And vs. Or

Resurrection

Shortly after I launched this blog, a friend suggested that I feature stories about people who lost their jobs but ended up triumphant, which got me to thinking about this seductive and increasingly iconic Great Recession storyline.

The appetite for such stories is easy to understand. They’re a welcome antidote to the anxious uncertainty that pervades our times. They fuel our optimism, calm our fears. They tell us that no matter how bleak things may seem they’re still likely to end well. “This is a series about people who stared down the Great Recession—and reinvented themselves along the way,” is how the online magazine Salon describes its series “My Brilliant Second Career.”

But for all this narrative’s compelling appeal, I’ve found myself balking at it, uneasy with the vision of a fantasy future squared off against the past. In particular, I worry that in our eager rush towards happier times, we risk losing sight of what these years have had to teach us—that we’ll come to view this era’s difficulties as things that “shouldn’t  have happened to me” rather than as a shared experience that shaped and transformed our lives.

Our individualist culture thrives on hierarchies and dichotomies. Good vs. Bad. Success vs. Failure. Winner vs. Loser.  It’s easy to fixate on securing a spot on the right side of the divide. When we come to the end of a challenging stretch, we often heave a sigh of relief and do our best to forget.  That was then. This is now. I am not that person anymore. (Thank God, I am not that person!)

But there’s another way through such transitions, one that involves expanding to encompass even the hardest parts of our pasts. I thought of this recently when reading my friend Allegra Jordan’s beautiful guest post on how the abrupt end of her marriage, which also coincided with a job loss, led her to launch her public-spirited Innovation Abbey consulting firm. What I especially loved about his piece was its recognition—and acceptance—of the ways in which past and present necessarily coexist.  As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Why does this matter? Because once we accept that our lives are inherently messy, imperfect, and informed by a past we didn’t choose, we can start to let go of the futile notion that life should be an endless progression upwards.  We can be kinder to ourselves—and kinder to each other. We can start to understand—really understand—that we are not good or bad, successes or failures, winners or losers. We are all of these things, many times over, and many more besides.

Awakening Joy in Plan B Nation

Joyful Runway

Much has been written about the psychological costs of job loss and other fall-out of the Great Recession, but far less ink has been spilled over how we can best address them.

“The worst things in life start showing up when people experience extended unemployment,” asserts Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton in his chilling manifesto The Coming Jobs War, which paints a dire picture of a global job shortage. “Those wounded will probably never fully recover.”

In a similar vein, Atlantic journalist Don Peck cites a troubling litany of consequences stemming from long-term joblessness, including “growing isolation, warping of family dynamics, and a slow separation from mainstream society,” as he further details in Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.

My reaction to such observations is mixed.

On the one hand, I welcome the acknowledgment that the Great Recession has exerted unprecedented stress on millions of Americans. It strikes me as a much-needed antidote to the view that the jobless, foreclosed-upons, and other casualties of these new hard times just need to buck up, to opt for the sort of relentless cheer skewered by cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.

On the other hand, it strikes me as unnecessarily disempowering to simply give in, to believe that there’s nothing we can do to change our relationship to the bad things that come our way.

It’s in this spirit that I’m embarking on meditation teacher James Baraz’s 10-month online class Awakening Joy. I first heard about the program from some like-minded friends (read: friends not prone to the aforementioned relentless positive thinking) and decided to give it a try. My initial skepticism largely faded when I learned that no one is turned away for financial reasons. (I myself opted to pay a small fraction of the total cost.)

Baraz—a founding teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California—draws heavily on the Buddhist tradition, but as he makes clear in the first class, the program is in no way limited to any particular religious faith.

So is it possible to “awaken joy” when we’re facing huge challenges?  Baraz says Yes. Where his approach differs significantly from many other proponents of positive thinking is that he—like the Buddha—is focused on the practical strategies that allow us to do this.  Rather than saying  “just do it,” his focus is on how to do it.

The first step? Simply cultivating the intention to be happy. To this end, Baraz and his teaching team provide a number of exercises and practices, including the act of reminding ourselves again and again of our intention. Another suggestion: Making a conscious decision to recognize and relish moments of well-being. (Positive psychology acolytes refer to this as “savoring.”) The theory is that where we choose to place our mind goes far to  determine how happy we are.

