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.