Metrics to the rescue

My Plan B Nation tool kit holds a col­lec­tion of strate­gies, and choos­ing the right one for the chal­lenge at hand turns out to be really impor­tant. You don’t pick up a ham­mer when you need to cut a piece of wood, and I’m find­ing that my Plan B Nation tools have equally spe­cific uses.

Met­rics are a great exam­ple — and by met­rics I mean clearly estab­lished quan­tifi­able goals. This is how I got two nov­els writ­ten, by hold­ing myself to the writ­ing goal of 500 words a day. Some days I wrote more. Some days I didn’t write at all. But even on the days when work didn’t get done, I knew that the goal was there, and that made all the difference.

Because met­rics have been so use­ful to me over so many years, I’ve tended to rely on them a lot — to my mind, a lit­tle too much. On the upside, met­rics are great (for me) for get­ting things done. On the down­side (for me), they can also lead to a task-focused sort of grim­ness — where the only thing that mat­ters is for­ward motion, not how I feel in the mov­ing. Since I really value light­ness and play, this can be a prob­lem. That’s why I’ve been try­ing out dif­fer­ent tools, espe­cially bread­crumbs.

That said, there are times when met­rics are just the ticket, and now is one of those times. Yes­ter­day I talked about being in a bit of a sum­mer slump. Projects that just days ago filled me with zest now fail to spark my inter­est. Noth­ing really feels worth the effort. Every­thing feels impos­si­bly large, not to men­tion thankless.

It came at me out of the blue, this feel­ing, and I can’t entirely explain it. But regard­less, this is where I am. This is what I have to work with.

Here’s why met­rics are great (for me) at times like this:

1. They take the focus off how I feel and put it on con­crete actions.

2. They encour­age me to break up ambi­tious projects into small pieces, which are far less likely to feel over­whelm­ing. They offer a way in.

3. They tie suc­cess to some­thing within my con­trol — to actions, not outcomes.

Right now, I’m work­ing with two met­rics — you might call them micro and macro.

The first one: 5 things a day.  What this means is that, every day, I take five con­crete steps for­ward (which, as always, I track in my desk diary). Today, one of these is writ­ing this blog post. Another will be get­ting exer­cise — a walk or maybe yoga. The ratio­nale: I know from expe­ri­ence that if I just keep this up things will even­tu­ally shift. For me, this is what faith is — a belief in cause and effect borne out by experience.

The sec­ond: 100 pitches. (In case you didn’t guess, this would be the macro.)  Look­ing for work is really tir­ing, the more so, the longer you do it. Using this met­ric feels like a way to turn it into a game, to imbue it with the qual­i­ties of curios­ity, play, and fun. What is a pitch exactly? That’s up to me. Reach­ing out to a poten­tial client, draft­ing a mag­a­zine query — these are two exam­ples, but I’m sure I’ll come up with more.

But even as I take up the met­rics tool, I’m also aware of its lim­its. For me, it’s always the means to a goal, not the goal in itself. I think of met­rics as the propul­sive push a plane needs for liftoff. Once you’re air­borne the job is done. Met­rics fall away.

The “P” word in Plan B Nation

While I’m not really a reli­gious per­son, I’ve always been fas­ci­nated by reli­gious beliefs. As a child, I once spent a good part of a slum­ber party por­ing over Time-Life’s The Worlds Great Reli­gions with a like-minded peer. (Hello Katie Plimp­ton!) At dif­fer­ent points, I yearned to be both a Roman Catholic and a Mor­mon, faiths that fired my imag­i­na­tion far more than my family’s easy ecumenicism.

When my mother refused to buy me a rosary, I was not to be dis­suaded: I made one for myself out of a stash of Camp­fire Girl beads and set up an altar on a foot­stool posi­tioned in front of my bed­room window.

A flir­ta­tion with evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­ity was intense if short-lived. Aside from the late-night revival that I barely made it through, what I most remem­ber is the fact that the neigh­bors who took me had a dad who sold snack foods. I was thrilled to be the recip­i­ent of one of his cor­po­rate give-aways: A pressed felt hat topped with a tin inset filled with dirt and seed. You watered your hat and waited for grass to sprout from the crown.

All of which is a round­about way of explain­ing how I’ve come to be at a Catholic retreat house some­time in 1990s. It was there that I acquired a small unpre­pos­sess­ing pam­phlet of prayers that I’ve had ever since.

In my con­tin­ued jour­ney as a spir­i­tual eclec­tic, I’ve thought a lot about prayer. In par­tic­u­lar, I’ve pon­dered how I can take com­fort (as I do) in words that I don’t tech­ni­cally “believe.” My all-time favorite answer came from an Epis­co­pal priest at a church I fre­quented some years back, when I asked her how I could in good con­science repeat the (gor­geous, sooth­ing, mes­mer­iz­ing) Nicene Creed.

