Life isn’t always the best. But it can be better.

keep cool on the swimming pool

A friend’s highly dis­crim­i­nat­ing child wrote home from camp: “The swim­ming here is not the best.”

That’s pretty much the review I’d give this entire summer—not that it’s the summer’s fault. We’ve been slammed with dead­lines at work, and my one week out of the office in June feels like a life­time ago. I’m still up in the air about whether I’m going to move apart­ments. (On the pro side, this build­ing is sort of a wreck. On the con side, I’m liv­ing here now.)  A sul­try two-week heat wave prac­ti­cally did me in.

At such times of feel­ing not the best, I often find myself cast­ing about for new perspectives—ways of think­ing about my life that inspire and recharge me. Here are four that have recently cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion. I’m plan­ning to spend more time with them. Per­haps some of you will join me.

1. Clar­ify your val­ues, don’t focus on goals.

Read­ing these words I had a bit of an ah hah moment. I am really really good at meet­ing goals, but more and more, I’m find­ing that the reward often doesn’t match the effort. What would hap­pen if I shifted the focus to my val­ues? This sug­ges­tion comes via George Mason psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Todd B. Kash­dan, whose “Your First Step Down a Pur­pose­ful Path” graphic is now mak­ing the Inter­net rounds.“Make up a declar­a­tive list of what’s impor­tant to you” is what Kash­dan coun­sels. In any case, it’s bound to be inter­est­ing. I’ll let you know.

2.   What part of your life is unlived?

This is the ques­tion at the heart of Liv­ing Your Unlived Life, by Jun­gian ana­lyst Robert A. John­son, who views liv­ing out the answer as “the most impor­tant task of our mature years.” In par­tic­u­lar, he asks us to con­sider “What is unlived yet still has some urgency within you?” I’m intrigued by this ques­tion, by what amounts to an invi­ta­tion to eval­u­ate exist­ing goals in a new and larger context.

We all carry with us a vast inven­tory of aban­doned, unre­al­ized and under­de­vel­oped tal­ents and poten­tials,” John­son writes. “Even if you have achieved your major goals and seem­ingly have few regrets, there still are sig­nif­i­cant life expe­ri­ences that have been closed to you.… Of course no one can live out all of life’s pos­si­bil­i­ties, but there are key aspects of your being that must be brought into your life or you will never real­ize your fulfillment.”

3.  Move towards plea­sure. Now.  

This is the mes­sage my life coach friend Max Daniels gives her clients. Instead of wait­ing until we “deserve” the trip to Port­land or Ams­ter­dam or what­ever that thing is we yearn for—or until the per­fect con­di­tions fall mirac­u­lously into place—she encour­ages us to take action now. What espe­cially intrigues me is her idea that, in tak­ing these steps in the present moment, we in essence move closer to being the per­son we want to be. Do I believe this? I’m not entirely sure. But she doesn’t ask me to. She sug­gests that I col­lect my own evidence—which is what I’m plan­ning to do.

4. What are you look­ing for­ward to?

From my busy sum­mer, I am mov­ing into an even more busy fall, and at times I can feel like my friend’s three-year-old who, informed that she couldn’t wear her sun­dress in Jan­u­ary, hurled her­self onto her bed with the cry: “I’ll never be happy again!” That’s when this ques­tion comes in handy. Because right at this very moment, I can think of a num­ber of things com­ing up to which I’m look­ing for­ward. Yoga and brunch with fel­low west­ern Mass ex-pat Molly tomor­row. Din­ner next week with Meta and (maybe) Delia. Meet­ing vir­tual writer friends Trish and Dorie in real life (that’s irl, to the cyber-centric) early next month. And those are just the things that come to mind in 30 sec­onds. Tak­ing time to reg­u­larly ask myself this ques­tion is a way of bal­anc­ing out my ten­dency to focus on the hard stuff.  It doesn’t make it go away, but it puts things into perspective.

5. Take stock of how you rocked

Take my advice—I’m not using it! This quip came to mind yes­ter­day as I read Trish’s post inspired by one of mine about tak­ing stock of all we’ve accom­plished in the pre­vi­ous year at times when it feels like that list is mighty pal­try. You know what? It never is, as I was (once again) hap­pily reminded. Next month will mark a year since I moved back to Boston, which seems like a per­fect moment to give this lit­tle exer­cise another whirl.

