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 YOU’LL 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.