The month of sitting quietly (Life Experiment # 8)

The limit of what we can accept is the limit of our freedom.”

These words from one of my Bud­dhist teach­ers have come back to me in recent days as I con­tinue to wres­tle with the var­i­ous chal­lenges that pop­u­late my life right now.

The most press­ing issue con­fronting me is my need to find a new place to live, and friends have offered a num­ber of amus­ing if improb­a­ble suggestions:

Put your stuff into stor­age, get an airstream trailer, and travel the country. 

Move into a house filled with kooky room­mates, and then write about it.

These ideas make me smile, but even more they bring me face to face with the very real lim­its on what I’m will­ing to accept. I’m anx­ious about what lies ahead because of my own require­ments. If I could make do with less or other, I’d be far less stressed out. This isn’t a judg­ment or self cri­tique but sim­ply an observation.

And that’s where I am right now, hold­ing these facts in aware­ness:  If I could accept a lifestyle that I’m not will­ing to accept, I would have more free­dom. I would be hap­pier. I’m not try­ing to force a change in myself – that would be dis­as­trous. This is sim­ply about see­ing and watch­ing what happens.

Over the years, I’ve had a freighted rela­tion­ship with Bud­dhist prac­tices. I’ve always loved the teach­ings but strug­gled with med­i­ta­tion. Which is like say­ing you love food if you love cook­books but dis­like eating.

I don’t know why I keep doing this when I find it so unpleas­ant,” I said to my teacher dur­ing a hell­ish 10-day silent retreat.

Why do you do it?” She sounded gen­uinely curious.

The answer is I don’t really know.  But this is what I do.  I go long stretches think­ing that I’m totally done with it all. Then, some­thing hap­pens to reel me in. I pull out my med­i­ta­tion bench.

That’s how it’s been for the past few days, and this time, unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, I’m find­ing sit­ting rest­ful.  It feels like the right thing for now. And so: I’m going to do it.

1 thing you should know about time

Time Jumper

This one comes from rock star blog­ger Chris Guille­beau:

[W]e tend to over­es­ti­mate what we can com­plete in a sin­gle day, and under­es­ti­mate what we can com­plete over longer peri­ods of time,” he writes in his Brief Guide to World Dom­i­na­tion (which is hap­pily far from the mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal screed the title might suggest).

This is so true! When I came across these words the other day, I felt instant relief. Never mind that I already knew this. I needed to hear it again. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been feel­ing slow mov­ing and uncer­tain. How great to be reminded that most goals require us to take the long view.

Viewed from this per­spec­tive, I’m doing just fine. Things may not be where I want them to be, but they cer­tainly aren’t where they were.

For one thing, I have a new job! A small job, to be sure, but one that I’m really excited about and hope will lead to more. Start­ing this fall, I’ll be teach­ing a course at UMass Amherst in the Com­mon­wealth Hon­ors Col­lege. I also just fin­ished up final edits on a fea­ture story on career decision-making – you can find it in Psy­chol­ogy Today’s September/October issue – and began seri­ous strate­giz­ing about a big new project.

Which isn’t to say I’m not up against some daunt­ing chal­lenges. Those pesky evic­tion pro­ceed­ings. Find­ing a new place to live. Deal­ing with health insur­ance issues. Sev­eral writ­ing projects.  When I look at this list all at once, I can start to freak out. My life feels like some­thing of a high-wire act. Will I make it across?

Then I remind myself that I don’t need to take care of every­thing right now. Each of these things will take time to get done. And, the fact is, time takes time.

How to be resilient (in 9 not-so-easy steps)

So your blog is about resilience?”

Well, not exactly. I mean, it’s about what lies behind resilience – about the nuts and bolts of resilience.”

I had this con­ver­sa­tion a num­ber of times before launch­ing Plan B Nation, my per­sonal chronicle-cum-user’s guide to life after the Great Reces­sion. Yes, I was inter­ested in the notion of bounc­ing back, but I wanted to unpack the idea. How do we stay opti­mistic  in the face of repeated set­backs? How do we keep going when our best efforts fall short?

These ques­tions lie at the heart of Rebound­ers: How Win­ners Pivot from Set­back to Suc­cess, a new book by jour­nal­ist Rick New­man – which is why I raced to get my hands on a copy as soon as I heard about it.

Like my own, Newman’s explo­ration began with per­sonal chal­lenges – in his case, a divorce and cus­tody bat­tle, finan­cial stress, and dis­lo­ca­tion (both geo­graphic and pro­fes­sional). “As I crested the age of forty, I was falling behind instead of get­ting ahead, with a set of options that seemed to be nar­row­ing and a deep­en­ing dis­il­lu­sion­ment that wasn’t sup­posed to afflict peo­ple like me,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

Ulti­mately, New­man opted to widen his gaze, to bring his report­ing skills to bear on the issue of fail­ure. How is it that some peo­ple – New­man calls them rebound­ers – are able to emerge from set­backs even stronger than before? What are the skills they draw on? And how can the rest of cul­ti­vate these adap­tive behaviors?

Delv­ing into these ques­tions, New­man pro­files a num­ber of thriv­ing sur­vivors rang­ing from Thomas Edi­son to mil­i­tary pilot Tammy Duck­worth, who lost her legs in Iraq – their highs as well as their lows – and con­cludes with a series of nine attrib­utes he sees as com­mon to rebounders.

