count­less hours and dol­lars on coun­sel­ing and bat­ter­ies of stan­dard­ized tests, all in the inter­ests of deter­min­ing what it is they really want.  In other words, first fig­ure out what you want. Then go after it.

This all sounds pretty log­i­cal, except that, accord­ing to Ibarra, our lives don’t work that way. “We learn who we are—in prac­tice, not in theory—by test­ing real­ity, not by look­ing inside,” she writes in Work­ing Iden­tity: Uncon­ven­tional Strate­gies for Rein­vent­ing Your Career.  “We dis­cover the true pos­si­bil­i­ties by doing—try­ing out new activ­i­ties, reach­ing out to new groups, find­ing new role mod­els, and rework­ing our story as we tell it to those around us.”  

Over the past months, I’ve taken this advice to heart (in part because it appeals to me and in part because I don’t really see a whole lot of other options). I still feel pulled in mul­ti­ple directions—at the time of this writ­ing, I’m tak­ing an intro­duc­tory social work class, plan­ning to teach a writ­ing work­shop, actively seek­ing full-time and free­lance jobs, and con­tem­plat­ing tak­ing the Mass­a­chu­setts bar exam.  (In the dry words of one friend, “Amy, maybe you should con­sider mon­e­tiz­ing your Har­vard Law degree.”)

If this post seems longer than pre­vi­ous offer­ings, that’s because it is: Much of it was pulled from a book pro­posal that I may (or may not) be rework­ing.  As with so many other things: Time. Will. Tell. For now, one of the ways I’m find­ing mean­ing is through writ­ing this blog.  And while I can’t say where it’s tak­ing me, I’m sure enjoy­ing the ride.

Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily


A year ago today, I was pack­ing up my Cam­bridge apart­ment a stone’s throw from Har­vard Square and prepar­ing to return to Northamp­ton, the bucolic west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts col­lege town where I’d pre­vi­ously lived for two years in the early aughts.

I’d been in Cam­bridge for six years, and a hard six years it was. I’m still not quite sure why. It was the third time I’d lived in the sto­ried edu­ca­tional mecca, home to Har­vard, MIT, and count­less bril­liant minds. I’d been there twice as a stu­dent. This time I was back for a job at Har­vard Law School, where I ulti­mately wound up writ­ing speeches for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan.

It was a pretty great job in a pretty great city, but for some rea­son my life never really came together there.  Most difficult—and puzzling—of all was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make friends. Being sin­gle, my friends have always been espe­cially impor­tant to me, and not hav­ing any good friends close at hand—well, it was quite a challenge.

In fair­ness, by the time I moved, I’d man­age to col­lect a hand­ful of inti­mates, but given the time and effort I put in, the results were pretty pal­try.  Was it me? I won­dered. It had to be me. After all, who wouldn’t like Cambridge?

This was pretty much the way my thoughts were going when my boss decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and my Har­vard job abruptly ended in the spring of 2009. At the time, it seemed to make sense to just stay put. I had a strong pro­fes­sional net­work in the Boston area, and even with the Great Reces­sion upon us, the region’s job mar­ket was still rel­a­tively robust (at least com­pared to other places).

Over the next year-plus, I picked up free­lance projects and other short-term work, but more and more, I found myself pin­ing to return to west­ern Mass. While I’d last lived in Northamp­ton a decade before, I’d made fre­quent trips back to see friends, and I loved my week­end vis­its. Still, I sternly reminded myself, mini-vacations are not real life. Mak­ing a move wouldn’t change any of the very real dif­fi­cul­ties fac­ing me. I’d still be job­less, look­ing for work, still finan­cially strained. I’d still be sin­gle (which is great if you choose it, but the fact is, I had not).

Also: I already knew from expe­ri­ence that just because I thought a change would make my life bet­ter didn’t mean that it would. Psy­chol­o­gists have a fancy name for this—affec­tive fore­cast­ing error—the idea being that we humans are noto­ri­ously poor pre­dic­tors of what will make us happy.

Wher­ever you go there you are. The say­ing stuck in my mind. Every­one knows that you can’t change your life by sim­ply chang­ing your surroundings–and lest you have any lin­ger­ing doubt, research bears this out.  In one often-cited study, researchers found that peo­ple who believed they would be hap­pier liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia actu­ally would not be. I couldn’t help but sus­pect that Northamp­ton might be my per­sonal Cal­i­for­nia (albeit a far chill­ier and less sunny one).

