Calm wonder

A few weeks back, I received an elo­quent hol­i­day let­ter from a friend who has faced some hard times in recent years but has steadily been mov­ing for­ward into a vibrant and ful­fill­ing new life. Along with recount­ing the year’s highlights—foreign travel, news of her kids—she spoke of her theme for the year ahead: Durable calm.

Over the next few days, I found my mind return­ing to these words—and mulling over how I’d describe the spirit in which I’d like to move through my own 2012.

Calm” felt right. It’s not a qual­ity that comes nat­u­rally to me—I tend towards the fran­tic and anxious—but it’s one that I’ve come to value more with each pass­ing year.  I tried it out this week and noticed that even repeat­ing the word in my mind seems to help ground me.

Won­der” is another word that cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion.  The idea of greet­ing the world with curios­ity rather than with judg­ment. Of being inter­ested in things as they are and less wrapped up in my ideas of how I think they ought to be. This cer­tainly isn’t to say that opin­ions don’t have their place, just that I think that my life would richer if I car­ried them a bit more lightly.

In recent days, I’ve tried invok­ing the words—calm won­der–when I’m feel­ing uncer­tain or lost, and I’ve been struck by their capac­ity to remind me of what I care about most. Real mean­ing won’t be found in robot­i­cally check­ing off the next item on my to-do list but rather in tak­ing time to expe­ri­ence life in all its con­fu­sion and beauty.

Calm won­der isn’t a goal in itself—a sort of New Year’s res­o­lu­tion. Rather it’s a con­tainer, the spirit with which I’d like to infuse every­thing I do. It’s also a sort of touch­stone: When I’m stressed out and on the move, invok­ing the words ori­ents me. It invites me to return.

I’m start­ing 2012 in a very dif­fer­ent place from where I started 2011, and for that I am mostly grate­ful. I love my friends and the place I live. I love writ­ing this blog. For the first time in more than two years, I’m reel­ing in more pay­ing work than I can eas­ily handle.

Which is all the more rea­son to be clear on my inten­tion to cul­ti­vate calm won­der: to focus not so much on get­ting things done but on the doing of them.

Plan B Nation on NPR! (plus a few thoughts on faith)

NPR Sign

Plan B Nation is end­ing the year on a high note, hav­ing been fea­tured in a ter­rific report by Karen Brown on New Eng­land NPR. You can lis­ten, here. (My writer friend Naomi Shul­man, also fea­tured in the seg­ment, tells me the story begins at the 7:25 mark. If you’re not sure what that means—I I wasn’t—try start­ing about halfway through.)

[12/3/12 update: there is now a sep­a­rate audio link for this report.]

As I lis­tened to WFCR this morn­ing, I mar­veled once again at how quickly things can change. I launched this blog just last month—November 13, to be exact. Since then, I’ve pub­lished more than 20 posts and con­nected with dozens of amaz­ing read­ers from all over the coun­try.  I’ve also picked up a bunch of free­lance work, started draw­ing up a busi­ness plan, and—for the first time in quite a while—been feel­ing pretty optimistic.

If you’d described this state of affairs to me two months ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.  In fact, as I’ve writ­ten before, I almost didn’t start this blog.  I was at the point where it was hard to believe that any­thing I tried would pan out.  To put it diplo­mat­i­cally, I was feel­ing slug­gish. Psy­chol­o­gists call this “learned help­less­ness,” this much I knew. But while I was clear on the diag­no­sis, I was clue­less as to the cure.

I’ve writ­ten a good bit about tran­si­tions lately—about why they (always) suck and also about key points to keep in mind while wrestling with change—but I failed to men­tion that they rarely pro­ceed at a steady pace.  We work and work for what seems like for­ever with no appar­ent result.  And then one day, for no appar­ent rea­son, every­thing seems to shift.