1. They accept failure.

It’s not that rebound­ers like fail­ure, but they man­age to “fail pro­duc­tively,” fram­ing fail­ure as a learn­ing opportunity.

2.   They com­part­men­tal­ize emotions.

While their emo­tions may run strong, rebound­ers nonethe­less adopt a prag­matic stance and learn to main­tain emo­tional equa­nim­ity in the face of disappointments.

3. They have a bias toward action.   

Tak­ing pur­pose­ful action – even if you aren’t sure where it’s tak­ing you – can be a first step to mov­ing for­ward. (New­man opposes action to rumi­na­tion, which can eas­ily lead to immo­bi­liz­ing worry.)

4. They change their minds sometimes.

They make the best deci­sions they can at the time based on the infor­ma­tion they have. When that infor­ma­tion changes, they’re able to adjust their goals and thinking.

5. They pre­pare for things to go wrong.

For all the talk of opti­mism being linked to suc­cess, the rebound­ers New­man talked to tended to have a more mea­sured per­spec­tive. “I’m cau­tiously opti­mistic,” said one.

6. They’re com­fort­able with discomfort.

For rebound­ers, suc­cess equals ful­fill­ment, not com­fort, and they will­ingly accept sig­nif­i­cant hard­ships and incon­ve­niences en route to their goals.

7. They’re will­ing to wait.

Rebound­ers are will­ing to work harder and wait longer than they expected. “Long­cuts to suc­cess are more com­mon than short­cuts,” New­man writes.

8. They have heroes.

Men­tors and role mod­els are often impor­tant sources of inspi­ra­tion for rebounders.

9. They have more than passion.

Rebound­ers have sus­tained drive as well as passion.

Hav­ing per­son­ally field-tested many of these strate­gies, I can vouch for them. At the same time, let’s be clear: All adver­sity is not cre­ated equal. For all the talk about hard­ship mak­ing us stronger, research sug­gests that peo­ple who expe­ri­ence an undue num­ber of stress­ful life events (def­i­nitely the case for many of us slog­ging through Plan B Nation) have a rel­a­tively high level of men­tal health prob­lems, as New­man reports. In other words, some hard­ship is good, too much hard­ship is not. How much is the right amount? Researchers put the opti­mal num­ber of adverse events at three.

In the same vein, all peo­ple are not cre­ated equal. For this rea­son, I would love to read more about resilience in the con­text of the so-called “Big Five” per­son­al­ity types iden­ti­fied by researchers as largely hard­wired and endur­ing. It would make sense if those of us wired to be unusu­ally sen­si­tive to neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences have a harder time cul­ti­vat­ing resilience than those of us who nat­u­rally trend to a pos­i­tive out­look. Does research in fact bear this out? And if so, are there steps we can take to coun­ter­act or bol­ster our hard­wired biases?  (For those inter­ested in such things, per­son­al­ity types are explored in depth in Daniel Nettle’s highly read­able Per­son­al­ity: What Makes You the Way You Are, which also includes a short ver­sion of the New­cas­tle Per­son­al­ity Assessor.)

Still, while resilience doubt­less comes more eas­ily to some of us than oth­ers, there are always steps we can take to max­i­mize our own poten­tial. For this, New­man offers a start­ing place – as well as excel­lent reminders.

5 great guidebooks for Plan B Nation

Compass Inlay

When ven­tur­ing into ter­ri­to­ries unknown, the more knowl­edge, the bet­ter. We need to under­stand the ter­rain, the weather, and likely dan­gers. We need to equip our­selves with maps, proper cloth­ing, and medications.

Just as I’ve relied on guide­books to nav­i­gate for­eign coun­tries, I’ve also turned to expert guid­ance for my Plan B Nation trav­els. While every jour­ney is unique, it helps to be pre­pared. In this spirit, here are five guide­books I rec­om­mend stash­ing away.

Find­ing Your Own North Star: Claim­ing the Life You Were Meant to Live, by Martha Beck (Crown 2001)

There’s lots to love about this book by Oprah dar­ling Martha Beck, which has the advan­tage of being super funny as well as super smart. Beck writes a lot about resolv­ing the con­flict between what she refers to as our social and essen­tial selves, but to my mind, the aspect of the book most use­ful to us Plan B Nation voy­agers is her elab­o­ra­tion of the so-called Change Cycle, a struc­ture that under­lies every life tran­si­tion. While Beck’s isn’t the first pop­u­lar book about adult life tran­si­tions — William Bridges’ mod­ern clas­sic Tran­si­tions came out in 1980 – I’ve found her model espe­cially help­ful and, even more, reassuring.

Nudge: Improv­ing Deci­sions About Health, Wealth, and Hap­pi­ness, by Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sun­stein (Yale 2008)

In this book, pro­fes­sors Thaler and Sun­stein – pio­neers in the field of behav­ioral eco­nom­ics – start with the idea that human beings are not ratio­nal. We make deci­sions for a whole bunch of rea­sons, many of which have lit­tle to do with our real best inter­ests. This is why we need to pay close atten­tion to the “choice archi­tec­ture” of our lives – the exter­nal con­di­tions that nudge us to behave in cer­tain ways. For exam­ple, if I don’t buy ice cream, the choice archi­tec­ture now in place makes it far less likely that I’ll  devour a pint of Ben & Jerry’s while watch­ing “The Bach­e­lorette.”  Make sense?  Like many pro­foundly impor­tant ideas, the con­cept of choice archi­tec­ture is at heart a sim­ple one, but pay­ing atten­tion to it day by day can be transformative.

