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

keep cool on the swimming pool

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

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

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

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

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

2.   What part of your life is unlived?

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

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

3.  Move towards pleasure. Now.  

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

4. What are you looking forward to?

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

5. Take stock of how you rocked

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

* * *

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

Why Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the time?

I once heard a story about a woman who met with the Dalai Lama and confided that she was deeply sad about not having children. He listened intently then gently responded: “All the time?

This exchange came back to me in recent days as I continue to navigate one of my tougher stretches in Plan B Nation. The challenge of finding a new home, an unsettled work life, summer heat – such things have me swamped in discouragement, uncertainty, and stress.

That’s why I’ve been re-upping my efforts to Take in the Good – to bring a focused attention to all that is going right. This is a very different thing from denying life’s very real problems. The lemons are definitely still there. But so is the lemonade.

A few nights back, I visited a local swimming hole with my friend Becky, after which we  headed off for dinner at Ashfield’s Country Pie. I’d been hearing about this place for ages and was eager to try the pizza, but the hour-plus wait time quickly changed our plans. Grinders would be just 20 minutes. We opted for those instead. From a stash of games, I picked up a Chinese checkers board. Once we figured out how to play, we whiled away the time while waiting, and I now remember that interlude as the best part of the evening.

This morning, I once again felt the weight of the world descending, so I jumped in my car and made my way to the dreamy Montague Bookmill. That’s where I am right now, camped out at the Lady Killigrew Cafe with a bagel and coffee, listening to the rushing water below from my corner window seat.  Yes, there are things in my life that are hard, but this is also true.

There’s a reason to think this way. Focusing on the good things in life is a first-step towards correcting for the brain’s “negativity bias,” which causes us to react more strongly to a negative stimulus than to an equally strong positive one, says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and Just One Thing. While this bias had its evolutionary uses – it kept our ancestors from getting eaten – it also explains why we so often make ourselves needlessly unhappy by endlessly replaying our fears and failures and disregarding successes.

The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones, is how Hanson puts it. That’s why it’s so important to do our best to take in the good things that happen. “By tilting toward the good – toward that which brings more happiness and benefit to oneself and others – you merely level the playing field,” Hanson writes in Just One Thing, which includes 52 practices for enhancing well-being by changing the brain. (There’s a name for this: “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.”)

Lately, I’ve been returning to the popular Three Good Things practice – taking time at the end of each day to write down three positive experiences from the past 24 hours. Over the years that I’ve played with this exercise, I’ve had mixed results. There are times it’s left me cold and seemed like a waste of time. But these days, it feels helpful so I’m sticking with it for now. That’s the great thing about a toolkit. It gives you choices.

When I started this blog, I was committed to being honest and authentic, but the more I look at my experience, the harder it is to grasp. Within a single experience, there are many truths: Yes, life is hard right now — but not all the time.

30 small things (aka Life Experiment #6)

“There are no large pleasures in life, only small ones,” a much older boyfriend once pronounced to an impressionable 25-year-old me. He paused for a moment, reflecting. “Except maybe the Prado or the Louvre.”

“I’ve already been to both,” I ventured.

“Well. . . .” He raised his hands as if to say: “So, that’s that!”

The older I get, the more I take his point. Not that there aren’t large pleasures and that they aren’t, well pleasurable. But the quality of our days, and thus our lives, is largely determined by small things.

Mulling over possible Life Experiments for June, I hit on the idea of doing one (small) nice thing for myself each day. Given that June 1—today—is my birthday, this seems especially apt. Plus it’s also in line with my ongoing quest for more playfulness and fun.

Last month’s Life Experiment involved Doing Less. Without going into a lot of detail, I’ll say that, strictly speaking, you could count it as a failure. In fact, if my goal had been to Do More, you might say I’d triumphed.

But this isn’t the whole story. More and more, I see these Life Experiments as planting seeds. The fruit they bear won’t necessarily be within a predictable time frame. This hit home for me a few weeks back when I signed up for a digital photography class that starts next week. As regular readers may recall, my Photo-a-Day experiment lasted just a few days. But now, here I am returning to the terrain I staked out then. The seed I planted is taking root, just not the way I planned.

