This is what transitions look like

Over the last couple of months, I’ve lost more than 20 pounds on what my friend Molly refers to as the Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. I’ve been apartment searching in Boston, packing to move, preparing to start a new full-time job after three-plus years on my own, and starting to lead a seminar at UMass Amherst entitled, ironically enough, “Living Strategically.” (I taught my first class last week by the way. Let it be said: I love my students. And I love teaching.)

On second thought, “living strategically” isn’t so ironic after all. If not for the strategies I’ve learned, practiced – and blogged about here – over the past few years, I’d undoubtedly be in far worse shape than I am today.  Hard as things are right now – and they are pretty hard – I have tools and perspective.

That is when I remember to use them.

Last week, I was going through an especially difficult patch. I’d made the two-hour drive into Boston from western Mass based on a realtor’s promise to show me four to seven apartments only to discover on arrival that none of them accepted cats, despite my having clearly indicated that one would be coming with me. I start my Boston job a week from tomorrow. I still have no place to live, and once I find one, I’ll still have to move. It all began to seem utterly overwhelming. Was this whole thing a mistake? What had I been thinking?

And then, just in time, I remembered: This is what transitions look like. Not in every specific, of course, but in the experience.

In life coach Martha Beck’s Change Cycle model of transitions, I’m right on track, smack dab in the middle of Square 1 (Death and Rebirth). “The bizarre, formless, zero-identity netherworld of Square One is what anthropologists call a “liminal period,” Beck writes in Finding Your Own North Star, describing such a time as one “where you’re on the threshold between identities, neither inside nor out, neither one thing nor the other.”

She continues: “During most of Square One, you’ll probably feel panicky, groundless, and desperate. Problems and complications seem to attack from all sides: big ones, little ones, strange and unfamiliar ones. You rush around in frenzied activity but feel as though you’re getting absolutely nothing done.”

Yes! And yes and yes. That is exactly how I’ve been feeling.

For his part, transitions guru William Bridges describes this uncomfortable stretch as “the neutral zone,” a “period of confusion and distress” that follows an ending and precedes a new beginning. He devotes an entire chapter of Transitions to this difficult time, including a number of suggestions to ease the way.

The first of these: Surrender — we must “give in to the emptiness and stop struggling to escape it,” he counsels.

If you’re caught in a riptide, you’re supposed to stop fighting and let yourself drift. If you’re facing an angry bear, you should lie still, pretending to be dead. (At least, this is what I’ve always heard; in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve tested neither of these.) Both of these responses would seem to go against our basic survival instincts. I imagine that, in the instant, knowledge is often a poor match for adrenaline-powered impulse.

But, as I know from long experience, the first impulse isn’t always the right one.  As I continue through this month of dramatic change and uprooting, I’ll be calling on the collective wisdom of all who have gone before me (and here, I include not only others but also my own past selves.) While surrender doesn’t come naturally, it’s nonetheless what’s called for.

Life Experiment #9:  “The present moment is the mother of the future. Take care of the mother, and the mother will take care of the child.” I love this line from one of my Buddhist teachers. The focus of this month is surrendering to – and caring for – the present moment, the only thing we ever have to work with.

The month of sitting quietly (Life Experiment # 8)

“The limit of what we can accept is the limit of our freedom.”

These words from one of my Buddhist teachers have come back to me in recent days as I continue to wrestle with the various challenges that populate my life right now.

The most pressing issue confronting me is my need to find a new place to live, and friends have offered a number of amusing if improbable suggestions:

Put your stuff into storage, get an airstream trailer, and travel the country. 

Move into a house filled with kooky roommates, and then write about it.

These ideas make me smile, but even more they bring me face to face with the very real limits on what I’m willing to accept. I’m anxious about what lies ahead because of my own requirements. If I could make do with less or other, I’d be far less stressed out. This isn’t a judgment or self critique but simply an observation.

And that’s where I am right now, holding these facts in awareness:  If I could accept a lifestyle that I’m not willing to accept, I would have more freedom. I would be happier. I’m not trying to force a change in myself – that would be disastrous. This is simply about seeing and watching what happens.

Over the years, I’ve had a freighted relationship with Buddhist practices. I’ve always loved the teachings but struggled with meditation. Which is like saying you love food if you love cookbooks but dislike eating.

“I don’t know why I keep doing this when I find it so unpleasant,” I said to my teacher during a hellish 10-day silent retreat.