Mind­set: The New Psy­chol­ogy of Suc­cess, by Carol S. Dweck (Ran­dom House 2007)

For those of us accus­tomed to a world where effort brings results, Plan B Nation can be enor­mously demor­al­iz­ing. How to sur­mount the dan­ger of learned help­less­ness, the ten­dency to give up when our best efforts fall short, some­times again and again?  I found part of the answer to this ques­tion in Stan­ford psy­chol­o­gist Dweck’s dis­tinc­tion between “fixed” and “growth” mind­sets.  As Dweck explains it, if we have a fixed mind­set, we tend to believe that our suc­cesses and fail­ures reflect some­thing absolute about who we are. On the other hand, if we have the health­ier “growth mind­set,” we are able to view chal­lenges as oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn, improve, and trans­form. “This is the mind­set that allows peo­ple to thrive dur­ing some of the most chal­leng­ing times in their lives,” says Dweck – under­scor­ing why it’s such a crit­i­cal asset in Plan B Nation.

Rad­i­cal Accep­tance, by Tara Brach (Ban­tam 2003)

If you want to drive your­self nuts, start think­ing about how things (most notably, your­self) should be dif­fer­ent from how they are. You should have made dif­fer­ent choices. You should have said dif­fer­ent things. You should have mar­ried (or not mar­ried) that guy/girl you didn’t (or did).  Brach’s Buddhist-infused psy­chol­ogy is a per­fect anti­dote to such self-imposed suf­fer­ing, offer­ing tech­niques for break­ing out of what she calls our “trance of unwor­thi­ness” in the con­text of illu­mi­nat­ing per­sonal sto­ries. “Rad­i­cal Accep­tance means bring­ing a clear, kind atten­tion to our capac­i­ties and lim­i­ta­tions with­out giv­ing our fear-based sto­ries the power to shut down our lives,” she writes. Over the years, I’ve rec­om­mended this book count­less times, and if you haven’t read it yet, you have a treat in store.

Work­ing Iden­tity: Uncon­ven­tional Strate­gies for Rein­vent­ing Your Career, by Her­minia Ibarra (Har­vard Busi­ness School 2003)

This is, with­out a doubt, my all-time favorite career book. Its mes­sage: The idea that you can (and should) fig­ure out what you want to do then sim­ply go out and do it is hog­wash.  Rather, research shows that suc­cess­ful mid-career chang­ers – the research demo­graphic that informs the book — live their way into new lives through a process of trial-and-error exper­i­men­ta­tion. Ibarra, a pro­fes­sor of orga­ni­za­tional behav­ior, illus­trates her points with com­pelling case stud­ies and con­cludes with a series of nine “uncon­ven­tional strate­gies” employed by suc­cess­ful career chang­ers. I go back to this book again and again and can’t rec­om­mend it more highly.

Do you have titles to add to this list?  Please share them in the com­ment section.

Extreme Adventure Travel in Plan B Nation

Photo: Aber­crom­bie & Kent

If you check out travel mag­a­zines, you’ll find an abun­dance of offer­ings for those seek­ing the ulti­mate chal­lenge. “An Extreme Adven­ture reveals exactly who you are, demand­ing the most of your phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and per­haps even spir­i­tual selves,” reads the copy on Aber­crom­bie & Kent’s Extreme Adven­tures site.

Just as rock climb­ing and white­wa­ter rapids test our abil­ity to nav­i­gate the out­side world, travel in Plan B Nation tests our inner resources. No, we don’t come away with gor­geous vaca­tion pho­tos or tales of exotic locales, but when the jour­ney is suc­cess­ful, it leaves us with some­thing more:  An appre­ci­a­tion for our strengths in the face of real-life adver­sity. You might say it’s the sort of jour­ney for which the oth­ers are preparation.

And yet, for all Plan B Nation has to teach us, it hardly has the cachet of a back­pack­ing trip in the High Sier­ras or a solo ocean voy­age. Why is it so hard to see its poten­tial gifts?

For one thing, it’s not some­thing we choose. We like to see our­selves as autonomous, mas­ters of our fate. Plan B Nation can be an unwel­come reminder that this isn’t always true.

For another, Plan B Nation is all-too-often linked in our minds to fail­ure. Those over-the-top vaca­tions?  In case you didn’t know, they cost lots of money – sim­ply embark­ing on one makes clear that you’re doing pretty well and your safety net is ample. Plan B Nation, on the other hand, tests that safety net. For observers, as well as us trav­el­ers, this can be pretty scary, espe­cially when you have no idea how long the risk will last.

But for all the obvi­ous dif­fer­ences, Plan B Nation con­tin­ues to be for me its own sort of adven­ture. It’s brought me amaz­ing trav­el­ing com­pan­ions whom I wouldn’t have oth­er­wise met, and the oppor­tu­nity to view vis­tas I wouldn’t have oth­er­wise seen. Like any adven­ture, it has its highs and lows. It also has its sto­ries, the ones that I’m telling here.