And so it went until my unhap­pi­ness reached the point that even an unlikely option seemed worth the risk. I didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking—or at least hoping—that a move might serve as a jump start.

I was encour­aged to find some sup­port for this notion in jour­nal­ist Mal­colm Gladwell’s Out­liers: The Story of Suc­cess. There, Glad­well recounts the story of Roseto, Penn­syl­va­nia, a bustling self-sufficient town estab­lished in the nine­teenth cen­tury by immi­grants from a sin­gle Ital­ian vil­lage. In the 1950s, a physi­cian dis­cov­ered that the town’s res­i­dents enjoyed aston­ish­ingly good health, with men over 65 dying from heart dis­ease at half the rate of the United States as a whole, and with death rates from all causes 30% to 35% lower than expected. After sig­nif­i­cant research aimed at con­trol­ling for variables–diet, genet­ics, exercise–researchers con­cluded that, remark­ably enough, res­i­dents’ health could be traced to noth­ing more than the fab­ric of town life, with its rich social bonds and traditions.

Maybe I was grasp­ing at straws, but this seemed promis­ing. It seemed to sug­gest that while “mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia” might not in itself boost hap­pi­ness, the sense of belong­ing to a vibrant com­mu­nity could have a pro­found impact. The more I thought about it, the more con­vinced I became that this made total sense. After all, wasn’t it likely that I’d be hap­pier in a place that I knew and loved, sur­rounded by peo­ple I cared about and who cared about me?

More­over, I was able to gar­ner research to back me up. Again and again, close rela­tion­ships with fam­ily and friends have been shown to be one of the strongest proven pre­dic­tors of happiness.

Reader, I moved.

And as I approach my one-year anniver­sary in Northamp­ton, I’m delighted to tell you that I am indeed far, far hap­pier than I was before. While the move cer­tainly hasn’t fixed everything—I’m still look­ing for work, still look­ing for love—I’m deeply grate­ful for my life here. Along with the wel­come infu­sion of human warmth and con­nec­tion, I cher­ish the tex­ture of daily life: stop­ping by the farm down the street to pick up eggs, play­ing board games with my friends’ kids, work­ing with Friends of Chil­dren and Tree­house, local orga­ni­za­tions doing cutting-edge work aimed at trans­form­ing the nation’s fos­ter care sys­tem. The list goes on.

The moral of the story? Chang­ing your sur­round­ings won’t nec­es­sar­ily change your life. But then again: It might.

Thanksgiving in Plan B Nation (or how to be grateful when you don’t feel grateful)

Look­ing ahead to the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day, a friend expressed some trep­i­da­tion. This year, sev­eral guests at a usu­ally fes­tive annual party would be newly unem­ployed. My friend shook his head. “It’s going to be strange this year.”

As the world econ­omy stum­bles on, wreak­ing chaos in count­less lives, it strikes me that this expe­ri­ence is likely to be widely shared–and that the spirit of grat­i­tude may well prove more elu­sive than in boom years past. Researchers would seem to agree.

It is rel­a­tively easy to feel grate­ful when good things are hap­pen­ing and life is going the way we want it to,” observes Uni­ver­sity of California-Davis Pro­fes­sor Robert A. Emmons, whose book Thanks! How the New Sci­ence of Grat­i­tude Can Make You Hap­pier devotes an entire chap­ter to grat­i­tude in try­ing times. “A much greater chal­lenge is to be grate­ful when things are not going so well, and are not going the way we think they should.”

Speak­ing from per­sonal expe­ri­ence, a pro­longed job hunt can be a seri­ous hit to the grat­i­tude bal­ance sheet, how­ever much you try to focus on the pos­i­tive. In part, that’s because evo­lu­tion designed us to remem­ber dan­ger more than plea­sure. (That’s how our ances­tors kept from get­ting eaten.)  Research psy­chol­o­gists call this our “neg­a­tiv­ity bias.”