* * *

And now: Your turn. Do you have a ques­tion or strat­egy that helps move you for­ward ? If so, I’d love to hear it.

What is Sheryl Sandberg trying to say?

Sheryl SandbergSome of the ear­li­est cri­tiques of the cri­tiques of Lean In, Face­book COO Sheryl Sandberg’s con­tro­ver­sial fem­i­nist manifesto-cum-rallying cry, com­plained that few of its hos­tile crit­ics had actu­ally read the book.

Well, reader, I have now read it.  And here’s my bot­tom line:  It’s a book that is fun­da­men­tally con­fused about what it wants to say.

Let’s start with the title. When we say “lean in,” what do we mean? As best I can deci­pher it, the answer is: It depends.

On the one hand, Lean In is a clar­ion call to a very spe­cific set of bar­ri­cades, urg­ing women to aspire to the high­est pin­na­cles of cor­po­rate and polit­i­cal life. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our coun­tries and com­pa­nies and men ran half our homes,” Sand­berg writes in the introduction.

On the other, the book pur­ports to be address­ing Every­woman. “I am writ­ing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of mak­ing it to the top of her field or pur­sue any goal vig­or­ously,” Sand­berg writes in that same intro­duc­tion. “This includes women at all stages of their lives and careers, from those who are just start­ing out to those who are tak­ing a break and may want to jump back in .… This book makes the case for lean­ing in, for being ambi­tious, in any pursuit.”

I’m not buy­ing it.

One big hint as to the highly tar­geted agenda that lurks beneath this talk of inclu­sion is Sandberg’s sta­tis­ti­cal back­drop. Her claim that women “have ceased mak­ing real progress at the top of any industry”—an asser­tion that essen­tially frames every­thing that follows—draws its sup­port­ing data from only two realms: For­tune 500 com­pa­nies and national pol­i­tics. Among the roles ignored in this data cap­ture: Uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents, law firm part­ners, invest­ment bankers, fed­eral judges, jour­nal­ists and authors, film pro­duc­ers, med­ical doc­tors, tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tors, entre­pre­neurs, and non-profit leaders.

Per­haps the odd­est thing about the sta­tis­ti­cal frame is the fact that most of the female lead­ers about whom Sand­berg writes so admir­ingly them­selves fail to reg­is­ter on this screen. Fem­i­nist icon Glo­ria Steinem is invis­i­ble. So are White House Project founder Marie Wil­son, Barnard Pres­i­dent Deb­ora Spar, Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan Pres­i­dent Mary Sue Cole­man, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, and Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion Pres­i­dent Judith Rodin. (And beyond the book, to name just a few, we have the three female U.S. Supreme Court Justices—Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Gins­burg, and Sonia Sotomayor; Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Drew Gilpin Faust (in fact, half of the eight Ivy League schools now have women pres­i­dents); WHO Direc­tor Gen­eral Mar­garet Chan; and Hillary Clinton—who would have made the cut dur­ing her time in the U.S. Sen­ate but been dropped from Sandberg’s lead­er­ship stats dur­ing her years as Sec­re­tary of State.)

By none of this do I mean to sug­gest that women don’t face enor­mous obsta­cles on myr­iad pro­fes­sional fronts—or that the world would not be well served by hav­ing far more women in influ­en­tial, high-profile posi­tions. Rather, I’m balk­ing at what strikes me as a con­stricted and restric­tive notion of lead­er­ship. I’m uncom­fort­able with the word “lead­er­ship” being invoked as proxy for “lead­er­ship of a For­tune 500 com­pany” or “lead­ing a nation,” with the implicit assump­tion that this is “real” lead­er­ship, lead­er­ship in its purest, most sig­nif­i­cant incar­na­tion. And, as I’ve writ­ten before, I’m uncom­fort­able with the notion that the most lucra­tive and pow­er­ful posi­tions are nec­es­sar­ily the most valu­able uses for 21st-century tal­ent and passion.