My SOBCon permission slip

A few weeks back, I was perus­ing upcom­ing con­fer­ences likely to expand my knowl­edge of all things blogging-related, when one in par­tic­u­lar caught my eye: The renowned SOB­Con would be tak­ing place in Port­land Ore­gon this fall.

An event that I’d long wanted to attend in a town I’d long wanted to visit.

How much more tempt­ing could this be? But could I jus­tify it?

I had no trou­ble com­ing up with rea­sons to take a pass: Who knew what my sched­ule would look like in Sep­tem­ber? What about the cost? Was I even far enough along with my ideas for the trip to be useful?

But while the cost-benefit analy­sis seemed any­thing but clear, I found myself recall­ing some words of advice from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man. In a career guide dubbed The Start-Up of You, Hoff­man pro­poses set­ting up an “Inter­est­ing Peo­ple” fund. The idea is to allo­cate a cer­tain amount of money each year to cul­ti­vat­ing rela­tion­ships. That way, when a great oppor­tu­nity comes along, you’re less likely to angst over whether to act on it. You’ve iden­ti­fied the pri­or­ity. You’ve already made the commitment.

Why is this so impor­tant? Because the more con­ver­sa­tions we have, the more peo­ple we meet, the more we expand our uni­verse of pos­si­bil­i­ties. “You won’t encounter acci­den­tal good for­tune – you won’t stum­ble upon oppor­tu­ni­ties that rocket your career for­ward – if you’re lying in bed,” Hoff­man and his co-author Ben Cas­nocha note. “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.”

Rock­et­ing images aside, this made total sense to me. My deci­sion sud­denly seemed far sim­pler. Reader, I registered.

Only some time later did it occur to me that I’d already known every­thing that Hoff­man was telling me. I’d even writ­ten about it more than once not too long ago – about the magic of cause and effect and erring towards con­nec­tion. It was then I real­ized that what I’d needed wasn’t guid­ance but a green light, per­mis­sion to ignore the voices of doubt  and do what I knew felt right.

Out of helplessness

give

I started this blog late last year to explore what I’ve taken to call­ing the Inside of the Down­turn – the psy­cho­log­i­cal impact of the Great Reces­sion and its after­math. Lots was being writ­ten about prac­ti­cal strate­gies for regroup­ing – how to retool your resume, develop a brand, do an effec­tive job search – but very lit­tle on the issue of how to hold steady in these tur­bu­lent times.

Or rather, much was being writ­ten, but lit­tle of it seemed use­ful. Stay opti­mistic! Be resilient!  Uh, sure. But how?

For answers, I turned to per­sonal sto­ries. That’s how I became a reg­u­lar reader of writer Brett Paesel’s Last of the Bohemi­ans. Both pro­foundly funny and pro­foundly wise, Pae­sel offers an object les­son in what it means to do the best you can at a time when the path ahead is any­thing but clear. One of the most valu­able qual­i­ties for Plan B Nation is equa­nim­ity. Here, Pae­sel talks about find­ing this bal­ance, its chal­lenges – and its gifts.   

by Brett Pae­sel

I have always been drawn to philoso­phies and spir­i­tual teach­ings that empha­size the impor­tance of bal­ance in our lives. Striv­ing for per­sonal equa­nim­ity makes per­fect sense to me. We should be indus­tri­ous, but also know when to relax. We should exer­cise our bod­ies as well as our minds. We should seek bal­ance between art and sci­ence, giv­ing and tak­ing, our heads and our hearts. The Aris­totelian ideal of find­ing the golden mean – the desir­able mid­dle between two extremes – is enor­mously com­pelling to me.

Because I’m lousy at it.

I can swing between moments of eupho­ria and total despon­dency within sec­onds. Just like my eight-year-old, Mur­phy. One minute he’s declar­ing that his new light-up YoYo is “the best inven­tion ever” and the next he’s crum­pled on the floor, the bro­ken toy in his hand, howl­ing, “Why? Why? Why?”

Yes, appar­ently I have the emo­tional matu­rity of an eight-year-old. A cou­ple of Christ­mases ago, my father asked the whole fam­ily to close our eyes and hold hands around the table while we lis­tened to a gor­geous aria that he loved. After a minute or two of rev­er­ent, head bow­ing around the pot roast, I got antsy and felt trapped. I started to gig­gle and then to sput­ter and cough when I tried to rein it in. After­wards, in the kitchen, my mother said through a clenched jaw that she wasn’t sur­prised at my behav­ior: “We all know what you’re like Brett.” And she was right. Every­one who knows me knows how hope­less I am at mar­shalling my emotions.

So how is it that some­one like me has made it through the last cou­ple of years?

After the eco­nomic crash, my husband’s and my income has dwin­dled down to a quar­ter of what it was. Which meant that we had to drain all of our accounts. We are in the process of declar­ing bank­ruptcy, los­ing our health insur­ance, and strug­gling daily to cre­ate a sense of nor­malcy for our two sons. Last sum­mer when the IRS put a lien on our check­ing account, freez­ing any remain­ing money we had, I screamed at my hus­band that I hated him and I wanted a divorce.

