Follow Your Heart 2.0

Big Heart of Art - 1000 Visual Mashups

In 1998, I walked away from a six-figure job prac­tic­ing law to write a novel. I had never writ­ten a novel before and had, what is in ret­ro­spect, a laugh­ably (or rather fright­en­ingly) small cush­ion of sav­ings. A year later, I had a lucra­tive deal with a major pub­lisher.  My first novel was a Peo­ple mag­a­zine Page-Turner of the Week. We sold tons of for­eign rights.

Do what you love, and the money will fol­low. Along with being the title of a pop­u­lar self-help book, it sums up a dis­tinc­tive ethos of a dis­tinc­tive time in Amer­i­can history—an Oprah-fied vision of pos­si­bil­i­ties where the only lim­its were the bound­aries of our dreams.

Times have changed.

Look­ing back, the Fol­low Your Heart love fest was a reflection—you might say a symptom—of an econ­omy in over­drive. The wide­spread fail­ure to see this link was a sig­nif­i­cant if not sur­pris­ing ves­tige of ways of think­ing that have deep roots in west­ern cul­ture. It is the same point made by any num­ber of char­ac­ters in Jane Austen’s nov­els and stated with par­tic­u­lar clar­ity in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. “You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands,” Mar­garet Schlegel tells her aunt. “It is so firm beneath our feet that we for­get its existence.”

The dan­ger of such for­get­ful­ness is now appar­ent from any num­ber of cau­tion­ary tales, most recently Eliz­a­beth Wurtzel’s melt­down in the pages of New York mag­a­zine. “I was alone in a lonely apart­ment with only a stalker to show for my accom­plish­ments and my years,” writes the best­selling author of Prozac Nation and grad­u­ate of Yale Law School, now in her mid-40s. “I have no hus­band, no chil­dren, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no invest­ments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emer­gency fund—I don’t even have a sav­ings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present.”

And should this exam­ple not be suf­fi­ciently chill­ing, we also have the object lessons of once high-flying Oprah-endorsed celebri­ties brought low by finan­cial mis­steps. Most vis­i­ble among these is Sarah Ban Breath­nach, author of the block­buster Sim­ple Abun­dance: A Day­book of Com­fort and Joy, Oprah’s favorite book of the year for 1996. After mak­ing a for­tune pro­claim­ing the joys of sim­ple liv­ing, Breath­nach went on a spend­ing spree, with pur­chases includ­ing Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in Eng­land and Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s furs. She ended up with noth­ing. (While Sim­ple Abun­dance spent years on best­seller lists, her Decem­ber 2010 come­back effort—Peace and Plenty: Find­ing Your Way to Finan­cial Seren­ity—is ranked 396,776 on as of this writing.)

My own story lacks both the highs and the lows of either Wurtzel’s or Breathnach’s— after pub­lish­ing two books and strug­gling with a third, I ulti­mately made my way back into the paid workforce—but look­ing back, I see a sim­i­lar thread. I too had a ten­dency to see the present as pre­lude, to live as if suc­cess, once achieved, laid the ground­work for the future. (Which is true to some extent and in some ways but not to the extent or in the ways that some of us seemed to assume.)

All of which goes to explain my inter­est in a trend that I’ve taken to call­ing Fol­low Your Heart 2.0. In this iter­a­tion, we no longer have a stark dichotomy between ide­al­ism and prac­ti­cal­ity. Rather, the new model rec­og­nizes that con­tent­ment gen­er­ally requires sta­bil­ity as well as pas­sion. It’s Fol­low Your Heart remixed for the 21st century.

An espe­cially clear for­mu­la­tion of what I’m talk­ing about appears in The Start-up of You, a book by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man and co-author Ben Cas­nocha. The pair urge their read­ers to con­sider three inter­lock­ing pieces when mak­ing work-related deci­sions: Assets, aspi­ra­tions and val­ues, and mar­ket real­i­ties. Assets are the resources we bring to the table—our tal­ents, edu­ca­tion, and skills, as well as our bank accounts. The other two cat­e­gories are pretty much what they sound like.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the authors aren’t telling read­ers to for­get about their dreams. Rather, they’re say­ing that dreams exist within a larger frame­work. Depend­ing on your goals–and depend­ing on your needs–context, includ­ing the mar­ket, may be crit­i­cally impor­tant. “Of course, it’s worth men­tion­ing that [her] pas­sion is mobile pay­ment sys­tems,” Work Stew blog­ger Kate Gace Wal­ton remarked dryly of one suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur. All dreams are not cre­ated equal.

For those of us with ample stocks of edu­ca­tion and social cap­i­tal, the late 90s econ­omy was for­giv­ing and often fun. Risks were not so risky. You could always get a job. The econ­omy circa 2013 is a very dif­fer­ent place. “$100,000 is the new $300,000,” one lit­er­ary agent remarked to me, shortly after the Great Reces­sion began. Five years later, it seems increas­ingly unlikely that we’re ever going back.