More­over, grat­i­tude may always come harder to some of us than oth­ers, due to our (genet­i­cally deter­mined) tem­pera­ments. When I took the New­cas­tle Per­son­al­ity Asses­sor, I some­how wasn’t shocked to find that I scored high on the per­son­al­ity dimen­sion asso­ci­ated with high sen­si­tiv­ity to neg­a­tive stimuli—a trait of some use in the evo­lu­tion­ary sweep­stakes but less well adapted to my cur­rent pur­poses as a latté-drinking inhab­i­tant of a New Eng­land col­lege town. “What your ances­tors needed to sur­vive is not what you need to have a pleas­ant life,” researcher Daniel Net­tle help­fully explains in his book Per­son­al­ity: What Makes You the Way You Are.

Now it prob­a­bly won’t come as a huge sur­prise that grat­i­tude cor­re­lates with hap­pi­ness. Grate­ful peo­ple cope bet­ter with stress, recover more quickly from ill­ness, have more sat­is­fy­ing rela­tion­ships, are more opti­mistic, and all in all, are hap­pier with their lives than their less grate­ful peers. They are also: less anx­ious, less envi­ous, less mate­ri­al­is­tic, and less lonely.  In sum, “hap­pi­ness is facil­i­tated when we … ‘want what we have,’” Emmons concludes.

All well in good if you feel grate­ful, but what if you just … don’t?  What if you really don’t want what you have, thanks all the same? And what if you have some pretty good rea­sons for want­ing life to be different?

Hap­pily, research sug­gests that grat­i­tude can be cultivated—even by those of us for whom it doesn’t come nat­u­rally. (Emmons actu­ally puts him­self in this cat­e­gory, not­ing that he spends far more time think­ing about grat­i­tude research than prac­tic­ing the qual­ity he studies.)

The most com­mon mis­take? Assum­ing that grat­i­tude should spring up effort­lessly. Not so, says Emmons.  For most of us, devel­op­ing grat­i­tude requires ongo­ing dis­ci­pline.  We have to learn to act first, regard­less of how we feel. “While grat­i­tude is pleas­ant, it is not easy,” Emmons writes. “We have to work at it. It must be con­sciously cultivated.”

For those who want to test his the­o­ries, Emmons offers ten sug­gested prac­tices for cul­ti­vat­ing grat­i­tude. They include keep­ing a daily grat­i­tude jour­nal, remem­ber­ing the hard­est times in your life and how  far you’ve come (maybe not so help­ful if those times are now), and mak­ing a point of express­ing gratitude.

While the idea of “count­ing your bless­ings” is an ancient one, it was Emmons and his col­leagues who gave the idea its schol­arly bona fides. In one 10-week study, par­tic­i­pants were ran­domly assigned to one of three weekly report­ing groups. One group was asked to report back on five things they were grate­ful for, the sec­ond to describe five has­sles, and the third sim­ply to report five things that affected them.

The result: At the end of the study, the grat­i­tude group was not only a full 25% hap­pier than other par­tic­i­pants but also reported fewer health con­cerns and spent more time exer­cis­ing. (Later research showed that daily prac­tice was even more effective.)

Sounds good, but will it work for you?

Here’s one way to find out. Go to the Uni­ver­sity of Pennsylvania’s Authen­tic Hap­pi­ness web­site and com­plete both the Gen­eral Hap­pi­ness and Sat­is­fac­tion with Life tests. Then, every night for the next two weeks spend five min­utes list­ing up to five things from the past 24 hours for which you feel grate­ful. At the end of the two weeks, take the tests again. If you’re hap­pier than before: Con­tinue. (This exper­i­ment is sug­gested by Penn Pro­fes­sor Mar­tin Seligman—often referred to as the grand­fa­ther of pos­i­tive psychology—for those who score in the lower half of either the Life Sat­is­fac­tion test or Emmons’ grat­i­tude sur­vey, which is also avail­able on the website.)

While I’ve kept grat­i­tude jour­nals before, I’ve never stuck with them for all that long, but thanks to my recent read­ing, I’m giv­ing it another shot.  In fact, I’ll start now: First of all, I’m really grate­ful to you—to every­one who’s read and com­mented on this blog in the past ten days. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a project as much, and I couldn’t (wouldn’t) do it if it no one were read­ing it. So: thank you, thank, you! And have a won­der­ful Thanksgiving.

P.S. For any­one inclined to join me in keep­ing a grat­i­tude jour­nal, here’s a help­ful list of tips I came across while pro­cras­ti­nat­ing research­ing this post.

