How about zero dollars per word—is zero good for you?

ZERO take 2There’s a clas­sic New Yorker car­toon where a guy is stand­ing in his high-rise office talk­ing on the phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”

I was reminded of this last week when vet­eran jour­nal­ist Nate Thayer used his blog to pub­lish an email exchange with an Atlantic edi­tor inter­ested in “repur­pos­ing” a piece Thayer had pre­vi­ously writ­ten if he would first revise it. For this, she offered the princely sum of … noth­ing.  (By these stan­dards, humorist Calvin Trillin’s editor–the “wily and par­si­mo­nious Vic­tor S. Navasky,with his offers “in the high two figures”–was pos­i­tively prof­li­gate.) Thayer lost no time in reg­is­ter­ing his outrage.

I am a pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ist who has made my liv­ing by writ­ing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giv­ing my ser­vices for free to for profit media out­lets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by remov­ing my abil­ity to pay my bills and feed my chil­dren,” wrote Thayer, later not­ing the irony of hav­ing once been offered an Atlantic retainer of $125,000 a year for six articles.

The post quickly went viral, with both sup­port­ers and detrac­tors flock­ing to weigh in. To his fans, Thayer was a hero, finally say­ing “enough is enough” to ever-more exploitive jour­nal­is­tic over­lords. To his crit­ics, Thayer seemed both enti­tled and unre­al­is­tic, fool­ish in his alien­ation of the very peo­ple who might hire him.

A follow-up piece on Gawker.com—itself an acknowl­edged user of writ­ers who work for free—used the flap as an object les­son in the ongo­ing devo­lu­tion of jour­nal­ism into a pro­fes­sion largely pop­u­lated by those with ample resources. “Becom­ing a suc­cess­ful writer—or jour­nal­ist or actor or wigmaker—is an ambi­tion that, like pretty much every­thing else in soci­ety, is rigged in numer­ous ways to favor peo­ple who start off with money,” Cord Jef­fer­son tren­chantly observed.

Not much dis­agree­ment on that score. How­ever, there was plenty about what the ulti­mate take­away should be.

When Thayer was being offered $125k/year I was being offered $140k,” noted my friend Anne, an expat Amer­i­can lawyer, now liv­ing in Eng­land. “I’d love to be on 2002 rates again—who wouldn’t? But the real­ity is much different.”

A Gawker.com com­menter had this to say:

Maybe they expect peo­ple to write for free, because plenty of peo­ple are ready and will­ing to write for free. If you want to make a lot of money, go be an invest­ment banker or start a busi­ness or what­ever. If you want to write, then do that, but don’t whine about how you’re get­ting paid squat for doing it. You made your choice.

My friend spends hours upon hours work­ing on his model trains which he dis­plays and are enjoyed by many peo­ple who see them. He never once asked to be paid for his efforts. Don’t act like your call­ing is so much more noble and wor­thy than his.”

Law—one of my sev­eral pre­vi­ous pro­fes­sions (and another that, inci­den­tally, is fast head­ing towards meltdown)—works by anal­ogy:  Is X more like Y or like Z? In that spirit, I found myself mus­ing over whether a free­lance writer is, in fact, sim­i­lar to a guy who plays with trains. As usual with analo­gies, I could see the facts both ways. In the pro col­umn: Thayer enjoys writ­ing. He, like the fanatic hob­by­ist, is doing it because he chooses.  In the con:  Writ­ing is also Thayer’s pro­fes­sion, one he set­tled on with an eye to mak­ing a liv­ing at a time when such a plan didn’t seem wildly risky. No, he would likely never be rich. But he’d be paid more than … zero.

My favorite legal doctrine–and yes, as a mat­ter of fact, I do know how geeky that sounds–goes by the name of reliance. (I also wrote about it here.) Sim­ply put, if you induce me to “change my posi­tion” based on your claim or promise, you can’t later change your mind and just tell me to go away. For exam­ple, if you sell me a prod­uct to wash my car, I’m enti­tled to rely on the fact that it will do just that—and with­out strip­ping the paint.

Law school exams are called issue spot­ters. They con­sist of “fact patterns”—stories of sorts—packed with legal issues that the test taker must first iden­tify then ana­lyze. The world after the Great Reces­sion is filled with tales like Thayer’s, with peo­ple whose lives have been upended by new tech­nolo­gies and seis­mic global changes. They (we) relied on what we knew, on what we were told.  If life were an issue spot­ter exam, it might pose the fol­low­ing ques­tions: Was this reliance jus­ti­fied? Is there a remedy?

