Hello, Life Experiment #3 (plus an update).

laser cut cubes

In this Year of Exper­i­ments, the past month was about Cre­at­ing Order, and in fact, some order has been cre­ated, though–as The Orga­nizer warned me there might be, lots remains to be done.

Here’s what my base­ment looked like then.

The Orga­nizer takes stock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what it looks like now:

As they say in 12-step pro­grams, it’s about progress not perfection.

That being said, here is what I’ve found: Order is calm­ing. Order is free­ing. Order is some­thing I want. Order is also, as one friend noted, always a work-in-progress. It’s a habit, not a goal.

As it hap­pens, the same is also true of the act of forg­ing human connections–the focus of Life Exper­i­ment #1, where I con­nected (or re-connected) with 30 peo­ple over the course of Jan­u­ary. Much more to be said about that, but for now, just to note that this prac­tice also under­scored for me the impor­tance of habit.

So here’s the bot­tom line: where I started envi­sion­ing this Year of Exper­i­ments as con­sec­u­tive, I’m increas­ingly start­ing to see it as cumu­la­tive.  Spend­ing some time–in this case, a month–consciously focus­ing on a qual­ity that enriches my life is sort of like plant­ing a seed.

And now for Life Exper­i­ment #3, which is about see­ing more (and see­ing dif­fer­ently) and fram­ing (and re-framing).  Or to put it in con­crete terms, dur­ing this month, I’ll be tak­ing at least one pho­to­graph each day.

There are a bunch of rea­sons I set­tled on this par­tic­u­lar Life Experiment.

For one thing, I got a new cam­era a few months back, and I’ve yet to really use it. For another–and this is a big one–I’ve just started co-teaching a photo and writ­ing work­shop for fos­ter kids and am awed by what I’m read­ing and see­ing. I won’t say much more about that–their sto­ries are theirs–but this is another way to con­nect with what they’re doing.

I also know from past expe­ri­ence that using a cam­era opens up the world in new and unex­pected ways. Years ago, I spent some sum­mer weeks at the Maine Pho­to­graphic Work­shops (now Maine Media Work­shops), and I recall a per­va­sive sense of height­ened aware­ness. Thought it occurs to me that this may not be say­ing much–I am some­one whose boyfriend once shaved his mus­tache for her as a birth­day gift (It was not my favorite look) and I failed to notice. That is until he told me that the mys­te­ri­ous gift he’d been hint­ing at for hours was “right under your nose–or rather under my nose.”

So clearly, I can use some prac­tice with this see­ing thing. As always, you’re wel­come to join me. I hope that you will.

The Dog Days of Plan B Nation

I met Jan on Face­book through our friend Betsy, and the three of us planned a din­ner together, but then Betsy stood us up.

So we sat there in a cozy booth at Casablanca, a Har­vard Square restau­rant, exchang­ing ten­ta­tive smiles and cast­ing about for conversation.

“This is sort of like a blind date!” Jan said, offi­cially break­ing the ice. Soon the words were flow­ing. By the end of the meal, we were friends.

While our lives are quite dif­fer­ent in many ways—I’m sin­gle, she’s mar­ried with three kids, among other things—we also have much in com­mon, includ­ing lit­er­ary tastes, curios­ity, and a dry sense of humor. Dur­ing the past year or so, we’ve also been fel­low trav­el­ers in Plan B Nation. Here, Jan shares some thoughts on her journey—and a furry guy who’s help­ing her through it.  

 

 

 

 

By Jan Dev­ereux

This Valentine’s Day I sent my 23-year-old son a card with a photo of a young man and his dog sit­ting side-by-side, wear­ing iden­ti­cal frizzy red wigs: “May you never grow to look like the one you love,” the card teased. With nei­ther a sweet­heart nor a pooch, my son is in no immi­nent dan­ger of this roman­tic peril. The joke was on me, as it’s cer­tainly no secret that his old lady has been crush­ing on her puppy lately.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether I’ve yet begun to resem­ble my dog, phys­i­cally, but I have begun to rec­og­nize, and even embrace, a few emo­tional par­al­lels. If you’ve ever lived with a dog, I don’t have to tell you that change stresses them out. Dogs thrive with a pre­dictable rou­tine, well-defined expec­ta­tions and lim­its, and con­sis­tent, pos­i­tive rein­force­ment. As dog train­ers know only too well, many “prob­lem” dogs are merely react­ing to chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances cre­ated by humans.

Fel­low cit­i­zens of Plan B Nation, is this start­ing to sound familiar?