“More than 2,000 people have tested it, so it’s not some airy-fairy idea,” Baraz said of the class, in a 2008 O magazine interview. “I’ve learned that it’s possible to change, no matter what your history or the limiting beliefs you’ve held on to. If you have the intention to be happy and you do the practices, if you give it your best shot and are very patient, it works.”

That being said, the Buddha told his students to not take anything on faith—rather to “see for yourself.” That’s exactly what I’ll be doing, and I’m curious to explore what happens. Interested in joining me? Click here for sign-up information.

The Emperor’s New Clothes and the New Economy

Some weeks back, the Dow enjoyed a sharp upswing, prompting a network news program’s giddy observation that “until today, the U.S. economy was on a roller coaster.”

Which struck me as an odd sort of thing to say in light of the fact that such dizzying ups—and downs—are what define roller coasters. Was I missing something? I checked in with some well-informed friends, who quickly confirmed my reaction. (And, indeed, in the next few days, stocks plunged once again.)

All of which is to say that over the past few years, I’ve started to feel more and more like the kid in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—the one who interrupts a parade of purported royal finery to say that the emperor is naked. The fact that I’m hardly an expert in economic affairs makes it all the more disturbing that I’m so often right.

I got to thinking about this once again as yesterday’s New York Times heralded the addition of 200,000 jobs to the U.S. labor force last month. “Maybe it is time to start calling the glass half full,” the report began.

Really? Because, as the Times notes further down, the gains are still not enough to restore employment to prerecession levels (for more on this, see Paul Krugman’s post on the same topic), and the accepted broad measure of unemployment is still a whopping 15.2%.

Moreoever—and here’s my real gripe—this story, along with the vast majority of others, virtually ignores the fundamental question of how much these new jobs pay.  A job doesn’t necessarily mean a living wage—just ask the 30% of all working families earning less than 200 percent of the official poverty threshold.

For a bit more perspective, consider the fact that the vast majority of new jobs created during the so-called recovery have been in occupations paying a meager 7.51 to $13.52 an hour, according to a 2011 report by the National Employment Law Project. At the same time, job losses were concentrated at the high end. (Kudos to Steven Greenhouse for his incisive summation of these findings last July in the New York Times’ Economix blog.)

In other words:  Good-bye stable middle-class job. Hello, McDonald’s.

The obsessive focus of mainstream media—including, sadly, my beloved NPR—on job creation numbers without due attention to  job quality is hardly the only aspect of our economic discourse that strikes me as being on a collision course with common sense. Equally mysterious is how rarely we seem to question the belief that economic growth is somehow the key to widespread well-being.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen famously dismisses Alice’s claim that she can’t believe impossible things. “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” the Queen airily responds. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I can’t help but feel that this talent is in increasingly high demand. In particular, I’m thinking of oft-heard assertions that older workers will simply need to work longer (even though it’s well-established that theirs are among the most intractable cases of long-term unemployment) and that, given the precarious state of Social Security, not to mention our decimated 401(ks), we all just need to save more (even though many of us are hard-pressed simply to get by).

While I myself have only a passing familiarity with economic concepts, I’m fortunate to count among my friends some who study and teach such things, and I often turn to them for questions or help making sense of data. I’m hoping that after they read this piece, they’ll tell me that I’m wrong. But based on past experience, I’m not exactly counting on it.

Note: The  quote in the first sentence of this post is a paraphrase from memory.

Edited 1/8/12: to add “(for more on this, see Paul Krugman’s post on the same topic)”

 

3 things you should know about transitions

Come Together

Two years and eight months ago, I found myself abruptly launched into a prolonged transition that continues to this day. The job I’d held for the past five years suddenly disappeared when my boss was tapped to join the fledgling Obama administration as solicitor general. (You may have heard of her: She’s now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.)

As is so often the case with major change, there was much ambivalence. While I was anxious about the plunge into unemployment, I was also ready to move on.  On the one hand, the news came as a welcome push. On the other, I was freaking out.

But whatever my reaction on a given day, there was one thing I never imagined from the vantage point of April 2009: That this transition would go on and on in precisely the way it has.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, my layoff came at the peak of the Great Recession. Still, I had great references, great skills, and a great education. I somehow assumed they’d ease my way. In large part, I was wrong.

Which is different from saying I have regrets. The more I learn about transitions, the more I realize that what I’ve experienced is completely normal. Just because something is painful and hard doesn’t mean it can’t yield fruit.