Note: Thanks to my writer friend Amy Rogers who helped me pull that New Yorker car­toon from the recesses of memory.

The Audacity of Hopelessness

Head in Hands

Last sum­mer, I came across another of those darkly hilar­i­ous post-recession job search sto­ries. In this par­tic­u­lar install­ment, one Tay­lor Grey Meyer lost it on a sales man­ager from the San Diego Padres, an orga­ni­za­tion to which she’d applied for a job no less than 30 times. After the stan­dard radio silence response to her appli­ca­tions, she received an out-of-the-blue email alert to an “oppor­tu­nity” to attend a job fair hosted by the Padres for the bar­gain price of $495.

And that’s when Grey–whose pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence report­edly included an intern­ship with Major League Soccer–went a wee bit berserk, fir­ing off an email described by the sports web­site Dead­spin as “one of the great emails of our time.”

After care­ful review, I must decline. I real­ize I may be burn­ing bridges here, but in the spirit of reci­procity, I would like to extend you a counter-offer to suck my dick. Clearly, I don’t have one of these, so my offer makes about as much sense as yours. But for the price you’re charg­ing to attend the event, I’m sure I would have no trou­ble bor­row­ing one.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, her response pro­ceeded to go viral, and—as Dead­spin wrote—“per­haps, on bal­ance, it wasn’t the worst move in the world. Meyer has already received one note from a sales office, ask­ing her if she’d like to come in for an interview.”

All of which got me think­ing about the job search process in the wilds of the Brave New Nor­mal – and how the best strate­gies some­times emerge only after you’ve given up.

My own experience—though far less jaw-dropping—provides a case in point.  One of the stan­dard pieces of advice to any­one who’s gone through a lay­off is to down­play the lay­off part and up-play what you’ve accom­plished. That’s pretty much how I rolled in the begin­ning. I kept busy! Vol­un­teered! Updated my resume! Then, after a year or so, I ran out of steam. I started to feel a bit defeated. And also a bit defi­ant. Which explains my deci­sion to write pub­licly about being unemployed.

The first piece I wrote for Salon on the topic of unem­ploy­ment was pub­lished with the provoca­tive head­line “Even Har­vard Couldn’t Pro­tect Me”—capitalizing on the irony of my edu­ca­tional pedigree—though my real point was some­thing quite dif­fer­ent: That nav­i­gat­ing unem­ploy­ment requires tremen­dous inner resources, far more, in my expe­ri­ence, than what’s needed to nav­i­gate success.

Like Grey’s, my writ­ing elicited a range of responses—from with­er­ing accu­sa­tions of self-indulgence to heart­felt words of sup­port.  (I still cher­ish one defense: “Does Salon have no stan­dards at all?” my sup­porter rhetor­i­cally asks, quot­ing an espe­cially vir­u­lent attacker.  And then goes on to answer: “Obvi­ously not. If they did — most of the first few let­ters in response to a Gut­man piece would be mod­er­ated into obliv­ion. The fact that they allow their excel­lent authors to be harassed by the nation’s under-medicated tells us all we need to know (and more) .…”)

While my Salon essays on unem­ploy­ment didn’t lead to a job right away, in ret­ro­spect they were a first step on the path that got me there. The essays led to Plan B Nation, and this blog—along with being hugely gratifying—kept me vis­i­ble to peo­ple in a posi­tion to hire me. One of these was a for­mer Har­vard col­league who reached out last sum­mer when an open­ing came up in her depart­ment. (A side ben­e­fit: When I inter­viewed, there was no need to explain my time out of the work­force. They already knew my story. It’s how I had come to be there. ) I was hired and started work last Sep­tem­ber. Things are going well.

Let me be clear: When I talk about the ben­e­fits of hope­less­ness, I don’t mean despair, which is never ever help­ful. What I’m talk­ing about is being open, a topic I’ve explored many times before. The dan­ger of hope is that it can tie us to a very spe­cific iter­a­tion of a very spe­cific story at a time when we’re far bet­ter served by stay­ing alert to oppor­tu­ni­ties in what­ever form they take. The more wed­ded we are to a spe­cific outcome—the more we nar­row our sights—the harder it may be to craft a ful­fill­ing life with the mate­ri­als at hand.