“Why do you do it?” She sounded genuinely curious.

The answer is I don’t really know.  But this is what I do.  I go long stretches thinking that I’m totally done with it all. Then, something happens to reel me in. I pull out my meditation bench.

That’s how it’s been for the past few days, and this time, uncharacteristically, I’m finding sitting restful.  It feels like the right thing for now. And so: I’m going to do it.

How to be resilient (in 9 not-so-easy steps)

“So your blog is about resilience?”

“Well, not exactly. I mean, it’s about what lies behind resilience – about the nuts and bolts of resilience.”

I had this conversation a number of times before launching Plan B Nation, my personal chronicle-cum-user’s guide to life after the Great Recession. Yes, I was interested in the notion of bouncing back, but I wanted to unpack the idea. How do we stay optimistic  in the face of repeated setbacks? How do we keep going when our best efforts fall short?

These questions lie at the heart of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, a new book by journalist Rick Newman – which is why I raced to get my hands on a copy as soon as I heard about it.

Like my own, Newman’s exploration began with personal challenges – in his case, a divorce and custody battle, financial stress, and dislocation (both geographic and professional). “As I crested the age of forty, I was falling behind instead of getting ahead, with a set of options that seemed to be narrowing and a deepening disillusionment that wasn’t supposed to afflict people like me,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

Ultimately, Newman opted to widen his gaze, to bring his reporting skills to bear on the issue of failure. How is it that some people – Newman calls them rebounders – are able to emerge from setbacks even stronger than before? What are the skills they draw on? And how can the rest of cultivate these adaptive behaviors?

Delving into these questions, Newman profiles a number of thriving survivors ranging from Thomas Edison to military pilot Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in Iraq – their highs as well as their lows – and concludes with a series of nine attributes he sees as common to rebounders.

1. They accept failure.

It’s not that rebounders like failure, but they manage to “fail productively,” framing failure as a learning opportunity.

2.   They compartmentalize emotions.

While their emotions may run strong, rebounders nonetheless adopt a pragmatic stance and learn to maintain emotional equanimity in the face of disappointments.

3. They have a bias toward action.   

Taking purposeful action – even if you aren’t sure where it’s taking you – can be a first step to moving forward. (Newman opposes action to rumination, which can easily lead to immobilizing worry.)

4. They change their minds sometimes.

They make the best decisions they can at the time based on the information they have. When that information changes, they’re able to adjust their goals and thinking.

5. They prepare for things to go wrong.

For all the talk of optimism being linked to success, the rebounders Newman talked to tended to have a more measured perspective. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” said one.

6. They’re comfortable with discomfort.

For rebounders, success equals fulfillment, not comfort, and they willingly accept significant hardships and inconveniences en route to their goals.

7. They’re willing to wait.

Rebounders are willing to work harder and wait longer than they expected. “Longcuts to success are more common than shortcuts,” Newman writes.

8. They have heroes.

Mentors and role models are often important sources of inspiration for rebounders.

9. They have more than passion.

Rebounders have sustained drive as well as passion.

Having personally field-tested many of these strategies, I can vouch for them. At the same time, let’s be clear: All adversity is not created equal. For all the talk about hardship making us stronger, research suggests that people who experience an undue number of stressful life events (definitely the case for many of us slogging through Plan B Nation) have a relatively high level of mental health problems, as Newman reports. In other words, some hardship is good, too much hardship is not. How much is the right amount? Researchers put the optimal number of adverse events at three.

In the same vein, all people are not created equal. For this reason, I would love to read more about resilience in the context of the so-called “Big Five” personality types identified by researchers as largely hardwired and enduring. It would make sense if those of us wired to be unusually sensitive to negative experiences have a harder time cultivating resilience than those of us who naturally trend to a positive outlook. Does research in fact bear this out? And if so, are there steps we can take to counteract or bolster our hardwired biases?  (For those interested in such things, personality types are explored in depth in Daniel Nettle’s highly readable Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are, which also includes a short version of the Newcastle Personality Assessor.)

Still, while resilience doubtless comes more easily to some of us than others, there are always steps we can take to maximize our own potential. For this, Newman offers a starting place – as well as excellent reminders.

5 things I will do, and 5 things I will not

Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt

Yesterday, I headed out to buy cat food. I parked my car, went into the store, pulled out a shopping cart, looked around . . . and realized that I was at Staples.  (True, the pet store is just next door. Still, this is a first.)