I’ve seen this in my own life again and again. And I was reminded of it the other day when I spoke with a lovely friend who had been wag­ing a lengthy and dev­as­tat­ing strug­gle with Lyme dis­ease. She’d fol­lowed doctor’s instruc­tions for months, to no obvi­ous effect. Then she woke up one morn­ing to find that the pain had dis­ap­peared overnight.

In the same vein, in my own (and still ongo­ing) tran­si­tion, I’d been doggedly plug­ging ahead for more than two years, with­out sens­ing much progress. I’d given up keep­ing count of the num­ber of jobs I’d applied for. And while I got the occa­sional free­lance project, they were few and far between. Then, out of the blue, things started to click.

In this way, change often feels more like a quan­tum leap than like a steady climb, as if we’ve trav­eled from point X to point Y with­out pass­ing through the points in between. We may won­der why things took so long if all we had to do was this.  (The answer: Because that’s just how tran­si­tions seem to work.)

For me, this is where faith comes in. And by that, I don’t mean some abstract meta­phys­i­cal belief—I’m not some­one who believes that Things Work Out For The Best or Every­thing Hap­pens For A Rea­son. (In fact, I’m the sort of per­son who responds to such claims by instantly invok­ing the Holo­caust or geno­cide in Rwanda.)  But I do believe in cause and effect—the power of our actions. I have faith that if we keep tak­ing small steps, our lives are going to change.

Woody Guthrie’s 33 New Year’s resolutions (summed up in just 2 words)

Ear­lier this week, I wrote about how I’m not really a New Year’s res­o­lu­tion kinda gal, but if I were, I’d draw inspi­ra­tion from a tat­tered hand­writ­ten doc­u­ment penned in 1942.

Drawn up by leg­endary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, the 33-item list is a quirky and sweet reminder of how the qual­ity of our lives depends not so much on huge accom­plish­ments but on the count­less small actions and habits that con­sti­tute our days.

For the record, here is what the 30-year-old Guthrie sought to do in the year ahead:

1. Work more and bet­ter
2. Work by a sched­ule
3. Wash teeth if any
4. Shave
5. Take bath
6. Eat good — fruit — veg­eta­bles — milk
7. Drink very scant if any
8. Write a song a day
9. Wear clean clothes — look good
10. Shine shoes
11. Change socks
12. Change bed cloths often
13. Read lots good books
14. Lis­ten to radio a lot
15. Learn peo­ple bet­ter
16. Keep ran­cho clean
17. Dont get lone­some
18. Stay glad
19. Keep hop­ing machine run­ning
20. Dream good
21. Bank all extra money
22. Save dough
23. Have com­pany but dont waste time
24. Send Mary and kids money
25. Play and sing good
26. Dance bet­ter
27. Help win war — beat fas­cism
28. Love mama
29. Love papa
30. Love Pete
31. Love every­body
32. Make up your mind
33. Wake up and fight

As I read over this list one more time, it struck me that the whole ram­bling lovely mass could be summed up in just two words: Be kind.

Be kind to your­self. Be kind to oth­ers. Be kind to your com­mu­nity and the planet we all inhabit. While con­crete goals are great—and cer­tainly have their place—it’s the spirit in which they’re under­taken that lies at the heart of it all.

Note: Big thanks to my friend and law school class­mate Ted Mills, who shared the Guthrie list with me on Face­book in response to my pre­vi­ous post. Here’s the link he posted.

Stuck on New Year’s resolutions? Try this instead

Up Above!

I’ve always loved the idea of New Year’s resolutions—the clean slate, the fresh start, the opti­mistic resolve—but for all my ever-so-good inten­tions, I never quite seem to keep them.

So this year, I’m try­ing some­thing new. Instead of estab­lish­ing a list of goals and strug­gling (and fail­ing) to reach them, I’ve decided to think in terms of possibilities.

Inspired by an essay in Wise Bread, I took 20 min­utes out of Christ­mas morn­ing to scrib­ble down 100 things that I want to do—things that, at some level, seem to be call­ing to me. Noth­ing was too big. Noth­ing was too small. As more thoughts came to mind later in the day, I added them to the list.