I don’t know what’s hap­pened to Meyer since last summer—I shot off an email to her via LinkedIn this morn­ing but haven’t yet heard back. The best clue I found was a “Pub­lic Fig­ure” Face­book page where her photo (she’s a lovely blonde) tops the fol­low­ing tagline: “Tay­lor Grey Meyer had already been rejected by the Padres over 30 times before she got an email from the base­ball team that was the last straw.” No sign of regret. No apolo­gies. What began as an F U moment seems to have become a per­sonal brand.

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.

Why some people have all the jobs

With careful Douglas training, women do accurate electrical assembly and installation work, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, Calif. (LOC)

Some folks do all the mar­ryin’ for the rest of us,” a sin­gle South­ern friend once quipped, con­tem­plat­ing a twice-wed acquain­tance prepar­ing to tie the knot once again.

More and more, the same thing appears to be true of work. This thought first struck me a cou­ple years back dur­ing my seem­ingly end­less stretch of under and un-employment. A friend (who shall remain name­less since I know with­out ask­ing that he – or she – would want it that way) was jug­gling four jobs at once: uni­ver­sity teach­ing, a book con­tract, a weekly col­umn for a national pub­li­ca­tion, and a pub­lic ser­vice post. By way of con­trast, I at the time had none.

It didn’t make a lot of sense to me then, and it doesn’t now – even as I find myself sud­denly switch­ing roles. From no jobs, I’ve gone to hav­ing two: a full-time posi­tion in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and a part-time teach­ing gig. My chal­lenges are now the reverse of what they were before. I’ve gone from hav­ing no work at all to work­ing all the time.

And appar­ently, I’m far from alone – in both expe­ri­ences. Last week, I lis­tened with grim fas­ci­na­tion to a report on NPR’s On Point about America’s grow­ing hordes of invol­un­tary part-time work­ers. In recent years, the ratio of full to part-timers has been doing a flip-flop. Over just two decades many major retail­ers have gone from 70% or more full-timers to that per­cent­age of part-timers, as the New York Times recently reported.

This wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be a bad thing. But, as it hap­pens, it is. Here’s why: Part-timers can’t sup­port them­selves on the $8.00 or $10 an hour they make – espe­cially given that employ­ers often limit their hours to 10 or 15 a week. 15 times $10? You do the math.

So why don’t they just get another job? Because they can’t. Retail­ers are increas­ingly requir­ing what’s known in the indus­try as “open avail­abil­ity.” You may work only 10 hours a week, but you’re still expected to be ready and wait­ing 24/7.

Behind this dis­turb­ing trend is increas­ingly sophis­ti­cated soft­ware that now enables com­pa­nies to track cus­tomer flow by 15-minute incre­ments, call­ing in part-timers for the brief win­dows, some­times just a cou­ple of hours, when their labor will con­tribute most to the company’s bot­tom line. What if you need to plan for child­care or you want to take a col­lege class? The response is a sim­ple one, just two words: Too bad.

Most appalling of all (at least to me) is the prac­tice known as “on-call sched­ul­ing,” where employ­ees are required to call in two hours before a shift would begin to find out if they’ll be work­ing. Are they paid for block­ing out this time? No, they are not.

As a grow­ing num­ber of crit­ics like this one are not­ing, this essen­tially amounts to cor­po­rate wel­fare. In shift­ing the costs to employ­ees, busi­nesses are push­ing many of them into poverty. The rest of us pay for food stamps and emer­gency room vis­its to com­pen­sate for busi­ness refusal to pay a liv­ing wage – or even to allow their employ­ees a chance to pick up hours else­where. (And this issue isn’t just lim­ited to part-timers either – ongo­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions in Cincin­nati are bring­ing atten­tion to the fact that many of the city’s full-time jan­i­tors qual­ify for pro­grams such as food stamps, Med­ic­aid, and hous­ing assis­tance, as the Nation described last week.) Romney’s 47% have noth­ing on Wal-Mart and Aber­crom­bie & Fitch.

Mean­while, at the other end of the spec­trum, high-end salaried work­ers – where added hours mean added prof­its for employ­ers with­out added costs – are see­ing their hours shoot through the roof. Within days of hear­ing the NPR report on invol­un­tary part-timers, I also read an essay by a mom who’d just given up her cor­po­rate law job, find­ing it impos­si­ble to bal­ance the demands of work with the other demands of life.