More and more, I’m see­ing Fol­low Your Heart 2.0 infuse the pop­u­lar conversation—and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s appar­ent in Marci Alboher’s excel­lent new Encore Career Hand­book, which acknowl­edges the crit­i­cal role that finances play in mak­ing a tran­si­tion to more mean­ing­ful work in the sec­ond half of life. It’s also cen­tral to Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Pas­sion in the Quest for Work You Love, which makes the case that pas­sion most often fol­lows hard work and suc­cess, not the reverse.

As for me, I’m older and wiser (I think), but I still have a strong inner sense of direc­tion, and I strug­gle when cir­cum­stances chan­nel my ener­gies into other things. For many of us, work that feels mean­ing­ful is a big part of what makes life worth­while, and there may be times when pur­su­ing that is worth almost any sac­ri­fice.  But today, the stakes are dif­fer­ent, maybe higher, for many of us. Happy end­ings are harder to come by. Uncer­tainty is guaranteed.

3 themes for 2013

Just because I don’t make New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions doesn’t mean I let the years come and go unac­knowl­edged. To the con­trary, I love this time of tak­ing stock – espe­cially the part where I remind myself of every­thing I’ve got­ten done over the past 12 months. (I’ve always been sur­prised by just how much there is, espe­cially dur­ing these obstacle-strewn Plan B Nation years.)

I also look ahead, but instead of mak­ing res­o­lu­tions, I tend to reflect on themes – points of ori­en­ta­tion rather than des­ti­na­tions. This year, over the past few weeks, I’ve set­tled on three.

The Year of Con­nect­ing – and Re-connecting

I can’t imag­ine hav­ing got­ten through the past few years with­out my friends, old and new, vir­tual and real-life. This year, I look for­ward to expand­ing on this rich­ness, reach­ing out to peo­ple I’d love to meet and strength­en­ing exist­ing ties.

For me, this will be what Tara Sophia Mohr refers to as a gift goal – a goal that is also a joy in the doing. I love spin­ning the web of human con­nec­tion. Peo­ple often tell me that I’m a great net­worker, which always catches me off guard. In real­ity, I’m good at this only when I enjoy it. No one would have ever described me thus when I was prac­tic­ing cor­po­rate law, ensconced in a world that never really felt like mine. It’s an apti­tude that sur­faces only in con­nec­tion with peo­ple who strike me as poten­tially being mem­bers of my tribe (or tribes).

And it’s not only about peo­ple. The theme of con­nec­tion (and re-connection) res­onates for me in many spheres. It’s also about con­nect­ing – and re-connecting – with places, inter­ests, and ideas that have been side­lined if not for­got­ten. It includes a yet-to-be dis­closed law-related project I’ve been mulling over for years now. (Because while prac­tic­ing law wasn’t my path, there is much in that world that still speaks to me, and with which I’d like to re-connect.) It also includes my recur­ring thoughts about pay­ing a visit to the place I grew up and get­ting back to a reg­u­lar yoga prac­tice (aka re-connecting with my body). In times of con­fu­sion, I imag­ine ask­ing: What do I need to con­nect with?

The Year of Emp­ty­ing and Replenishing

I got this one from Havi, who has pro­claimed it the theme for her year. Inter­est­ingly (at least to me), my first reac­tion on hear­ing it was: Not for me. I’m busy, busy, busy. But for some rea­son the idea lin­gered. Because, in fact, it is for me. Busy is a symptom.

I see this as being about both pri­or­i­tiz­ing and refu­el­ing – about let­ting go of things that don’t enhance my life while cre­at­ing a greater capac­ity for the things that will. Dur­ing my years between full-time jobs, I often strug­gled to fill days and weeks in ways that felt mean­ing­ful and likely to me for­ward. Life as a blank page, that’s often what it felt like. Today, I strug­gle with what seems like the oppo­site dilemma: How to carve out time for  work I care about when my days are already more than full.

I have only the faintest glim­mer­ings of how this theme will evolve. Yoga? Time in the coun­try? A more orderly home? I don’t really know. The themes are bread­crumbs, and for now, that’s enough.

The Year of Being with Things As They Are

I find it so end­lessly easy to slip into bat­tle mode – Me vs. Things As They Are. My goal: Make Them Dif­fer­ent. Life is so much more pleas­ant when I can remem­ber to let that go, to treat real­ity as a friend, rather than an adversary.

Do you have New Year’s res­o­lu­tions, themes, or mus­ings that you care to share? Please leave them in the com­ments sec­tion – and best wishes for 2013!

Why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But if you do, try this.

2013 Yield

Last week, a pro­ducer at Huff­Post Live emailed me to ask if I’d be will­ing to talk about New Year’s res­o­lu­tions for an upcom­ing seg­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, she wanted to ask me about a piece I’d writ­ten about willpower and whether I’d been able to accom­plish this year’s goals.

It seemed like some­thing that I should do, and so at first I said yes. But I hedged my response by say­ing that I don’t really make res­o­lu­tions. We had a bit of back and forth – What exactly did I mean? – and I finally said, you know, I think you should talk to some­one else.

Until this con­ver­sa­tion, I hadn’t quite real­ized how deep my resis­tance runs. Sim­ply put, New Year’s res­o­lu­tions strike me as a set-up. A set-up for fail­ure. A set-up for stay­ing stuck. Res­o­lu­tions assume a fix­ity that, in my expe­ri­ence, sim­ply doesn’t exist. The goals I set last year – or last month – often aren’t the same as those that will move me for­ward today.