By the time I was fin­ished, I had some 85 items rang­ing from going to Thai­land to tak­ing a pho­tog­ra­phy class to buy­ing a KitchenAid mixer.  To some­one else, this com­pi­la­tion might appear a weirdly ran­dom assort­ment. To me, it makes total sense. Read­ing it makes me happy.

Let me be clear, this is not a to-do list—it would take me years, if not decades, to accom­plish every­thing I wrote down, and besides, that isn’t the point. What I was after was some­thing more intan­gi­ble, a frame­work for think­ing about what mat­ters to me and how I spend my time.

Look­ing over my list, I was instantly struck by how the things that call me come in clus­ters. Travel is a big one—no surprise—but so is orga­ni­za­tion, or rather the idea of cre­at­ing a more ordered home and with it a more ordered life. Cre­ative work, time in nature, and cook­ing with friends are other recur­rent themes.

I was heart­ened to see that my big changes of recent years—most notably my move to west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts from the Boston area—have made it far eas­ier for me to spend time in ways that feel mean­ing­ful. It was good to feel that I’ve been head­ing in the right direction.

And as inter­est­ing as what I wrote down was what I left out. Many (though not all) of the things on my list are inex­pen­sive or free. Big-city glamor is in notably short sup­ply. Mak­ing waf­fles, play­ing mini-golf, cross-country ski­ing. String­ing white lights around my liv­ing room win­dows. Re-learning how to knit. Cor­ralling kids to make a gin­ger­bread house and hol­i­day cook­ies next year.

Think­ing in terms of pos­si­bil­i­ties seems espe­cially appro­pri­ate for Plan B Nation, where we need to be open-minded and strate­gic if we’re to move forward.

Rather than choos­ing a sin­gle con­crete goal—say, get­ting a job at X organization–we’re well advised to think more broadly. What is the essence of what we want? (Mean­ing­ful work, an income ade­quate to sup­port us in other life goals, inter­est­ing col­leagues.)  What are some alter­nate paths to these same ends?

I imag­ine con­sult­ing this list many times in the year ahead, espe­cially when­ever I’m feel­ing at a loss or stuck. Twelve months from now, I’ll def­i­nitely be curi­ous to see how many of the items from the list made it into my life. But again, that isn’t really the point. These aren’t goals so much as poten­tial paths: They are step­ping stones, not the destination.

Plan B Nation life hack #1 (a holiday survival tip)

Snowman Bokeh  (Explored) 10,000 visits to this photo. Thank you.

I love the idea of life hacks: prac­ti­cal short­cuts designed to ease lives bur­dened by over­load and over-stimulation.

The life hack con­cept (like so much else) emerged from a dig­i­tal sub­cul­ture look­ing for ways to deal more effi­ciently with an inces­sant bar­rage of infor­ma­tion. The goal: increased pro­duc­tiv­ity and hap­pier, more sat­is­fy­ing lives.

As described by British tech guru Danny O’Brien, who coined the term in 2004, life hacks are all about putting aside a larger prob­lem to focus on a small fix that will get you through the task at hand.

In recent days, I’ve found myself reflect­ing on how this con­cept might be extended from the world of email and ter­abytes to the chal­lenges of daily life.

In life (and espe­cially in Plan B Nation) it’s easy to obsess about big ques­tions with no clear answers. What am I doing with my life? Why do I keep hav­ing the same argu­ment with my spouse, my child, my friends, my [fill in the blank]? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with them?

Such ques­tions are likely to be espe­cially freighted dur­ing the hol­i­days. Hard as we may try not to, it’s easy to approach the sea­son with out-sized expec­ta­tions, both of our­selves and oth­ers. More­over, we’re likely to be more exhausted than usual, closer to our snap­ping point. Those noto­ri­ous hol­i­day argu­ments, hurt feel­ings, and frayed nerves? This is where they come from.