My own sit­u­a­tion is, of course, quite dif­fer­ent. For one thing, I don’t have kids (though I do have other inter­ests that also take time). For another, the hours of my full-time job have been entirely rea­son­able. It’s adding another job on top of it that’s made things hard to man­age. But like many work­ers laid-off dur­ing the Great Reces­sion, I returned to the work­force in a posi­tion that pays sub­stan­tially less than my for­mer. Yes, I love teach­ing, but I can also use the money.

This morn­ing I snapped wide awake at 4:30 am. This was a fre­quent occur­rence dur­ing the turbo-charged stress of my job search, but this is the first time it’s hap­pened since being re-employed. At first, I was mys­ti­fied about what lay behind it. But two hours later, it’s come to me: There was some­thing I needed to say.

Job? Check.

Bolso pistacho

I am among the lucky.

After some three years of freelance-punctuated unem­ploy­ment, next month I’ll be return­ing to work. And not only will I have a full-time job, I’ll also have the oppor­tu­nity to work with peo­ple I really like on issues that really mat­ter. As a mem­ber of the Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health’s exter­nal rela­tions team, I’ll have the priv­i­lege of sup­port­ing glob­ally sig­nif­i­cant work in areas rang­ing from dis­ease pre­ven­tion to diet and nutri­tion to health care policy.

I feel both for­tu­nate and grate­ful – espe­cially given my appar­ent demo­graphic handicap.

As the New York Times reported in May, “[a] worker between ages 50 and 61 who has been unem­ployed for 17 months has only about a 9 per­cent of find­ing a new job in the next three months.” (While I’m at the low-end of that range, I’m squarely within it.)  And if that’s not enough: The num­ber of unem­ployed peo­ple between the ages of 50 and 65 has more than dou­bled since the onset of the Great Recession.

The result is noth­ing short of a national emer­gency,” the arti­cle con­tin­ued. “Mil­lions of work­ers have been dis­con­nected from the work force, and pos­si­bly even from soci­ety. If they are not recon­nected, the costs to them and to soci­ety will be grim.”

Given the focus of my new job, it seems fit­ting to point out that unem­ploy­ment is a press­ing pub­lic health issue. To wit, the Times cites stud­ies link­ing unem­ploy­ment to can­cer, heart dis­ease, and psy­chi­atric prob­lems. One study esti­mated a 50 to 100 per­cent increase in death rates for con­sis­tently employed older men imme­di­ately after a job loss.

While my own story has been less har­row­ing health-wise, these years have unques­tion­ably been the most chal­leng­ing of my life. And as I wrote in Salon last fall, “Cop­ing with pro­longed job­less­ness is hugely demand­ing .…Two years of job hunt­ing has required infi­nitely more of me than any of my lauded past achievements.”

That said, while I wouldn’t have cho­sen it, I can’t say that I entirely regret the past three years. There’s some­thing to be said for hav­ing been swept up in the larger story, for lessons that can come in no other way than liv­ing into them. For all my Har­vard degrees and impres­sive resume, I was not immune – nor do I think I should have been. I’m reminded of an inter­view with the late actor Christo­pher Reeve after the acci­dent that ren­dered him quad­ri­plegic. Asked whether he some­times asked “Why me?” Reeve responded: “Why not me?”

Cut loose from expec­ta­tions, I also found a new voice as a writer – I stopped wor­ry­ing about what peo­ple would think and started tak­ing big­ger risks. This was a tremen­dous gift and one that I carry with me. As I wrote here, blog­ging changed my life, and I’m deeply grate­ful to all of you who’ve shared this space with me over the past nine months. I can’t imag­ine the past year with­out Plan B Nation – or with­out you, its readers.

Now that you have a job, will you keep writ­ing the blog?” a friend asked curiously.

My answer: Absolutely.

Going back to work feels like reach­ing home in a storm. I’m grate­ful for the shel­ter, grate­ful for the sus­te­nance. But out­side, the gales are still blow­ing, and many more are home­less. We’re all still liv­ing in Plan B Nation, whether we see it or not.

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.

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.