Years ago, I took a course with psychologist Robert Kegan at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and one thing he said stuck with me. (Well, actually, many things he said stuck with me, but this one is relevant here.)  He said, and I paraphrase from memory: “Growth comes from stretch-not-break challenges.”

In other words, hard times—if they are too hard—can crush us. When they’re just right, they may be uncomfortable, but they also move us forward.

One of the things most helpful to me in navigating this transition has been getting a better handle on what to expect. Over the past two-plus years, I’ve spent a lot of hours delving into the subject, and for the record, here are three of my most useful takeaways.

1. Transitions take a long time.

Three years, five years, seven years—these are the time frames that popped up again and again in my reading.  In New Passages, bestselling author Gail Sheehy ballparks two years as the minimum time needed to stabilize following a layoff or other “life accident.”

2. Transitions have a predictable structure.

Transitions guru William Bridges—author of the groundbreaking Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes—has identified a three-part structure reflected in every major life transition:  An ending, followed by a period of confusion and distress, followed, in turn, by a new beginning.

In Finding Your Own North Star—a book that I count among my personal favorites—life coach Martha Beck describes a four-part “change cycle”: A shocking “catalytic event” is followed by “death and rebirth,” “dreaming and scheming,” “the hero’s saga” (a trial-and-error implementation stage), and finally “the promised land,” or equilibrium regained.

3. Transitions aren’t linear.  

It’s tempting to think that transitions can be neat and orderly, that we can figure out a game plan and simply execute it. In fact, transitions are almost always messy, punctuated with false starts and regroupings.

In Working Identity, an extensive study of successful mid-career career changers, business professor Herminia Ibarra concluded that the “plan and execute model” is not realistic. Rather, successful transitions tend to adopt a “test and learn” approach, following a “first-act-and-then-think” sequence.

Well into the third year of my transition, I’m finally starting to feel that I’m turning a corner. I can’t say for sure that the feeling will last but I’m enjoying it in the meantime.

Looking back, it’s fascinating to see how little I could have predicted where my various steps were leading.  For better or worse, our transitions seem to shape us at least as much as we shape them.

Why Newt Gingrich is my new role model

Newt Gingrich  For President 2012

While I’d never in a zillion years vote for Newt Gingrich, I’m awestruck—and more than a little inspired—by his seemingly limitless capacity to bounce back from defeat.

I mean, think about it: This is a guy who not-so-long-ago was dubbed the most hated man in America, the only house speaker ever to be sanctioned by its members.  As recently as last month, his presidential campaign was floundering, polling in the single digits following his campaign staff’s mass exodus the previous June. Pundits pronounced game over.

And yet today, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, he is widely viewed as a frontrunner, playing hare to Mitt Romney’s tortoise as they vie for the lead in the Republican field.

Mulling over the latest Gingrich comeback, I couldn’t help comparing his Wile E. Coyote-esque resurgence to my own tendency to give up—sometimes even before I start.

One recent case in point: I almost didn’t start this blog. For one thing, I was convinced I’d start, and wouldn’t find any readers. This would be depressing and a little embarrassing.  I recalled the words of a college classmate now a famously successful (if curmudgeonly) writer: “You know the average number of readers of a blog? One!”  Who was I to think that I could add to the conversation?

This is not, to put it mildly, how Newt Gingrich thinks. Newt Gingrich is convinced that he has something to offer the world. And if you don’t agree with him, it’s your problem not his.

In fairness, this sort of against-the-odds confidence is far easier to come by if you’re a narcissist or a sociopath or trend towards bipolar mania. There’s a brilliant scene in Gary Trudeau’s presidential campaign mockumentary Tanner ’88 where a seasoned political reporter educates a younger colleague on this point. “We’re talking about someone who wants to be the most powerful person on the planet,” he says. “We’re not talking well balanced.”  (I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but you get the idea.)

That being said, those of us living in Plan B Nation have a special need for the sort of chutzpah demonstrated by Gingrich and his ilk. We live in an era where positive reinforcements are in increasingly short supply.  Perhaps for the first time ever, we’re facing repeated rejections and setbacks in our professional lives. We have to find ways to keep going when it feels more sensible to give up.

A primary goal of this blog is to identify concrete strategies that help us do just that. For me, a supportive community has been a big piece of this. I’ve also found it helps to make an effort to keep an open mind, to remind myself that I really don’t know where the events in my life are leading.

And now I have another strategy to add to my arsenal. The next time, I’m feeling like a failure, struggling to move on, I’m going to sit down and ask myself: “What would Newt Gingrich do?”