That said, for all my issues with the book, there was much about it I liked. I often found myself writ­ing “Yes!” in the mar­gins or under­lin­ing a point to refer back to later.  Sand­berg is engag­ing and like­able, and in the course of read­ing, I came up with a the­ory: In the begin­ning, she envi­sioned writ­ing a book for younger ver­sions of her­self, “high poten­tial” aspi­rants on the busi­ness fast track. But from her publisher’s per­spec­tive, the book needed to be far larger—bestsellers aren’t writ­ten to niche mar­kets, and this needed to be a best­seller. This would go far towards explain­ing the book’s schiz­o­phrenic nature—its bounc­ing back and forth between the notion that lead­er­ship means look­ing like Sheryl Sand­berg, and the idea that it could equally well mean look­ing like Sheryl Sandberg’s mother—a school­teacher who turned down the oppor­tu­nity to become a school admin­is­tra­tor because she wanted to stay in the class­room. (“My mother has leaned in her entire life …  . She has always con­tributed to her com­mu­nity and the world. She is my inspi­ra­tion,” Sand­berg writes in what was for me a whiplash-inducing conclusion.)

In a grad­u­a­tion speech at Barnard that con­tained the seeds of Lean In, Sand­berg exhorted young women to “Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top”—“to lean into your career and run the world.” Recall­ing this speech, she rhetor­i­cally asks: “If we can’t tell women to aim high at a col­lege grad­u­a­tion, when can we?”

When can we? Well, if you’re ask­ing me, I’d say the answer is Never.

The goal shouldn’t be to impose our own choices or strategies—to decide what suc­cess and hap­pi­ness look like—but rather to fos­ter the capac­ity to look within, to iden­tify a uniquely per­sonal vision of what it means to lead. For some, it will look like being COO of Face­book. For many—probably most—I sus­pect it will look quite dif­fer­ent indeed.

Why Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point

Sheryl SandbergThe offi­cial pub­li­ca­tion date for Lean In is still a day off, but as the Sheryl Sand­berg tsunami approaches land­fall, its his­toric scope and impact are read­ily apparent.

Like any self-respecting trea­tise in the Inter­net age, Sandberg’s opus—currently  #1 on—has spawned wave upon wave of impas­sioned com­men­tary, crash­ing ashore in pre­dictable stages. First comes the announce­ment, then the cri­tique, then the back­lash against the cri­tique, then the meta con­ver­sa­tion about the con­ver­sa­tion. (For the record—and likely due to time con­straints and a prob­lem­atic Face­book habit–my own con­tri­bu­tions tend to come towards the end of this cycle.)

My ini­tial plan to track Super­storm Sheryl quickly fell by the wayside—there was sim­ply too much com­ing in too fast for me to absorb (at least absent a deci­sion to lean out of my full-time job). That said, I’ve been pay­ing atten­tion and read­ing quite a bit. And more and more, I find myself stuck on a sin­gle ques­tion: Why aren’t we just tak­ing what we can use and for­get­ting about the rest?

A some­what baf­fled Paul Krug­man seemed to say as much this morn­ing on ABC’s This Week: Of course, Sandberg’s pre­scrip­tion is not for every­one. It seems to be quite help­ful for some. What is the big deal?

So what is the big deal? (Because, clearly, there is one.)

The more I think about it, the more I sus­pect that some of the debate’s feroc­ity stems from an atavis­tic faith in the myth of the Right Answer. Many of us, me included, grew up in an era where female ambi­tion often found its out­let in efforts to be the Good Girl, to ful­fill goals set by oth­ers, not to define our own. The suc­cess­ful Good Girl’s stock in trade was her ready store of right answers. Not right for her, but right period. She cul­ti­vated excel­lent lis­ten­ing skills and became a world-class mimic.  In return, she got gold stars and As. She did not get raped or killed.

Put dif­fer­ently, per­haps one of the rea­sons we care so des­per­ately about what Sand­berg thinks is because we are aren’t entirely clear what we think our­selves. We latch on to her ideas—or, alter­nately, lash out against them—because we don’t see (or aren’t com­fort­able with) other more nuanced options. This shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing. We live in an age when the com­pet­ing voices are loud and many—and often far out­strip our capac­ity to choose among them or shape our own course. (Intrigu­ingly, even Sand­berg her­self sounds famil­iar with the dilemma: “Every woman I know feels guilty about the choices they’ve made,” she told 60 Min­utes this evening.) We are, in the words of Harvard’s Robert Kegan–who put forth this the­ory in a book of the same name–“in over our heads.” (N.B. This is a prob­lem not just for women but for pretty much every­one.  Another place it’s espe­cially visible–and anxiety-provoking–is, as I wrote here, around career choices in the after­math of the Great Recession.)