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

[Bint.3♥♪♫]

Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniver­sary of my exit from the salaried work­force and my entry into what I’ve taken to call­ing Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Har­vard Law School, where I’d han­dled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writ­ing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplo­mat­i­cally, not an easy time. The econ­omy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I men­tion the Great Reces­sion?) Floun­der­ing in spring 2009 put me in excel­lent com­pany. Yes, I was freaked out and unem­ployed, but I cer­tainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been think­ing a lot about the road I’ve trav­eled since those anxiety-ridden days and feel­ing a lot of com­pas­sion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been think­ing about what I’ve learned and what might be worth shar­ing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Tran­si­tions take a long time.  

I’ve writ­ten about this before, and it’s a really impor­tant point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life acci­dent.”  Five to seven years is com­mon.  A related point: Tran­si­tions tend to meander—to be less like lad­ders and more like the clas­sic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the cen­ter, almost arrive, and then sud­denly find your­self on the outer rim, and then, just as unpre­dictably, back at the cen­ter again. I often find it help­ful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Some­times the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leav­ing the Boston area for more than a year on the the­ory that wher­ever you go, there you are. Could mov­ing to another place really make me hap­pier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequiv­o­cal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that mov­ing to an area that I love is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant step I’ve taken to move my life for­ward.  In par­tic­u­lar, mov­ing to a place where I have a strong net­work of friends has made every­thing far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start mov­ing anyway.

Tran­si­tions, by their nature, gen­er­ally involve a tem­po­rary loss of clear inner direc­tion.  That was cer­tainly the case for me: I was search­ing with­out really know­ing what I was look­ing for (which, not sur­pris­ingly, made it really hard to find).

Look­ing back, one of the most use­ful things I did dur­ing this time was to take action even if noth­ing felt quite right—to exper­i­ment, try things out. That’s how I came (lack­adaisi­cally, glumly) to write my very first per­sonal essay—which led to a blog on Huff­in­g­ton Post, which led to writ­ing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writ­ing for Sec­on­dAct (includ­ing Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly col­umn), Psy­chol­ogy Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remark­ably enough, actu­ally does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across sim­i­lar advice in books by career guru Bar­bara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man. “You won’t encounter acci­den­tal good fortune—you won’t stum­ble on oppor­tu­ni­ties that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoff­man writes in The Start-Up of You. “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.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mind­ful­ness by now, but this qual­ity doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Kristin Neff is a pio­neer­ing researcher on this topic, and her book Self Com­pas­sion: Stop Beat­ing Your­self Up and Leave Inse­cu­rity Behind is geared to a pop­u­lar audi­ence and pro­vides an excel­lent roadmap for fur­ther exploration.

5.  Let your­self be surprised.

The biggest dif­fer­ence between lucky and unlucky peo­ple may be that lucky peo­ple are open to see­ing the unex­pected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expand­ing your periph­eral vision can do a lot to expand your oppor­tu­ni­ties.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to con­sciously expect the unex­pected. (Most recent exam­ple: I’m about to go off to look at a poten­tial new home that I dis­cov­ered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far bet­ter than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both mean­ing­ful and cre­ative. I have a great com­mu­nity in a place where I love liv­ing. The road I’ve trav­eled to get here was pretty remark­ably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did some­thing wrong. It sim­ply tells me that I’m human.

Dazed & Confused in Plan B Nation

268/365 - Default State

In July 2010, amidst con­tin­ued fall-out from the Great Reces­sion, the New York Times pub­lished a front-page story about an unem­ployed col­lege grad­u­ate liv­ing with his par­ents in a Boston sub­urb who’d just turned down a $40,000-a-year job as an insur­ance claims adjustor.

I am absolutely cer­tain that my job hunt will even­tu­ally pay off,” said 24-year-old Scott Nichol­son, a Col­gate Uni­ver­sity hon­ors grad­u­ate with a degree in polit­i­cal sci­ence, explain­ing his deci­sion to hold out for some­thing bet­ter even after two years of fruit­less searching.

The piece quickly became noto­ri­ous, set­ting off a tsunami of online comments—1,487 at last count—the vast major­ity express­ing out­rage at what read­ers per­ceived as an absurd sense of enti­tle­ment enabled by a too-indulgent family.

Turn­ing down a job for $40,000 a year after grad­u­at­ing from a sec­ond tier (at best) school because he is too good for the posi­tion? The kid deserves what­ever hard­ship he endures,” was one typ­i­cally harsh response.