Our eco­nomic woes, by the way, are not solely his fault. We both have under-earned and mis­man­aged our money. But I don’t want to talk about eco­nomic fool­ish­ness right now. Even though I can. I’m an expert. What I want to talk about is help­less­ness – that feel­ing that we can­not con­trol any­thing, not even the basics, and that we can­not pre­vent a cat­a­stro­phe from slam­ming us into obliv­ion. How do you pre­vail over the debil­i­tat­ing feel­ing of help­less­ness? And if you’re some­one like me, who gets knocked around by their own emo­tions on a reg­u­lar day, how do you uncurl your­self from the metaphoric ball you have pulled your­self into under the covers?

First, you start at the bot­tom. Since you are there any­way. You remind your­self of what actu­ally DOES work in your life. You’re not going to divorce your hus­band because despite the stress of the past few years, he still makes you laugh, is a good kisser, and loves you even though he, like your mother, “knows what you’re like.” Your kids are healthy and happy. You enjoy your work (in this case, you’re a writer) and your friends still like you even though they, too, know what you’re like.

Once you’ve remem­bered that some of your life has worked out pretty damned nicely, you start to make choices. Because I have come to believe that the road from feel­ing help­less to resource­ful, even happy, is made one choice at a time.

When I found myself at my low­est point, I first had to choose to choose. You see, feel­ing help­less can be very com­fort­ing, even lux­u­ri­ous. After all, no one requires any­thing from some­one who is truly help­less. No one asks a new­born to make din­ner. There is an abdi­ca­tion of respon­si­bil­ity in adult help­less­ness that I found deeply attrac­tive and kind of sexy. At times, I had felt like the French Lieutenant’s woman, star­ing out to sea – the wind flap­ping my long cape around — wait­ing patiently, sex­ily, for some­one to save me.  Most of the time, how­ever, feel­ing help­less was sim­ply boring.

So, for me, there was a point when it became unten­able. Unsus­tain­able. And I didn’t have a long cape. What I did have were chil­dren who needed me and a mar­riage that required tend­ing. So the first choice I made was to actu­ally start mak­ing choices – which lead to choos­ing to eat bet­ter, exer­cise, and get more sleep. That made me feel a lit­tle more capa­ble, but not that much more. Because noth­ing had fun­da­men­tally shifted. My finan­cial sit­u­a­tion cer­tainly hadn’t. The only dif­fer­ence I could point to was being able to fit back into my skinny jeans.

It was clear that what needed to change was my mind­set. Surely, if I were a hap­pier, I would be more adept at han­dling life’s chal­lenges. So I started small and sim­ply. I decided to con­sciously fill my life with things that I enjoyed and I endeav­ored to let go of things that made me mis­er­able. Know­ing that on a prag­matic level, I couldn’t just let go of pay­ing bills, for exam­ple. Which def­i­nitely made me mis­er­able. But you get the point.

When I thought about what made me happy, the list was quite long and very doable. “Breath­ing” was at the top. I really like to breathe and so I decided to do a lot of breath­ing in pretty places. In fact, I decided to slow down in a num­ber of ways. Which may sound like help­less­ness, but is quite the oppo­site. This was not iner­tia, but focus. It was attention.

What, I won­der, are the lit­tle joys that you could dou­ble up on? Or triple up on?

As long as it’s not vodka. It might be worth considering.

Dur­ing this period of time, I also thought about joy­ful activ­i­ties that had some­how dropped away when I was pulled into the tide of help­less­ness. One of those had been read­ing nov­els. Some­where along the line, I had for­got­ten to read.

I also reclaimed the joy of cry­ing. In my dark­est days, I started to believe that if I cried, I might never stop. But you do stop. In fact, in my expe­ri­ence, you stop much faster if you fully invest. Once I started cry­ing again, I felt bet­ter. More con­nected and, strangely enough, more able to feel joy. Sounds a lot like bal­ance. (If you need more cry­ing in your life, I highly rec­om­mend see­ing bad roman­tic come­dies in the mid­dle of the day. Almost no one is in the the­ater and you can bawl your eyes out. Any­thing star­ring Drew Bar­ry­more or Sarah Jes­sica Parker will do the trick.)

And while you’re in the busi­ness of choos­ing to fill up on activ­i­ties that make you happy, you might choose to let go of some stuff too. I let go of a cou­ple of unsup­port­ive friend­ships, which was painful but nec­es­sary. But I also tried to let go of com­plain­ing and blam­ing. That was even harder. Because com­plain­ing can be fun and it’s a group sport.

And blam­ing had to go because blam­ing is the bat­tle song of helplessness.

Let me pause here to say that there were days when I was more suc­cess­ful at mak­ing these choices than oth­ers. But on the days when I slipped up, choos­ing to for­give myself was awfully powerful.

And here is an almost coun­ter­in­tu­itive choice that I made in the midst of mak­ing all kinds of choices: When I felt at my worst. When I was spent and felt that I had noth­ing left to give. I decided to give more.

A friend of mine is a run­ner and he once told me that when he feels tired and is con­vinced that he can’t go on, he runs harder. He runs faster. And it gives him more energy to fin­ish his run.

I believe that it’s the same with giv­ing. When you’ve got noth­ing, give more. It feels good. It con­nects you to the world. And you find that you have more than you thought you did. Call a friend who is hav­ing a hard time. Vol­un­teer. Help some­one carry their gro­ceries up the steps. Giv­ing made me feel resource­ful. Which is the oppo­site of helpless.