For the past few days, I’ve been unusually distracted and distractable, anxious, and unsettled. Being threatened with eviction will do that to you. At least, it will to me. My thoughts are shooting in all directions, but everything seems hazy. I’m doing my best to get things done without knowing what to do.

Back home from errands, it occurred to me that I need to simplify. I need to be clear about what I’ll do – and what I will not. Here’s my first crack at setting down a set of personal guidelines (a sort of mini-experiment within my experiment of nesting).

I will:

1. Write something every day. (Because writing always makes things better.)

2. Get at least some exercise every day. (And yes, a walk counts.)

3. Look for a place to live.

4. Do something soothing / nice for myself each day.

5. Fractal flower pitching.

I will not:

1. Expect myself to be operating at full capacity.

2.  Tell myself I shouldn’t be so distressed — or anything else that I, in fact, am.

3. Do one more thing that I don’t want to do unless I really have to.

4. Draw conclusions about what any of this means

5. Give myself a hard time for eating weird meals (cottage cheese and carrots anyone?) or relying on prepared food. (Yes, I could make it more cheaply myself, and I will again. Just not now.)

 ♦

So in the course of the day, I took a long walk, did some writing, and checked out real estate listings before springing for a raspberry lemonade at Cup and Top. At the moment, making lemonade out of life’s lemons feels a bit beyond me. But real lemonade on a summer day is a pretty good distraction.

Life Experiment #7: Nesting

Nesting Storks

Last week, I was served with a 30-day Notice to Quit, the first stage in eviction proceedings. I’m not happy about this, but such is life. This is my reality. So what am I going to do?

Not surprisingly, I’m really anxious. I have a houseful of stuff – books, art, furniture, dishes, appliances, writing projects, not to mention a cat. The idea of moving in less than a month is hugely stressful. Friends have reassured me that, practically speaking, I likely have far more time than the legal paper suggests, given our state’s landlord-tenant laws and the nature of judicial proceedings. But things are already unpleasant enough. At this point, I just want out.

Still, getting out takes time and effort. Much as I might wish it otherwise, I can’t magically snap my fingers and be somewhere else. The question: How to make the best of this particular bad situation? How to go about reducing its impact on the rest of my life?

A comment from my friend Allegra was helpful here, pointing out how the specter of eviction likely evokes past threats and rejections. “I’ve never known a notice to quit not to hurt,” she observed, speaking metaphorically. Separating the past from the present strikes me as eminently useful. How much of my reaction is about now? How much is about then – about newly retriggered pain surging from the past. (“Now is not then,” Havi says, over and over and over.)

That said, I’m definitely confronting a very real present-day challenge, one that goes to the core of how I live and work. Even if I don’t want to fight eviction, I already feel embattled. It’s affecting the quality of my days and my ability to get things done. I have a hard time sleeping. I awake awash in cortisol, already on overdrive.

Years ago, I took a class in Early Freud at a psychoanalytic institute in Manhattan. (“Early Freud, that’s great. Stuff even Freud doesn’t believe anymore,” a friend dryly remarked.)  Most of what I learned there is long forgotten but one principle stayed with me. “Never deal with a neurosis by attempting to uproot it. Always work to build up other aspects of the personality,” our teacher said (or something pretty close to that; it’s been a long time).

I see an analogy here. On the one hand, I could focus on the bad thing happening. Or I could train my sights on the life and home I’m hoping to create. What are the qualities I want them to have?  Where – and how — am I most likely to find them?

And here’s where the idea of nests comes in (another thing inspired by Havi). What are the qualities of a nest? (It holds EGGs. It’s a place where small creatures grow from helplessness to self-sufficiency. It’s a product of instinctual needs. That’s a start.) What am I looking for in my nest? (Safety. Support. Ease. Contentment.) How can I create it? (That’s what I’m sitting with now.) The nest metaphor feels especially apt given the sustenance I’ve gained in recent months from both breadcrumbs and basket weaving.

So that’s it: Life Experiment # 7 will be all about nesting, watching how the metaphor works and (I’m hoping) starts to shift things.

Update on Life Experiment #6: Present Me is delighted that Past Me got rid of some of these pesky nagging tasks, especially given the pressures Present Me now faces. I sewed on the button! And did some 20 other things besides – got my bike tuned up, hemmed a pair of linen pants, got a long-overdue haircut.  I didn’t make it through all 30 things, but I definitely made progress. And as I’ve learned through these Life Experiments, that itself is cause for celebration.