When I sat down to the make the list of 30 small things, I had the idea of small pleasures—a massage, a dinner out with friends, new running shoes—but as I started to write, what leaped to mind were small nagging tasks. Exhibit A would be the sweater with a button that’s been waiting to be sewn back on for something like 10 years. (In a novel this might be a metaphor, but in my life, it’s fact.)

In Life Coach-land such tasks-in-waiting are known as “tolerations” and are said to be constant drains on our store of energy. In any case, I’m pretty sure I’d feel better with a shorter list. Massages and restaurant dinners are nice, but so is creating order. My hypothesis: Getting that button sewn back will make me unreasonably happy.

Life Experiment #6: Do once small nice thing for yourself each day—which may mean pleasurable in the doing but could also mean pleasurable in the sense of feeling-happier-having-done-it. (Hi there, sweater and button!)

40 ways to appreciate a kidney stone

At the er for a migraine

I wake up a little before seven with a sharp pain in my lower back. Just that old pulled muscle acting up again—but man, this time it really hurts. I gobble a bunch of Advil and hobble back to bed.

A few hours later, I’m up again. While the pain has abated, it’s still there, and I briefly wonder if I should mosey over to the Emergency Room. But no, I’m being a wimp. I pop a couple more Advil, pack up my computer, and head off to a café. It’s Monday—Memorial Day—but I didn’t make any plans, in part because I really need to motor through a bunch of work.

I’m eating my croissant and sipping coffee when the pain washes over me again. I look up from my laptop screen. This really doesn’t feel right. And yes, it seems silly to go to the ER because of back pain, but you know what? I don’t care.

Well, as you’ve likely figured out by now, this wasn’t just my ancient sports injury giving me grief. It was a kidney stone. I’m still not sure exactly what this is—something about a calcified something trying to find its way out—but I do have one salient piece of advice:  Refrain from getting one.

“It’s really good you came in,” said the medical technician, who started the IV drip to administer pain meds and fluids.

I hadn’t brought anything to read, but I did have my iPhone. “Holiday greetings from the Cooley Dick emergency room! Working hypothesis: kidney stones. #tmi,” I typed into Facebook.

Thanks to social media, I had instant company.

“I read a great essay a few days ago about how you can make difficult experiences better by crafting the story that you’ll later tell about them. Or something like that,” my writer friend Megan quipped.  She was talking about this, and in fact, I already was.

At the time the pain struck, I was finishing up a column for SecondAct about doing a Plan B Nation-style Happiness Project. The idea, of course, grew out of lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. I’ve sometimes jokingly call Plan B Nation  “a Happiness Project for the rest of us”—for those who don’t already have Rubin’s picture perfect life—and I wanted to write about that.

But lying in the ER, my mind wandered to two of Rubin’s previous books—Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK.  And then: Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone. The title just popped into my head, and I decided to make a list. (If you’re interested, you can read it below. In fact, I only came up with 25, but in deference to whimsicality, I left the title unchanged.)

Two days later, I was telling my writer friend Lisa about my misadventure. “I was so convinced it was that sports injury that I blocked out any other option.”

As it happened, Lisa had her own such story. Walking down a dark Brooklyn street a number of years back, she caught sight of three suspicious-looking characters ambling towards her. If you see something suspicious, always look at your watch. A friend had described having done just that after seeing a plane fly low over Manhattan’s Twin Towers. Now Lisa did it herself. In an instant, she saw herself on the witness stand, Law and Order style. She alone would have the facts! And then, she was mugged.

“Oh! I’m not a witness! I’m the victim!” was her first astonished thought.

You might say our minds have minds of their own. They assume “facts,” create stories, and often won’t shut up until they get us to act accordingly.  At times, this is a great thing. Our lives depend on it. But helpful as our minds may try to be, they sometimes lead us astray. Their first impulse isn’t always the right one. That’s why we need to keep them open.

Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone

1. It wasn’t something worse

2. I got to meet the super nice super kind people in the Cooley Dick emergency room

3. I wasn’t out of town

4. I didn’t have the disappointment of cancelling holiday plans (had been feeling a little glum about not having any. Now I was glad.)