This is espe­cially true in times of tran­si­tion, when life is inher­ently unpre­dictable. This blog – Plan B Nation – began as a per­sonal explo­ration of strate­gies to nav­i­gate loss and uncer­tainty after the Great Reces­sion. One of my major ongo­ing lessons has been the impor­tance of stay­ing open – of not insist­ing that the future take a cer­tain form.

As I drafted this post, I hap­pened on a print out of writer Vir­ginia Woolf’s New Year Res­o­lu­tions that I’d totally for­got­ten about until now but likely had been sav­ing for just this moment. (I’m pretty sure these must have come via my Vir­ginia Woolf scholar friend Anne Fer­nald.) Dated Jan­u­ary 2, 1931, the list begins:

Here are my res­o­lu­tions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.

To have none. Not to be tied.

Indeed. (And I espe­cially love the fact that even the res­o­lu­tion of mak­ing no res­o­lu­tions extends only three months forward.)

Speak­ing for myself, I could never have pre­dicted the events of this past year – that I’d move back to Boston to start a new job in a totally new field. This wasn’t a path I could have envi­sioned, let alone planned. And yet, it’s turned out to pro­vide much of what I most needed.

This is why I don’t think of goals as end­points – I think of them as step­ping stones and exper­i­ments. This means stay­ing curi­ous and open even as I take action. Is this goal still serv­ing me? Or is it time for some­thing else?

Which isn’t to say that goals don’t have their place, just that it’s best to hold them lightly. Action­able goals are the means to an end. They are not the end in them­selves. Goals can be great tools, but they are ter­ri­ble masters.

That said, of course, we do need to get stuff done. Whether your goals are for a year or an hour, here are a few tac­tics you may want to try.

Be strate­gic in how you use your lim­ited stock of willpower. (I talk about the specifics of this in my Huff­in­g­ton Post piece, which draws heav­ily on the book Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeis­ter and John Tierney.)

If you’re strug­gling with a goal, reflect on whether you’re con­tend­ing with a com­pet­ing goal. This strat­egy comes from my one-time pro­fes­sor Robert Kegan, who pro­poses the fol­low­ing four-column exer­cise. Iden­tify in turn: (1) Your goal (e.g., I want to find ful­fill­ing work), (2) The behav­iors that run counter to this goal (e.g., I take jobs that aren’t mean­ing­ful to me), (3) Com­pet­ing com­mit­ments (e.g., I need to main­tain a cer­tain income and level of sav­ings), (4) Assump­tions that under­lie and sup­port the third-column com­mit­ments (e.g., If I go back to school or take a job that pays less, every­one will think I’m irresponsible.)

The point here isn’t to  pro­mote a par­tic­u­lar course of action but rather to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what dri­ves you – an aware­ness that can lead to a pro­found shift in per­spec­tive. (The exam­ple above is based on an inter­view I did with Kegan ear­lier this year for this piece in Psy­chol­ogy Today.)

Keep your eyes on the prize. The true goal isn’t to go to the gym every day or write a novel or orga­nize your office or any of the other zil­lions of tasks that we set for our­selves. The true goal is to live a happy life – a life infused with value and mean­ing, what­ever that is for you.

I wish that for myself, and I wish that for all of you. Thank you for shar­ing my 2012. Here’s to the year to come.

Heckuva job, Charlotte Allen! (You too, NRA!)

[Children aiming sticks as guns, lined up against a brick building, Washington, D.C.?] (LOC)

It has been a jaw-dropping cou­ple of days for rea­soned minds track­ing the national con­ver­sa­tion about what lessons we should draw from the New­town massacre.

First we had con­ser­v­a­tive ide­o­logue Char­lotte Allen’s bizarre claim that the mur­der of 20 chil­dren and six adults can be traced to the “help­less pas­siv­ity” that per­me­ates such a “fem­i­nized set­ting.” “Con­grat­u­la­tions, National Review: You have pub­lished the sin­gle most brain dead, idi­otic and offen­sive response to a national tragedy,” is how Salon pref­aced its report on Allen’s instantly noto­ri­ous ram­blings. “Noted Ass­hole Says Sandy Hook Mas­sacre Wouldn’t Have Hap­pened If There Had Been Men Around,” read a head­line on Jezebel.

And today, of course, we had the spec­ta­cle of NRA exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent Wayne LaPierre – the ulti­mate hired gun – mak­ing the case for why there should be a gun in every school. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” was how he put it at this morning’s NRA press con­fer­ence. (You know another way to stop a guy with a gun? Take away his gun. But I digress.)

LaPierre is not the first to make noises along these lines, and in recent days, I’ve been unable to resist such tan­ta­liz­ing easy pick­ings. “And I mean, not to over think this or any­thing, but might it not be a wee bit dan­ger­ously con­fus­ing to law enforce­ment when they arrive and see a teacher bran­dish­ing a gun? And, oh dear, what about the dan­ger of friendly fire? And — I mean, just because we should con­sider the pos­si­bil­i­ties — is there any chance there could be lia­bil­ity issues if a teacher inten­tion­ally or inad­ver­tently shoots a stu­dent or col­league?” is one typ­i­cal com­ment from my Face­book feed.