Here’s one life hack that might help.

The larger prob­lem: The hol­i­days cre­ate a per­fect storm of exag­ger­ated hopes and expec­ta­tions and (for many of us) depleted emo­tional reserves. This is par­tic­u­larly true for those of us resid­ing in Plan B Nation, where anx­i­eties about work and money can eas­ily leave us feel­ing alien­ated amidst the festivities.

The hack: When you feel an urge to say some­thing sharp or crit­i­cal, stop and stay silent. Do this three times every day. Make this a practice.

I learned this strat­egy from a med­i­ta­tion teacher, who said that one of her stu­dents cred­its it for sav­ing her mar­riage. One thing I love about the approach is its speci­ficity. The prac­tice isn’t to hold back for­ever and always. You only have to do it three times. That’s it. Then you’re done for the day.

One rea­son that I think the strat­egy works so well is that it shifts our focus. Instead of fix­at­ing on that infu­ri­at­ing thing some­one did or said, we’re focus­ing on our goal—checking off one of the three things. This feels both empow­er­ing and sat­is­fy­ing.  In my expe­ri­ence, it can really help to dif­fuse a creep­ing sense of victimhood.

Twelve-steppers often joke that alco­holism is a three-part dis­ease: Thanks­giv­ing, Christ­mas, and New Year’s.  And the fact is the hol­i­days do carry with them a new set of chal­lenges. At the same time, we’re not pow­er­less. There are resources we can call on. The trick is find­ing strate­gies that work for us—and remem­ber­ing to use them.

If you try out this life hack, I’d love to hear your expe­ri­ence. In the mean­time, best wishes to every­one for a healthy and happy season.

Why transitions (always) suck—and what you can do about it

an unwitting victim...bwahahhahahaa

Scan­ning over my recent post about tran­si­tions, it struck me that I glossed over one key fact: Tran­si­tions always suck.

That lost, con­fused, hope­less feel­ing that seems like it will never end?  No, it’s not just you. It’s the nature of the beast.

How do I know this?  Well for one thing, I’ve been through a lot of tran­si­tions, and it was ever thus. For another, I’ve read a ton about tran­si­tions, and every­one seems to agree.

Those who study and write about tran­si­tions even have their own names for this uniquely unset­tling phase:  Change guru William Bridges describes it as “the Neu­tral Zone.” Life coach Martha Beck calls it “Death and Rebirth.” Nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist Sara David­son refers to it as “the Narrows.”

But while the names may be dif­fer­ent, the core feel­ings are the same: Dis­ori­en­ta­tion, anx­i­ety, fear. Panic and desperation.

Fun, isn’t it?

So, you may be think­ing, it’s all well and good to know that I’m on track, but that only goes so far. How do I keep mov­ing for­ward when I don’t want to get out of bed?

In his ground­break­ing book Tran­si­tions: Mak­ing Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges offers the fol­low­ing 10 sug­ges­tions for nav­i­gat­ing these chal­leng­ing times.

1. Take your time

As I noted in my pre­vi­ous post, tran­si­tions often take a long time—far longer than we’d expected and far longer than we’d hoped. Think years not days or weeks.

2. Arrange tem­po­rary structures

Do what you need to do to bridge this period of dis­lo­ca­tion. It may be tak­ing a tem­po­rary job, adjust­ing your com­mit­ments at home or at work, con­nect­ing with a spir­i­tual com­mu­nity, or join­ing a sup­port group. Ask your­self what prac­ti­cal adjust­ments you can make that are likely to ease your passage.

3. Don’t act for the sake of action

As Bud­dhist teach­ers some­times quip: “Don’t just do some­thing, sit there.”  Rec­og­nize that sit­ting with uncer­tainty is often the best option—and in itself, a real accomplishment.

