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

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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.