But you know what? I was wast­ing my time. Logic isn’t the issue. Not for Char­lotte Allen. And not for the NRA. Their goal isn’t to per­suade. Their goal is to make money.

On the Inter­net, provo­ca­tion pays—just ask, Ann Coul­ter.  The more out­ra­geous your argu­ment, the bet­ter your met­rics. (And no, that’s not always true. But very often it is.) Is Char­lotte Allen delu­sional or a clever manip­u­la­tor? It doesn’t really mat­ter:  Either way, it pays off for the National Review.

For its part, the NRA is about sell­ing guns.  What bet­ter way to enhance prof­its than an arms race in pub­lic schools?

There’s one thing that keeps me from slip­ping into an impo­tent fury here: A grow­ing sense that such voices are fast becom­ing vic­tims of their own success.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Jour­nal poll gives the Sec­ond Amendment-brandishing Repub­li­can Party only a 30% favor­able rat­ing, down sig­nif­i­cantly since before the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. (In the mean­time, the Demo­c­ra­tic Party is on the rise.) When asked to give a word or short phrase to describe the GOP, 65% offered a neg­a­tive com­ment, includ­ing more than half of Repub­li­cans. Among the descrip­tions: “Bad,” “weak,” “neg­a­tive,” “uncom­pro­mis­ing,” “bro­ken,” and “lost.” “Repub­li­cans have gone off the image cliff,” Demo­c­ra­tic poll­ster Peter D. Hart is quoted as saying.

Shortly before the Novem­ber elec­tion, Lizzie Skur­nick—my bril­liant writer friend I’ve never met—humorously chas­tised Obama sup­port­ers for going to such great lengths to iden­tify Rom­ney cam­paign mis­steps. “We should be all ‘Heck­uva job, Rove!’” she pro­claimed, refer­ring to George W. Bush’s post-Katrina plau­dits for soon-to-be-disgraced FEMA direc­tor Michael D. (“Brownie”) Brown.

Which got me to think­ing. The more provoca­tive, confrontational—and yes, crazier—folks like Allen and LaPierre sound, the clearer the line between sen­si­ble reg­u­la­tion and sheer lunacy.

Thanks, Char­lotte Allen.

Thanks, NRA.

You’re mak­ing my case way bet­ter than I pos­si­bly could.

Failure: a love story

015 - A moment of weakness

When I told my stu­dents that our final class would focus on the topic of fail­ure, there were winces all around. But in the end, most of them told me that this unit was their favorite. “Next time, why don’t you start the class with this?” one stu­dent even asked.

The idea of spend­ing a ses­sion on fail­ure came to me after lis­ten­ing to an NPR piece about its promi­nent place in the lives of Sil­i­con Val­ley entre­pre­neurs. “This is, like, fail­ure cen­tral. We are, like, con­nois­seurs of fail­ure, experts in both avoid­ing it and liv­ing with it ongo­ing,” said Paul Gra­ham, founder of the start-up fun­der Y Com­bi­na­tor.

The nine stu­dents in my “Liv­ing Strate­gi­cally” sem­i­nar are mem­bers of UMass Amherst’s Com­mon­wealth Hon­ors Col­lege. They are tal­ented, artic­u­late, and thought­ful, with high aspi­ra­tions and tran­scripts filled with As. All of them are prepar­ing to apply for post-graduate fel­low­ships. They have lots of expe­ri­ence with suc­cess, not so much with failure.

They reminded me of myself at their age, and I wanted to offer them some­thing that would have been use­ful to me then: The idea that fail­ure can be a fer­tile start­ing place. That it’s a nat­ural part of life — tem­po­rary, not defin­ing. It took me a long time to learn this. I’d like to think that my stu­dents are well on their way to learn­ing it now.

Our jump­ing off point was jour­nal­ist Rick Newman’s Rebound­ers: How Win­ners Pivot from Set­back to Suc­cess, which I pre­vi­ously wrote about here. The book had res­onated with me when I read it last year – New­man shares my curios­ity about the under­pin­nings of resilience – and hap­pily my stu­dents loved it, one describ­ing it as the “punch­line” of the semes­ter. In par­tic­u­lar, they responded to Newman’s per­sonal story of climb­ing back from set­backs. The rebounder as role model:  It’s some­thing we could use more of.

Per­haps more than any­thing, I wanted to drive home the notion that fail­ure doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Like the Wiz­ard of Oz – “Pay no atten­tion to the man behind the cur­tain!” — fail­ure isn’t really what it claims to be. Behind the cur­tain is this lit­tle guy, madly gin­ning up the spe­cial effects to cre­ate a lot of noise. And because there’s noth­ing like humor to put things into per­spec­tive, I had stu­dents watch Laura Zigman’s “Fail­ure is the New Suc­cess” video, as funny as it is true. Point made.