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!)

Life Experiment #5: Do Less

mornig green tea

I’d pretty much made up my mind to call off my 2012 Life Experiments experiment starting this month. I’d already aborted Life Experiment #3 (taking a photo a day during March) after less than a week, and more and more, I’d been feeling that I needed to prune my to-do list, rather than adding to it.

And then, it hit me: That could be the focus of this month’s Life Experiment. And so it will be. For me, this month is going to be all about doing less.

But first, I want to take a moment to appreciate how hugely much I accomplished during the month that just ended. All too often, I tend to ask myself: What have you done for me lately? I also have a default answer: Not nearly enough.

In fact, that’s rarely if ever true, and it certainly wasn’t true in April. And because things tend to feel more real if I write them down, that’s what I’m going to do. So here it is, my personal selective account of What Got Done in April:

  • Researched and wrote a 3,000-word feature story for Psychology Today (now slated for the magazine’s October issue)
  • Wrote and delivered a 30-minute talk—“Inside the Downturn: Thoughts on the Psychological Costs of Longterm Unemployment”—to our Regional Employment Board.
  • Signed on to write a monthly column—”Notes from Plan B Nation”—for Entrepreneur Media’s SecondAct.com (first installation forthcoming this month)
  • Completed 2011 taxes (thanks Turbotax!), sorted out health insurance issues, and wrangled a sick cat (thanks Wendy and Susan!)
  • Applied for jobs and conferred with editors about future freelance projects, including an upcoming book review assignment for the Chicago Tribune.
  • Guest posted on The 52 Weeks
  • Finished up co-facilitating Seeing Their Voices, a workshop for foster kids that will culminate in a photo and writing exhibit at the statehouse this June.

I also did purely fun stuff: A South Face Farm Sugarhouse outing with the Baskinettes. Lots of coffee dates. Movies. Two lovely seders and an Easter hike with friends.

Does that seem like a lot to you? It seems like a lot to me—especially since I’m not naturally inclined to multi-tasking. When left to my own devices, I’ll always go deep rather than wide. But there are times—this past month, for example—when that’s simply not possible.

And here, I have to give a shout-out to breadcrumbs and basket weaving, aka Life Experiment #4, which helped me more than I could ever have imagined it would. Metaphors have tremendous, if often unrecognized, power. I could say a lot more on this subject, and at some point I will. But for now, I’m going to stop. Or rather: I’m going to start doing less.

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.

On breadcrumbs & basket weaving (aka Life Experiment #4)

Young bird

So if you think I haven’t been blogging as much: you’re right.

Over the past few weeks, my personal Plan B Nation has become an increasingly busy place, and while that’s mainly a very good thing, it’s also entailing some readjustments and recalibrations.

As you may have read, last month’s Life Experiment—taking a photo everyday as I learned to use my new digital camera—came to an abrupt end only days after it began.  I realized I simply couldn’t add another thing to my plate. While at first I saw this as a failure (bad!), I ended up realizing that it was doing what any good experiment should: Giving me useful information.

In that spirit, I’m taking this month’s Life Experiment in a somewhat different direction. Instead of focusing on an activity, I’ll be playing with metaphor and shifting perspective.

I recently wrote about how I’m trying to bring more playfulness into my life—to still get things done but to have more lightness in the doing.  For much of my foray in Plan B Nation, Getting Things Done has felt like accomplishment enough. On some days simply getting out of bed felt like a pretty big deal.

But lately, I’ve come to wonder if things have to feel so grim. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the role of metaphor. Which brings me to breadcrumbs and basket weaving, aka Life Experiment #4.

On Breadcrumbs . . .

Instead of marching through a to-do list, I’m a bird following bread crumbs.  Breadcrumbs are: Nourishing.  A bird doesn’t order itself to follow a trail of breadcrumbs. That comes naturally. A trail of breadcrumbs invites you on. You don’t have to think about it.

I’ve been playing with this over the past few weeks, and I like how it’s feeling.  Looking for the next breadcrumb is way better than pushing myself to Be More Productive.

and basket weaving

Another big challenge has been feeling that I’m moving in too many different directions. By nature and habit, I go for depth rather than for breadth. I like to focus on one thing, to give it my full attention.

Of course, that isn’t always possible—it isn’t for me right now—so I’ve been mulling over how I can keep doing lots of things but feel a little less stressed. The answer, at least for now, seems to be basket weaving.

