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.”