Finally, we read a piece that I’d serendip­i­tously stum­bled across at work the week before – New Yorker writer and sur­geon (and Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health pro­fes­sor) Atul Gawande’s  beau­ti­ful med­i­ta­tion on “Fail­ure and Res­cue,” deliv­ered as a com­mence­ment address at Williams Col­lege. Gawande observes that good hos­pi­tals have lots of things go wrong – as many as their less suc­cess­ful peers. Research has shown that great hos­pi­tals “didn’t fail less. They res­cued more.”  (This piece also won stu­dent acco­lades, with one say­ing that she’d sent it on to a num­ber of friends.)

A major focus of the “Liv­ing Strate­gi­cally” sem­i­nar is writ­ing a per­sonal story, and through­out the semes­ter, we spent a lot of time talk­ing about craft­ing a com­pelling nar­ra­tive.  What makes some­thing inter­est­ing? What makes it bor­ing? In a fas­ci­nat­ing Har­vard Busi­ness Review piece, Her­minia Ibarra and Kent Line­back reflect on why so many career chang­ers are ter­ri­ble sto­ry­tellers. The answer: They rely too much on chronol­ogy, fail­ing to craft sto­ries that tap into sources of con­ti­nu­ity and coher­ence. They fail to choose story forms that suit their tales of reinvention.

Sto­ries are pow­er­ful. We shape our sto­ries, but our sto­ries then shape us. That has never been clearer to me than it’s been since I started Plan B Nation. Here is what I wish for my stu­dents, for all of us: That our suc­cess sto­ries are vibrant and expan­sive enough to incorporate—and honor—our failures.

The why is the how

So yes, I am grate­ful to be so busy: I am grate­ful for my job (or rather, jobs), grate­ful for my many friends, grate­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ties of this vibrant and entic­ing city.

But I am also frustrated.

In recent weeks, I’ve strug­gled to get back to a reg­u­lar writ­ing sched­ule. One or two posts to this blog each week seems like a rea­son­able goal. But rea­son­able though it may be, it hasn’t been hap­pen­ing. Two weeks ago, I forced myself to the key­board in the chilly dark­ness of Mon­day at 4 am. (No time for writ­ing over the week­end? See how you like this!)  And, yes, I did get the post done, but I was semi-conscious at work.

The fact is, most writ­ers also have other jobs. It’s the nature of the beast. So how do peo­ple do it? Where do they find the time?

For answers, I turned to friends who have impressed me with their bal­anc­ing acts.

First to come to mind was Car­olyn Edgar, a law school class­mate who seems to do the impos­si­ble on pretty much a daily basis. The 2012 recip­i­ent of the Cor­po­rate Coun­sel of the Year Award from New York City’s Black Bar Asso­ci­a­tion, she serves as VP of a For­tune 500 company—not exactly your typ­i­cal low-key slacker day job. Out­side of work, she’s a sin­gle mom and also man­ages to put in reg­u­lar time on the yoga mat. And then, there’s the writ­ing: Along with her own very active blog, she writes about rela­tion­ships, pol­i­tics, and par­ent­ing for sites includ­ing Huff­in­g­ton Post and Oh, and last month—just for fun—she com­pleted the marathon NaNoW­riMo, a chal­lenge that I’d find daunt­ing even with no job at all.

So how do you do it? I asked her. I really wanted to know. She got back to me the fol­low­ing day, bring­ing to mind the old adage that, if you really want some­thing done, you should ask the busiest person.

I’ve been giv­ing a lot of thought to your ques­tion. I ask myself all the time, why do I do this—especially when I’ve stayed up until 3 am edit­ing and for­mat­ting a blog post, drag­ging into the office the next day, and see­ing only 3 com­ments on the post or 4 retweets of the link on Twit­ter. And then I remember—I do this because I love writ­ing. I blog, even though I have two kids and a demand­ing, full-time career—because I am a writer. I feel more com­plete when I write than I do when I don’t.The writ­ing fits into the tiny inter­sti­tial spaces in my life, between the con­fer­ence calls and the draft­ing, between super­vis­ing home­work and get­ting the kids off to bed. It often sup­plants sleep, but see­ing peo­ple engage with the thoughts and ideas I share ener­gizes me in lieu of sleep (that is, until my body says enough and shuts down, as it has this weekend). 

Inter­est­ing, I thought. All of that res­onates. But while I under­stand the why, I still don’t get the how.

Mean­while, I heard back from Kate Gace Wal­ton, another mother of two. Along with  full-time employ­ment, Kate launched and edits Work Stew, a fas­ci­nat­ing blog about the hows and whys of all things work-related. Who bet­ter to ask about jug­gling writ­ing with a demand­ing job? Here’s what she had to say:

Being an insom­niac really helps! I’m at work from about 8 to 5 Mon­day through Fri­day and my evenings are spent wran­gling the kids, ages 5 and 3. (My hus­band has a long com­mute and trav­els a lot, so unfor­tu­nately he’s not around to do much evening wran­gling.) But some­time between 8 and 9 the house finally falls quiet, and from then until the wee hours, I focus on Work Stew—writing, post­ing, review­ing essays from con­trib­u­tors, and edit­ing pod­casts. Also, and this is huge for me: every Tues­day night, the kids stay at my par­ents’ house. That gives me a free evening to record inter­views with­out any shriek­ing in the background—and to catch up on var­i­ous other tasks. I do a lit­tle bit on Work Stew over the week­ends, but for the most part I try to unplug from it—partly so that my fam­ily can have a break from see­ing me attached to a screen and also so that I can think about where it should go next … and by “next” I mean in the next week or so.

