Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons


Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniver­sary of my exit from the salaried work­force and my entry into what I’ve taken to call­ing Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Har­vard Law School, where I’d han­dled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writ­ing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplo­mat­i­cally, not an easy time. The econ­omy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I men­tion the Great Reces­sion?) Floun­der­ing in spring 2009 put me in excel­lent com­pany. Yes, I was freaked out and unem­ployed, but I cer­tainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been think­ing a lot about the road I’ve trav­eled since those anxiety-ridden days and feel­ing a lot of com­pas­sion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been think­ing about what I’ve learned and what might be worth shar­ing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Tran­si­tions take a long time.  

I’ve writ­ten about this before, and it’s a really impor­tant point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life acci­dent.”  Five to seven years is com­mon.  A related point: Tran­si­tions tend to meander—to be less like lad­ders and more like the clas­sic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the cen­ter, almost arrive, and then sud­denly find your­self on the outer rim, and then, just as unpre­dictably, back at the cen­ter again. I often find it help­ful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Some­times the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leav­ing the Boston area for more than a year on the the­ory that wher­ever you go, there you are. Could mov­ing to another place really make me hap­pier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequiv­o­cal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that mov­ing to an area that I love is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant step I’ve taken to move my life for­ward.  In par­tic­u­lar, mov­ing to a place where I have a strong net­work of friends has made every­thing far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start mov­ing anyway.

Tran­si­tions, by their nature, gen­er­ally involve a tem­po­rary loss of clear inner direc­tion.  That was cer­tainly the case for me: I was search­ing with­out really know­ing what I was look­ing for (which, not sur­pris­ingly, made it really hard to find).

Look­ing back, one of the most use­ful things I did dur­ing this time was to take action even if noth­ing felt quite right—to exper­i­ment, try things out. That’s how I came (lack­adaisi­cally, glumly) to write my very first per­sonal essay—which led to a blog on Huff­in­g­ton Post, which led to writ­ing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writ­ing for Sec­on­dAct (includ­ing Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly col­umn), Psy­chol­ogy Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remark­ably enough, actu­ally does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across sim­i­lar advice in books by career guru Bar­bara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man. “You won’t encounter acci­den­tal good fortune—you won’t stum­ble on oppor­tu­ni­ties that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoff­man writes in The Start-Up of You. “When you do some­thing you stir the pot and intro­duce the pos­si­bil­ity that seem­ingly ran­dom ideas, peo­ple, and places will col­lide and form new com­bi­na­tions and oppor­tu­ni­ties.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mind­ful­ness by now, but this qual­ity doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Kristin Neff is a pio­neer­ing researcher on this topic, and her book Self Com­pas­sion: Stop Beat­ing Your­self Up and Leave Inse­cu­rity Behind is geared to a pop­u­lar audi­ence and pro­vides an excel­lent roadmap for fur­ther exploration.

5.  Let your­self be surprised.

The biggest dif­fer­ence between lucky and unlucky peo­ple may be that lucky peo­ple are open to see­ing the unex­pected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expand­ing your periph­eral vision can do a lot to expand your oppor­tu­ni­ties.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to con­sciously expect the unex­pected. (Most recent exam­ple: I’m about to go off to look at a poten­tial new home that I dis­cov­ered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far bet­ter than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both mean­ing­ful and cre­ative. I have a great com­mu­nity in a place where I love liv­ing. The road I’ve trav­eled to get here was pretty remark­ably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did some­thing wrong. It sim­ply tells me that I’m human.

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

21 thoughts on “Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

  1. What a great arti­cle Amy! When we moved up to west­ern MA almost 5 years ago, we did it more for a way of life for the chil­dren. But, com­ing back south this year to where we began our adult life just feels so right. I miss west­ern MA, for all the glo­ri­ous life it is, but love being back in a fast pace and rad­i­cally diver­si­fied world. Hav­ing my chil­dren so happy has made a huge dif­fer­ence in my life also.
    I can’t believe at the end of this month I will cel­e­brate hav­ing left the work­force and being a stay at home mom again. My choice was a choice, but still it’s been a strug­gle. I’ve never not worked and find­ing myself again has been very tough.
    Thanks for all the inspi­ra­tion this arti­cle, and many oth­ers of yours, brings forth!
    Lara recently posted…Clear­ing the men­tal spaceMy Profile

  2. This post really res­onates with me, Amy! I’ve been liv­ing in that tran­si­tion space for over a year now. I, too, left the city for greener pas­tures (lit­er­ally) and I’m MUCH hap­pier. How­ever, the uncer­tainty of mak­ing a liv­ing with­out a boss telling you how to do it is pretty damn scary! It’s com­fort­ing to read your reflec­tions on this process. I have faith that it’s all going to turn into some­thing mean­ing­ful (it already has, actu­ally!), and your post reen­forced that in a big way for me today!