Your choices might be very dif­fer­ent than mine. I know that mine don’t tend to be prag­matic in a worldly sense. And, to that end, my out­ward cir­cum­stances haven’t shifted that dra­mat­i­cally. But I don’t feel help­less any­more. In fact, I feel quite capa­ble. And I cer­tainly feel more bal­anced than I have in the past – either in good times or in bad. Because mak­ing active choices means con­scious­ness. It means refus­ing to wait pas­sively for fate or an intem­per­ate god to put up a road­block or toss you a bone.

And what I have dis­cov­ered is that all of my choices fall under the umbrella of the big ques­tion I ask myself every morn­ing when I wake up.

Which is, “Am I going to keep lying here or am I going to get up and participate?”

Mary Oliver ends one of her famous poems like this:

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life some­thing par­tic­u­lar, and real

I don’t want to find myself sigh­ing and frightened

Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up sim­ply hav­ing vis­ited this world.

So for me, the choice – the big choice – is always whether to con­tinue lying on that bed or to get up and walk out the door. To be a part of the world and not just a visitor.

So far, the deci­sion has been easy. Eas­ier than I would have thought.

Brett Pae­sel is the author of the Los Ange­les Times best­seller Mom­mies Who Drink and the blog Last of the Bohemi­ans. Her work has appeared in numer­ous national pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing the New York Times and Salon. She also writes for television.

Note: This post first appeared on Last of the Bohemi­ans and is repub­lished with permission.

Turkish delight

What qual­i­ties are most help­ful in nav­i­gat­ing Plan B Nation?

Hav­ing given this ques­tion a lot of thought, I’ve con­cluded that one of the most impor­tant is a capac­ity for open­ness. By this I mean, an abil­ity to drop ideas of how life should be — to be open to the unex­pected gifts in unex­pected detours and derailments.

It wasn’t until Plan B Nation guest blog­ger Ellen Rabiner asked me to rec­i­p­ro­cate that I real­ized how much this insight owes to my time in Turkey. In a new guest post for Ellen in Turkey, I explain how this came to be.

All the time?

I once heard a story about a woman who met with the Dalai Lama and con­fided that she was deeply sad about not hav­ing chil­dren. He lis­tened intently then gen­tly responded: “All the time?

This exchange came back to me in recent days as I con­tinue to nav­i­gate one of my tougher stretches in Plan B Nation. The chal­lenge of find­ing a new home, an unset­tled work life, sum­mer heat – such things have me swamped in dis­cour­age­ment, uncer­tainty, and stress.

That’s why I’ve been re-upping my efforts to Take in the Good – to bring a focused atten­tion to all that is going right. This is a very dif­fer­ent thing from deny­ing life’s very real prob­lems. The lemons are def­i­nitely still there. But so is the lemonade.

A few nights back, I vis­ited a local swim­ming hole with my friend Becky, after which we  headed off for din­ner at Ashfield’s Coun­try Pie. I’d been hear­ing about this place for ages and was eager to try the pizza, but the hour-plus wait time quickly changed our plans. Grinders would be just 20 min­utes. We opted for those instead. From a stash of games, I picked up a Chi­nese check­ers board. Once we fig­ured out how to play, we whiled away the time while wait­ing, and I now remem­ber that inter­lude as the best part of the evening.

This morn­ing, I once again felt the weight of the world descend­ing, so I jumped in my car and made my way to the dreamy Mon­tague Book­mill. That’s where I am right now, camped out at the Lady Kil­li­grew Cafe with a bagel and cof­fee, lis­ten­ing to the rush­ing water below from my cor­ner win­dow seat.  Yes, there are things in my life that are hard, but this is also true.

There’s a rea­son to think this way. Focus­ing on the good things in life is a first-step towards cor­rect­ing for the brain’s “neg­a­tiv­ity bias,” which causes us to react more strongly to a neg­a­tive stim­u­lus than to an equally strong pos­i­tive one, says neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist Rick Han­son, author of Buddha’s Brain and Just One Thing. While this bias had its evo­lu­tion­ary uses – it kept our ances­tors from get­ting eaten – it also explains why we so often make our­selves need­lessly unhappy by end­lessly replay­ing our fears and fail­ures and dis­re­gard­ing successes.

The brain is like Vel­cro for neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences but Teflon for pos­i­tive ones, is how Han­son puts it. That’s why it’s so impor­tant to do our best to take in the good things that hap­pen. “By tilt­ing toward the good – toward that which brings more hap­pi­ness and ben­e­fit to one­self and oth­ers – you merely level the play­ing field,” Han­son writes in Just One Thing, which includes 52 prac­tices for enhanc­ing well-being by chang­ing the brain. (There’s a name for this: “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.”)

Lately, I’ve been return­ing to the pop­u­lar Three Good Things prac­tice – tak­ing time at the end of each day to write down three pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences from the past 24 hours. Over the years that I’ve played with this exer­cise, I’ve had mixed results. There are times it’s left me cold and seemed like a waste of time. But these days, it feels help­ful so I’m stick­ing with it for now. That’s the great thing about a toolkit. It gives you choices.

When I started this blog, I was com­mit­ted to being hon­est and authen­tic, but the more I look at my expe­ri­ence, the harder it is to grasp. Within a sin­gle expe­ri­ence, there are many truths: Yes, life is hard right now — but not all the time.