And then, like Car­olyn, she headed straight for the whys:

Two rea­sons: 1) I love it and 2) it helps me. To elab­o­rate on point one: the three things I want from life are Con­nec­tion, Flow, and Won­der. Work Stew allows me to con­nect with won­der­ful peo­ple in mean­ing­ful ways. Writ­ing and edit­ing are very reli­able sources of Flow for me. And the chance to learn how all these dif­fer­ent peo­ple are grap­pling with arguably the most fun­da­men­tal and uni­ver­sal of questions—What should I do with my life?—well that’s  this heathen’s ver­sion of church! Truly, I’m filled with a deep sense of won­der when I think through the 100+ sto­ries the con­trib­u­tors have told in essays or interviews. 

And on point two: I find other people’s sto­ries not only won­drous, but help­ful. On a very prac­ti­cal level, Work Stew has helped me to think more cre­atively about my own (decades-old) work conun­drums. I still stew, of course, but more pro­duc­tively and pleas­antly than ever before. 

As I read this, some­thing clicked into place. We can talk about time man­age­ment and pri­or­i­ties and hours of sleep, but in the end, the bot­tom line: There isn’t really a “how.” There isn’t enough time, but you do it any­way.  You write because not writ­ing sim­ply isn’t a viable option.

By far, the hard­est time dur­ing my long stretch of unem­ploy­ment was early on when there wasn’t a sin­gle soli­tary thing that I really wanted to do. Noth­ing called to me. I didn’t have a why. In ret­ro­spect, I can see that this was just part of my tran­si­tion, but at the time, I felt myself veer­ing towards hopelessness.

There needs to be a why. There always needs to be a why. And when the why is strong enough, it pro­pels us into the how.

Gratitude for what I have – and also for what I did not

Vintage Thanksgiving Day Postcard

This has been a year of big changes for me, most of them for the good. After three years of under and unem­ploy­ment, I rejoined the work­force this Sep­tem­ber in a full-time job that, I’m happy to say, seems to be going quite well. While I miss the daily rural beauty of west­ern Mass, I’m also deriv­ing real (if sur­pris­ing) plea­sure from being back in a city. Plus friends and a weekly UMass Amherst teach­ing gig still draw me back on a reg­u­lar basis.

My sit­u­a­tion at this time last year was very dif­fer­ent – as reflected in the title of last year’s hol­i­day post: Thanks­giv­ing in Plan B Nation (or how to be grate­ful when you don’t feel grate­ful). I had just started this blog – that post was its fifth – and was still hav­ing a hard time mak­ing sense of my life’s tra­jec­tory. I’m doing what? I’m liv­ing where? All that work, all those cre­den­tials, and I’ve ended up here?

This year, I have no trou­ble tap­ping into grat­i­tude: Work, friends, writ­ing, home – all of it, right at the moment, feels pretty good, a tes­ta­ment to how sud­denly life can turn around.

But along with these obvi­ous rea­sons, I’m grate­ful for some­thing more: I’m grate­ful both for what I have now and for what I didn’t have then.

I’m grate­ful for how this time in the jobs wilder­ness forced me to expand my sense of who I am apart from my credentials.

I’m grate­ful for the ways it led me to become braver as a writer – to take risks that I likely wouldn’t oth­er­wise have taken.

I’m grate­ful for this blog and other writ­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties – for the intel­lec­tual sus­te­nance, sup­port, and friend­ships, con­nec­tions that I am tak­ing with me into this next stage of life.

I’m grate­ful for hav­ing had a chance to move to the coun­try and deepen my ties to a part of the world I love.

I’m grate­ful for the ways this stretch of life fos­tered greater com­pas­sion for mil­lions of peo­ple strug­gling for rea­sons that are often largely (or entirely) beyond their control.

And most of all, I’m grate­ful for the fact that I can feel grate­ful – for the fact that I had the resources to nav­i­gate these chal­lenges with­out being crushed by them. In that, I was very, very lucky. Many, of course, are not.  As I look to the future in Plan B Nation, grat­i­tude strikes me as an excel­lent foun­da­tion for think­ing about how to change this.

Why some people have all the jobs

With careful Douglas training, women do accurate electrical assembly and installation work, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, Calif. (LOC)

Some folks do all the mar­ryin’ for the rest of us,” a sin­gle South­ern friend once quipped, con­tem­plat­ing a twice-wed acquain­tance prepar­ing to tie the knot once again.

More and more, the same thing appears to be true of work. This thought first struck me a cou­ple years back dur­ing my seem­ingly end­less stretch of under and un-employment. A friend (who shall remain name­less since I know with­out ask­ing that he – or she – would want it that way) was jug­gling four jobs at once: uni­ver­sity teach­ing, a book con­tract, a weekly col­umn for a national pub­li­ca­tion, and a pub­lic ser­vice post. By way of con­trast, I at the time had none.