Instead of seeing life as pulling me in disparate conflicting directions, I’m thinking of my various activities as strands in a single  basket. The challenge is weaving them together. The challenge is creating a whole. What I was viewing as a source of stress has become a creative project.

Which isn’t to say that I really like being all this busy. I’m hoping (expecting) that by April’s end, things will have settled down. In the meantime, I plan to do what I can to hold the situation lightly—to follow the trail of breadcrumbs and practice basket weaving.

Note: My interest in how metaphor can shape experience was sparked by The Fluent Self‘s Havi Brooks–if you’re interested in reading more, she’s written loads on the topic.

Basket Weaving

Why follow-through is overrated

trying to look perfect

This month’s Life Experiment has been a total bust. Except that it’s also been a total success. Let me explain.

As some readers will recall, I began this month with the idea that I would take at least one photograph each day. I was interested in how this would shift the way I moved through the world and also viewed it as an opportunity to learn to use a recently acquired but languishing digital camera.

All of this made sense in theory. In practice? Not so much. Here’s how it played out.

At the end of a harried Day 1, I snapped a hasty photo with my iPhone. (Better than nothing, I told myself.)

Day 2, same thing.

By Day 3 or 4, I’d forgotten about it. Ditto the days that followed. Until at some point over the next week I realized that this wasn’t happening.

My first reaction was to get stressed out over my follow-through failure. What was I going to write this month? What would I say to you readers?

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw another possibility.  After all, this was billed as an experiment. No, it hadn’t gone off as planned, but that was entirely different from saying that it had been a total loss. I decided—as an experiment—to adopt a different perspective, to detach the experience from the goal and ask what it had to teach me.

Here’s what I found:

1. I need to reconnect with my core purpose.

When I embarked on monthly Life Experiments at the start of 2012, my goal wasn’t to create yet another to-do list. Rather it was to explore how changing one thing in my life might lead to other unexpected shifts. Over time, I’ve started to lose track of this, and my “experiments” have come to feel more and more like 30-day Challenges. Be more productive! Just do it!  That wasn’t what I’d been aiming for, but it’s where I ended up. Time for some reflection and retuning.

2. I need to do less, not more.

The reason I wasn’t taking photos was very simple. I’m really really busy!  Over the past six months, I’ve gone from struggling to fill my days with meaningful activities to a jam-packed schedule, with freelance deadlines, workshop facilitating, friends, exercise, and life maintenance all vying for time. This is in many ways a good thing, but it also has its own challenges, which I need to find ways to address. (Also: I need to take time to appreciate how far I’ve come!)

3.  I need to do more to infuse my life with playfulness.

I recently wrote about an ah hah recognition that I need more playfulness in my life. During my time in Plan B Nation, I’ve taken a lot of pride in my ability to simply carry on, to put one foot in front of the other during hard and uncertain times. There have been days—and not a few—when simply getting out of bed felt like a real accomplishment. It seemed like enough that I could say, in the words of 12-step programs everywhere, that I’d managed to “take the next right action.”

But I’ve come to see that, while this approach can be helpful in times of crisis, it’s not (for me) the best approach to life over the long haul. Over the long haul, I want to be happy, not simply to endure. Getting things done is certainly part of a happy life, but it’s far from sufficient.

Language plays a big role here: The more I think about this issue, the more aware I am of how the words I use shape the quality of my daily experience. Tool kit. Task List. Marching orders. This is the language of command and control. This is the language that, all too often, I use when I talk to myself (when issuing marching orders).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For example, instead of “next right action” how about “breadcrumbs”? Think fairy tales, think Hansel and Gretel and the trail they left to find their way back home. (Okay, so in the story birds eat the bread, but I still like the metaphor.)

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about what qualities help us thrive while traveling Plan B Nation (and other psychologically harsh terrains), and it seems to me that one of the most important is the quality of openness. By this, I mean the ability to see alternatives and possibility where we might easily see failure.

In a feature story about famous accidental discoveries, the Daily Beast recounts how the discovery of penicillin came about after Scottish bacteriologist Andrew Fleming noticed that mold had started to grow on some cultures he’d left exposed. Years later, he toured a state-of-the-art medical lab, far cleaner than the one where his scientific breakthrough occurred.

“If you had worked here, think of what you could have invented,” his guide remarked.

Fleming’s cool response: “Not penicillin.”