NaNoWriMo for the rest of us (NaPerProMo, anyone?)

Don´t do a NaNo without them

NaNoW­riMo: Assum­ing you know what it is, you either love it or hate it.

For those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m talk­ing about, NaNoW­riMo is National Novel Writ­ing Month, the annual word fest wherein par­tic­i­pants com­mit to writ­ing 50,000 words of a new novel between Novem­ber 1 and Novem­ber 30. Since its launch in 1999, NaNoW­riMo has exploded, going from 21 par­tic­i­pants to—get this—250,000.

Now at this par­tic­u­lar point in my life, I have close to zero inter­est in writ­ing a novel (been there, done that). I do, how­ever, have high hopes for this lit­tle blog o’ mine.

So here’s what I plan to do: Dur­ing the month of Decem­ber, I’m going to com­mit to draft­ing a post every day. They won’t appear every day—that would likely drive you nuts—but they’ll be in the pipeline for when the time comes. That’s 31 posts in all, and if I do this—or even come any­where close—it will mark a quan­tum leap for this tiny baby blog.

Great, but it’s only Novem­ber 20. Why am I telling you this?

Here’s a secret: Any­thing I write between now and Decem­ber 1 still counts towards my 31 posts. I admit it–I cheat. In fair­ness, Decem­ber is a hol­i­day month, so I know there will be some down days. (Also, chances are some of these posts will need some, er, pol­ish­ing before they’re ready for you.)

I’m a big fan of plans like this. This is how, in another life­time, I wrote (and pub­lished) my two nov­els. My goal was 500 words a day—about two double-spaced pages. And while I didn’t always meet the goal (in fact, far from it), I did track my progress, and that made all the difference.

The pro­lific Vic­to­rian nov­el­ist Anthony Trol­lope, who I recently dis­cov­ered used a sim­i­lar strat­egy, put it this way: “[I]f at any time I have slipped into idle­ness for a day or two, the record of that idle­ness has been there, star­ing me in the face and demand­ing of me increased labour, so that the defi­ciency might be supplied.”

Com­mu­nity sup­port always helps—that’s the pur­pose of NaNoWriMo—and I’d love it if you would join me. Here’s how it works: Pick a project you want to get done and set a daily doable goal. For exam­ple, if you want to clean and de-clutter your house—Now why would I think of that?–you could com­mit to toss­ing three items a day. If you want to get in shape, com­mit to 30 min­utes of exer­cise a day.

Tip: Try to keep your goals reasonable—and if you find you’ve set the bar too high, don’t be afraid to adjust.

If you’re on Twit­ter you can send your updates to @planbnation with the hash­tag  #naper­promo. Or feel free to post your progress on the Plan B Nation Face­book wall or com­ment on this post. I’ll be doing the same. I hope to see you there!

Note: Any­one who feels like a slacker for opt­ing out of NaNoW­riMo this year can take com­fort in best­selling writer (and cyber pal) Laura Zigman’s witty take on the project—part of her ter­rific Annoy­ing Con­ver­sa­tions series of Xtra­nor­mal movies. (And if you are doing NaNoW­riMo, best of luck. I’m quite sure you’ll be an exception.)

Why you should stop pursuing your goals


Most of my career is based on the fact that I went out for ice cream one night,” my writer friend Megan tells me.

This makes total sense to me.

Over the past week, my two most sig­nif­i­cant work leads both popped up serendip­i­tously while I was tak­ing much-needed breaks from the slog of job hunting.

In the first case, I was see­ing a movie with a friend (the excel­lent “Mar­gin Call,” in case you care).  We’d just set­tled into our seats when I espied two famil­iar faces, my for­mer neigh­bors Lou and J.R., whom I’d last seen a decade back.

In the course of a brief friendly chat, I learned that Lou now chairs the board of our local employ­ment board, the regional policy-making author­ity in devel­op­ing work­force skills.  We quickly exchanged con­tact info—yes, I’m on Face­book, too—before the lights went down.

The next day I had a Face­book mes­sage from Lou with one con­crete job lead and offers of fur­ther help.

And that’s not all.