Why you should stop telling me what to do

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Let me be clear: By “you,” I do not mean you, lovely reader of this blog, but the “yous” who’ve felt obliged to tell me elsewhere that I’m screwing up my life.  And by “me” I do not mean me alone but all of us sharing our tender, uncertain, sometimes-painful stories in the larger blogosphere.

In particular, I’m thinking back to comments sparked by the guest post I wrote for the Wall Street Journal’s “Laid Off and Looking” blog in my early days of unemployment.

In this post—which ran just a few hundred words—I talked about the possible upside of losing my job. Mind you, I acknowledged the anxiety and risk but I also admitted to a certain excitement about embarking on what I described as The Next Big Challenge.

Here are two typical responses:

“Get real folks and stop dreaming. I stopped dreaming a long time ago, and it’s better now because I don’t get let down each and every day.”

“If you’re laid back and irresponsible, then the bills don’t mean a thing to you. Well we’re not blessed with being the laid-back type who don’t give a damn about doing what’s right.”

In fairness, there were many positive comments. Still, I found myself intrigued by the vitriol heaped on this little post by those for whom it hit a nerve.

As I pondered the dynamic, I found myself thinking about risk tolerance—a topic all-too-often left out of the job search conversation.

We frequently seem to assume a one-size-fits-all answer to questions such as: “Should I do everything in my power to keep the job I have, or should I read the writing on the wall and accept the offered package?”

In fact, risk tolerance varies with the individual. Without knowing where a questioner falls on the spectrum, it’s impossible to offer sound advice.

If you have a mortgage, kids, and are a few paychecks away from financial crisis, your risk tolerance—and thus your “right” answers—will differ from those of someone without those obligations who has a financial cushion.

If you’re comfortable with uncertainty, your answers will be different from those of someone who freaks out if they can’t predict what they’ll be doing a year from Monday.

This isn’t because one person is right and the other is wrong: It’s because people have different obligations, different temperaments, different levels of risk tolerance.  Our risk tolerance is ours alone.  It’s not a moral virtue, a settled fact—it’s simply our situation.

And for the record, I’m happy to say that I’m doing fine now. The decisions I made two-plus years ago were—for me—the right ones.  My search for work is now paying off, in part thanks to this blog.  I’ve also had a chance to grow in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’d be lying if I said that this was the path I would have chosen. But while these aren’t the experiences I would have picked, I can’t say that I regret them.

Do the wrong thing

BSOD 0x07B

I spent last Friday working (for pay), and this week I have phone calls with two more prospective clients.

As you likely know if you read this blog, this is an excellent development, as I’ve been in search of employment for, well, a while now.  Being an analytical sort, I’ve been giving some thought to how this came about (the theory being that, whatever it is, I should do more of it).  My conclusion: I should stop doing things right and keep doing things wrong.

If I were to offer a work-search road map based on my recent success, it would look something like this:

1.  Make a big deal about the fact that you are among the long-term unemployed. Tell everyone you know. Better yet: Find a national platform where you can broadcast this news to the world. No one will hire me! This sucks! You get the idea.

2.  Once you have succeeded in spreading word of your unemployability, do something to up the stakes. For example, you might consider telling everyone you know about your struggle with alcohol and how going public with unemployment reminds you of the first time you attended an AA meeting. Again, this is best done in the most public way possible—ideally on a national platform.

3.  Start slacking off a bit on your job search. Spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Go to the movies. Again, do your best to tell everyone you know that no one will hire you and that this has been the case for a long time.  Actually, don’t limit yourself to people you know—go up to strangers, introduce yourself, and try to work this into conversation.

4.  When the publicity around your unemployment starts to die down—if you’ve done things right, hundreds if not thousands of people will have been informed of your futile search for work—find a way to keep it in the spotlight. You might consider starting a blog about how no one will hire you. Update it regularly and post links to Facebook and Twitter so that strangers as well as friends become aware of your dilemma.

5.  Repeat the above as often as possible.

Okay, this is partly tongue in cheek, but really, only partly. The fact is, both my recent freelance project and one of my new work leads came from people who read this blog and the two much-discussed essays I previously published in Salon. The second lead came from a former neighbor I bumped into at the movies.  (This same friend has also become a terrific source of support and guidance for this blog.)