4. Rec­og­nize why you are uncomfortable

You are uncom­fort­able not because you’re doing some­thing wrong but because you are in tran­si­tion. Remind your­self of this again and again (and again).

5. Take care of your­self in lit­tle ways

In par­tic­u­lar, Bridges sug­gests small plea­sures that bring a sense of con­ti­nu­ity. Think watch­ing a favorite TV show or eat­ing a favorite meal.

6. Explore the other side of change.

This is an inter­est­ing one.  As Bridges sees it, both pos­i­tive changes (such as hav­ing a baby) and neg­a­tive changes (such as los­ing your job) both have upsides and downsides.

If you’re fac­ing a change that you didn’t choose, Bridges sug­gests spend­ing some time reflect­ing on its pos­si­ble ben­e­fits. On the other hand, if your change was a wel­come one and yet you’re feel­ing inex­plic­a­bly uneasy, he sug­gests giv­ing some thought to what the change may have cost you as well as to its gifts.

 7. Get some­one to talk to

Hav­ing at least one reli­able and empathic lis­tener is crit­i­cally impor­tant when your life is in flux. If no one in your net­work can serve that role right now, con­sider find­ing a pro­fes­sional coun­selor or join­ing a sup­port group.

8. Find out what is wait­ing in the wings of your life

Bridges notes that tran­si­tions open up space in our lives for us to grow in new ways. Ask your­self: What is wait­ing to hap­pen in my life now? (Try set­ting aside a bit of time to put this down on paper. You may be sur­prised at what comes up.)

 9. Use this tran­si­tion as the impe­tus to a new kind of learning

What do you need to learn right now, and how can you start to learn it?

10. Rec­og­nize that tran­si­tion has a char­ac­ter­is­tic shape.

As I wrote ear­lier this week, every tran­si­tion fol­lows a sim­i­lar struc­ture. This period where every­thing sucks is nor­mal and nec­es­sary. The good news? This phase will come to an end.  (It just may take a while.)

Do you have a strat­egy that’s helped you to nav­i­gate a major life tran­si­tion? If so, please share it in the com­ment section.

3 things you should know about transitions

Come Together

Two years and eight months ago, I found myself abruptly launched into a pro­longed tran­si­tion that con­tin­ues to this day. The job I’d held for the past five years sud­denly dis­ap­peared when my boss was tapped to join the fledg­ling Obama admin­is­tra­tion as solic­i­tor gen­eral. (You may have heard of her: She’s now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Elena Kagan.)

As is so often the case with major change, there was much ambiva­lence. While I was anx­ious about the plunge into unem­ploy­ment, I was also ready to move on.  On the one hand, the news came as a wel­come push. On the other, I was freak­ing out.

But what­ever my reac­tion on a given day, there was one thing I never imag­ined from the van­tage point of April 2009: That this tran­si­tion would go on and on in pre­cisely the way it has.

In ret­ro­spect, I shouldn’t have been so sur­prised. After all, my lay­off came at the peak of the Great Reces­sion. Still, I had great ref­er­ences, great skills, and a great edu­ca­tion. I some­how assumed they’d ease my way. In large part, I was wrong.

Which is dif­fer­ent from say­ing I have regrets. The more I learn about tran­si­tions, the more I real­ize that what I’ve expe­ri­enced is com­pletely nor­mal. Just because some­thing is painful and hard doesn’t mean it can’t yield fruit.

Years ago, I took a course with psy­chol­o­gist Robert Kegan at Harvard’s Grad­u­ate School of Edu­ca­tion, and one thing he said stuck with me. (Well, actu­ally, many things he said stuck with me, but this one is rel­e­vant here.)  He said, and I para­phrase from mem­ory: “Growth comes from stretch-not-break challenges.”

In other words, hard times—if they are too hard—can crush us. When they’re just right, they may be uncom­fort­able, but they also move us forward.

