How a (jobless) Harvard Law grad turned opera singer built a new life in Turkey

As I prepared for a trip to Turkey a couple years back, a friend suggested a local contact—an American Harvard Law School grad and former Metropolitan opera singer, who had recently picked up and moved to Antalya. How could I not be intrigued?

While we didn’t manage to meet up during my trip, I began to follow her blog—Talking Turkey—and am delighted that she’s now agreed to kick off this blog’s guest post series spotlighting creative Plan B Nation lives.

By Ellen Rabiner

Why did I come to Turkey? This is the question I’m asked even more often than why I’m not married. I wish I had a good answer (for either question) but the truth is I sort of stumbled upon the idea of moving to Turkey.

The idea of leaving New York started to germinate when I realized I could no longer afford my ridiculously overpriced Upper West Side apartment.  In Amsterdam, on my final singing job in December 2009, I had to face the fact that I had no work coming up. Not a slow year, or a long time between engagements, but absolutely nothing.

Okay, that’s why I have a (Harvard) law degree to fall back on. But as fate would have it, the Great Recession hit just as my singing work was drying up, making it impossible for me to get even a lousy temp job doing document review, the legal equivalent of working on a factory assembly line. With so many laid-off lawyers now forced to take those unappealing jobs, even my illustrious J.D. was not going to make up for the fact that I’d been traipsing around the world singing for the past 20 years. There was simply no way I could compete with vastly more experienced attorneys.

So there I was, of a certain age, unemployed and essentially unemployable. I was living in a tiny apartment from which I could walk to the Met, but since I was no longer singing at the Met this advantage was hardly worth the $2,350 a month I was paying for the privilege.  And if I wasn’t working at the Met—or anyplace else—I couldn’t continue to pay for it much longer.  If I wanted to stay near Manhattan, I’d have to find a place in Queens, Inwood, or New Jersey. Plus, I’d still need a job.

In theory I had the credentials to hang out a shingle as a voice teacher or a lawyer, but in practice I didn’t really feel qualified to do either.  I didn’t want to add to the plethora of singers claiming expertise in vocal pedagogy simply by virtue of having had singing careers.  I knew what a real voice teacher was, and I wasn’t it.  And I didn’t have enough legal experience to open my own law office.

Since it seemed impossible to find a job commensurate with my education and experience, I decided to look at things another way:  To forget what I’d like to do for a living. To ask what I wanted to do with my life—and where I could go to do it.

Once I came at it this way, new answers began to emerge. What did I really want? I wanted to sit in the sun and read novels. And maybe travel to places I hadn’t been and learn a new language.  And have an apartment that rented for less than the price of a small car.

Antalya, Turkey, seemed to fit the bill: Along with being sunny and warm, it offers the opportunity to learn a new language and culture. It’s also a place I can blend in, and it’s a short flight to Western Europe. The cost of living is a fraction of what it is in New York.

While I wasn’t down to my last dollar when I moved, I would have run through my savings long ago if I’d stayed in Manhattan without a well-paying job. It was pretty clear to me that, whether I was teaching English or transitioning into something else, I’d be better off in a $300 apartment than in a $2,300 one. (By the way, if any readers are interested in moving to Turkey, living here legally as an American requires you to have $6,000 in the bank. That’s the minimum they think you need to live here for a year. Incidentally, it was also how much it cost me to live in New York for two months.)

Winters in Antalya can be a bit of a challenge for those of us accustomed to central heating. Of course it’s not as cold outside as it is in New York, but it’s much colder inside. I finally solved the problem of the noisy and inefficient wall unit by buying a portable heating fan to supplement it. I keep it next to me most of the day and move it into the bathroom to defrost the place before I take a shower. I also bought a reasonable facsimile of a down duvet (filled with polyester) that keeps me really warm at night.  A side benefit: I’ve found that spending time on chores like cooking, laundry, and staying warm can be a wonderful thing for an underemployed person, as it cuts into the time one might spend lamenting one’s uselessness.

My original idea for a job was to teach English, and I’m still doing a bit of that, teaching nine-year-old Russian kids once a week. I’ve come to accept, though, that teaching isn’t really my thing. On the other hand, it turns out I really enjoy writing my blog.  (It’s not exactly like the legal writing I used to do, but it’s not as alien to me as trying to corral a bunch of nine-year-olds.)  The logical step from that realization was to branch out into writing elsewhere, so I took an online course in travel writing.

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing my best to break into the travel-writing field.  I’ve had a few low-paying gigs, and I’m a long way from making a career of it. (Luckily, since my apartment costs only about $300 a month I’m not under too much pressure to earn a U.S.-style living wage immediately.)

For now, I continue to work on my writing career. I’m doing my best to take the long view—to recognize that building a whole new life is a marathon not a spring. And of course, I’m still giving myself some time sit in the sun and read novels.