Stuck in a moment

Shortly after dis­cov­er­ing the won­der­ful Work Stew site, I read an essay by Tasha Hueb­ner that com­pletely wowed me. It was funny and smart and brave, as well as beau­ti­fully writ­ten, and at the time I remem­ber think­ing: “I’d like to know that girl.”

Flash for­ward another six months or so. Last week I saw that Tasha was among the win­ners of Work Stew’s essay con­test. No sur­prise there. Read­ing her new piece, I had the same reac­tion I did to the first, but this time, I acted on it. I sent her a Face­book mes­sage say­ing how much I admired her work and intro­duc­ing myself. What fol­lowed was a rapid-fire exchange, rang­ing from movies (Melan­cho­lia, The Pianist) to thoughts about resilience (Is it or not the same as adapt­abil­ity? My kind of question.) 

The con­nec­tion was yet another reminder of why I love blog­ging – because of the peo­ple it brings into my life and how it expands my hori­zons. In this spirit, I also love to share my favorite dis­cov­er­ies. I asked Tasha if she’d con­sider let­ting me post her orig­i­nal Work Stew piece here. Hap­pily for all of us, her answer was “absolutely.”  

Tasha Hueb­ner

by Tasha Hueb­ner

Damn, I was arrogant.

Hmph,” I smirked, even with a bit of an eye roll thrown in for good mea­sure. “I’ll never be one of those peo­ple try­ing to sell more corn­flakes, or—god forbid—figuring out what color hats the Kee­bler Elves should wear. I’m going to do some­thing a lit­tle more impor­tant than that.”

So, with Whar­ton MBA in hand, I set out to con­quer the world, self-styled Mas­ter of the Uni­verse that I was. And what kind of impor­tant things am I doing now? Let’s see. Today I was out at my gar­den plot fuss­ing over the tomato plants, because I’m hop­ing that later in the sum­mer I’ll have enough to sell and make at least a few hun­dred dol­lars. Had lunch with my mom, which she paid for. Sent an email to a per­son I write blog arti­cles for on var­i­ous top­ics, for a miserly amount of money, telling her that sure, I’d be happy to write arti­cles for a strip­per recruit­ing blog—why the hell not?

Strip­per articles.

When you grad­u­ate from busi­ness school, you are led to believe that strik­ing out on your own—because you’re so damn bril­liant and all—is a great idea, just won­der­ful. You may not expect to hit it big, as in hawking-schlock-sold-expensively-on-QVC-big, but you do feel con­fi­dent that you’ll at least get by.

But then some­thing like, say, The Can­cer comes knock­ing at your door. No, for­get knocking—the rude bas­tard comes bar­rel­ing in guns a’blazing, tak­ing no pris­on­ers, leav­ing you shell-shocked and stunned, because seri­ously, WTF is this? You have no fam­ily his­tory of can­cer, you’ve always been healthy to a fault, you’re train­ing for your sec­ond IRONMAN, for chris­sake, so really, WTH? Then if you have the really shitty luck, like some of us (ahem), a month later you’ll still be train­ing for said Iron­man, and will get into a bad bike crash going down­hill at 40 mph that will leave you with a severely bro­ken col­lar­bone, bleed­ing on the brain, no mem­ory of the crash or the three days in the hos­pi­tal, and oh yeah, that pesky can­cer that still needs to be taken care of.

And mean­while, back at the ranch, because you’re sin­gle and self-employed, you have no income any­more because you’re in a cancer-treatment and brain-injury fog, and while you do have health insur­ance (whew!), you dis­cover that insur­ance com­pa­nies are evil bas­tards who MSU (=Make Shit Up) in order to get out of pay­ing your bills. So you come home one day, exhausted in your 6th week of daily radi­a­tion treat­ment, and burst into tears when you get yet another bill from Blue­Cross­BlueShield say­ing that they’re not going to pay $5K of your surgery because there was “an extra nurse in the room.”

Even I don’t have the cre­ative cojones to make this stuff up.

And at the same time that your life is being totally derailed by The Can­cer, you have peo­ple help­fully telling you about all the lessons you should be learn­ing from this “jour­ney.” Life is short! Seize the day! Live every day as if it were your last!

First of all, if I lived every day as if it were my last, well, let’s just say that there’s a level of rapa­cious bonbon-eating there that even I don’t care to con­tem­plate. Sec­ond, and more impor­tantly, I would love to “seize the day” and do all the things I’ve ever dreamed of. Visit Mon­go­lia! White water raft­ing again in Costa Rica! Vis­it­ing my Can­cer­Chick friends, the group of women who live across the U.S. that I’ve come to know and love as we together deal with the shit­can that is can­cer at a young age!

There’s one prob­lem with this, and for­give me for stat­ing the obvi­ous here, but: this costs money. I know, shock­ing! But true. And to a per­son, my Can­cer­Chicks and I, we’re po.’ The mar­ried ones have a bit more lee­way, but if you’re sin­gle? For­get it. Sin­gle and self-employed? Dou­bly for­get it. Do we want to work? Hell yes. I’d like to be able to pay my bills with­out con­tem­plat­ing how much I could get if I gave blood on a reg­u­lar basis. Yet for some rea­son, in spite of my Whar­ton MBA, my fan-fucking-tastic resume (every­one tells me this) (though okay, I admit I’ve para­phrased slightly), the fact that I’m really good at what I do (shame­less plug: mar­ket­ing, communications/writing), I have yet to find work, even project work.