It didn’t make a lot of sense to me then, and it doesn’t now – even as I find myself sud­denly switch­ing roles. From no jobs, I’ve gone to hav­ing two: a full-time posi­tion in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and a part-time teach­ing gig. My chal­lenges are now the reverse of what they were before. I’ve gone from hav­ing no work at all to work­ing all the time.

And appar­ently, I’m far from alone – in both expe­ri­ences. Last week, I lis­tened with grim fas­ci­na­tion to a report on NPR’s On Point about America’s grow­ing hordes of invol­un­tary part-time work­ers. In recent years, the ratio of full to part-timers has been doing a flip-flop. Over just two decades many major retail­ers have gone from 70% or more full-timers to that per­cent­age of part-timers, as the New York Times recently reported.

This wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be a bad thing. But, as it hap­pens, it is. Here’s why: Part-timers can’t sup­port them­selves on the $8.00 or $10 an hour they make – espe­cially given that employ­ers often limit their hours to 10 or 15 a week. 15 times $10? You do the math.

So why don’t they just get another job? Because they can’t. Retail­ers are increas­ingly requir­ing what’s known in the indus­try as “open avail­abil­ity.” You may work only 10 hours a week, but you’re still expected to be ready and wait­ing 24/7.

Behind this dis­turb­ing trend is increas­ingly sophis­ti­cated soft­ware that now enables com­pa­nies to track cus­tomer flow by 15-minute incre­ments, call­ing in part-timers for the brief win­dows, some­times just a cou­ple of hours, when their labor will con­tribute most to the company’s bot­tom line. What if you need to plan for child­care or you want to take a col­lege class? The response is a sim­ple one, just two words: Too bad.

Most appalling of all (at least to me) is the prac­tice known as “on-call sched­ul­ing,” where employ­ees are required to call in two hours before a shift would begin to find out if they’ll be work­ing. Are they paid for block­ing out this time? No, they are not.

As a grow­ing num­ber of crit­ics like this one are not­ing, this essen­tially amounts to cor­po­rate wel­fare. In shift­ing the costs to employ­ees, busi­nesses are push­ing many of them into poverty. The rest of us pay for food stamps and emer­gency room vis­its to com­pen­sate for busi­ness refusal to pay a liv­ing wage – or even to allow their employ­ees a chance to pick up hours else­where. (And this issue isn’t just lim­ited to part-timers either – ongo­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions in Cincin­nati are bring­ing atten­tion to the fact that many of the city’s full-time jan­i­tors qual­ify for pro­grams such as food stamps, Med­ic­aid, and hous­ing assis­tance, as the Nation described last week.) Romney’s 47% have noth­ing on Wal-Mart and Aber­crom­bie & Fitch.

Mean­while, at the other end of the spec­trum, high-end salaried work­ers – where added hours mean added prof­its for employ­ers with­out added costs – are see­ing their hours shoot through the roof. Within days of hear­ing the NPR report on invol­un­tary part-timers, I also read an essay by a mom who’d just given up her cor­po­rate law job, find­ing it impos­si­ble to bal­ance the demands of work with the other demands of life.

My own sit­u­a­tion is, of course, quite dif­fer­ent. For one thing, I don’t have kids (though I do have other inter­ests that also take time). For another, the hours of my full-time job have been entirely rea­son­able. It’s adding another job on top of it that’s made things hard to man­age. But like many work­ers laid-off dur­ing the Great Reces­sion, I returned to the work­force in a posi­tion that pays sub­stan­tially less than my for­mer. Yes, I love teach­ing, but I can also use the money.

This morn­ing I snapped wide awake at 4:30 am. This was a fre­quent occur­rence dur­ing the turbo-charged stress of my job search, but this is the first time it’s hap­pened since being re-employed. At first, I was mys­ti­fied about what lay behind it. But two hours later, it’s come to me: There was some­thing I needed to say.

My Plan B Nation story — and ours

rock climbing is fun!

There are times you look back and say: “Why was I so freaked out? That wasn’t such a big deal.”

And there are times you look back and say: “I can’t believe I did that.”

The past few months put me squarely in the lat­ter camp. I feel a bit as if I’ve doggedly scaled a steep and treach­er­ous incline. Peer­ing down from the sum­mit, my stom­ach flips as I gauge the pre­cip­i­tous drop, the jagged rocks below.

Metaphors aside, here are the facts: Over the course of about six weeks – mid-August to late Sep­tem­ber – I applied for and accepted a full-time job, packed up my two-bedroom-with-basement rental in west­ern Mass, found a new apart­ment in Boston (and this was in Sep­tem­ber when, as real­tors repeat­edly told me, EVERYTHING is gone), moved, and started the afore­men­tioned job. Oh, and I also defended a case in hous­ing court and began teach­ing a weekly sem­i­nar at UMass Amherst, a solid four-hour roundtrip from where I now live. Not sur­pris­ingly, I’ve yet to unpack, and my apart­ment resem­bles a cross between a pre-renovation Bram­ford (shout-out to Rosemary’s Baby fans) and a hoarder’s stor­age unit.

