On breadcrumbs & basket weaving (aka Life Experiment #4)

Young bird

So if you think I haven’t been blogging as much: you’re right.

Over the past few weeks, my personal Plan B Nation has become an increasingly busy place, and while that’s mainly a very good thing, it’s also entailing some readjustments and recalibrations.

As you may have read, last month’s Life Experiment—taking a photo everyday as I learned to use my new digital camera—came to an abrupt end only days after it began.  I realized I simply couldn’t add another thing to my plate. While at first I saw this as a failure (bad!), I ended up realizing that it was doing what any good experiment should: Giving me useful information.

In that spirit, I’m taking this month’s Life Experiment in a somewhat different direction. Instead of focusing on an activity, I’ll be playing with metaphor and shifting perspective.

I recently wrote about how I’m trying to bring more playfulness into my life—to still get things done but to have more lightness in the doing.  For much of my foray in Plan B Nation, Getting Things Done has felt like accomplishment enough. On some days simply getting out of bed felt like a pretty big deal.

But lately, I’ve come to wonder if things have to feel so grim. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the role of metaphor. Which brings me to breadcrumbs and basket weaving, aka Life Experiment #4.

On Breadcrumbs . . .

Instead of marching through a to-do list, I’m a bird following bread crumbs.  Breadcrumbs are: Nourishing.  A bird doesn’t order itself to follow a trail of breadcrumbs. That comes naturally. A trail of breadcrumbs invites you on. You don’t have to think about it.

I’ve been playing with this over the past few weeks, and I like how it’s feeling.  Looking for the next breadcrumb is way better than pushing myself to Be More Productive.

and basket weaving

Another big challenge has been feeling that I’m moving in too many different directions. By nature and habit, I go for depth rather than for breadth. I like to focus on one thing, to give it my full attention.

Of course, that isn’t always possible—it isn’t for me right now—so I’ve been mulling over how I can keep doing lots of things but feel a little less stressed. The answer, at least for now, seems to be basket weaving.

Instead of seeing life as pulling me in disparate conflicting directions, I’m thinking of my various activities as strands in a single  basket. The challenge is weaving them together. The challenge is creating a whole. What I was viewing as a source of stress has become a creative project.

Which isn’t to say that I really like being all this busy. I’m hoping (expecting) that by April’s end, things will have settled down. In the meantime, I plan to do what I can to hold the situation lightly—to follow the trail of breadcrumbs and practice basket weaving.

Note: My interest in how metaphor can shape experience was sparked by The Fluent Self‘s Havi Brooks–if you’re interested in reading more, she’s written loads on the topic.

Basket Weaving

Why follow-through is overrated

trying to look perfect

This month’s Life Experiment has been a total bust. Except that it’s also been a total success. Let me explain.

As some readers will recall, I began this month with the idea that I would take at least one photograph each day. I was interested in how this would shift the way I moved through the world and also viewed it as an opportunity to learn to use a recently acquired but languishing digital camera.

All of this made sense in theory. In practice? Not so much. Here’s how it played out.

At the end of a harried Day 1, I snapped a hasty photo with my iPhone. (Better than nothing, I told myself.)

Day 2, same thing.

By Day 3 or 4, I’d forgotten about it. Ditto the days that followed. Until at some point over the next week I realized that this wasn’t happening.

My first reaction was to get stressed out over my follow-through failure. What was I going to write this month? What would I say to you readers?

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw another possibility.  After all, this was billed as an experiment. No, it hadn’t gone off as planned, but that was entirely different from saying that it had been a total loss. I decided—as an experiment—to adopt a different perspective, to detach the experience from the goal and ask what it had to teach me.

Here’s what I found:

1. I need to reconnect with my core purpose.

When I embarked on monthly Life Experiments at the start of 2012, my goal wasn’t to create yet another to-do list. Rather it was to explore how changing one thing in my life might lead to other unexpected shifts. Over time, I’ve started to lose track of this, and my “experiments” have come to feel more and more like 30-day Challenges. Be more productive! Just do it!  That wasn’t what I’d been aiming for, but it’s where I ended up. Time for some reflection and retuning.