Before going public with my unemployment—you might even say I’ve made it my “brand”—I spent a good number of months following traditional job search guidelines:  Recognize that if you’re unemployed you’re at a disadvantage, so do your best to obscure this fact. Write enticing cover letters. Hone your interview skills.

Now, this is fine advice, great so far as it goes. At the same time, it clearly has its limits.  As for me, I’ve concluded that the time has come to diversify my strategies. There’s a place for doing everything right. And there’s a place for doing things wrong.

Searching for meaning in Plan B Nation

Searching the Ox  -  I

Earlier this week, I wrote about how much happier I’ve been since moving back to my beloved Northampton roughly a year ago. While I feared this would be just a temporary boost, I’m pleased to report that it’s proven far more satisfying and delightfully sustaining.

At the same time, the past year has (not surprisingly) brought new challenges. Apartment hunting, negotiating a lease, finding movers, packing—these practical tasks amounted to a full-time job that left me little time for worrying about larger and more amorphous questions such as What am I doing with my life? Once I’d landed on the other side, however, they soon reclaimed center stage.

Regardless of where you go for guidance—psychologists, religious leaders, sociologists, friends—pretty much everyone will tell you that purpose is a key ingredient for a satisfying life.

In his celebrated 1946 Holocaust memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl went so far as to say that this search is our primary motivation in life. But while the principle may be a simple one, putting it into practice can be far more complicated—and in circumstances far less dire than Frankl’s Nazi death camp. Frankl himself recognized this in a preface to the book’s 1984 edition, where he glumly concluded: “I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”

If anything our hunger for meaning has only grown more desperate since Frankl penned those words. There may be periods of our lives—sometimes long periods—when we don’t give it much thought. The big questions are (temporarily) settled. The big decisions are made. What remains is execution, the living out of their implications through the days and years.

At other times, however, the big questions are right in our face—and, more and more that’s the case for those of us living in Plan B Nation.  More and more, we’re drop-kicked into unfamiliar situations, left to make major decisions without meaningful guidance.  Our parents’ rules for decision-making no longer seem to apply. Friends give conflicting advice. Depending on our spiritual outlook, we may pray or look inward for guidance, but often we still find ourselves completely at a loss—at a loss and anxious.

Perhaps my favorite description of this muddled state comes from a short story by the peerless Lorrie Moore. Describing a baffled protagonist, she writes, “She hadn’t been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She’d been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told, ‘There you go.’”

A can of gravy and a hairbrush.

I can so relate.

In the first decade of the new millennium, an evangelical pastor named Rick Warren tapped into this motherlode of anguished confusion with The Purpose Driven Life, now billed as “the bestselling nonfiction hardback book in history.” (The Bible, presumably, is entirely factual so not in the running here.)

While I was raised as a Congregationalist I’ve spent little time in churches in my adulthood—except for a brief foray into Episcopalianism. (“We’re Unitarians who like liturgy,” our priest once said, describing those drawn to this small and decidedly creative church.) Still, I couldn’t help but be curious, so I ordered myself a copy.

The (trademark registered) Purpose Driven Life is described as a “40-day spiritual journey” that “will transform your life.”  Warren urges us to read no more than one of the 40 chapters each day, but I decided that a single afternoon would have to suffice.  After all, I didn’t plan to do the program, I just wanted to get a sense of what it’s about—and indeed, it took just a few chapters to grasp its appeal.

Warren claims The Purpose Driven Life is not a self-help book, but while his understanding of the genre may differ from mine, it strikes me as exactly that. In fairness, I found much with which to agree. In his anti-materialism, his belief in the paramount importance of relationships over things, Warren’s is a counter-cultural voice, exhorting us to care for the planet as well as for each other. To that extent, I’m with him.

This only takes me a short way, though, and I’m soon baffled by Warren’s blithe presumption that all we need to do is listen.

Warren’s God speaks with unmistakable clarity. The problem isn’t that we can’t hear God but that we refuse to obey him.

“If God asked you to build a giant boat, don’t you think you might have a few questions, objections, or reservations?” Warren asks his readers, contrasting our imagined obstinacy with Noah’s eagerness to get right on that ark.

And that’s where he loses me.

Because the thing is, if God were speaking to me—and I knew for sure that this was God—I’m pretty sure I’d be fine with building whatever boat he (or she) wanted. And I’m pretty sure the same would be true for most anyone reading the book. (Or at least almost anyone: My friend Jennifer—a law professor—insists she would indeed take issue with this heavenly directive, explaining she’s not trained in ark-building, though she’d gladly write a paper.)