Her response: When we say “We believe”—which is how the Creed begins—it sim­ply means that this belief is held some­where within the body of the Church. Maybe I don’t believe this. But some­one does.

Some—perhaps you, dear reader—will find this disin­gen­u­ous. I, on the other hand, found it deeply sat­is­fy­ing. It appealed to the parts of me that had stud­ied lit­er­a­ture in col­lege and later learned to parse the Fed­eral Rules of Civil Procedure.

Which brings me back to the pam­phlet. Among its con­tents is a prose poem of a prayer that has meant a lot to me over the years. Penned by Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin, a French philoso­pher and Jesuit priest, it speaks to the cul­ti­va­tion of patience dur­ing times of dark­ness and uncer­tainty. In that way, it strikes me as pretty much the per­fect Plan B Nation com­pan­ion. Over the years, I’ve shared it with many friends, and now (in the spirit of all the above) I’d like to share it with you.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are all, quite nat­u­rally,
impa­tient in every­thing to reach the end
with­out delay.

We should like to skip
the inter­me­di­ate stages;
we are impa­tient of being
on the way to some­thing unknown,
some­thing new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that is made by pass­ing through
some stages of insta­bil­ity…
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature grad­u­ally –
let them grow.
Let them shape them­selves,
with­out undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
cir­cum­stances act­ing on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
grad­u­ally form­ing within you will be.
Give our Lord the ben­e­fit of believ­ing
that his hand is lead­ing you
and accept the anx­i­ety of
feel­ing your­self in sus­pense and incomplete.

Plan B Nation on NPR! (plus a few thoughts on faith)

NPR Sign

Plan B Nation is end­ing the year on a high note, hav­ing been fea­tured in a ter­rific report by Karen Brown on New Eng­land NPR. You can lis­ten, here. (My writer friend Naomi Shul­man, also fea­tured in the seg­ment, tells me the story begins at the 7:25 mark. If you’re not sure what that means—I I wasn’t—try start­ing about halfway through.)

[12/3/12 update: there is now a sep­a­rate audio link for this report.]

As I lis­tened to WFCR this morn­ing, I mar­veled once again at how quickly things can change. I launched this blog just last month—November 13, to be exact. Since then, I’ve pub­lished more than 20 posts and con­nected with dozens of amaz­ing read­ers from all over the coun­try.  I’ve also picked up a bunch of free­lance work, started draw­ing up a busi­ness plan, and—for the first time in quite a while—been feel­ing pretty optimistic.

If you’d described this state of affairs to me two months ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.  In fact, as I’ve writ­ten before, I almost didn’t start this blog.  I was at the point where it was hard to believe that any­thing I tried would pan out.  To put it diplo­mat­i­cally, I was feel­ing slug­gish. Psy­chol­o­gists call this “learned help­less­ness,” this much I knew. But while I was clear on the diag­no­sis, I was clue­less as to the cure.

I’ve writ­ten a good bit about tran­si­tions lately—about why they (always) suck and also about key points to keep in mind while wrestling with change—but I failed to men­tion that they rarely pro­ceed at a steady pace.  We work and work for what seems like for­ever with no appar­ent result.  And then one day, for no appar­ent rea­son, every­thing seems to shift.

I’ve seen this in my own life again and again. And I was reminded of it the other day when I spoke with a lovely friend who had been wag­ing a lengthy and dev­as­tat­ing strug­gle with Lyme dis­ease. She’d fol­lowed doctor’s instruc­tions for months, to no obvi­ous effect. Then she woke up one morn­ing to find that the pain had dis­ap­peared overnight.

In the same vein, in my own (and still ongo­ing) tran­si­tion, I’d been doggedly plug­ging ahead for more than two years, with­out sens­ing much progress. I’d given up keep­ing count of the num­ber of jobs I’d applied for. And while I got the occa­sional free­lance project, they were few and far between. Then, out of the blue, things started to click.

In this way, change often feels more like a quan­tum leap than like a steady climb, as if we’ve trav­eled from point X to point Y with­out pass­ing through the points in between. We may won­der why things took so long if all we had to do was this.  (The answer: Because that’s just how tran­si­tions seem to work.)

For me, this is where faith comes in. And by that, I don’t mean some abstract meta­phys­i­cal belief—I’m not some­one who believes that Things Work Out For The Best or Every­thing Hap­pens For A Rea­son. (In fact, I’m the sort of per­son who responds to such claims by instantly invok­ing the Holo­caust or geno­cide in Rwanda.)  But I do believe in cause and effect—the power of our actions. I have faith that if we keep tak­ing small steps, our lives are going to change.