2. I need to do less, not more.

The reason I wasn’t taking photos was very simple. I’m really really busy!  Over the past six months, I’ve gone from struggling to fill my days with meaningful activities to a jam-packed schedule, with freelance deadlines, workshop facilitating, friends, exercise, and life maintenance all vying for time. This is in many ways a good thing, but it also has its own challenges, which I need to find ways to address. (Also: I need to take time to appreciate how far I’ve come!)

3.  I need to do more to infuse my life with playfulness.

I recently wrote about an ah hah recognition that I need more playfulness in my life. During my time in Plan B Nation, I’ve taken a lot of pride in my ability to simply carry on, to put one foot in front of the other during hard and uncertain times. There have been days—and not a few—when simply getting out of bed felt like a real accomplishment. It seemed like enough that I could say, in the words of 12-step programs everywhere, that I’d managed to “take the next right action.”

But I’ve come to see that, while this approach can be helpful in times of crisis, it’s not (for me) the best approach to life over the long haul. Over the long haul, I want to be happy, not simply to endure. Getting things done is certainly part of a happy life, but it’s far from sufficient.

Language plays a big role here: The more I think about this issue, the more aware I am of how the words I use shape the quality of my daily experience. Tool kit. Task List. Marching orders. This is the language of command and control. This is the language that, all too often, I use when I talk to myself (when issuing marching orders).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For example, instead of “next right action” how about “breadcrumbs”? Think fairy tales, think Hansel and Gretel and the trail they left to find their way back home. (Okay, so in the story birds eat the bread, but I still like the metaphor.)

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about what qualities help us thrive while traveling Plan B Nation (and other psychologically harsh terrains), and it seems to me that one of the most important is the quality of openness. By this, I mean the ability to see alternatives and possibility where we might easily see failure.

In a feature story about famous accidental discoveries, the Daily Beast recounts how the discovery of penicillin came about after Scottish bacteriologist Andrew Fleming noticed that mold had started to grow on some cultures he’d left exposed. Years later, he toured a state-of-the-art medical lab, far cleaner than the one where his scientific breakthrough occurred.

“If you had worked here, think of what you could have invented,” his guide remarked.

Fleming’s cool response: “Not penicillin.”

Dazed & Confused in Plan B Nation

268/365 - Default State

In July 2010, amidst continued fall-out from the Great Recession, the New York Times published a front-page story about an unemployed college graduate living with his parents in a Boston suburb who’d just turned down a $40,000-a-year job as an insurance claims adjustor.

“I am absolutely certain that my job hunt will eventually pay off,” said 24-year-old Scott Nicholson, a Colgate University honors graduate with a degree in political science, explaining his decision to hold out for something better even after two years of fruitless searching.

The piece quickly became notorious, setting off a tsunami of online comments—1,487 at last count—the vast majority expressing outrage at what readers perceived as an absurd sense of entitlement enabled by a too-indulgent family.

“Turning down a job for $40,000 a year after graduating from a second tier (at best) school because he is too good for the position? The kid deserves whatever hardship he endures,” was one typically harsh response.

I recently thought back to this article—and the heated debate that ensued—when I got a call from a friend who heads up a big department of a big organization. She’d read some of my posts about the challenges of looking for work after the Great Recession and wanted to share her own quite different perspective.

“I can’t give jobs away!” he (or she—I promised anonymity) insisted. “Nobody knows how to work anymore. They’ll say ‘I might have to miss yoga today, and that’s not okay.’”

I have to say I found this fascinating. And while it was (and is) hard for me to believe that the situation for employers is really quite so bleak, I did start to notice other signs of similar frustration. For example this plaintive tweet from a local tech entrepreneur, formerly of Microsoft: “Why do so few job applicants bother to follow up? And some of the best cover letters don’t even show up for interviews.”

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that such behaviors, along with the resulting frustration, can be traced to a profound confusion about what work is and is not, as well as what it should be—a confusion now thrown into relief by the stressor of hard times.