But there’s another rea­son that it’s a big deal, and it’s an impor­tant one: The dan­ger that a vision intended to inspire could become an oppres­sive cud­gel. The dan­ger that women already struggling–and they are infi­nitely more numer­ous than Sand­berg and her black swan peers–will be told that, if they’d just lean in more, Presto!, prob­lems solved. Not that anyone’s likely to say this in so many words, or that it’s what Sand­berg intended. But these things have a way of seep­ing in. The process is grad­ual. That Sand­berg and other uber achiev­ers have become the most vis­i­ble faces of women’s work­place issues is, as Car­olyn Edgar com­pellingly writes, both absurd and disturbing.

Late last month, the ever-thoughtful Kate Gace Wal­ton, who runs the blog Work Stew, mused that Sandberg’s choices would never be her own. “For me per­son­ally, a book that would res­onate more might be called ‘Lean In, Gasp with Hor­ror, and Run the Other Way,’” she quipped. At the same time, she took the oppor­tu­nity to take the con­ver­sa­tion deeper—to ask friends and read­ers how they’d responded, what was true for them: “What path makes sense for you, and what changes (in your­self, and in soci­ety) need to hap­pen to make that pos­si­ble?” she wrote on Facebook.

This is another kind of lean­ing in that I think we could use more of—a lean­ing into our own lives, to our own val­ues and needs. How do we decide whose advice to fol­low? Where do we look for guid­ance? Here, Sheryl Sand­berg is beside the point. We can only look to ourselves.

3 themes for 2013

Just because I don’t make New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions doesn’t mean I let the years come and go unac­knowl­edged. To the con­trary, I love this time of tak­ing stock – espe­cially the part where I remind myself of every­thing I’ve got­ten done over the past 12 months. (I’ve always been sur­prised by just how much there is, espe­cially dur­ing these obstacle-strewn Plan B Nation years.)

I also look ahead, but instead of mak­ing res­o­lu­tions, I tend to reflect on themes – points of ori­en­ta­tion rather than des­ti­na­tions. This year, over the past few weeks, I’ve set­tled on three.

The Year of Con­nect­ing – and Re-connecting

I can’t imag­ine hav­ing got­ten through the past few years with­out my friends, old and new, vir­tual and real-life. This year, I look for­ward to expand­ing on this rich­ness, reach­ing out to peo­ple I’d love to meet and strength­en­ing exist­ing ties.

For me, this will be what Tara Sophia Mohr refers to as a gift goal – a goal that is also a joy in the doing. I love spin­ning the web of human con­nec­tion. Peo­ple often tell me that I’m a great net­worker, which always catches me off guard. In real­ity, I’m good at this only when I enjoy it. No one would have ever described me thus when I was prac­tic­ing cor­po­rate law, ensconced in a world that never really felt like mine. It’s an apti­tude that sur­faces only in con­nec­tion with peo­ple who strike me as poten­tially being mem­bers of my tribe (or tribes).

And it’s not only about peo­ple. The theme of con­nec­tion (and re-connection) res­onates for me in many spheres. It’s also about con­nect­ing – and re-connecting – with places, inter­ests, and ideas that have been side­lined if not for­got­ten. It includes a yet-to-be dis­closed law-related project I’ve been mulling over for years now. (Because while prac­tic­ing law wasn’t my path, there is much in that world that still speaks to me, and with which I’d like to re-connect.) It also includes my recur­ring thoughts about pay­ing a visit to the place I grew up and get­ting back to a reg­u­lar yoga prac­tice (aka re-connecting with my body). In times of con­fu­sion, I imag­ine ask­ing: What do I need to con­nect with?

The Year of Emp­ty­ing and Replenishing

I got this one from Havi, who has pro­claimed it the theme for her year. Inter­est­ingly (at least to me), my first reac­tion on hear­ing it was: Not for me. I’m busy, busy, busy. But for some rea­son the idea lin­gered. Because, in fact, it is for me. Busy is a symptom.