The chal­lenge of being between jobs in today’s econ­omy is stress­ful enough to make us all behave like this dog:

Photo credit: Taste­fully Offensive.com’s Tumblr

Now, if I actu­ally were a dog, I’d prob­a­bly be a Bor­der col­lie. Bright, hard-working and a quick study, I like to be busy and to get things done. A straight-A stu­dent straight through grad­u­ate school, I was the (admit­tedly annoy­ing) girl who always did all the assigned read­ing before class and fin­ished her term papers before the due date. Laser-focused on my stud­ies and too much of a wor­ry­wart to pro­cras­ti­nate, I man­aged to earn two Ivy League diplo­mas with hon­ors and with­out ever pulling an all-nighter. I’m still punc­tual to a fault, the party guest who habit­u­ally arrives unfash­ion­ably early.

I’ve always worked—being a stay-at-home mother for a few years doesn’t count as “not work­ing” unless you think meet­ing the 24/7 demands of three young chil­dren is a walk in the park. I went back to paid office work when my youngest child, now 17, started preschool. Most nights, I went to bed dog-tired, but I usu­ally awoke excited to tackle what­ever the next day might bring.

When I left my most recent job, as direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at an inde­pen­dent school, I expe­ri­enced an ini­tial rush of exhil­a­ra­tion, like a dog unleashed. There were so many avenues I wanted to explore, both pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally, so many paths beck­oned that it seemed as if it might even be hard to choose among them! After a few months, how­ever, it grad­u­ally dawned on me that, espe­cially in this econ­omy, the choos­ing was not entirely up to me. With­out a job to pro­vide the scaf­fold­ing for my days, a clear pur­pose to guide my actions, and the reward for a job well done, I felt like a dog cut loose from the pack.

Worse, by focus­ing all my energy on find­ing the right job, I’d inad­ver­tently cre­ated a dynamic that was bound to frus­trate a goal-oriented per­son, at least in the short-term. Pic­ture the Bor­der col­lie faced with a field full of plas­tic lawn sheep: I even­tu­ally real­ized I could exhaust myself try­ing to herd inan­i­mate objects, or I could reframe the problem.

I needed an interim project with a more cer­tain pay­off. So, nat­u­rally, get­ting a puppy seemed like the solu­tion! There were plenty of good rea­sons not to add the dis­trac­tion of rais­ing a puppy while I was sup­posed to be fig­ur­ing out my next act, pro­fes­sion­ally. But, the fact is, get­ting Eddie was the one of the smartest deci­sions I’ve could have made.

Train­ing and bond­ing with Eddie these past months, I’ve re-discovered the restora­tive power of friend­ship, canine and human. Now I orga­nize my day around our walks with friends who have dogs. If you’ve read Gail Caldwell’s poignant mem­oir of walk­ing with her best friend, the late Car­o­line Knapp, and their dogs, then you’ll be able to pic­ture us fol­low­ing in their foot­steps at Fresh Pond. Its title, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is what one of my friends always says when we reach the point where the path loops around a wild­flower meadow. Hav­ing a ready excuse to get away from my com­puter and out in the fresh air has been a lifesaver.

Eddie has also been my inspi­ra­tion for a new cre­ative project, a blog called Cam­bridge Canine. I’d been look­ing for a focus for my writ­ing and found plenty of fresh mate­r­ial right at the other end of the leash. They say, “write what you know” –well, dogs are what I know best right now. The blog may never claim a huge fol­low­ing, but the posts are fun to write, and the occa­sional encour­ag­ing com­ment or Face­book “like” is reward enough to keep me in the hunt.

A recent health scare under­scored that we can never be cer­tain what will hap­pen next; like play­ers in a game of Whac-a-Mole, we slap down one stres­sor only to see another pop up. Watch­ing my dog cavort with his friends is a daily reminder that life is lived most fully in the moment. My pro­fes­sional future is still in limbo, but when I’m out walk­ing Eddie, I try to stop wor­ry­ing so much about where I’m head­ing and focus instead on enjoy­ing the jour­ney as much as he does.

Recently, a friend remarked, “My dog is my san­ity.” I couldn’t agree more.

How to get out of bed

Day 7

Morn­ings have been hard for me lately. I’m not exactly sure why. My life hasn’t really changed much. The same things are dif­fi­cult. The same things are good. If any­thing, some of the good things have got­ten a bit more good. So why have I been wak­ing up in a state of despon­dent gloom? And, more to the point, what can I do to make things a lit­tle bit lighter?

Mulling over these ques­tions the last few days, it hit me that I’d failed to note per­haps the most salient clue: The fact that, how­ever I feel, I am indeed get­ting up!

What is it, I won­dered, that gets me mov­ing on days I could eas­ily bur­row in? Could the answer be to fig­ure that out—and then do more of it?

In that spirit, I asked myself: “Self? What gets you out of bed on those morn­ings when noth­ing seems worth the effort?”

The answer came imme­di­ately. “I get up for the coffee.”