As it hap­pens I was in the midst of strug­gling to launch this blog, and as it fur­ther hap­pens, Lou is a total com­puter genius.  In the course of Face­book and Twit­ter exchanges, fol­lowed by a cou­ple of hours at a local café, he pretty much answered all of my urgent tech­ni­cal ques­tions. (If you’re think­ing this blog looks way bet­ter than it did a week ago, you have Lou to thank.)

In the sec­ond case, I was hang­ing out with new friends at a weekly cof­fee klatsch. (I’ve taken to call­ing our group The Coven, but that’s another story.)  I’d briefly con­sid­ered skip­ping this week since I had loads to do, but I do love cof­fee and I love these friends, so in the end I went.

Good thing, too.

So what sort of job are you look­ing for,” Ellen inquired. “Because I have a friend who works at a non-profit that might be look­ing for a writer.” Within a day, she’d put me in touch, and I’d sent off my resume.

My friend Megan’s story is more of the same: Out with her fam­ily at Herrell’s, our most excel­lent local pur­veyor of ice cream, she bumped into a woman who’d hired her four years ear­lier.  “Would you like to do a small project?” her for­mer employer asked, after they’d caught up. That sin­gle chance meet­ing led to six years of steady free­lance work.

So what are the lessons here?

Some­times the best way to pur­sue your goals is to stop pur­su­ing them. This isn’t to say that stan­dard job search strate­gies don’t have their place. It is to say that they aren’t nec­es­sar­ily going to be the ones that work. That’s espe­cially true today, when per­sonal con­nec­tions mat­ter more than ever in a world where, at last count, there were seven unem­ployed work­ers for every job opening.

It’s easy to feel guilty for tak­ing a break when you’re look­ing for work—especially as the days roll by and the pres­sures mount. You need to remem­ber that job leads can pop up in the most sur­pris­ing of places.

Plus every­one needs a break: You can’t just live your job search. You also must live your life. And some­times the best way to do both may be to go out for ice cream.

Note:  The fea­tured play­ers in this post also have blogs of their own. On the job search front, Lou Franco’s Soft­ware Busi­ness Blog recently offered excel­lent advice to soft­ware devel­op­ers look­ing for work. And for amus­ing mus­ings on life in our beloved Northamp­ton, check out Megan Rubiner Zinn’s Life in the Lit­tle City. (I espe­cially loved her recent post There are a Mil­lion Viruses in the Lit­tle City.)

Good news? Bad news? Who knows?

Question mark

A few years back, while still work­ing at Har­vard Law School, I heard this story:

After weigh­ing her options, a soon-to-graduate stu­dent turned down lucra­tive offers at pres­ti­gious law firms to accept a low-paying fel­low­ship with a non-profit orga­ni­za­tion. This did not sit well with her fam­ily, who expected her to “do some­thing” with her Har­vard Law School degree.

Flash for­ward a few months: The Great Reces­sion has hit. Both of her par­ents have lost their well-paying jobs. Class­mates who’d thought their post-graduation lives were set are now see­ing their law firm offers post­poned or with­drawn. She alone, among her friends and fam­ily, is untouched by the crisis.

I’ve thought about this story a lot–and what it says to those of us nav­i­gat­ing Plan B Nation. As I see it, the take-away is this: We never really know for sure where our choices will take us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t do our best to plan. It does mean that we are well-advised to keep an open mind about what events “mean.”

The past two years of my own life are a case in point.

After my Har­vard Law School job ended in the wake of the Great Reces­sion, I embarked on an exhaus­tive (and exhaust­ing) search for pay­ing work. At the time of this writ­ing, I’ve long lost count of the dozens (hun­dreds?) of jobs for which I’ve applied. You see, my resume is impres­sive, but it’s also quirky. I’ve pub­lished sus­pense nov­els, writ­ten speeches for a Har­vard Law School dean (now a U.S Supreme Court Jus­tice), and designed a pro­gram to bring pub­lic school teach­ers to rural Mis­sis­sippi. At the same time, I’m not a whiz with Excel or Pow­er­Point. Basi­cally, I’m a writer, and as smart and tal­ented as I may be, I don’t eas­ily fit into an iden­ti­fi­able niche.