5.  It didn’t happen right before a work deadline

6. I wasn’t screwing up anyone else’s holiday plans

7. It gave me an opportunity to test my story-creating tool—and find it worked again

8. It led me to appreciate health in a way I hadn’t the day before

9. It gave me another way to reflect on the quality of openness that I’ve been mulling; the ability to see outside expectations. In brief, my initial tendency was to attribute this to a flaring of a sports injury. In fact, it was something different.

10. I told a nurse about Greenie pill pockets for her aging cat

11. I appreciated living in a place with easy access to medical care

12. I now know what these symptoms mean in the event they strike again

13. I know I should be drinking more water.

14. Another way to connect with friends

15. It gave me a chance to see that, at least sometimes, I’m getting better than I used to be about life not going according to my plans.

16. It gave me a sense that I’m not as much of a pain wimp as I’ve always thought of myself as being.

17. I didn’t have to take the heavy duty painkillers.

18. I had the heavy duty painkillers in reserve, which was reassuring.

19. Appreciate FB—didn’t have to call any one person but had community support, felt not alone + knew I had someone to call on if it turned out I did need help

20. Friends who offered to help

21. Made me appreciate insurance

22. Made me appreciate Mass, where health insurance is affordable

23. Made me appreciate my apartment—quiet, restful, safe space to recuperate.

24. Appreciate my car—that I was able to drive myself to the ER

25. Writing about this gives me a chance to connect with others—and maybe help someone else who ends up in this place in the future. (Research suggests that helping others makes us happier than doing things for ourselves.)

Everything’s a (funny) story

Standoff with bad dog and cheese

Well, not everything. But this is: Back in Cambridge for a quick overnight visit, I’m heading down Mass Ave towards Harvard Square. As it happens, my trip coincided with Harvard graduation, and throngs of well-dressed celebrants are heading off to parties and dinners. But I have a different agenda: I’m on my way to a toney little grocery in hopes that some Boar’s Head turkey and Swiss will entice my friend Betsy’s bad dog to let me back in the house.

Wubby growls when I return. I toss her a slice of (fancy, expensive) cheese. She growls again. I back off. She gobbles up the cheese. We repeat this futile exercise another two times. Well futile for me, not for her. I beat a hasty retreat to my car to contemplate next steps.

Betsy’s at a meeting at a Boston law firm and won’t be home for another few hours. Her husband is out of town. I need to get back home to western Mass, but first I need to collect my stuff from the third-floor guest room.

I call our friend Jan, whose Eddie is the dog behind Cambridge Canine.

“Betsy’s dog won’t let me in the house,” I say. I explain the situation.

“I’d be scared too,” she says. “I wouldn’t try again.”

Not the answer I was hoping to hear. I try to look on the bright side. “Maybe I can get a blog post out of it,” I say reflectively. “Though I can’t really get any writing done. My computer is in the house.”

“That’s good for the blog post,” observes pragmatic Jan. She’s a blogger too.

So here’s the thing, the point behind this story: Even as I schlepped down Mass Ave, even as I brandished cold cuts to an inexplicably hostile dog—usually Wubby loves me!—I found myself framing the events as an amusing story. First as a Facebook status update, then as a little essay. And, as I see it, this is a very good thing.

In the pre-social media world, this would not have been my default mode. I would have been seething and stressing, not taking mental notes with an eye to writing a blog post. I would have been focused on the fact that I needed to get home and this shouldn’t be happening. There would have been no upside. There would have been lots of down.

In the wake of Facebook’s IPO, the debate over life online—pro and con—shows no sign of abating. The cover story in this month’s AtlanticIs Facebook Making Us Lonely?—has 18,000 Facebook recommends as of this writing. I, however, just don’t buy it. Take my trip to Cambridge: I was able to meet my California-based friend Marcia for coffee only because I knew—through Facebook!—that our visits would coincide.That Jan and I enjoyed a fantastic southern feast at Tupelo can be traced to the fact that my friend Jen’s husband is the chef there. I first met Jen (I know, it’s confusing Jan and Jen: two different people) on Twitter and often connect with her now via Facebook. And come to think of it, I actually first “met” Jan online as well—the strength of our real-life friendship is such that I can easily forget that.