The Emperor’s New Clothes and the New Economy

Some weeks back, the Dow enjoyed a sharp upswing, prompting a network news program’s giddy observation that “until today, the U.S. economy was on a roller coaster.”

Which struck me as an odd sort of thing to say in light of the fact that such dizzying ups—and downs—are what define roller coasters. Was I missing something? I checked in with some well-informed friends, who quickly confirmed my reaction. (And, indeed, in the next few days, stocks plunged once again.)

All of which is to say that over the past few years, I’ve started to feel more and more like the kid in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—the one who interrupts a parade of purported royal finery to say that the emperor is naked. The fact that I’m hardly an expert in economic affairs makes it all the more disturbing that I’m so often right.

I got to thinking about this once again as yesterday’s New York Times heralded the addition of 200,000 jobs to the U.S. labor force last month. “Maybe it is time to start calling the glass half full,” the report began.

Really? Because, as the Times notes further down, the gains are still not enough to restore employment to prerecession levels (for more on this, see Paul Krugman’s post on the same topic), and the accepted broad measure of unemployment is still a whopping 15.2%.

Moreoever—and here’s my real gripe—this story, along with the vast majority of others, virtually ignores the fundamental question of how much these new jobs pay.  A job doesn’t necessarily mean a living wage—just ask the 30% of all working families earning less than 200 percent of the official poverty threshold.

For a bit more perspective, consider the fact that the vast majority of new jobs created during the so-called recovery have been in occupations paying a meager 7.51 to $13.52 an hour, according to a 2011 report by the National Employment Law Project. At the same time, job losses were concentrated at the high end. (Kudos to Steven Greenhouse for his incisive summation of these findings last July in the New York Times’ Economix blog.)

In other words:  Good-bye stable middle-class job. Hello, McDonald’s.

The obsessive focus of mainstream media—including, sadly, my beloved NPR—on job creation numbers without due attention to  job quality is hardly the only aspect of our economic discourse that strikes me as being on a collision course with common sense. Equally mysterious is how rarely we seem to question the belief that economic growth is somehow the key to widespread well-being.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen famously dismisses Alice’s claim that she can’t believe impossible things. “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” the Queen airily responds. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I can’t help but feel that this talent is in increasingly high demand. In particular, I’m thinking of oft-heard assertions that older workers will simply need to work longer (even though it’s well-established that theirs are among the most intractable cases of long-term unemployment) and that, given the precarious state of Social Security, not to mention our decimated 401(ks), we all just need to save more (even though many of us are hard-pressed simply to get by).

While I myself have only a passing familiarity with economic concepts, I’m fortunate to count among my friends some who study and teach such things, and I often turn to them for questions or help making sense of data. I’m hoping that after they read this piece, they’ll tell me that I’m wrong. But based on past experience, I’m not exactly counting on it.

Note: The  quote in the first sentence of this post is a paraphrase from memory.

Edited 1/8/12: to add “(for more on this, see Paul Krugman’s post on the same topic)”


Coming home to contentment: 3 simple steps

This afternoon, my mind took a sudden wrong turn, and before I knew it, I was lost in the story of Why Things Should Be Different.

It was such a familiar experience that at first I barely noticed. Then, as the thoughts kept coming like cars in a freeway pile-up, I finally managed to catch myself—to take a step back from my spinning mind and tap into a deeper well.

The ability to move between these two states of being—wishing things were different and being with them as they are—is hugely important in Plan B Nation. With so many things beyond our control—jobs, the economy, other people—it’s easy and natural to start feeling embattled and exhausted.

But while it may be easy and natural, it’s also decidedly not helpful.  In the words of Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber, “[T]he alternate reality in which everything is exactly as you think it should be exists only in your mind, and it exists primarily to torture you.”

Over the years, I’ve experimented with various ways of working with this challenging state of mind (with which, in fairness, I was well-acquainted long before my Plan B Nation foray).  What’s worked best for me can be summed up in the following three simple steps:

1. Stop

As soon as I realize that my mind is spinning an unwelcome storyline, I try to simply stop. Often, that’s easier said than done, so it’s good to have strategies.

One of my favorites comes from Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein, whom I once heard describe his own tactic for dealing with intrusive thoughts. As soon as he realizes what’s happening, Goldstein said he thinks: “Dead End.” For some reason, this sort of cracked me up, and probably in part because of that, it’s been a useful technique.

Another strategy—also from Goldstein—is identifying the mind’s favorite stories and dubbing them The Greatest Hits as in “Oh! There it is again! My-father-never-really-loved me! Greatest Hit #5!” Again, this probably works in part because it’s sort of funny.  It’s hard to take your own mind’s Top Forty entirely seriously.