But here’s the thing. If I’d got­ten any of the jobs I’d applied for (and believe me, I did my best) I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be writ­ing this blog, or the pieces for Huff­in­g­ton Post and Salon that paved the way for it. And these essays that I’m writ­ing now—they feel impor­tant. Hard as the road to this point has been (and you’ll be hear­ing much more about that), right at this moment the life I’m liv­ing feels deeply meaningful.

One of my med­i­ta­tion teach­ers told this clas­sic story:

There once was a poor rice farmer, who had a very small field just large enough to feed his family.

Then one day a herd of wild horses came run­ning through the vil­lage. They ran into the farmer’s rice field and got stuck in the mud, and since they couldn’t get away, they were his.

His neigh­bor came run­ning over and said, “This is good news! Such good for­tune! You are rich, this is amaz­ing!” And the rice farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A few weeks later the farmer’s 12-year-old son jumped up on one of the wild horses for a ride, only to be thrown off and have his leg bro­ken. The neigh­bor comes run­ning over and says, “Oh no, this is such bad news!” And the farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A week later a Chi­nese gen­eral is march­ing through the farmer’s vil­lage on the way to war. On this march, the army is con­script­ing every healthy boy over 10 years of age. So they took every boy in the vil­lage except the farmer’s son because of his bro­ken leg.

The neigh­bor comes run­ning over and says, “Yes! This is won­der­ful news, how lucky are we!” And the father replies, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

And the fact is we never do.

Fail­ing at some­thing you don’t really want—even if you think you do—may be a step on the path to a won­der­ful life you can’t even imag­ine today.

Good news, bad news, who knows?

Since we can’t know what the future holds, why not keep an open mind?

Welcome to Plan B Nation

if it makes you fly...

Decem­ber 31, 2008. It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m not at a party or hav­ing din­ner with friends or even at home alone with pop­corn, watch­ing Times Square on TV. Instead, I’m on a 10-day silent med­i­ta­tion retreat, mil­lions of psy­chic miles from my fren­zied if ful­fill­ing job at Har­vard Law School.

For the past five years, I’ve penned speeches for Dean Elena Kagan, jug­gling dead­lines with cups of cof­fee at my sto­ried alma mater, but when I get home one week later, every­thing has changed. Dur­ing my silent sojourn, my boss was tapped to become Solic­i­tor Gen­eral, soon to join the fledg­ling Obama admin­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton D.C. (As it hap­pens, this will be short stop, en route to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Four months later, I’m newly unem­ployed at the peak of the Great Reces­sion. A rue­ful refrain runs through my mind: But I did every­thing right! This is not what my life is sup­posed to look like!

Wel­come to Plan B Nation.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, it seemed rea­son­able to think that with edu­ca­tion, hard work, and a mod­icum of luck we could chart a course in our lives—Plan A—and fol­low it through to the end.

Today, these assump­tions no longer hold. Glob­al­iza­tion, lay­offs (actual or feared), the fore­clo­sure cri­sis, the wide­spread demise of tra­di­tional pen­sions, the roller coaster stock market—these are some of the fac­tors turn­ing once-stable lives upside down.

Plan B—it’s the new Plan A!” I quipped to a friend who was, like me, fac­ing an unex­pected reversal.

Plan A, that’s so 20th-century,” I said to another.

But if Plan B Nation brings chal­lenges, it also brings new pos­si­bil­i­ties and options. The trick is to find­ing new ways to work with things as they are.

As I recently wrote in Salon, thriv­ing in Plan B Nation requires us to exer­cise many tra­di­tional Amer­i­can virtues: For­ti­tude, faith, patience, courage, and self-control.

To this list, I would also add inge­nu­ity and a flex­i­ble, open per­spec­tive. In essence, we need to become artists of life. Rather than sim­ply wish­ing things were dif­fer­ent, we need to make cre­ative use of the mate­ri­als at hand.

Over the next weeks and months, this blog will be explor­ing just how we go about that. I’ll be shar­ing per­sonal sto­ries (my own and those of fel­low trav­el­ers) while also tak­ing a look at books and research help­ful in nav­i­gat­ing Plan B Nation. Please join the conversation–and if you’re so inclined, help me spread the word.

In the mean­time, I’d love to hear from you! Are there issues you’d like to see addressed? Do you have sug­ges­tions for blog posts or fea­tures? Other thoughts or con­cerns? Please let me know.

Again, Wel­come to Plan B Nation.

And now, let’s get started.