It’s not news that the so-called millennials—the cohort now entering the workforce—grew up with extraordinary expectations fueled by Baby Boomer parents who encouraged them to dream big. Further feeding such attitudes was the Oprah-fication of American popular culture along with self-help classics such as Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow and the mega-bestseller The Secret, which posits a “law of attraction” that allows each of us to “manifest” our desires. Even the popular maxim that “anyone can be president” (never mind the nation’s declining place on social mobility measures) can be traced to this cultural strand.

At the same time, our nation is deeply rooted in the Puritan work ethic, with its emphasis on frugality, discipline, and self-reliance. Such teachings have been with us from early days, finding expression in the best-selling writings of Benjamin Franklin up on through present-day political rhetoric. (Think Mitt Romney’s tireless if problematic claims of being a self-made man.)

Follow your dreams, whatever it takes.  Pay your own way, whatever it takes.

That millennials are struggling should come as no surprise, given these exacting and often conflicting cultural expectations. Those of us who came of age in the Boom Years may have managed to bridge the two. But when money is scarce and jobs are few (Hello, New Normal!), this is no easy feat.

So what’s a millennial supposed to do? Presented with conflicting absolutes, how are they supposed to choose?

This is precisely the sort of dilemma considered by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan in In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. As Kegan sees it, we live in an age where demands are many and often at odds, and guidelines for choosing between them are scarce. At the same time, relatively few of us are sufficiently grounded in our own beliefs to stand up to social pressures and chart an independent course—to be what Kegan calls “self authoring.” That’s not such a big problem when society’s expectations are consistent. But when a culture makes the sort of conflicting demands that ours routinely does, things can turn ugly very quickly.

Which is where many millennials find themselves right now: Wanting to do the Right Thing but without a way to decide what that right thing is. Where is the line between self-confidence and entitlement? Where is the line between admirable risk-taking and foolish behavior? Where is the line between being responsible and giving up?

Depending on whom a millennial asks, they’re likely to get different answers, and regardless of which one they choose, they’re likely to find themselves at odds with someone whose opinion they value. There may not be much that we can do right now to change this cultural context. What we can do is to acknowledge that Scott Nicholson and other millennials have good reason to feel dazed and confused.

 

Edited 3/15/12: Various non-substantive revisions for style and clarification.

Playtime in Plan B Nation

Girls skipping at an athletics carnival

I launched this blog late last year with the goal of exploring strategies for dealing with the psychological aftermath of the Great Recession.

Since then, I’ve cast a pretty wide net, with posts focused on economic and labor policy as well as personal tactics for navigating Plan B Nation, but in a world where so much is beyond our control, I remain especially intrigued by how we make the most of the limited swath within it.

To that end, I’ve spent countless hours reflecting on what behaviors and approaches best equip us thrive in these turbulent times. A recent (and surprising) addition to my list: The quality of playfulness.

A big push in this direction came some weeks back when I started reading Havi Brooks’ seriously playful Fluent Self blog. And when I say “seriously playful” that’s exactly what I mean. As I dove into the magic-kingdom secret-language world of The Fluent Self, I watched myself soak up playfulness like a parched plant soaks up water.

In particular, I was drawn to Havi’s explicit attention to the deployment of language—the inventing of new words and metaphors to transform experience. It’s something I’ve been playing (playing!) with for the last couple of weeks, and while the whole thing is still a work in progress (game!), it’s been a fascinating exploration.

Playing with language often seems to help me step back. To detach from whatever experience I’m having, and assess it from a different angle. It stops being The Truth. It becomes Something to Look At. Playing with language can be an act of kindness toward myself.

An example of what I’m talking about:

The other day, I was feeling especially oppressed by the running “Project List” I keep on my computer. Taking a leaf from Havi’s book, I decided that—just for fun, as an experiment—I’d try calling it something else. I jotted down my five priority items and labeled them “Scruffles.” Strange and even kooky as this may sound, I instantly lightened up. “I need to do my Scruffles,” I told myself, and quickly knocked them off.

Similarly, when I recently found myself brooding over something that I’d thought through zillions of times before, I coined a new word for the experience: Quandrification (the practice of proliferating quandaries).

As with “Scruffles,” this new word also made me smile.  And once I was smiling, I began to see different possible ways of being with the underlying feelings.  I didn’t have to keep re-playing my thoughts like a broken vinyl record. I could ask myself “What do I need right now? What would make this better?”