So while I’d like to report that as some­one with The Can­cer who real­izes full well the impor­tance of embrac­ing all that life has to offer, that I’m doing so every sin­gle day—the truth is that I can’t quite fig­ure out how to spend every day in some whirl­wind of fan­dango fun and excite­ment, because real­ity kind of gets in the way. Those pesky bills. The minu­tiae that make it hard for me to move boldly for­ward into my post-Cancer life. This is true for every­one I know who has this dis­ease that’s deter­mined to kill us.

The other bit of advice that peo­ple like to share with you, whether you have The Can­cer or not, is this: do what you love to do—the money will follow.

This, my friends, is a bold bit of com­plete and utter horseshit.

Me, what I love to do is write. I have a blog that’s sweep­ing the nation (You’ll laugh! Cry! Rally to laugh again!), that I make absolutely no money from. (Note to IRS: no money what­so­ever.) I’ve been work­ing on a book, but in the mean­time I need to be able to pay my bills, so the book often has to go by the way­side. Such is life. Work­ing as a strat­egy con­sul­tant post-Wharton, that brought in a decent amount of money. The writ­ing, the acer­bic wit, the pan­der­ing to the eigh­teens of blog read­ers who hang onto my every word? Not so much.

So what are our key take­aways here? I think they’d be along these lines:

  1. Don’t get The Can­cer. If it offers to latch onto your life, just say hey, no thanks, I’m kinda busy now
  2. But if you do, make sure you’re part of a two-income house­hold, or inde­pen­dently wealthy, because…
  3. (to para­phrase George Bailey)…money comes in pretty handy down here, bub.
  4. If you’re the quin­tes­sen­tial Schleprock like I am, don’t fol­low your dreams. Stick with the well-paying cor­po­rate gig; do what you love to do in your spare time. Trust me on this.
  5. Real­ize that if you have the afore­men­tioned crap luck, it makes for some fan­tas­tic writ­ing on the blog. Hey, lemons, lemon­ade, mar­gar­i­tas, go with it.
  6. And if you look at the shell cas­ings sur­round­ing the destruc­tion of your for­merly orderly and log­i­cal life and are com­pletely baf­fled as to how you wound up here, it’s impor­tant to real­ize that it’s not all bad, that there are always patches of sun­shine hid­den among the shadows.

And if I at times sound a bit bit­ter, well, that’s only par­tially true. I’m not bit­ter about The Can­cer, because quite frankly, shit hap­pens. Not bit­ter about the bike crash/brain injury, because that ele­vated things to an almost sub­lime level of absur­dity that holds up well in the retelling.

What I AM bit­ter about—or per­haps dumb­founded is a bet­ter word—is the fact that I have a Whar­ton MBA, for god’s sake, yet am will­ing to write strip­per sto­ries for a tiny bit of cash, as I lay awake at night won­der­ing how I’ll pay my bills. Whar­ton! MBA! Amaz­ing resume and expe­ri­ence! Bril­liance all in one neat lit­tle pack­age! The mind reels.

I’m bit­ter that tomor­row when I go for my 6-month checkup with my oncol­o­gist, the one whose mantra is “no scans with­out symp­toms,” I’m not going to try to con­vince her that I should be scanned at least once. Because if they do find a recur­rence or advance­ment, I can’t afford to treat it. “Thanks, doc, but I’ll pass on more of The Can­cer today—it’s just not in my bud­get right now.”

I’m bit­ter about the fact that I’m being audited by the IRS, because the brain trust over there flagged my returns when I had a sud­den drop in income and, oh, huge med­ical bills! Lawsy me, what ever could be the connection?

I’m slightly bit­ter about the fact that The Can­cer will be back at some point, because the stats for young women with stage II breast can­cer basi­cally suck. I wish I could be earn­ing money so that I could in fact be doing the carpe diem-ing I’d like to do in what­ever time I have left. But I can’t.

I’m very bit­ter about the fact that my fel­low Can­cer­Chicks, who I love dearly and would do any­thing for, are all deal­ing with this same shit. And the bit­ter­ness becomes black indeed when I think about the lie per­pet­u­ated on us all: that breast can­cer is so cur­able, which is total hog­wash, espe­cially for young women. Hell, it’s barely treat­able, based on the fact that seven or eight of my friends in just the last week have either found out that they’re now stage 4, or have taken a turn for the worse because their treat­ments are no longer working.

Cur­able, my ass.

And yet, in spite of the fact that my life is a total sham­bles, I have amaz­ing women in my life because of The Can­cer, and I wouldn’t give up those friend­ships for any­thing in the world. Not for all the tea in China, not all the pots of gold in existence.

So to sum up: Money = good. Jobs = good. Can­cer = bad. If you mea­sure suc­cess by the amount of money one has accrued, then clearly I’m the least suc­cess­ful per­son from my grad­u­at­ing class at Whar­ton. A wash-up. A failure.

If you mea­sure it in friendship—I’m the rich­est woman in the world.

Note: This piece first appeared on Work Stew, and I’m grate­ful to Kate Gace Wal­ton for her will­ing­ness to share it.