Given the level of ambi­ent chaos, it’s also not sur­pris­ing that this blog went silent in early Sep­tem­ber. I was last heard from on Sep­tem­ber 9, when I wrote about los­ing 20 pounds on the stress-induced Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. And as I’ve stum­bled through the early stages of life in a new neigh­bor­hood – How do I reg­is­ter to vote? Where is the clos­est dry cleaner? And, per­haps most impor­tantly, where do I get good cof­fee? – I’ve felt that I sim­ply don’t have the band­width to blog as well.

I say “felt” because it recently struck me that there’s more to it than this. It’s not just that I’ve been crazy busy, though that’s cer­tainly true. It’s also that I’ve lost my sto­ry­line, the iden­tity that’s defined me.

Hard as unem­ploy­ment was (and it was plenty hard), it ulti­mately launched me into a new life – and a new iden­tity. As I chron­i­cled my expe­ri­ence of the Great Reces­sion, first in Salon here and here and later on this blog, I found new sources of mean­ing and new sources of pride.The per­son I became was braver and stronger than the per­son I’d been. She was also a more con­fi­dent writer and a more com­pas­sion­ate per­son. “I’m the poster girl for fail­ure!” I quipped to a friend some months back. But by then I didn’t mean fail­ure as fail­ure: I meant fail­ure as a kind of suc­cess – fail­ure as the path to a life no less rich for hav­ing been unchosen.

Last month, in a piece on the New York Times Moth­er­lode blog, K.J. Dell’Antonia reflected on the chal­lenges of stay-at-home par­ents seek­ing to return to the work­force. Not hav­ing kids myself, it’s some­thing I likely wouldn’t have read, except for the fact that K.J. kindly pointed read­ers to this blog, sug­gest­ing that they might ben­e­fit from think­ing about work issues in a broader con­text. To par­ents feel­ing regret for deci­sions made years ear­lier, she offered these wise words: “It’s not just that ‘what’s done is done,’ but that the way you really feel about your years and choices is col­ored by your cur­rent discouragement.”

I can think of no more impor­tant reminder. Where we are now is not where we’ll be in a week or a month or a year. Even when changes are mostly pos­i­tive, as mine have been lately, find­ing the new story takes time. In any big tran­si­tion – and being on my sec­ond in the past four years and my [insert large num­ber here] since col­lege, I feel I can speak with some author­ity – a crit­i­cal piece involves mak­ing sense of the unfold­ing plot­line. Who am I, now that I’m no longer the Har­vard grad-turned-chronicler-of-unemployment? Who am I, now that I’m back in the work­force and trans­planted back to Boston? I am the per­son I was before, plus the per­son I became dur­ing those years, plus the per­son I’m becom­ing. What is her story?

That’s what I’m fig­ur­ing out now.

On stress. And coping. Plus a housing court update.


There’s a famous study show­ing that when stress­ful life events pile up, ill­ness is more likely. This is true whether the events are good are bad. Among the 43 life events stud­ied, mar­riage and out­stand­ing achieve­ment take their place along with divorce and job loss.

I don’t even want to think about how I’d score on this test right now (though feel free to test your­self.)  Over the next month, I start two new jobs – along with my new full­time job at the Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health, I’ll be teach­ing one night a week at UMass Amherst. I’m thrilled about both of these. But man, it is a lot. On top of that, I need to find a place to live in Boston, pack up my Northamp­ton apart­ment, and move. My cat’s been sick. There have been fam­ily prob­lems. Also: I’m exhausted.

The course I’ll be teach­ing is called “Liv­ing Strate­gi­cally,” and it con­sid­ers ways to thrive amidst the chal­lenges that come our way. Talk about teach­ing what you need to learn! For obvi­ous rea­sons, this is a topic that deeply inter­ests me, and one that I never tire of explor­ing in this blog among other places. There. Are. Tools. This is the core insight.

These days, one idea is prov­ing espe­cially help­ful, and I’m doing my best to remem­ber it at every oppor­tu­nity: Feel­ings and thoughts are not facts. They are sim­ply thoughts and feel­ings. It helps to repeat this when I’m hit by over­whelm, when I can’t imag­ine how I’ll ever get through all that needs to get done. I think about my friend Molly, who made a sim­i­lar tran­si­tion last year. If she could do it, I can do it. I will do it.

I’m also doing my best to lean into the good.  To remem­ber that the stress – while intense right now – is far from the whole story. For one thing, I’m going back to work! This is a great thing. And while the changes under way feel over­whelm­ing, they are not as extreme as they might be. I’m mov­ing back to an area where I’ve lived before. I’ll even be work­ing for the same insti­tu­tion, just at a dif­fer­ent school. I’ll still be an easy day trip from the lovely place where I’ve been liv­ing and love. (Some brave souls even do a daily com­mute, though I find this hard to imagine.)

Also good: The evic­tion saga is over; hous­ing court is behind me. I got what I needed – time to pack and move – and can focus on the future.

While chronic stres­sors often pre­dict ill­ness, it’s not inevitable, as shown by research explor­ing the topic of stress har­di­ness.  There. Are. Tools. There are strate­gies. I doubt that I’ll ever remem­ber these weeks with any spe­cial fond­ness. But in 60 days this will all be behind me. That is my new mantra.