A year or so back, I received a fancy cof­fee maker as a gift, and it’s this primo coffee—not just any coffee—that’s been mak­ing all the dif­fer­ence. Some­times I con­tem­plate return­ing to my pre­vi­ous caf­feine habits. The cap­sules for the new machine are pricey, and I’m try­ing to con­serve. But for now, the expense is worth it. The cof­fee is some­thing I look for­ward to, and that means a lot.

And right then, it hit me. I was onto some­thing. This idea of “look­ing for­ward to”—what role did it have in my life? It occurred to me that per­haps I’ve grown looking-forward-to deprived.

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Life in Plan B Nation tends to be focused on get­ting things done, on keep­ing the nose to the prover­bial grind­stone, on being respon­si­ble, plug­ging ahead, and keep­ing emo­tions in check. It’s easy to feel that we don’t deserve spe­cial rewards and treats—not when we’re so far behind where think we ought to be.

The prob­lem with this approach: We. Get. Tired. The fact that suc­cess is in short sup­ply doesn’t mean we haven’t been work­ing, often way harder than we did when our careers were thriving.

Which got me to think­ing about Bud­dhist teacher Cheri Huber’s spot-on descrip­tion of how exact­ing we tend to be with ourselves—and because it’s so great and because I have the book right here, I might as well share it with you:

You go along in life and you do what you’re sup­posed to do. And every time you do some­thing you’re sup­posed to do, you put a dol­lar in the bank. Okay. Every time you’re kind, patient, or you do the thing you’re sup­posed to do—whatever it is (you know what those things are for your)—every time you put a dol­lar in the bank, a dol­lar in the bank, a dol­lar in the bank .…

Finally, you feel like you’re just kind of worn out. You feel like you need a lit­tle plea­sure in your life, a lit­tle time on the beach or some­thing. And so you think “I’m going to go to the bank, and I’m going to take out some money, and I’m going to do some­thing nice for myself.”

So you go to the bank and you say, “Here I am. I want to take out some of the money I’ve saved so that I can do some­thing nice for myself.”

And the response is, “Oh no. You haven’t earned nearly enough to get any­thing for your­self. Oh, you have to work much harder—you have to put much, much more money in before you can get any­thing for yourself.”

And, of course, if this were First National you were deal­ing with, you would say, “No, this is not the way this is going to work. This is my money. You can’t tell me when and where and how I can spend it.” And yet, with this sys­tem of self-hate that’s exactly what’s going on!

She con­cludes: “THERE’S NO MYSTERY IN THIS FOLKS! … [T]he per­son at the bank DOES NOT LIKE YOU! *It’s impor­tant to get that*.… THIS PERSON IS NEVER GOING TO GIVE YOU A DIME! YOU WILL WORK YOURSELF TO DEATH, AND YOULL NEVER GET A THING FOR IT. IT IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THAT!”

So.

Here is what I am going to do: First, I am going to incline my mind (as the Bud­dhists say) towards things on the hori­zon to which I’m look­ing for­ward. The work­shop for fos­ter kids that I’m co-facilitating. Watch­ing a TV show I refuse to name with my friend Wendy.  Hot­dogs and a movie at Pop­corn Noir in East­hamp­ton (not to be con­fused with East Hampton).

Next: I am going to give some thought to other things I might look for­ward to and how I can make them hap­pen. Tango lessons? A day trip? The specifics are up for grabs.  And while I don’t know what I’ll come up with, I look for­ward to find­ing out.

Note: The quoted pas­sage is taken from Cheri Huber’s There Is Noth­ing Wrong with You (Keep It Sim­ple Books, 1993). It also has pic­tures that will make you smile.

Pattern recognition

701 - Puzzle - Seamless Pattern

I gen­er­ally tend to think I know myself pretty well. Apart from hav­ing lived with me, lo these many years, I’ve spent a good bit of time explor­ing what I do and why I do it. Between 12-step pro­grams and Vipas­sana and ther­apy and lots of read­ing, I’ve pretty much come to see myself as the #1 Expert in Me.

Which is why it was sur­pris­ing the other day when I espied an entirely new pat­tern. (Not that the pat­tern was new—it’s not—but it was new for me to see it.)  Sur­pris­ing and also excit­ing, because see­ing is always the first step towards relat­ing differently.

So here it is, the thing I real­ized: I have spent a huge part of my life try­ing to get peo­ple to give me things they don’t want to give me. I don’t have to keep doing this.

Like most trans­for­ma­tive insights, this one sounds obvi­ous. And sim­ple. What makes it sig­nif­i­cant is the way it reordered my inter­nal land­scape. I felt it as a vis­ceral shift. A relax­ing. An ahhh, ah hah.

The best part is the aware­ness that I don’t have to work so hard. My life is quite chal­leng­ing enough, with­out this added pres­sure. Also, that mas­sive energy I’ve invested in try­ing to wrench things loose? It’s free to be deployed in other far more fun and pro­duc­tive ways.