A lot of what I’ve written about on this blog is familiar territory—things that I’ve known in some shape or form seemingly forever. Practice gratitude and patience. Invest in relationships and community life. Connect with a sense of purpose. Break big goals into the smallest possible steps.   It’s not the concepts that are new but rather the challenge of weaving them into life in Plan B Nation.

But playfulness? I hadn’t really given it much thought. And if I had, I likely would have dismissed it out of hand. This nose-to-the-grindstone feeling of moving stolidly forward, isn’t it to be expected? Isn’t that simply part and parcel of life in Plan B Nation?

I’m beginning to think not. At least not most of the time. Yes, playfulness can seem frivolous, an unnecessary add-on. But that’s only until we start to see that it’s absolutely essential.

Why the Internet is like snow

It’s not a Mac. It’s a Lesnowvo ThinkPad.

Saturday was really busy though I got almost nothing done. I did, however, spend a lot of time lost in cyberspace.  If the day passed in a blur, my take-away was clear: The time has come for me to reclaim my so-called (online) life.

But how to go about it?

In the social media culture wars—Facebook, force for good or evil?—I come down unabashedly on the positive side. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve reconnected with childhood friends and made many new ones. I’ve found jobs, kept up with the news, learned where to get my bike repaired, and heard about new novels.  Simply put, I can’t imagine my time in Plan B Nation without the support, good cheer, and humor that I’ve found online.

That being said, there are limits. I hit mine last weekend and went looking for strategies.

I started with one of my favorite bloggers, Havi Brooks, who thinks of the Internet as a river and has a comprehensive technique for managing her time there. I liked the idea in theory, but it didn’t really speak to me. Then I came upon an image conjured by R. Taylor, who said he finds it useful to think of the Internet as a mall.

The Internet as Mall. Bingo! I felt a click.

It’s said that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. In fact, this turns out to be the Inuit equivalent of an urban myth, but nonetheless it got me thinking.

There isn’t a single Internet. Rather our Internets are legion.

There’s the information kiosk-Internet, the water cooler-Internet, the research-library Internet, the employment office-Internet, and the linen-and-housewares-store Internet, to name just a few that I frequent.

There’s also the Giant Gabfest Party Internet, and that, too, has its place.

It hit me that the problem wasn’t inherent to any one of these. The problem was in my not being clear on which one I planned to visit. Ditto for what I wanted to accomplish there and how long I planned to stay.

Over the past two days, I’ve been working on this. Here’s what I’ve been doing (most of the time, anyway): Before I sign on, I ask three questions: Which Internet? For what? How long? I jot down the answers. For example: “Information kiosk. Find out how to delete track changes comments on a Word doc. 5 minutes.” Or: Water cooler.  Check FB & email. 15 minutes.”

And you know what? Once I have this sort of plan in place, I’m pretty good at sticking to it. I don’t drift mindlessly from email to Facebook to web surfing. Instead, I do what I came for, and then I leave.

Building on this, it occurred to me that, if I were planning a trip to the mall, I could use a shopping list. In life offline, I don’t drive to the mall to buy printer paper, get home, and then five minutes later, drive right back to buy cat food. No. I keep a list of what I need to do at the mall, and when I get there, I do all it at once.

So that’s what I’ve started doing for my trips to the Internet mall. When I think of an email I need to send or something non-urgent I want to look up (as in: What movie is playing this Friday at Popcorn Noir?), it goes on the Internet shopping list. It can wait for the next scheduled trip.

Not surprisingly, planning my Internet trips and using my shopping list has made me increasingly aware of my tendency to reflexively jump online for no real reason except that my mind is wandering and the Internet is there.

When that Go-There-Now impulse kicks up—and I’ve never seen a better depiction of its siren call than this essay in Orion—I’ve found it’s useful to have a list of Things To Do Instead.  For example: Make tea, pick up 10 things, read the newspaper and put it out for recycling.  Or, to take another tip from Havi: What little thing can I take care of right now that would make life better for Slightly-Future-Me?