I see this as being about both pri­or­i­tiz­ing and refu­el­ing – about let­ting go of things that don’t enhance my life while cre­at­ing a greater capac­ity for the things that will. Dur­ing my years between full-time jobs, I often strug­gled to fill days and weeks in ways that felt mean­ing­ful and likely to me for­ward. Life as a blank page, that’s often what it felt like. Today, I strug­gle with what seems like the oppo­site dilemma: How to carve out time for  work I care about when my days are already more than full.

I have only the faintest glim­mer­ings of how this theme will evolve. Yoga? Time in the coun­try? A more orderly home? I don’t really know. The themes are bread­crumbs, and for now, that’s enough.

The Year of Being with Things As They Are

I find it so end­lessly easy to slip into bat­tle mode – Me vs. Things As They Are. My goal: Make Them Dif­fer­ent. Life is so much more pleas­ant when I can remem­ber to let that go, to treat real­ity as a friend, rather than an adversary.

Do you have New Year’s res­o­lu­tions, themes, or mus­ings that you care to share? Please leave them in the com­ments sec­tion – and best wishes for 2013!

Why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But if you do, try this.

2013 Yield

Last week, a pro­ducer at Huff­Post Live emailed me to ask if I’d be will­ing to talk about New Year’s res­o­lu­tions for an upcom­ing seg­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, she wanted to ask me about a piece I’d writ­ten about willpower and whether I’d been able to accom­plish this year’s goals.

It seemed like some­thing that I should do, and so at first I said yes. But I hedged my response by say­ing that I don’t really make res­o­lu­tions. We had a bit of back and forth – What exactly did I mean? – and I finally said, you know, I think you should talk to some­one else.

Until this con­ver­sa­tion, I hadn’t quite real­ized how deep my resis­tance runs. Sim­ply put, New Year’s res­o­lu­tions strike me as a set-up. A set-up for fail­ure. A set-up for stay­ing stuck. Res­o­lu­tions assume a fix­ity that, in my expe­ri­ence, sim­ply doesn’t exist. The goals I set last year – or last month – often aren’t the same as those that will move me for­ward today.

This is espe­cially true in times of tran­si­tion, when life is inher­ently unpre­dictable. This blog – Plan B Nation – began as a per­sonal explo­ration of strate­gies to nav­i­gate loss and uncer­tainty after the Great Reces­sion. One of my major ongo­ing lessons has been the impor­tance of stay­ing open – of not insist­ing that the future take a cer­tain form.

As I drafted this post, I hap­pened on a print out of writer Vir­ginia Woolf’s New Year Res­o­lu­tions that I’d totally for­got­ten about until now but likely had been sav­ing for just this moment. (I’m pretty sure these must have come via my Vir­ginia Woolf scholar friend Anne Fer­nald.) Dated Jan­u­ary 2, 1931, the list begins:

Here are my res­o­lu­tions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.

To have none. Not to be tied.

Indeed. (And I espe­cially love the fact that even the res­o­lu­tion of mak­ing no res­o­lu­tions extends only three months forward.)

Speak­ing for myself, I could never have pre­dicted the events of this past year – that I’d move back to Boston to start a new job in a totally new field. This wasn’t a path I could have envi­sioned, let alone planned. And yet, it’s turned out to pro­vide much of what I most needed.

This is why I don’t think of goals as end­points – I think of them as step­ping stones and exper­i­ments. This means stay­ing curi­ous and open even as I take action. Is this goal still serv­ing me? Or is it time for some­thing else?

Which isn’t to say that goals don’t have their place, just that it’s best to hold them lightly. Action­able goals are the means to an end. They are not the end in them­selves. Goals can be great tools, but they are ter­ri­ble masters.

That said, of course, we do need to get stuff done. Whether your goals are for a year or an hour, here are a few tac­tics you may want to try.

Be strate­gic in how you use your lim­ited stock of willpower. (I talk about the specifics of this in my Huff­in­g­ton Post piece, which draws heav­ily on the book Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeis­ter and John Tierney.)