There are likely lots of rea­sons that this pat­tern took root, many of which no doubt wend back to my tee­ni­est tini­est child­hood. On the one hand, it strikes me as impor­tant to rec­og­nize this—to see that the pat­tern is not my fault, that there are causes and effects. On the other hand, you know what? It doesn’t really mat­ter why. What mat­ters is how I act on this new know­ing and how it acts on me.

I don’t expect this pat­tern to dis­ap­pear in a day or even a year. But I do expect that it will slowly fade, become qui­eter and less demand­ing. What I have now is the per­mis­sion to let go of a tremen­dous weight. Already I feel lighter, if not entirely free.

I should be you

140/365 Envy

The mind gets a lot of crazy ideas.  (Well at least mine does, and I sus­pect if you pay atten­tion, you’ll find that yours does too.)

In recent weeks, it’s taken to sug­gest­ing that I should be some­one else. Now who this per­son is varies, depend­ing on the day, my mood, and what I’ve been read­ing or think­ing about.  And the fact is, if you lined up all the peo­ple my mind tells me I should be, you’d find that their behav­iors and beliefs are often quite clearly at odds. But my mind doesn’t care about that. It’s quite con­vinced that it’s entirely right—and it’s out to con­vince me too.

My mind has been espe­cially insis­tent since dis­cov­er­ing The Flu­ent Self, a blog-cum-transformational play­space cre­ated by Havi Brooks.  “You should be Havi,” my mind clam­ors. “She is doing such inter­est­ing things, and she talks about them in such inter­est­ing ways. You should be her not you! I can help you do that.”

It’s taken some time, but I am finally get­ting my mind to accept that this is not going to hap­pen. A major break­through came when I showed my mind this video of Havi doing her Shiva Nata yoga prac­tice wear­ing a pink wig.

You see that?” I said to my mind. “That is Havi. That is not us. We can learn from her. But we are never ever ever going to be her.”

On hear­ing this, my mind became a bit dis­con­so­late, though after watch­ing the video twice, it allowed that it was likely true.

As is often—if not always—the case, the trick is to find some­thing between the all and the noth­ing. What does my mind’s crush on Havi have to tell me? For one thing, it’s about my need to be more play­ful. It’s about doing more to find my tribe and build­ing a com­mu­nity. And maybe it even means trav­el­ing to Port­land to attend Rally (Rally!)

It also helps to remind myself that how­ever crazy in love my mind may be with some­one else’s life or work, there are oth­ers to whom my own life and work speak in sim­i­lar ways. This came home to me a few months back, when I became friendly with a writer I’ve long admired. I was thrilled when she told me she liked some­thing I’d writ­ten but then rushed to send her an essay that I thought was way better—one of my all-time favorites penned by another writer.

Some days later, I got this care­ful response:  “As for X’s piece…honestly? Between us? It’s not really my thing .… I hope it’s okay to say that—she’s clearly a smart writer.” The fact that this writer I so admired could pre­fer my piece to the one I’d just sent came as a revelation.

As it hap­pens, my mind is still not entirely con­vinced that I shouldn’t aspire to Havi. But I’m pre­pared to wait. Soon it will be on to some­thing else. (And if not, I still have the video.)

And vs. Or

Resurrection

Shortly after I launched this blog, a friend sug­gested that I fea­ture sto­ries about peo­ple who lost their jobs but ended up tri­umphant, which got me to think­ing about this seduc­tive and increas­ingly iconic Great Reces­sion storyline.

The appetite for such sto­ries is easy to under­stand. They’re a wel­come anti­dote to the anx­ious uncer­tainty that per­vades our times. They fuel our opti­mism, calm our fears. They tell us that no mat­ter how bleak things may seem they’re still likely to end well. “This is a series about peo­ple who stared down the Great Recession—and rein­vented them­selves along the way,” is how the online mag­a­zine Salon describes its series “My Bril­liant Sec­ond Career.”

But for all this narrative’s com­pelling appeal, I’ve found myself balk­ing at it, uneasy with the vision of a fan­tasy future squared off against the past. In par­tic­u­lar, I worry that in our eager rush towards hap­pier times, we risk los­ing sight of what these years have had to teach us—that we’ll come to view this era’s dif­fi­cul­ties as things that “shouldn’t  have hap­pened to me” rather than as a shared expe­ri­ence that shaped and trans­formed our lives.

Our indi­vid­u­al­ist cul­ture thrives on hier­ar­chies and dichotomies. Good vs. Bad. Suc­cess vs. Fail­ure. Win­ner vs. Loser.  It’s easy to fix­ate on secur­ing a spot on the right side of the divide. When we come to the end of a chal­leng­ing stretch, we often heave a sigh of relief and do our best to for­get.  That was then. This is now. I am not that per­son any­more. (Thank God, I am not that person!)

