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.

© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “5 great guidebooks for Plan B Nation

  1. Hello, I am a lawyer who returned to graduate school and obtained a degree and licensure in mental health counseling. I offer mental health counseling to people experiencing grief and other life transitions, including lawyers.

    Here are some additional book suggestions for transitions:
    – Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life, by Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan

    – any of the books on transitions by William Bridges

  2. Detractors of ‘Working Identity’ on Amazon say that Ibarra’s primary advice is “take a sabbatical.” They point out that for many people, and many reasons, that is just not an option. How to live into a new life when the current one has you pretty well pinned down is a fair question. Thoughts?

    • That’s so strange, Matthew — I don’t remember anything along those lines, and I’m generally pretty sensitive to such things. Not to say it isn’t there, but it’s certainly not what’s stayed with me (& much has). I’d really urge you to give it a shot–and let me know what you think. I’m curious!
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  3. “Nudge” took me longer to read that is reasonable for a book of its length or the clear style it is written in. I mean, such a simply written text of 250 pages ought to have finished in no time. The problem was that I don’t live in the US and so many of the examples made the book a struggle for me. All the same, there are ideas in this book that are important no matter where you live.
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  4. I recently read Mindset. It was a real eye-opener for me. Succeed, by Heidi Grant Halvorsen, a former student of Carol Dweck’s, has also been illuminating–talking about setting goals, our unconscious motivations and how to work with them. She takes Mindset and parses it. I’ll have to check out the others on your list.
    Hope recently posted…Highly Effective To The EndMy Profile

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