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 Amazon.com 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 CNN.com. 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.

NIGHT

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.