But there’s another way through such tran­si­tions, one that involves expand­ing to encom­pass even the hard­est parts of our pasts. I thought of this recently when read­ing my friend Alle­gra Jordan’s beau­ti­ful guest post on how the abrupt end of her mar­riage, which also coin­cided with a job loss, led her to launch her public-spirited Inno­va­tion Abbey con­sult­ing firm. What I espe­cially loved about his piece was its recognition—and acceptance—of the ways in which past and present nec­es­sar­ily coex­ist.  As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Why does this mat­ter? Because once we accept that our lives are inher­ently messy, imper­fect, and informed by a past we didn’t choose, we can start to let go of the futile notion that life should be an end­less pro­gres­sion upwards.  We can be kinder to ourselves—and kinder to each other. We can start to understand—really understand—that we are not good or bad, suc­cesses or fail­ures, win­ners or losers. We are all of these things, many times over, and many more besides.

When goals collide

scream and shout

A friend’s two-year-old once pitched a tantrum on a stair­way land­ing between two floors of the fam­ily home.

What pro­voked the melt­down? Once the furi­ous howls sub­sided, he choked out the fol­low­ing expla­na­tion: He wanted to be upstairs with his dad and down­stairs with his mom. He wanted both, at the same time. He didn’t want to choose.

I don’t know about you, but I can really relate. Espe­cially, dur­ing the past few weeks, as I’ve got­ten increas­ingly busy.  At any given moment, I’m con­flicted about what I should be doing—and doing next. There are so many things that need to be done, all vying for my attention.

Such con­flicts are espe­cially com­mon in times of tran­si­tion, at least that’s true for me. Right now, I’m jug­gling free­lance writ­ing with blog­ging, lead­ing a writ­ing work­shop for fos­ter kids, and look­ing for more pay­ing work. I’m also try­ing to orga­nize my home—a task that’s espe­cially press­ing since my lease is up in a cou­ple of months, at which point I’ll need to move. (Speak­ing of which, I’ll also need to find another place to live.) Also: resolve legal mat­ters relat­ing to the Plan B Nation trade­mark, pre­pare my 2011 taxes, help out a friend with cat care, and pack for a trip to Boston. Plus: Be hap­pier!

Not sur­pris­ingly, such inter­nal con­flicts are fer­tile breed­ing grounds for dis­sat­is­fac­tion. In her mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Eliz­a­beth Gilbert notes that Rumi once advised his stu­dents to write down the three things they most want in life.  If any item clashed with another, he warned them, they were des­tined for unhappiness.

But while this may be a sound obser­va­tion, it doesn’t tell us how to deal with such con­flicts when they arise in the course of daily life.  How do we best move for­ward while engaged in an inter­nal tug of war?

While I don’t have a magic bul­let (sorry!), I do have a few strate­gies that have helped me in the past, and to which I’m now resort­ing.  As is so often the case with this blog, I’m shar­ing what I need to remember.

1. There’s no “right” decision

Con­sider the sit­u­a­tion. Decide on next steps. Once you’ve made an informed deci­sion, do your best to ignore that voice that’s second-guessing you. That nag­ging sense that what­ever you’re doing isn’t the “right” thing? It’s just not true.

2. Keep mov­ing forwards

Some years back, at a sim­i­lar point of over­whelm, I remarked to a wildly effi­cient friend that I was tempted to give in and sim­ply do noth­ing at all.  He gave me a hor­ri­fied look: “No, no,” he said. “That way lies mad­ness!”  Which made me laugh, which is always a good thing. And besides, the point’s a good one.  A jour­ney of 1,000 miles begins with a sin­gle step, as the old say­ing goes.  For me, track­ing progress is an essen­tial strat­egy here.

3. Exer­cise

Sadly, I’m not one of those peo­ple who enjoys the actual expe­ri­ence of exer­cise, so I often let this one slide.  That being said, I always feel so much bet­ter after I’ve got­ten mov­ing that I’m deter­mined to do bet­ter in mak­ing it a reg­u­lar part of my life. In the mean­time, as they say in 12-step pro­grams: “Take my advice. I’m not using it.”

4. Say No

This is no time to add to your to-do list. Be ruth­less (or as ruth­less as you can be) about say­ing No. Need help? Read this.

5. Self-compassion

Sim­ply put, give your­self a break. Recent research sug­gests that self-compassion is more effec­tive than self-esteem in fos­ter­ing con­tent­ment. Rec­og­nize that you’re in a tough sit­u­a­tion and doing the best you can.  If you need some help in fig­ur­ing out how to go about this, Bud­dhist teacher and psy­chol­o­gist Tara Brach’s Rad­i­cal Accep­tance is a great start­ing point.

As I look ahead to the rest of the day, I still have that anx­ious feel­ing. Then I remind myself I’ve writ­ten this post. And that’s, at least, a start.

