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

kitchen1

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

SIGNAGE

“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.