If you’re strug­gling with a goal, reflect on whether you’re con­tend­ing with a com­pet­ing goal. This strat­egy comes from my one-time pro­fes­sor Robert Kegan, who pro­poses the fol­low­ing four-column exer­cise. Iden­tify in turn: (1) Your goal (e.g., I want to find ful­fill­ing work), (2) The behav­iors that run counter to this goal (e.g., I take jobs that aren’t mean­ing­ful to me), (3) Com­pet­ing com­mit­ments (e.g., I need to main­tain a cer­tain income and level of sav­ings), (4) Assump­tions that under­lie and sup­port the third-column com­mit­ments (e.g., If I go back to school or take a job that pays less, every­one will think I’m irresponsible.)

The point here isn’t to  pro­mote a par­tic­u­lar course of action but rather to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what dri­ves you – an aware­ness that can lead to a pro­found shift in per­spec­tive. (The exam­ple above is based on an inter­view I did with Kegan ear­lier this year for this piece in Psy­chol­ogy Today.)

Keep your eyes on the prize. The true goal isn’t to go to the gym every day or write a novel or orga­nize your office or any of the other zil­lions of tasks that we set for our­selves. The true goal is to live a happy life – a life infused with value and mean­ing, what­ever that is for you.

I wish that for myself, and I wish that for all of you. Thank you for shar­ing my 2012. Here’s to the year to come.

The why is the how

So yes, I am grate­ful to be so busy: I am grate­ful for my job (or rather, jobs), grate­ful for my many friends, grate­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ties of this vibrant and entic­ing city.

But I am also frustrated.

In recent weeks, I’ve strug­gled to get back to a reg­u­lar writ­ing sched­ule. One or two posts to this blog each week seems like a rea­son­able goal. But rea­son­able though it may be, it hasn’t been hap­pen­ing. Two weeks ago, I forced myself to the key­board in the chilly dark­ness of Mon­day at 4 am. (No time for writ­ing over the week­end? See how you like this!)  And, yes, I did get the post done, but I was semi-conscious at work.

The fact is, most writ­ers also have other jobs. It’s the nature of the beast. So how do peo­ple do it? Where do they find the time?

For answers, I turned to friends who have impressed me with their bal­anc­ing acts.

First to come to mind was Car­olyn Edgar, a law school class­mate who seems to do the impos­si­ble on pretty much a daily basis. The 2012 recip­i­ent of the Cor­po­rate Coun­sel of the Year Award from New York City’s Black Bar Asso­ci­a­tion, she serves as VP of a For­tune 500 company—not exactly your typ­i­cal low-key slacker day job. Out­side of work, she’s a sin­gle mom and also man­ages to put in reg­u­lar time on the yoga mat. And then, there’s the writ­ing: Along with her own very active blog, she writes about rela­tion­ships, pol­i­tics, and par­ent­ing for sites includ­ing Huff­in­g­ton Post and Oh, and last month—just for fun—she com­pleted the marathon NaNoW­riMo, a chal­lenge that I’d find daunt­ing even with no job at all.

So how do you do it? I asked her. I really wanted to know. She got back to me the fol­low­ing day, bring­ing to mind the old adage that, if you really want some­thing done, you should ask the busiest person.

I’ve been giv­ing a lot of thought to your ques­tion. I ask myself all the time, why do I do this—especially when I’ve stayed up until 3 am edit­ing and for­mat­ting a blog post, drag­ging into the office the next day, and see­ing only 3 com­ments on the post or 4 retweets of the link on Twit­ter. And then I remember—I do this because I love writ­ing. I blog, even though I have two kids and a demand­ing, full-time career—because I am a writer. I feel more com­plete when I write than I do when I don’t.The writ­ing fits into the tiny inter­sti­tial spaces in my life, between the con­fer­ence calls and the draft­ing, between super­vis­ing home­work and get­ting the kids off to bed. It often sup­plants sleep, but see­ing peo­ple engage with the thoughts and ideas I share ener­gizes me in lieu of sleep (that is, until my body says enough and shuts down, as it has this weekend). 

Inter­est­ing, I thought. All of that res­onates. But while I under­stand the why, I still don’t get the how.