One of the things most help­ful to me in nav­i­gat­ing this tran­si­tion has been get­ting a bet­ter han­dle on what to expect. Over the past two-plus years, I’ve spent a lot of hours delv­ing into the sub­ject, and for the record, here are three of my most use­ful takeaways.

1. Tran­si­tions take a long time.

Three years, five years, seven years—these are the time frames that popped up again and again in my read­ing.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life accident.”

2. Tran­si­tions have a pre­dictable structure.

Tran­si­tions guru William Bridges—author of the ground­break­ing Tran­si­tions: Mak­ing Sense of Life’s Changes—has iden­ti­fied a three-part struc­ture reflected in every major life tran­si­tion:  An end­ing, fol­lowed by a period of con­fu­sion and dis­tress, fol­lowed, in turn, by a new beginning.

In Find­ing Your Own North Star—a book that I count among my per­sonal favorites—life coach Martha Beck describes a four-part “change cycle”: A shock­ing “cat­alytic event” is fol­lowed by “death and rebirth,” “dream­ing and schem­ing,” “the hero’s saga” (a trial-and-error imple­men­ta­tion stage), and finally “the promised land,” or equi­lib­rium regained.

3. Tran­si­tions aren’t linear.  

It’s tempt­ing to think that tran­si­tions can be neat and orderly, that we can fig­ure out a game plan and sim­ply exe­cute it. In fact, tran­si­tions are almost always messy, punc­tu­ated with false starts and regroupings.

In Work­ing Iden­tity, an exten­sive study of suc­cess­ful mid-career career chang­ers, busi­ness pro­fes­sor Her­minia Ibarra con­cluded that the “plan and exe­cute model” is not real­is­tic. Rather, suc­cess­ful tran­si­tions tend to adopt a “test and learn” approach, fol­low­ing a “first-act-and-then-think” sequence.

Well into the third year of my tran­si­tion, I’m finally start­ing to feel that I’m turn­ing a cor­ner. I can’t say for sure that the feel­ing will last but I’m enjoy­ing it in the meantime.

Look­ing back, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see how lit­tle I could have pre­dicted where my var­i­ous steps were lead­ing.  For bet­ter or worse, our tran­si­tions seem to shape us at least as much as we shape them.

Why Newt Gingrich is my new role model

Newt Gingrich  For President 2012

While I’d never in a zil­lion years vote for Newt Gin­grich, I’m awestruck—and more than a lit­tle inspired—by his seem­ingly lim­it­less capac­ity to bounce back from defeat.

I mean, think about it: This is a guy who not-so-long-ago was dubbed the most hated man in Amer­ica, the only house speaker ever to be sanc­tioned by its mem­bers.  As recently as last month, his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was floun­der­ing, polling in the sin­gle dig­its fol­low­ing his cam­paign staff’s mass exo­dus the pre­vi­ous June. Pun­dits pro­nounced game over.

And yet today, on the eve of the Iowa cau­cuses, he is widely viewed as a fron­trun­ner, play­ing hare to Mitt Romney’s tor­toise as they vie for the lead in the Repub­li­can field.

Mulling over the lat­est Gin­grich come­back, I couldn’t help com­par­ing his Wile E. Coyote-esque resur­gence to my own ten­dency to give up—sometimes even before I start.

One recent case in point: I almost didn’t start this blog. For one thing, I was con­vinced I’d start, and wouldn’t find any read­ers. This would be depress­ing and a lit­tle embar­rass­ing.  I recalled the words of a col­lege class­mate now a famously suc­cess­ful (if cur­mud­geonly) writer: “You know the aver­age num­ber of read­ers of a blog? One!”  Who was I to think that I could add to the conversation?

This is not, to put it mildly, how Newt Gin­grich thinks. Newt Gin­grich is con­vinced that he has some­thing to offer the world. And if you don’t agree with him, it’s your prob­lem not his.