As I once wrote on Huffington Post, there is no monolithic Facebook. Facebook is what we make it. One of the major critiques often levied at the social media giant is that it encourages a focus on self-presentation at the expense of authenticity. But I see it very differently. Is the funny story about me attempting to placate Wubby less real, less true to my experience than a narrative that would have had me frustrated, anxious, and on-edge? Absolutely not—because as I created the funny story, it became my experience. And, I would add, I am far the happier for that.

As for my story’s coda, I did finally get into the house. Betsy raced home to corral Wubby. I grabbed my stuff and got on the road. The whole episode delayed my travels for maybe 90 minutes. And now I have written this. And you are reading it.

Why birthdays matter (& why they don’t)

Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last winter, I was asked to talk about Plan B Nation on New England NPR. I’d just launched the blog the month before. I was pretty thrilled.

As I prepared for the interview, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to say and how to say it. What aspects of my Plan B Nation journey should I focus on? What would listeners find interesting? What would they find helpful?

One thing I wasn’t too worried about was being caught off guard. I’d already written about unemployment for the mega website Salon. The facts of my story were already out there. Or so I thought.

“How old are you?” The question came at the end of the interview, almost an afterthought.

I didn’t answer right away. I realized that I didn’t want to say.

“Is my age really important?” I finally asked (or something equally lame).

At the time, I couldn’t have told you why I balked at this question. I just knew that I felt strangely committed to holding back The Number. And if I was unclear myself, my interviewer was baffled. “You talk publicly about unemployment and AA, but you don’t want to give your age?”

I had to admit she had a point, but that didn’t seem to sway me.

It took some time for me to piece together what was going on here. The fact is, age has consequences. These are less apparent when our lives are settled, with the big questions of love and work at least temporarily resolved. But if you’ve been on a dating website, or applied for a job lately, you’ll know what I’m talking about. After a certain point, numbers rule us out far more often than they rule us in.

But even more significant—at least for me—is the issue of how age defines us as normal, or, well not. Our cultural assumptions around age are deep and pervasive. The “stage theory” pioneered by Erik H. Erikson and popularized by Gail Sheehy in her blockbuster 1974 bestseller Passages is premised on the notion that our lives move through predictable stages that correlate with our ages. “The Trying Twenties,” “The Deadline Decade” (that’s your thirties, y’all!), “The Flourishing Forties,” “The Flaming Fifties”—Sheehy neatly labeled what are increasingly, for many of us, messy realities.

The more I think about it, perhaps the biggest reason I resist being defined by age is that the train of associations feels so powerfully misleading. For those of us whose lives have followed unconventional patterns—for me that means not getting married, not having kids, and pursuing a career path more meandering than directed—age can tend to put the focus on what we haven’t done rather than what we have (which for me includes, among other things, designing and co-founding the Mississippi Teacher Corps, writing and publishing two novels, practicing law, living in places ranging from the Mississippi Delta to Manhattan, and now thinking long and deeply about the issues I’m exploring in this blog.)

And yet, despite everything I’ve just said, I do pay attention to birthdays—though for very different reasons than I did when I was younger.

For me, birthdays have become a point of reckoning, a marker in the steady progression of days that helps me take stock. As I’ve written before, I’m someone who tends to have a hard time appreciating how far I’ve traveled and what I’ve done. I tend to focus on “what next?” rather than “what then?” Birthdays help counter that. Like the New Year or any other regular marker—and the more, the better, I say—they offer an opportunity both to appreciate progress and to look ahead. (For me, this always involves a rambling foray through my trusty desk diaries.)

This past year: So much! Starting this blog, for one big thing. Writing for Salon, the Chicago Tribune, SecondAct (where I have a new bi-monthly column), and now, Psychology Today. Optioning my second novel for film. Designing and leading a writing workshop for foster kids. Picking blueberries. Making pesto. Hiking the Seven Sisters. Training for a 5K. Making some really good friends and strengthening ties with old ones.

Oh, and for the record, I’m about to turn 52. I really don’t mind giving my age: I just don’t want to lead with it.

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.

I’m back. Here’s why I was gone.

Free Child Walking on White Round Spheres Balance Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.