I recently thought back to this article—and the heated debate that ensued—when I got a call from a friend who heads up a big depart­ment of a big orga­ni­za­tion. She’d read some of my posts about the chal­lenges of look­ing for work after the Great Reces­sion and wanted to share her own quite dif­fer­ent perspective.

I can’t give jobs away!” he (or she—I promised anonymity) insisted. “Nobody knows how to work any­more. They’ll say ‘I might have to miss yoga today, and that’s not okay.’”

I have to say I found this fas­ci­nat­ing. And while it was (and is) hard for me to believe that the sit­u­a­tion for employ­ers is really quite so bleak, I did start to notice other signs of sim­i­lar frus­tra­tion. For exam­ple this plain­tive tweet from a local tech entre­pre­neur, for­merly of Microsoft: “Why do so few job appli­cants bother to fol­low up? And some of the best cover let­ters don’t even show up for interviews.”

The more I thought about it, the more con­vinced I became that such behav­iors, along with the result­ing frus­tra­tion, can be traced to a pro­found con­fu­sion about what work is and is not, as well as what it should be—a con­fu­sion now thrown into relief by the stres­sor of hard times.

It’s not news that the so-called millennials—the cohort now enter­ing the workforce—grew up with extra­or­di­nary expec­ta­tions fueled by Baby Boomer par­ents who encour­aged them to dream big. Fur­ther feed­ing such atti­tudes was the Oprah-fication of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture along with self-help clas­sics such as Do What You Love and the Money Will Fol­low and the mega-bestseller The Secret, which posits a “law of attrac­tion” that allows each of us to “man­i­fest” our desires. Even the pop­u­lar maxim that “any­one can be pres­i­dent” (never mind the nation’s declin­ing place on social mobil­ity mea­sures) can be traced to this cul­tural strand.

At the same time, our nation is deeply rooted in the Puri­tan work ethic, with its empha­sis on fru­gal­ity, dis­ci­pline, and self-reliance. Such teach­ings have been with us from early days, find­ing expres­sion in the best-selling writ­ings of Ben­jamin Franklin up on through present-day polit­i­cal rhetoric. (Think Mitt Romney’s tire­less if prob­lem­atic claims of being a self-made man.)

Fol­low your dreams, what­ever it takes.  Pay your own way, what­ever it takes.

That mil­len­ni­als are strug­gling should come as no sur­prise, given these exact­ing and often con­flict­ing cul­tural expec­ta­tions. Those of us who came of age in the Boom Years may have man­aged to bridge the two. But when money is scarce and jobs are few (Hello, New Nor­mal!), this is no easy feat.

So what’s a mil­len­nial sup­posed to do? Pre­sented with con­flict­ing absolutes, how are they sup­posed to choose?

This is pre­cisely the sort of dilemma con­sid­ered by Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist Robert Kegan in In Over Our Heads: The Men­tal Demands of Mod­ern Life. As Kegan sees it, we live in an age where demands are many and often at odds, and guide­lines for choos­ing between them are scarce. At the same time, rel­a­tively few of us are suf­fi­ciently grounded in our own beliefs to stand up to social pres­sures and chart an inde­pen­dent course—to be what Kegan calls “self author­ing.” That’s not such a big prob­lem when society’s expec­ta­tions are con­sis­tent. But when a cul­ture makes the sort of con­flict­ing demands that ours rou­tinely does, things can turn ugly very quickly.

Which is where many mil­len­ni­als find them­selves right now: Want­ing to do the Right Thing but with­out a way to decide what that right thing is. Where is the line between self-confidence and enti­tle­ment? Where is the line between admirable risk-taking and fool­ish behav­ior? Where is the line between being respon­si­ble and giv­ing up?

Depend­ing on whom a mil­len­nial asks, they’re likely to get dif­fer­ent answers, and regard­less of which one they choose, they’re likely to find them­selves at odds with some­one whose opin­ion they value. There may not be much that we can do right now to change this cul­tural con­text. What we can do is to acknowl­edge that Scott Nichol­son and other mil­len­ni­als have good rea­son to feel dazed and confused.

 

Edited 3/15/12: Var­i­ous non-substantive revi­sions for style and clarification.