In fair­ness, this sort of against-the-odds con­fi­dence is far eas­ier to come by if you’re a nar­cis­sist or a sociopath or trend towards bipo­lar mania. There’s a bril­liant scene in Gary Trudeau’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign mock­u­men­tary Tan­ner ’88 where a sea­soned polit­i­cal reporter edu­cates a younger col­league on this point. “We’re talk­ing about some­one who wants to be the most pow­er­ful per­son on the planet,” he says. “We’re not talk­ing well bal­anced.”  (I’m para­phras­ing from mem­ory here, but you get the idea.)

That being said, those of us liv­ing in Plan B Nation have a spe­cial need for the sort of chutz­pah demon­strated by Gin­grich and his ilk. We live in an era where pos­i­tive rein­force­ments are in increas­ingly short sup­ply.  Per­haps for the first time ever, we’re fac­ing repeated rejec­tions and set­backs in our pro­fes­sional lives. We have to find ways to keep going when it feels more sen­si­ble to give up.

A pri­mary goal of this blog is to iden­tify con­crete strate­gies that help us do just that. For me, a sup­port­ive com­mu­nity has been a big piece of this. I’ve also found it helps to make an effort to keep an open mind, to remind myself that I really don’t know where the events in my life are lead­ing.

And now I have another strat­egy to add to my arse­nal. The next time, I’m feel­ing like a fail­ure, strug­gling to move on, I’m going to sit down and ask myself: “What would Newt Gin­grich do?”

Why you should stop telling me what to do


Let me be clear: By “you,” I do not mean you, lovely reader of this blog, but the “yous” who’ve felt obliged to tell me else­where that I’m screw­ing up my life.  And by “me” I do not mean me alone but all of us shar­ing our ten­der, uncer­tain, sometimes-painful sto­ries in the larger blogosphere.

In par­tic­u­lar, I’m think­ing back to com­ments sparked by the guest post I wrote for the Wall Street Jour­nal’s “Laid Off and Look­ing” blog in my early days of unemployment.

In this post—which ran just a few hun­dred words—I talked about the pos­si­ble upside of los­ing my job. Mind you, I acknowl­edged the anx­i­ety and risk but I also admit­ted to a cer­tain excite­ment about embark­ing on what I described as The Next Big Challenge.

Here are two typ­i­cal responses:

Get real folks and stop dream­ing. I stopped dream­ing a long time ago, and it’s bet­ter now because I don’t get let down each and every day.”

If you’re laid back and irre­spon­si­ble, then the bills don’t mean a thing to you. Well we’re not blessed with being the laid-back type who don’t give a damn about doing what’s right.”

In fair­ness, there were many pos­i­tive com­ments. Still, I found myself intrigued by the vit­riol heaped on this lit­tle post by those for whom it hit a nerve.

As I pon­dered the dynamic, I found myself think­ing about risk tolerance—a topic all-too-often left out of the job search conversation.

We fre­quently seem to assume a one-size-fits-all answer to ques­tions such as: “Should I do every­thing in my power to keep the job I have, or should I read the writ­ing on the wall and accept the offered package?”

In fact, risk tol­er­ance varies with the indi­vid­ual. With­out know­ing where a ques­tioner falls on the spec­trum, it’s impos­si­ble to offer sound advice.

If you have a mort­gage, kids, and are a few pay­checks away from finan­cial cri­sis, your risk tolerance—and thus your “right” answers—will dif­fer from those of some­one with­out those oblig­a­tions who has a finan­cial cushion.

If you’re com­fort­able with uncer­tainty, your answers will be dif­fer­ent from those of some­one who freaks out if they can’t pre­dict what they’ll be doing a year from Monday.

This isn’t because one per­son is right and the other is wrong: It’s because peo­ple have dif­fer­ent oblig­a­tions, dif­fer­ent tem­pera­ments, dif­fer­ent lev­els of risk tol­er­ance.  Our risk tol­er­ance is ours alone.  It’s not a moral virtue, a set­tled fact—it’s sim­ply our situation.