 2.   Make a different choice

I often think of my mind as making “moves”—from point A to point B to point C, and so on. Just as we watch our footing when crossing a river using stepping stones, we need to be attentive to where we place our minds.

That being said, figuring out what works for us is a very personal thing. The field of cognitive-behavioral therapy offers a slew of exercises designed to change the way we feel by changing the way we think. But for all the research proving the effectiveness of these techniques, they’ve never worked so well for me. Whether that’s because I haven’t stuck with them long enough or because (as I suspect) it’s simply not my way, I can’t say for sure. All I can say is that they haven’t helped much while other things have.

Another popular antidote—especially if you spend any time hanging out with Buddhists—is lovingkindness or “metta” meditation.  But again, while I’ve spent a good bit of time working with this practice, it’s never really clicked for me in the way it has for friends.

What does work for me—and it’s been a process of trial and error—is perhaps best summed up in the words of the Late Medieval Catholic monk Thomas à Kempis: “Those things that cause you inward peace, think upon deeply.”

I love this quote. Simply repeating it to myself often helps to steer me back to a state of calm wonder. I also like reflecting on the question of what brings me inward peace. It varies from week to week, and sometimes it’s surprising. A promising new friendship. Stringing small white lights around my living room windows. My friend Allegra’s spiritually infused Innovation Abbey consulting firm (with which I’m honored to be affiliated.) These are a few of the things that have recently lifted my spirits.

3. Do it

Once you feel a shift, let yourself relax into it.  Stay with it for a while. Think about how you might continue to cultivate this way of being.

Buddhism talks of the Blessed Abodes—also known as the brahma viharas—states of mind that lead to love and awareness and away from suffering. These, according to dharma teachings, are our true home.  While it doesn’t always feel this way, I believe this is true. And I know that my life is always better when I remember the way back.

2012: My year of experiments

In Working Identity—one of my all-time favorite books about career transitions—author Herminia Ibarra urges us to approach our lives as a series of experiments.

Instead of researching, planning, and executing our next moves, we need to live into them, says the Yale-educated professor of organizational behavior, who conducted an extensive study of successful mid-career changers.

As she succinctly sums it up, “We learn who we are—in practice, not in theory—by testing reality, not by looking inside. 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.”

This is advice I’ve taken to heart in my own journey through Plan B Nation, and I often return to Ibarra’s book when I’m feeling lost or confused.

Among Ibarra’s suggestions is to try new things and see what happens:  “Only by testing do we learn what is really appealing and feasible—and in the process, create our own opportunities,” she writes.

More specifically, she proposes “crafting experiments”—getting started on one or two new activities while making sure you have a sound way to evaluate results.

This year, I’ll be adopting Ibarra’s approach with a slight twist. Rather than focusing just on my career, I’ll be experimenting more broadly. I’m interested in my life as a whole, not just in paying work (critical though that is).

Here’s what I’ll be doing: Each month, I’ll embark on a new experiment—a concrete set of activities tied to a particular time frame. At the end of the month, I’ll reflect on how my life has shifted as a result of taking these actions.

One of the things that most intrigues me about this approach is the idea that experiments often take us in unexpected directions.  We may not get what we thought we would, but we may get something better. Or if not better, different. Or at least interesting.

All of my experiments will reflect three criteria:

1.  The activities are process goals, not outcome goals: In other words—things that I can accomplish on my own, without the world’s cooperation. (Example: Writing a book is a process goal. Selling a book to a major publisher for eight million dollars is an outcome goal. Make sense?)

2.  The activities are not directly related to my primary goals: This one is a bit murkier, but basically I’m curious about how taking actions apparently unrelated to life’s big challenges may paradoxically help us surmount them. Is this true? We. Shall. See.

3.  The activities are satisfying (and even fun) in themselves: Life coach Tara Sophia Mohr, who writes the Wise Living Blog, urges us to “create goals that feel like huge gorgeous presents to ourselves,” having found that they are “not only more fun but also more effective.” This sounds almost too good to be true, but Ms. Mohr, who is equipped with a Stanford M.B.A., makes a pretty strong case here, and I’m going to give it a try.

And now, here it is: 2012 Life Experiment #1: Over the next month, my plan is to connect (or re-connect) with 30 people—and then observe what follows.

I’m a pretty social person, so it’s not altogether unlikely that I’d be doing this anyway without giving it much thought. But that’s exactly the point. Over the next month, I plan to be mindful of such connections—savoring the pleasure they bring, curious about where they’re leading. Because, when all is said and done, the spirit in which we go about things tends to be at least as important as the things themselves (as I wrote last night in my final post of 2011).

As always, you’re welcome to join me—or to share your own life experiments (or pretty much anything else). In the meantime, have a great day—and a great start to 2012.