But this doesn’t seem to be how God usually speaks, even to those of us desperate for guidance.

Not that we don’t wish he did.

I’m reminded of a scene in The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s National Book Award-winning 1960 novel. “Don’t you see?” the despairing Kate Cutrer asks her cousin Binx. “What I want is to believe in someone completely and then do what he wants me to do. If God were to tell me: Kate, here is what I want you to do; you get off this train right now and go over there to that corner by the Southern Life and Accident Insurance Company and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people—you think I would not do it? You think I would not be the happiest girl in Jackson, Mississippi? I would.”

For most of us, like Kate, clear direction often proves elusive, however much we long for it. That was certainly the case for renowned writer Dan Wakefield, a novelist, journalist and screenwriter who, after decades of atheism and hard living, rediscovered the religious faith of his youth. Some years later, he reconnected with a childhood friend, a woman from his hometown of Indianapolis (which also happens to be my hometown, but I digress).  After years of tumultuous relationships, Wakefield believed he was finally on the right path, on the road to which God had led him. The couple married.

And then, almost immediately, things fell apart.

In his soul-baring spiritual memoir How Do We Known When It’s God?, Wakefield reflects back on this painful time, writing: “The hubris of imagining we’ve ‘got it together,’ followed by a jolt of reality that plunges us back to earth, is probably one of the most familiar and often-traveled arcs of human experience. And yet we think each time, ‘This is different, this time I’ve really got it right.’”

Wakefield’s experience got me to thinking about how we go about pursuing our goals—how we decide what to do next. It’s all well and good to say, as the evangelical Warren does, that we should just do what God tells us—or some secular equivalent of this—but what does this really mean?  At the most basic, practical level, how do we go about this? And, most immediately, how should I go about it?

The notion that there exists some absolute truth to which we should look for guidance pervades American culture.  For Evangelical Christians like Warren, it’s God. For those of a more ecumenical bent, it may be Your True Self, Your Inner Voice, or some general force for good.

But not everyone buys such theories. Alongside the widespread view that there exists some pre-existing and essential truth is a less well-traveled but parallel track known as constructivism. As constructivists see it, the self is something that we create, not something that we find. Until we’ve constructed our self, there isn’t a self to consult. Until then, to paraphrase Harvard professor Robert Kegan, we’re no more than the collection of beliefs taken on from “important others”—parents, teachers, peers, celebrities, employers, to name just a view. And because these perspectives so often diverge, we often find ourselves in trouble—caught between conflicting demands with no way to choose between them.

Make a lot of money, but don’t overvalue material things.

Put yourself first, but also put your family first.

It’s important to look your best, but don’t think too much about how you look.

Be assertive but modest.

As the old saying goes, you can’t please everyone—and yet, without quite noticing, many of us in Plan B Nation can’t seem to stop ourselves from trying.

But while the constructivists’ theories make a lot of sense to me, they still leave the biggest question unanswered.  If we’re charged with “constructing” our selves, how do we best proceed?

I’ve spent much of the past year thinking—and reading—about this question, and more and more, I’m convinced that life in Plan B Nation isn’t something that can be planned or neatly charted out.

Rather, we need to “live into” our new lives—to discover our purpose through trying things out, regrouping, then trying again. The process isn’t linear. It’s often messy. But it’s also necessary.

And in fact, the process may not be all that different from how we’ve always lived.  After extensive research into successful mid-life career transitions, organizational behavior expert Herminia Ibarra concluded that the traditional “plan and implement” model is at odds with reality. Facing a major crossroads, would-be career changers often spend countless hours and dollars on counseling and batteries of standardized tests, all in the interests of determining what it is they really want.  In other words, first figure out what you want. Then go after it.

This all sounds pretty logical, except that, according to Ibarra, our lives don’t work that way. “We learn who we are—in practice, not in theory—by testing reality, not by looking inside,” she writes in Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.  “We discover the true possibilities by doing—trying out new activities, reaching out to new groups, finding new role models, and reworking our story as we tell it to those around us.”  

Over the past months, I’ve taken this advice to heart (in part because it appeals to me and in part because I don’t really see a whole lot of other options). I still feel pulled in multiple directions—at the time of this writing, I’m taking an introductory social work class, planning to teach a writing workshop, actively seeking full-time and freelance jobs, and contemplating taking the Massachusetts bar exam.  (In the dry words of one friend, “Amy, maybe you should consider monetizing your Harvard Law degree.”)