And for the record, I’m happy to say that I’m doing fine now. The deci­sions I made two-plus years ago were—for me—the right ones.  My search for work is now pay­ing off, in part thanks to this blog.  I’ve also had a chance to grow in ways that I wouldn’t have oth­er­wise. I’d be lying if I said that this was the path I would have cho­sen. But while these aren’t the expe­ri­ences I would have picked, I can’t say that I regret them.

Take stock of how you rocked 2011





It’s that time of year again, but before mov­ing on to New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions, be sure to give your­self credit for 2011.

Now, this may (at first glance) seem like a point­less exer­cise. Think­ing back on the past year, it can be easy to focus on all that you hoped to do that’s still undone: The jobs you applied for and failed to get, the book you didn’t write, the exer­cise pro­gram that you planned to make a reg­u­lar part of your life. (If you’re any­thing like me, you didn’t.)

That was cer­tainly the direc­tion my mind went when I first con­tem­plated this task—which was why I was so hap­pily sur­prised to see it was mis­lead­ing me.  (This was hardly the first time: I’ve long rec­og­nized that just because I think some­thing doesn’t mean it’s true.) Here’s a sam­pling of what I accom­plished over the past year:

  • Started writ­ing per­sonal essays and pub­lish­ing them in Huff­in­g­ton Post, Salon, and our local paper.
  • Launched this blog
  • Cleared out the packed stor­age unit that I’d been mean­ing to get rid of for a decade (and wrote an essay about it)
  • Com­pleted a grad­u­ate class in a social work (and no, I doubt that I’ll con­tinue with the pro­gram, but I’d been think­ing about it for a long time and am glad I tried it out.)
  • Ful­filled a long­stand­ing dream of work­ing with fos­ter kids, includ­ing plan­ning a writ­ing work­shop to be spon­sored by Friends of Chil­dren this spring
  • Got some really inter­est­ing free­lance writ­ing gigs that are likely to lead to more
  • Made lots of great friends in my great new com­mu­nity of Northamp­ton Mass­a­chu­setts, the first place I’ve lived in a long time that really feels like home.

There’s lots more, but you get the idea.

This was an espe­cially inter­est­ing exer­cise for me given my ini­tial assess­ment that this had been a long hard year pri­mar­ily defined by fail­ure. I felt like I’d spent most of the year try­ing, fail­ing, get­ting up, then try­ing again. Along with the suc­cesses listed above, I’d applied for (and been rejected for) a whole bunch of dif­fer­ent jobs. I wrote and cir­cu­lated a book pro­posal that failed to elicit any inter­est from the agents who perused it. The list goes on.

Hap­pily, I had this year’s daily log to con­tra­dict these thoughts.  As I recently wrote in Huff­in­g­ton Post, I started keep­ing daily logs more than a decade ago after trad­ing my struc­tured life as a law firm asso­ciate for the free-form exis­tence of an aspir­ing nov­el­ist. At the time, I was reach­ing the end of the week in a mild state of panic, think­ing “I’m not get­ting any­thing done! What is wrong with me?”

In an effort to take charge of my sched­ule, I started using a blank bound book — a so-called lawyer’s diary for which I had no fur­ther use — to track my activ­i­ties day by day. And lo and behold, I wasn’t such a slacker after all! It just felt that way. (Lest there be any doubt, I did indeed write and ulti­mately pub­lish two novels.)

Track­ing accom­plish­ments can be espe­cially impor­tant in Plan B Nation, where many of us are deal­ing with more fail­ures than we have in the past. (That’s cer­tainly the case for me.)  The fact is, these are chal­leng­ing times, and it’s not our fault. Mak­ing a con­certed effort to rec­og­nize our suc­cesses can help us to remem­ber that we do indeed have sig­nif­i­cant strengths.

So go ahead and make those New Year’s Resolutions—and do your best to stick to them. But before crack­ing the whip for 2012, cel­e­brate 2011.