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.

Copyright © 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!

    • Thank you, Lara! So glad you liked the piece. And I totally get what you’re saying. Struggle–and beauty–both come in so many different flavors. :-)

  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!

    • I’m so glad to hear that, Cat! Many thanks for sharing–knowing that I’m connecting around these issues is a big part of what makes my own life feel meaningful these days. :-)

  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!

    • 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.

  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 . . .

  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. :-)

  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).

  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.

  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.

    • I’m so glad, Sarah! That point–that it’s best to get moving–is such an important one. If you haven’t already, I’d highly recommend reading INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity (published by Harvard Business School press), which describes how successful career changes follow this model. I’ve written a lot about her before–you could do a search on my blog for her name. You also might also be interested in this piece I wrote a while back for SecondAct:

  9. Thanks so much, Kate! I’m glad it resonated for you. I can always use the reminders myself–one of the reasons it’s been so great for me to be blogging in this space. :-)

  10. 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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