Mean­while, I heard back from Kate Gace Wal­ton, another mother of two. Along with  full-time employ­ment, Kate launched and edits Work Stew, a fas­ci­nat­ing blog about the hows and whys of all things work-related. Who bet­ter to ask about jug­gling writ­ing with a demand­ing job? Here’s what she had to say:

Being an insom­niac really helps! I’m at work from about 8 to 5 Mon­day through Fri­day and my evenings are spent wran­gling the kids, ages 5 and 3. (My hus­band has a long com­mute and trav­els a lot, so unfor­tu­nately he’s not around to do much evening wran­gling.) But some­time between 8 and 9 the house finally falls quiet, and from then until the wee hours, I focus on Work Stew—writing, post­ing, review­ing essays from con­trib­u­tors, and edit­ing pod­casts. Also, and this is huge for me: every Tues­day night, the kids stay at my par­ents’ house. That gives me a free evening to record inter­views with­out any shriek­ing in the background—and to catch up on var­i­ous other tasks. I do a lit­tle bit on Work Stew over the week­ends, but for the most part I try to unplug from it—partly so that my fam­ily can have a break from see­ing me attached to a screen and also so that I can think about where it should go next … and by “next” I mean in the next week or so.

And then, like Car­olyn, she headed straight for the whys:

Two rea­sons: 1) I love it and 2) it helps me. To elab­o­rate on point one: the three things I want from life are Con­nec­tion, Flow, and Won­der. Work Stew allows me to con­nect with won­der­ful peo­ple in mean­ing­ful ways. Writ­ing and edit­ing are very reli­able sources of Flow for me. And the chance to learn how all these dif­fer­ent peo­ple are grap­pling with arguably the most fun­da­men­tal and uni­ver­sal of questions—What should I do with my life?—well that’s  this heathen’s ver­sion of church! Truly, I’m filled with a deep sense of won­der when I think through the 100+ sto­ries the con­trib­u­tors have told in essays or interviews. 

And on point two: I find other people’s sto­ries not only won­drous, but help­ful. On a very prac­ti­cal level, Work Stew has helped me to think more cre­atively about my own (decades-old) work conun­drums. I still stew, of course, but more pro­duc­tively and pleas­antly than ever before. 

As I read this, some­thing clicked into place. We can talk about time man­age­ment and pri­or­i­ties and hours of sleep, but in the end, the bot­tom line: There isn’t really a “how.” There isn’t enough time, but you do it any­way.  You write because not writ­ing sim­ply isn’t a viable option.

By far, the hard­est time dur­ing my long stretch of unem­ploy­ment was early on when there wasn’t a sin­gle soli­tary thing that I really wanted to do. Noth­ing called to me. I didn’t have a why. In ret­ro­spect, I can see that this was just part of my tran­si­tion, but at the time, I felt myself veer­ing towards hopelessness.

There needs to be a why. There always needs to be a why. And when the why is strong enough, it pro­pels us into the how.

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.

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.

I’m back. Here’s why I was gone.

Free Child Walking on White Round Spheres Balance Creative Commons

It’s been almost a month since my last post. Blog­ging experts may dif­fer as to the opti­mal fre­quency for post­ing, but on one point, I’m con­fi­dent they all agree: It should be more than once a month.

That being said, I had my rea­sons. This month has been breath­tak­ingly busy. Though, admit­tedly, any such assess­ment is a rel­a­tive one. I once mar­veled at a pro­lific writer friend’s abil­ity to churn out books while also hold­ing down a full-time job. “I could never do that,” I said. “No,” he agreed, reflec­tively. “You need a lot of time to hang out.”

He had a point. And while “a lot” may also be a rel­a­tive term, I def­i­nitely do need some. Which brings me to how I made the deci­sion to take a break from blogging.

Here’s the thing: This blog isn’t just about my life; it’s also a life lab­o­ra­tory. I am both sub­ject and object, both cre­ator and data. When I sit down at my lap­top to write, I’m not think­ing only about the writ­ing but also about the writer. How is she feel­ing? What is she think­ing? How is she relat­ing to this sin­gu­lar act of putting words on paper?

For pretty much all of my life, I’ve been an achieve­ment junkie. Degrees. Jobs. Books. You name it. I’ve been really really good at get­ting things done, at erect­ing what­ever psy­chic dams are needed to stem the emo­tional tides. You might say my motto has been: Act now; feel later.