If this post seems longer than previous offerings, that’s because it is: Much of it was pulled from a book proposal that I may (or may not) be reworking.  As with so many other things: Time. Will. Tell. For now, one of the ways I’m finding meaning is through writing this blog.  And while I can’t say where it’s taking me, I’m sure enjoying the ride.

Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily

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A year ago today, I was packing up my Cambridge apartment a stone’s throw from Harvard Square and preparing to return to Northampton, the bucolic western Massachusetts college town where I’d previously lived for two years in the early aughts.

I’d been in Cambridge for six years, and a hard six years it was. I’m still not quite sure why. It was the third time I’d lived in the storied educational mecca, home to Harvard, MIT, and countless brilliant minds. I’d been there twice as a student. This time I was back for a job at Harvard Law School, where I ultimately wound up writing speeches for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan.

It was a pretty great job in a pretty great city, but for some reason my life never really came together there.  Most difficult—and puzzling—of all was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make friends. Being single, my friends have always been especially important to me, and not having any good friends close at hand—well, it was quite a challenge.

In fairness, by the time I moved, I’d manage to collect a handful of intimates, but given the time and effort I put in, the results were pretty paltry.  Was it me? I wondered. It had to be me. After all, who wouldn’t like Cambridge?

This was pretty much the way my thoughts were going when my boss decamped for Washington, D.C., and my Harvard job abruptly ended in the spring of 2009. At the time, it seemed to make sense to just stay put. I had a strong professional network in the Boston area, and even with the Great Recession upon us, the region’s job market was still relatively robust (at least compared to other places).

Over the next year-plus, I picked up freelance projects and other short-term work, but more and more, I found myself pining to return to western Mass. While I’d last lived in Northampton a decade before, I’d made frequent trips back to see friends, and I loved my weekend visits. Still, I sternly reminded myself, mini-vacations are not real life. Making a move wouldn’t change any of the very real difficulties facing me. I’d still be jobless, looking for work, still financially strained. I’d still be single (which is great if you choose it, but the fact is, I had not).

Also: I already knew from experience that just because I thought a change would make my life better didn’t mean that it would. Psychologists have a fancy name for this—affective forecasting error—the idea being that we humans are notoriously poor predictors of what will make us happy.

Wherever you go there you are. The saying stuck in my mind. Everyone knows that you can’t change your life by simply changing your surroundings–and lest you have any lingering doubt, research bears this out.  In one often-cited study, researchers found that people who believed they would be happier living in California actually would not be. I couldn’t help but suspect that Northampton might be my personal California (albeit a far chillier and less sunny one).

And so it went until my unhappiness reached the point that even an unlikely option seemed worth the risk. I didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking—or at least hoping—that a move might serve as a jump start.

I was encouraged to find some support for this notion in journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. There, Gladwell recounts the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a bustling self-sufficient town established in the nineteenth century by immigrants from a single Italian village. In the 1950s, a physician discovered that the town’s residents enjoyed astonishingly good health, with men over 65 dying from heart disease at half the rate of the United States as a whole, and with death rates from all causes 30% to 35% lower than expected. After significant research aimed at controlling for variables–diet, genetics, exercise–researchers concluded that, remarkably enough, residents’ health could be traced to nothing more than the fabric of town life, with its rich social bonds and traditions.

Maybe I was grasping at straws, but this seemed promising. It seemed to suggest that while “moving to California” might not in itself boost happiness, the sense of belonging to a vibrant community could have a profound impact. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this made total sense. After all, wasn’t it likely that I’d be happier in a place that I knew and loved, surrounded by people I cared about and who cared about me?

Moreover, I was able to garner research to back me up. Again and again, close relationships with family and friends have been shown to be one of the strongest proven predictors of happiness.

Reader, I moved.

And as I approach my one-year anniversary in Northampton, I’m delighted to tell you that I am indeed far, far happier than I was before. While the move certainly hasn’t fixed everything—I’m still looking for work, still looking for love—I’m deeply grateful for my life here. Along with the welcome infusion of human warmth and connection, I cherish the texture of daily life: stopping by the farm down the street to pick up eggs, playing board games with my friends’ kids, working with Friends of Children and Treehouse, local organizations doing cutting-edge work aimed at transforming the nation’s foster care system. The list goes on.