How to get out of bed

Day 7

Morn­ings have been hard for me lately. I’m not exactly sure why. My life hasn’t really changed much. The same things are dif­fi­cult. The same things are good. If any­thing, some of the good things have got­ten a bit more good. So why have I been wak­ing up in a state of despon­dent gloom? And, more to the point, what can I do to make things a lit­tle bit lighter?

Mulling over these ques­tions the last few days, it hit me that I’d failed to note per­haps the most salient clue: The fact that, how­ever I feel, I am indeed get­ting up!

What is it, I won­dered, that gets me mov­ing on days I could eas­ily bur­row in? Could the answer be to fig­ure that out—and then do more of it?

In that spirit, I asked myself: “Self? What gets you out of bed on those morn­ings when noth­ing seems worth the effort?”

The answer came imme­di­ately. “I get up for the coffee.”

A year or so back, I received a fancy cof­fee maker as a gift, and it’s this primo coffee—not just any coffee—that’s been mak­ing all the dif­fer­ence. Some­times I con­tem­plate return­ing to my pre­vi­ous caf­feine habits. The cap­sules for the new machine are pricey, and I’m try­ing to con­serve. But for now, the expense is worth it. The cof­fee is some­thing I look for­ward to, and that means a lot.

And right then, it hit me. I was onto some­thing. This idea of “look­ing for­ward to”—what role did it have in my life? It occurred to me that per­haps I’ve grown looking-forward-to deprived.

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Life in Plan B Nation tends to be focused on get­ting things done, on keep­ing the nose to the prover­bial grind­stone, on being respon­si­ble, plug­ging ahead, and keep­ing emo­tions in check. It’s easy to feel that we don’t deserve spe­cial rewards and treats—not when we’re so far behind where think we ought to be.

The prob­lem with this approach: We. Get. Tired. The fact that suc­cess is in short sup­ply doesn’t mean we haven’t been work­ing, often way harder than we did when our careers were thriving.

Which got me to think­ing about Bud­dhist teacher Cheri Huber’s spot-on descrip­tion of how exact­ing we tend to be with ourselves—and because it’s so great and because I have the book right here, I might as well share it with you:

You go along in life and you do what you’re sup­posed to do. And every time you do some­thing you’re sup­posed to do, you put a dol­lar in the bank. Okay. Every time you’re kind, patient, or you do the thing you’re sup­posed to do—whatever it is (you know what those things are for your)—every time you put a dol­lar in the bank, a dol­lar in the bank, a dol­lar in the bank .…

Finally, you feel like you’re just kind of worn out. You feel like you need a lit­tle plea­sure in your life, a lit­tle time on the beach or some­thing. And so you think “I’m going to go to the bank, and I’m going to take out some money, and I’m going to do some­thing nice for myself.”

So you go to the bank and you say, “Here I am. I want to take out some of the money I’ve saved so that I can do some­thing nice for myself.”

And the response is, “Oh no. You haven’t earned nearly enough to get any­thing for your­self. Oh, you have to work much harder—you have to put much, much more money in before you can get any­thing for yourself.”

And, of course, if this were First National you were deal­ing with, you would say, “No, this is not the way this is going to work. This is my money. You can’t tell me when and where and how I can spend it.” And yet, with this sys­tem of self-hate that’s exactly what’s going on!

She con­cludes: “THERE’S NO MYSTERY IN THIS FOLKS! … [T]he per­son at the bank DOES NOT LIKE YOU! *It’s impor­tant to get that*.… THIS PERSON IS NEVER GOING TO GIVE YOU A DIME! YOU WILL WORK YOURSELF TO DEATH, AND YOULL NEVER GET A THING FOR IT. IT IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THAT!”

So.

Here is what I am going to do: First, I am going to incline my mind (as the Bud­dhists say) towards things on the hori­zon to which I’m look­ing for­ward. The work­shop for fos­ter kids that I’m co-facilitating. Watch­ing a TV show I refuse to name with my friend Wendy.  Hot­dogs and a movie at Pop­corn Noir in East­hamp­ton (not to be con­fused with East Hampton).

Next: I am going to give some thought to other things I might look for­ward to and how I can make them hap­pen. Tango lessons? A day trip? The specifics are up for grabs.  And while I don’t know what I’ll come up with, I look for­ward to find­ing out.

Note: The quoted pas­sage is taken from Cheri Huber’s There Is Noth­ing Wrong with You (Keep It Sim­ple Books, 1993). It also has pic­tures that will make you smile.