A Valentine’s date with Leonardo da Vinci

Every now and then you have a chance encounter that turns into some­thing far more. That’s what hap­pened to me with Alle­gra Jor­dan, whom I first met back in 2006 at a women’s pro­gram at Har­vard Busi­ness School.

Some­how we got to talk­ing. One thing led to another, and we made plans to meet for din­ner that evening at a restau­rant in Har­vard Square. Over upscale New Eng­land home cook­ing, we traded life sto­ries, find­ing many over­lap­ping inter­ests. Along with our Har­vard pro­fes­sional degrees (mine a J.D., hers an M.B.A.), we shared ties to the south­ern United States (she’d grown up in Alabama, while I’d spent years work­ing in Ten­nessee and Mis­sis­sippi). But most impor­tant of all was our shared con­cern with find­ing ways to bridge our sec­u­lar and spir­i­tual lives, whether they be devoutly Chris­t­ian (hers) or Bud­dhist eclec­tic (mine).

Flash for­ward five-plus years, and both of us have been through seis­mic changes—jobs, rela­tion­ships, geo­graphic moves.  At the same time, the com­mit­ments that brought us together remain very much the same, and what began as a sin­gle meal is now a solid friendship.

In this guest post, Alle­gra describes how her own Plan B Nation story led her to launch Inno­va­tion Abbey, a social justice-oriented con­sult­ing firm with projects around the world (and with which I’m now hon­ored to be affiliated). 

By Alle­gra Jordan

Feb­ru­ary 13, 2010. Snow is falling as my dog Belvedere and I pull out of my Chapel Hill dri­ve­way and begin the drive to Atlanta. By the time we reach the North Car­olina bor­der, traf­fic is at a stand­still. Eigh­teen wheel­ers slide pre­car­i­ously close to us along the rolling hills. The six-hour trip ends up tak­ing three times that long.

If this had been an ordi­nary trip, I would have turned around and waited for the roads to clear. But it was Valentine’s week­end, a bru­tal anniver­sary. One year before, I’d received a pink slip from my then-husband, fol­lowed by the same at work. The descent was so stun­ning it became intro­duc­tory mate­r­ial for a forth­com­ing book with the tongue-in-cheek work­ing title Is Fem­i­nism in Bad Shape? Check out Alle­gra. The story: our plucky hon­ors Har­vard Busi­ness School grad­u­ate mar­ries, pur­sues a career in inno­va­tion, sac­ri­fices, and ulti­mately becomes a cau­tion­ary tale for others.

Stick around for the week­end anniver­sary? No way.

Instead, I got tick­ets to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. My goal: To rest my eyes on con­se­quen­tial, centuries-old beauty. I hoped this expe­ri­ence would soothe and heal my heart. I was going to show up to life, show up to beauty, and show up to excel­lence. If I had to drive 18 hours, I would gladly do so.

But there was no “a-ha” moment for me on that bleak win­ter day. Tense from the drive, pro­tect­ing a badly wounded heart, I searched in vain for what I was seek­ing. I saw noth­ing that moved me, noth­ing that seemed to jus­tify the long and exhaust­ing trip.

Valentine’s Day dawned in Atlanta to below-freezing tem­per­a­tures. The sun had yet to rise when I embarked on my return trip over black-ice slicked roads. As I care­fully started the long drive back, my spir­its were low. It would have made sense to wait a while, but I didn’t have that lux­ury: I needed to make it back in time to pick up my sons at their father’s.

And then, just a few hours later, every­thing sud­denly shifted.

As I crossed the bor­der into South Car­olina around 10 a.m., the sun peeked into view. As if on cue, the air seemed to warm. My ten­sion and anx­i­ety drained away, leav­ing a feel­ing of calm. For the first time in three days, I finally relaxed. It was then the bless­ing came.

I can only describe it as an epiphany. And epipha­nies or day­dreams are funny, inex­plic­a­ble things. Neu­ro­log­i­cally, I can spec­u­late that after I finally relaxed the exec­u­tive cen­ter of my brain, I opened the door to a series of neuro-tonal images. It was a bit like being awake and dream­ing at the same time.

I saw Leonardo sit­ting on a lad­der. I drew closer.

Why are you here?” I asked.

I can help you,” he said.

How? There’s no place for me.”

There was no place for me either—I did so many dif­fer­ent things and few of them fit with each other. Even Michelan­gelo made fun of me for that big horse I tried. But if I could make it in the 1500s, then per­haps you can too.”

But my work sit­u­a­tion, my home life—I’ve been so betrayed.”

Have you ever worked for a Sforza?”

I laughed. The Sforza coat of arms includes a viper eat­ing a child. It’s hard to think of a more threat­en­ing boss than that.

If I could do it, per­haps you can too,” the mas­ter said. “I’ll help.”

That was it. The epiphany was over.