It’s always struck me as silly to say that the Internet is LIKE THIS or Facebook is LIKE THAT—akin to saying that the telephone is LIKE THIS or handwritten letters (if you remember those) are LIKE THAT.  All of them are just means, ways to connect. As it happens, Eskimos don’t have hundreds of words for snow. I, however, could use at least that many for my Internet.

Note:  Have you found helpful strategies for managing your time online? If so, please share them below.

In praise of erring

Guiding Light

I was hanging out at Sip yesterday, doing my usual thing: Getting a little writing done, drinking a lot of coffee.

But as I worked (and sipped) I found myself distracted by two young women a few tables away. It’s not that they were loud, it’s that they were interesting.  At first, I just thought (as I often do) what a great town this is!  From there, it was a quick leap to “You know what? I’d like to meet them.”

A quick leap in my mind, but an awkward one to enact. This is what I thought as I fingered two business cards I’d pulled from my bag and contemplated next steps. For a few minutes more, I went back and forth. And then: I just did it.

I approached their table, smiling. Cautious smiles in response. I blathered something about how I couldn’t help but overhear—and I knew that this must seem sort of strange—but that they just sounded so interesting that I’d decided to say Hi!

And you know what? They were lovely. Exactly like they’d sounded.

Not surprisingly, this being the town that it is, we already shared friends. Kate co-owns the vibrant Impish, a “mischievously playful” Northampton children’s store that I’ve visited with my friend Sarah, whom Kate also knows.  Fran is a former business law student of my professor friend Jennifer and about to begin a new job on Maine’s  same-sex marriage campaign. (I knew they were interesting!)

My friend Naomi quotes her mother as saying “Always err on the side of generosity.” This encounter got me to thinking how the same could just as well be said about human connection.

There are many times when the “right” course of action isn’t totally clear. If we’re going to over-steer, in which direction should we risk erring?

Always steering towards human connection strikes me as a good default rule.  And I say this not just because it sounds good but for very practical reasons.

Looking back, I see that, time and again, the choice to connect has enriched my life in many and various ways. No, not each and every time but more often than you might think.

A couple of recent examples relating to this blog:

After writing about celebrity blogger Penelope Trunk, I tweeted the post to her on a lark. To my surprise (and delight) she read it and left a lovely comment, which lifted my spirits on a day that my spirits needed lifting.

More recently, I wrote the (tongue-in-cheek) post “I Should Be You” about The Fluent Self’s magical Havi Brooks, and once again, sent it on with no real expectation of response. When she linked to the post, it resulted in my blog’s highest traffic-ever day—and, in the process, connected me with a bunch of really wonderful people.

I’ve also gained a lot from being on the other side of the equation–the person being connected to rather than the connector. The fact that I’m living in this town at all is largely due to the fact that the aforementioned Jennifer (my law school classmate) wrote me a warm congratulatory note after my first novel came out. We’d been friendly but not really “friends” before—and out of touch for years. Today, much of the good in my life can be traced to that out-of-the-blue email.

Another reminder came this week via writer Carolyn Nash (a pen name), who’d read that I work with foster kids and left a comment on my blog offering to send a copy of Raising Abel, her foster care memoir. As it happened, I’d already heard about the book on Workstew and been meaning to find it. (“A woman of remarkable resourcefulness single-handedly raises a troubled child all the way to manhood in this intimate and inspiring blog-to-book memoir,” is how Kirkus Reviews describes it.)  I told her I was eager to read it. And I’m already writing about it.

Of course, not all attempts to connect will yield the hoped-for connections. In another life, when I was writing thrillers, I mustered up my courage, and placed a call to someone I’d been friendly with in college, who sometimes reviewed books. I caught her at a bad time. She was icy. The call ended quickly. I felt terrible.

Thinking about this phone call now—still clear in my mind after all this years—it occurs to me that it’s an excellent example of the human “negativity bias.”  As described by Buddha’s Brain author Rick Hanson, our brains are “Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” This is because our brains evolved to keep us from getting eaten, not with the goal of assuring that we live happy and pleasant lives. As Hanson sees it, we need to do what we can to push back this tendency.

For me, choosing connection is one way to do this. Life is full of risks, and the choices we make on any given day won’t always leave us delighted. But by erring on the side of human connection, I’m pretty sure we raise our odds.