  3. Like Howie, I def­i­nitely see cor­re­la­tions between your sit­u­a­tion and my divorce. Tran­si­tions do take a long time! It will be five years in July, and I still feel like my divorce defines part of my iden­tity. Will that ever change? I hope so. Of course, on top of that, I had an employ­ment change and a move. But I have come to embrace the unex­pected, mainly because it is so much fun!
    Molly@Postcards from a Peace­ful Divorce recently posted…Plants Grow…My Profile

    • Yes, the more I think about it, the more I tend towards expand­ing the focus of Plan B Nation (the blog) beyond the eco­nomic fall­out from the Reces­sion. That said, inter­est­ing that you look for­ward to mov­ing beyond your divorce being to some extent defin­ing. For me, my period of unem­ploy­ment & related things has been, no doubt, really hard, but I see the fact that it will always define me in some ways to be a pos­i­tive thing. Among other things, it seems to me I’m more com­pas­sion­ate, more accept­ing, and more cre­ative as a result of hav­ing gone through it. All that stuff about the light shin­ing in through the bro­ken places–there’s some truth in that, I think (or can be, assum­ing that the chal­lenges aren’t so great that they crush you. As my for­mer adult devel­op­ment pro­fes­sor Bob Kegan says, we’re look­ing for “stretch not break” chal­lenges.
      amy gut­man recently posted…Trav­els in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessonsMy Profile

  4. Good arti­cle, Amy. I’ve been look­ing at mov­ing and was using the same logic (wher­ever you go, there you are) as a rea­son not to make a change from a dusty val­ley town to a clean, cool moun­tain city. Read­ing this is mak­ing me rethink the idea. Think­ing in any form is usu­ally a good thing. Thanks.

    • You’re very wel­come, Lau­rie! I actu­ally want to write some­thing longer on this sub­ject. Bot­tom line: I’m con­vinced that where we live makes a very real dif­fer­ence. That said, at least for me, peo­ple are key, so liv­ing in a beau­ti­ful place with­out close friends wouldn’t work. But good friends + beau­ti­ful place? You can’t get much bet­ter …
      amy gut­man recently posted…Trav­els in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessonsMy Profile

  5. What a great way to put it: Plan B Nation. I also love your ideas about let­ting your­self be sur­prised and being kind to your­self. Too many of us who have “failed” to find suf­fi­ciently remu­ner­a­tive work think of our­selves as losers, and that is so wrong. I mean, if some­one with as impres­sive a résumé as your­self has to strug­gle for sat­is­fy­ing work, why should I feel like a dope for not being fab­u­lously suc­cess­ful (in mate­r­ial terms, anyway).

    I was so pleased to see you men­tion Bar­bara Sher. She really is an uber-coach, imho. Beyond that she is sim­ply a fan­tas­tic per­son. I took to heart her idea that we can find some way to do at least the heart of what we love best; we just have to be open to cre­ative approaches. Such as a devoted opera singer who may not get to the Met, but can cer­tainly use his/her tal­ent in com­mu­nity choirs, etc. As she says, we owe our gifts to the world and we are never truly happy if we don’t use them.

    Thank you for your own insights above. I will get to work on my periph­eral vision at once (!), and also expect the unex­pected. (Just how does one find a poten­tial new home on Face­book, by the way?)

    • Thank you so much, Eileen! (which is, inci­den­tally, my grandmother’s name) I love your responses. And yes, Bar­bara Sher is a trea­sure. I’ve been read­ing her for decades now. She was one of the ear­li­est voices that started me think­ing along these lines, and I still find so much wis­dom in her work.

      And re: the FB house: That’s how I learned that an acquaintance/friend was putting her house on the mar­ket. Won’t end up being for me, but was a real pos­si­bil­ity. :-)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Trav­els in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessonsMy Profile

  6. Won­der­ful and insight­ful essay that I will refer to as I begin chart­ing my exit from my cur­rent pro­fes­sion (can’t stay in finance for­ever).
    Lisa recently posted…Tony JudtMy Profile

  7. Hi Amy,

    I found your arti­cle par­tic­u­larly help­ful and strangely apt for me now 2 years after my wife has died. I espe­cially liked #3 “start mov­ing any­way” which I do from time to time but also seem to get stuck more often than not. See, your ideas are universal.

    • Thanks so much for shar­ing that, Howie. I’ve thought a lot about how my par­tic­u­lar for­mu­la­tion of Plan B Nation in terms of the eco­nomic impact of the Great Reces­sion relates to other big Plan B life changes–illness, the death of a spouse, and other really hard and unex­pected things. I’ve been hes­i­tant to make the link myself–it seems a bit presumptuous–but am really glad to hear that you saw one and that the piece was help­ful.
      amy gut­man recently posted…Trav­els in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessonsMy Profile

  8. Oh Amy! Read­ing this means so much to me what with my own approach­ing crazy Tran­si­tion. The “start mov­ing any­way” piece is so com­pletely oppo­site all of the cur­rent “pop­u­lar” you-can’t-get-somewhere-if-you-don’t-know-where-you’re-going advice. It’s so refresh­ing and reas­sur­ing to hear that, and to see how well it worked out for you. Thank you for shar­ing this beau­ti­ful piece.
    Sarah recently posted…Ludi­crous Fear Pop­corn… Now With Real Fear!My Profile

  9. Lovely post, Amy. As I approach my “two-year anniver­sary” (com­ing this August), it’s really help­ful to remind myself of all these things!

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