Nobel Prize win­ner Toni Mor­ri­son writes that a true and good friend is some­one who takes the pieces of “who I am” and gives them “back to me in all the right order.” In that sense, this epiphany helped me see the path for­ward. In those moments, I found my tribe.

One year later I started Inno­va­tion Abbey, recruit­ing a first-class team that shares my ded­i­ca­tion to evidence-based inno­va­tion steeped in deep wis­dom about how peo­ple really work. Since our launch, we’ve worked in 10 coun­tries in Asia and two in Africa, as well as in the United States. Our projects are start­ing to bear fruit, though the work of inno­va­tion— inno­vare or renewal in Latin—is the work of a lifetime.

Our com­pet­i­tive edge? We believe that human beings, not data or processes, are the root cause of inno­va­tion. Yes, peo­ple of faith need peo­ple of spread­sheets, and I have been a per­son of spread­sheets. But it also works the other way: data and processes need the human spirit.

Our name hear­kens back to the ancient abbey sys­tem of Europe and Asia, which man­aged to com­bine oper­a­tions and deep knowl­edge of peo­ple to show a bet­ter way for­ward. While far from per­fect, the 1,400 Cluny abbeys nev­er­the­less helped bring Europe out of chaos, war, and dis­ease 1,100 years ago­—and with­out a sin­gle mobile phone.

I’ll close with a humble—but telling—story from a project we com­pleted in Laos late last year.

In the Lao cul­ture, there isn’t a word for inno­va­tion. But there is a word for love.

We were invited to work with a pub­lic health admin­is­tra­tor work­ing to teach her team about innovation.

She gath­ered her whole team—including her driver—to talk about inno­va­tion, using the mate­ri­als we had pro­vided as a jump­ing off point. The first dis­cus­sion caused con­fu­sion. But the team did not give up. “We don’t know what this is but we love our regional man­ager who tells us this is impor­tant. We will do it for this man­ager whom we respect,” was the gen­eral consensus.

The tide finally began to turn when the Lao team con­nected in Thai with another group study­ing inno­va­tion with us. After this, the Lao team began to feel more com­fort­able with the inno­va­tion process and related con­cepts, the team leader told us. How did she know? Here’s what she said:

I got in my car. Usu­ally you tell the dri­ver where to go street by street and they drive you that way. But this time the dri­ver turned to me and said, ‘I’ve been think­ing. For two years we’ve dri­ven that way. I know a shorter route. May we try it?’”

When I heard this, my heart lifted. Think of the time value in money! How much time had two years of the direc­tive mind­set cost the team? And how much time might be saved going for­ward? Not to men­tion the larger changes likely to fol­low as the inno­va­tion mind­set begins to take root and flour­ish.  And sig­nif­i­cantly, the break­through stemmed from love—from the feel­ings of respect and con­nec­tion that bound team mem­bers to their regional manager.

I see inno­va­tion as the response of human­ity strug­gling to renew in the midst of a com­pet­i­tive and dys­func­tional world where there are amaz­ing things yet to be dis­cov­ered. I’ve had to give up almost every­thing to gain this wis­dom. It’s becom­ing slowly appar­ent to me that it is worth it.

It’s our chal­lenge to build a beau­ti­ful future together on the cold embers of a past that did not work. We have the spirit of a genius engi­neer, painter, drafts­man, sculp­tor, and inven­tor that can meet us, even today. As I walk into this unknown, and poten­tially beau­ti­ful, unbounded future, I do so with a new con­fi­dence that I’m not alone. I’m search­ing for—and start­ing to find—the mem­bers of my lost tribe, the bril­liant, vision­ary, heart-centered tribe of Leonardo da Vinci.

Note: To learn more about Inno­va­tion Abbey and its projects, email Alle­gra with ques­tions or to request an inau­gural set of white papers: “The Devil in Inno­va­tion,” “Redis­cov­er­ing Ancient Wis­dom about Mod­ern Inno­va­tion,” and “What We Learn about Inno­va­tion with the Bot­tom Bil­lion.” Read­ers are also warmly invited to attend a Tedx event on the theme “Beloved Com­mu­nity” in Chapel Hill on March 3, 2012.

Awakening Joy in Plan B Nation

Joyful Runway

Much has been writ­ten about the psy­cho­log­i­cal costs of job loss and other fall-out of the Great Reces­sion, but far less ink has been spilled over how we can best address them.

The worst things in life start show­ing up when peo­ple expe­ri­ence extended unem­ploy­ment,” asserts Gallup Chair­man and CEO Jim Clifton in his chill­ing man­i­festo The Com­ing Jobs War, which paints a dire pic­ture of a global job short­age. “Those wounded will prob­a­bly never fully recover.”