But while this strat­egy may have its place, it also has its lim­its. I see this more and more. Like adren­a­line, it’s good for emer­gen­cies, not so good for the long haul.

I’m still fig­ur­ing out where to draw the lines—still fol­low­ing bread­crumbs—but in the mean­time, a few salient mark­ers are start­ing to emerge.

For one thing, my life works best when I hold my plans lightly. To put it diplo­mat­i­cally, this is not my usual M.O., which tends towards com­mand and con­trol. The met­rics for this are sim­ple. Accom­plish your goals, and you have suc­ceeded; fall down on the job, and you’ve failed.

Pre­dictably, I began the month with this idea in mind. Even with my other projects-in-waiting, two posts a week struck me as a fairly mod­est tar­get. But in the days that fol­lowed, my stress level grew, and some­thing started to shift. A sin­gle ques­tion pre­sented itself: What is the real point? This didn’t feel like edg­ing towards pro­cras­ti­na­tion or squirm­ing out of work. Rather it felt like a small first step towards tak­ing care of myself.

So what is the real point? Why did I start blog­ging? Last fall, at a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult cross­roads, I went in search of ways to feel more grounded, more con­nected, and well, hap­pier. Blog­ging has given me all these things, which is why I keep at it. Would strong-arming myself into twice-weekly posts really build on this foun­da­tion? It seemed to me that the blog could wait. And so it did.

There comes a time in life when you have to stop doing things for instru­men­tal rea­sons,” my first-year moot court part­ner told me, explain­ing why he had no inten­tion of try­ing for a spot on the Har­vard Law Review. More than two decades later, I still recall those words. They seemed impor­tant at the time. Now I under­stand why.

I should be you

140/365 Envy

The mind gets a lot of crazy ideas.  (Well at least mine does, and I sus­pect if you pay atten­tion, you’ll find that yours does too.)

In recent weeks, it’s taken to sug­gest­ing that I should be some­one else. Now who this per­son is varies, depend­ing on the day, my mood, and what I’ve been read­ing or think­ing about.  And the fact is, if you lined up all the peo­ple my mind tells me I should be, you’d find that their behav­iors and beliefs are often quite clearly at odds. But my mind doesn’t care about that. It’s quite con­vinced that it’s entirely right—and it’s out to con­vince me too.

My mind has been espe­cially insis­tent since dis­cov­er­ing The Flu­ent Self, a blog-cum-transformational play­space cre­ated by Havi Brooks.  “You should be Havi,” my mind clam­ors. “She is doing such inter­est­ing things, and she talks about them in such inter­est­ing ways. You should be her not you! I can help you do that.”

It’s taken some time, but I am finally get­ting my mind to accept that this is not going to hap­pen. A major break­through came when I showed my mind this video of Havi doing her Shiva Nata yoga prac­tice wear­ing a pink wig.

You see that?” I said to my mind. “That is Havi. That is not us. We can learn from her. But we are never ever ever going to be her.”

On hear­ing this, my mind became a bit dis­con­so­late, though after watch­ing the video twice, it allowed that it was likely true.

As is often—if not always—the case, the trick is to find some­thing between the all and the noth­ing. What does my mind’s crush on Havi have to tell me? For one thing, it’s about my need to be more play­ful. It’s about doing more to find my tribe and build­ing a com­mu­nity. And maybe it even means trav­el­ing to Port­land to attend Rally (Rally!)

It also helps to remind myself that how­ever crazy in love my mind may be with some­one else’s life or work, there are oth­ers to whom my own life and work speak in sim­i­lar ways. This came home to me a few months back, when I became friendly with a writer I’ve long admired. I was thrilled when she told me she liked some­thing I’d writ­ten but then rushed to send her an essay that I thought was way better—one of my all-time favorites penned by another writer.

Some days later, I got this care­ful response:  “As for X’s piece…honestly? Between us? It’s not really my thing .… I hope it’s okay to say that—she’s clearly a smart writer.” The fact that this writer I so admired could pre­fer my piece to the one I’d just sent came as a revelation.

As it hap­pens, my mind is still not entirely con­vinced that I shouldn’t aspire to Havi. But I’m pre­pared to wait. Soon it will be on to some­thing else. (And if not, I still have the video.)