The moral of the story? Changing your surroundings won’t necessarily change your life. But then again: It might.

Thanksgiving in Plan B Nation (or how to be grateful when you don’t feel grateful)

Looking ahead to the Thanksgiving holiday, a friend expressed some trepidation. This year, several guests at a usually festive annual party would be newly unemployed. My friend shook his head. “It’s going to be strange this year.”

As the world economy stumbles on, wreaking chaos in countless lives, it strikes me that this experience is likely to be widely shared–and that the spirit of gratitude may well prove more elusive than in boom years past. Researchers would seem to agree.

“It is relatively easy to feel grateful when good things are happening and life is going the way we want it to,” observes University of California-Davis Professor Robert A. Emmons, whose book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier devotes an entire chapter to gratitude in trying times. “A much greater challenge is to be grateful when things are not going so well, and are not going the way we think they should.”

Speaking from personal experience, a prolonged job hunt can be a serious hit to the gratitude balance sheet, however much you try to focus on the positive. In part, that’s because evolution designed us to remember danger more than pleasure. (That’s how our ancestors kept from getting eaten.)  Research psychologists call this our “negativity bias.”

Moreover, gratitude may always come harder to some of us than others, due to our (genetically determined) temperaments. When I took the Newcastle Personality Assessor, I somehow wasn’t shocked to find that I scored high on the personality dimension associated with high sensitivity to negative stimuli—a trait of some use in the evolutionary sweepstakes but less well adapted to my current purposes as a latté-drinking inhabitant of a New England college town. “What your ancestors needed to survive is not what you need to have a pleasant life,” researcher Daniel Nettle helpfully explains in his book Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are.

Now it probably won’t come as a huge surprise that gratitude correlates with happiness. Grateful people cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, have more satisfying relationships, are more optimistic, and all in all, are happier with their lives than their less grateful peers. They are also: less anxious, less envious, less materialistic, and less lonely.  In sum, “happiness is facilitated when we . . . ‘want what we have,’” Emmons concludes.

All well in good if you feel grateful, but what if you just . . . don’t?  What if you really don’t want what you have, thanks all the same? And what if you have some pretty good reasons for wanting life to be different?

Happily, research suggests that gratitude can be cultivated—even by those of us for whom it doesn’t come naturally. (Emmons actually puts himself in this category, noting that he spends far more time thinking about gratitude research than practicing the quality he studies.)

The most common mistake? Assuming that gratitude should spring up effortlessly. Not so, says Emmons.  For most of us, developing gratitude requires ongoing discipline.  We have to learn to act first, regardless of how we feel. “While gratitude is pleasant, it is not easy,” Emmons writes. “We have to work at it. It must be consciously cultivated.”

For those who want to test his theories, Emmons offers ten suggested practices for cultivating gratitude. They include keeping a daily gratitude journal, remembering the hardest times in your life and how  far you’ve come (maybe not so helpful if those times are now), and making a point of expressing gratitude.

While the idea of “counting your blessings” is an ancient one, it was Emmons and his colleagues who gave the idea its scholarly bona fides. In one 10-week study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three weekly reporting groups. One group was asked to report back on five things they were grateful for, the second to describe five hassles, and the third simply to report five things that affected them.

The result: At the end of the study, the gratitude group was not only a full 25% happier than other participants but also reported fewer health concerns and spent more time exercising. (Later research showed that daily practice was even more effective.)

Sounds good, but will it work for you?

Here’s one way to find out. Go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness website and complete both the General Happiness and Satisfaction with Life tests. Then, every night for the next two weeks spend five minutes listing up to five things from the past 24 hours for which you feel grateful. At the end of the two weeks, take the tests again. If you’re happier than before: Continue. (This experiment is suggested by Penn Professor Martin Seligman—often referred to as the grandfather of positive psychology—for those who score in the lower half of either the Life Satisfaction test or Emmons’ gratitude survey, which is also available on the website.)

While I’ve kept gratitude journals before, I’ve never stuck with them for all that long, but thanks to my recent reading, I’m giving it another shot.  In fact, I’ll start now: First of all, I’m really grateful to you—to everyone who’s read and commented on this blog in the past ten days. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a project as much, and I couldn’t (wouldn’t) do it if it no one were reading it. So: thank you, thank, you! And have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

P.S. For anyone inclined to join me in keeping a gratitude journal, here’s a helpful list of tips I came across while procrastinating researching this post.