In a sim­i­lar vein, Atlantic jour­nal­ist Don Peck cites a trou­bling litany of con­se­quences stem­ming from long-term job­less­ness, includ­ing “grow­ing iso­la­tion, warp­ing of fam­ily dynam­ics, and a slow sep­a­ra­tion from main­stream soci­ety,” as he fur­ther details in Pinched: How the Great Reces­sion Has Nar­rowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.

My reac­tion to such obser­va­tions is mixed.

On the one hand, I wel­come the acknowl­edg­ment that the Great Reces­sion has exerted unprece­dented stress on mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. It strikes me as a much-needed anti­dote to the view that the job­less, foreclosed-upons, and other casu­al­ties of these new hard times just need to buck up, to opt for the sort of relent­less cheer skew­ered by cul­tural critic Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich in Bright-Sided: How Pos­i­tive Think­ing is Under­min­ing Amer­ica.

On the other hand, it strikes me as unnec­es­sar­ily dis­em­pow­er­ing to sim­ply give in, to believe that there’s noth­ing we can do to change our rela­tion­ship to the bad things that come our way.

It’s in this spirit that I’m embark­ing on med­i­ta­tion teacher James Baraz’s 10-month online class Awak­en­ing Joy. I first heard about the pro­gram from some like-minded friends (read: friends not prone to the afore­men­tioned relent­less pos­i­tive think­ing) and decided to give it a try. My ini­tial skep­ti­cism largely faded when I learned that no one is turned away for finan­cial rea­sons. (I myself opted to pay a small frac­tion of the total cost.)

Baraz—a found­ing teacher at the Spirit Rock Med­i­ta­tion Cen­ter in Woodacre, California—draws heav­ily on the Bud­dhist tra­di­tion, but as he makes clear in the first class, the pro­gram is in no way lim­ited to any par­tic­u­lar reli­gious faith.

So is it pos­si­ble to “awaken joy” when we’re fac­ing huge chal­lenges?  Baraz says Yes. Where his approach dif­fers sig­nif­i­cantly from many other pro­po­nents of pos­i­tive think­ing is that he—like the Buddha—is focused on the prac­ti­cal strate­gies that allow us to do this.  Rather than say­ing  “just do it,” his focus is on how to do it.

The first step? Sim­ply cul­ti­vat­ing the inten­tion to be happy. To this end, Baraz and his teach­ing team pro­vide a num­ber of exer­cises and prac­tices, includ­ing the act of remind­ing our­selves again and again of our inten­tion. Another sug­ges­tion: Mak­ing a con­scious deci­sion to rec­og­nize and rel­ish moments of well-being. (Pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy acolytes refer to this as “savor­ing.”) The the­ory is that where we choose to place our mind goes far to  deter­mine how happy we are.

More than 2,000 peo­ple have tested it, so it’s not some airy-fairy idea,” Baraz said of the class, in a 2008 O mag­a­zine inter­view. “I’ve learned that it’s pos­si­ble to change, no mat­ter what your his­tory or the lim­it­ing beliefs you’ve held on to. If you have the inten­tion to be happy and you do the prac­tices, if you give it your best shot and are very patient, it works.”

That being said, the Bud­dha told his stu­dents to not take any­thing on faith—rather to “see for your­self.” That’s exactly what I’ll be doing, and I’m curi­ous to explore what hap­pens. Inter­ested in join­ing me? Click here for sign-up infor­ma­tion.

Plan B Nation: The Podcast (now on Work Stew)

Per­haps the best thing about start­ing this blog has been the oppor­tu­nity to meet really cool peo­ple who are think­ing and writ­ing about the very things that most inter­est me.

This fact hit home again ear­lier this week, when Work Stew found­ing edi­tor Kate Gace Wal­ton con­tacted me about doing a pod­cast for her site.

Like me, Kate is some­thing of a cul­ture straddler—a Har­vard grad who spent time in the cor­po­rate world (she has an MBA from Wharton)—before engi­neer­ing a life more in line with her val­ues and inter­ests, a tran­si­tion she elo­quently describes in the essay Ran­dom Acts of Busi­ness.  A mother of two, she now works in recruit­ing near her Bain­bridge Island, Wash­ing­ton home.

In the year since launch­ing Work Stew, Kate has gath­ered dozens of sto­ries reflect­ing a vast assort­ment of work expe­ri­ences, with the goal of cre­at­ing a forum that both informs and inspires. The essays and pod­casts are as fas­ci­nat­ing as they are diverse. Hol­ly­wood screen­writer, par­ti­cle physi­cist, min­is­ter, ex-spy, restau­rant cook, and flight-attendant-turned-gorilla-caretaker are just a sam­pling of the paths represented.

My own recent con­ver­sa­tion with Kate about life in Plan B Nation cov­ered a lot of ground, rang­ing from what my career has in com­mon with a tra­di­tional mar­riage plot to what comes next for all of us in the New Econ­omy. Want to lis­ten in? Click here.