When $1 billion isn’t enough, and one dollar is too much.

Eduardo Saverin

Eduardo Saverin

When Face­book co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his U.S. cit­i­zen­ship last year, with the appar­ent goal of sav­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in taxes after the company’s IPO, the Brazil­ian native had no short­age of out­raged critics.

He has made him­self the poster child for the cal­lous class of 1 per­centers who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich them­selves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share,” Ilyse Hogue wrote in the Nation, to cite one exam­ple. “The story evokes the image of the maraud­ing aliens from the movie Inde­pen­dence Day, who come to Earth to take what they can get before mov­ing on to another planet.”

But for all the furi­ous accu­sa­tions, Saverin seems to have been on the cut­ting edge of a grow­ing trend. “U.S. cit­i­zens ditch pass­ports in record num­bers” was the head­line on a May 8, 2013 Fortune/CNN piece report­ing that more than 670 U.S. pass­port hold­ers gave up their cit­i­zen­ship (and U.S. tax bills) in the first three months of this year—more than any quar­ter since the IRS began pub­lish­ing fig­ures in 1998 and nearly three-quarters of the total num­ber for all of 2012. The newly ex-patriated include Isabel Getty, daugh­ter of jet-setting socialite Pia Getty and Getty oil heir Christo­pher Getty, and—last year—wealthy songwriter-socialite Denise Rich.

This got me to think­ing. While I totally get the anger at Saverin and his ilk, I’m also intrigued by a larger ques­tion, implicit yet unad­dressed. How much money is suf­fi­cient for any sin­gle per­son? Does some­one like Saverin ever say “Now I have enough!” Or do you keep on push­ing until you have all the money in the world?

As I turn over these ques­tions, I also find myself think­ing about another man—one who could not be more dif­fer­ent from Eduardo Saverin. His name is Daniel Suelo, and in 2000, at the age of 39, he left his life sav­ings ($30) in a phone booth and walked away. For more than a decade since, he has not earned, received, or spent a sin­gle dollar.

Daniel Suelo

Daniel Suelo

Unlike the aver­age American—wallowing in credit-card debt, cling­ing to a mort­gage, ter­ri­fied of the next down­siz­ing at the office—he isn’t wor­ried about the eco­nomic cri­sis. That’s because he fig­ured out that the best way to stay sol­vent is to never be sol­vent in the first place,” is how a piece in Details mag­a­zine summed up Suelo’s finan­cial non-plan.

Born into an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian fam­ily whose beliefs he’s long since dis­carded, Suelo’s per­sonal phi­los­o­phy eludes easy def­i­n­i­tions. He lives in the caves and wilder­ness of Utah.  He for­ages, dump­ster dives, and eats with friends (as well as strangers). He doesn’t pan­han­dle, col­lect food stamps, or accept other gov­ern­ment support—not that he sees any­thing wrong with those who do, he’s quick to say—and he often works, just not for pay. He does make use of pub­lic libraries—borrowing books, check­ing email, and keep­ing his web­site and blog. “He wants to have the small­est eco­log­i­cal foot­print and the largest pos­si­ble impact at improv­ing the world. His life goal since I met him is to take as lit­tle and give as much as pos­si­ble,” his best friend told writer Mark Sun­deen, whose com­pelling book about Suelo is called The Man Who Quit Money (River­head, 2012).

As I think about Saverin and Suelo, a study in oppo­sites, I mar­vel over the vast elas­tic­ity of our con­cept of need. Saverin thinks he needs bil­lions of dol­lars. Suelo needs to have none. Needs are not objec­tive facts. They reflect val­ues and choices.

I hope it goes with­out say­ing that I’m not sug­gest­ing we stop doing all we can to make the world a more just and more equi­table place. What I am sug­gest­ing is that, in the mean­time, we give our­selves a chance to thrive, that we have the courage of our con­vic­tions (which starts with know­ing what they are).

Ken Ilgunas

Ken Ilgu­nas

For me, this per­spec­tive is lib­er­at­ing. Early retire­ment, single-family homes, col­lege edu­ca­tions – these accou­trements of the Amer­i­can Dream are increas­ingly hard to come by. Do we sim­ply redou­ble our efforts to achieve such estab­lished socially sanc­tioned goals? Or do we explore new paths, expand our reper­toire of options? (Another ter­rific exam­ple of some­one doing just that is Ken Ilgu­nas, a Duke grad­u­ate stu­dent who lived in a van to avoid going back into debt and turned his expe­ri­ence into the won­der­ful mem­oir Walden on Wheels (New Har­vest, 2013)

Few of us are likely to fol­low Suelo’s example—I, for one, am not inclined to fill my den­tal cav­i­ties with pine pitch. What I take from his story isn’t the specifics of his jour­ney. Rather it’s his capac­ity to find ful­fill­ment while lack­ing things that most of us reflex­ively assume to be essen­tial. If Suelo doesn’t need any money, I some­times muse, per­haps I don’t really need [fill in the blank].

There are those who attack Suelo for fail­ing to con­tribute to some larger social good. (One exas­per­ated fan finally got his detrac­tors to shut up when she told them that she pays taxes, doesn’t use the library, and is donat­ing her share to Suelo.)  But to my mind, his provoca­tive life is con­tri­bu­tion enough. His choices push us to think harder about the nature of our own. His life expands our sense of pos­si­bil­ity. And that, to me, is priceless.

When walking is working (plus an invitation)

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

My friend Marci Albo­her – vice pres­i­dent of Encore.org and author of the ter­rific new Encore Career Hand­book – recalls the moment she real­ized she’d landed in the right work­place: It was when she dis­cov­ered that busi­ness meet­ings rou­tinely took place over long walks.

Walk­ing is a great way to be cre­ative,” she observed. “That’s how I knew I was in the right office culture.”

These reflec­tions came as we final­ized plans for this Tuesday’s Encore Town Hall in New­ton, Mass­a­chu­setts, the lat­est leg of Marci’s national book tour. The topic: The grow­ing wave of peo­ple mov­ing into pub­lic ser­vice in the sec­ond half of their careers—and how you can join them. (More about the book here.) I’m excited to be inter­view­ing Marci and also mod­er­at­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing panel of peo­ple who have made—or are making—the shift into encore careers of their own. If you’re in the area, do try to join us! While the focus will be encore careers, the advice will be valu­able to any­one in a career tran­si­tion or con­tem­plat­ing one.

Find­ing sat­is­fac­tion at work can be a com­pli­cated under­tak­ing. It’s not just what we do but also where we do it and why. This is some­thing I’ve been think­ing about a lot lately in the con­text of my still-pretty-new job at Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health. Why am I so much hap­pier here than I’ve been in other jobs where the sub­stance of my work wasn’t all that dif­fer­ent? As I wrote here, I think the answer lies in work­place culture.

But what is work­place culture?

For starters, it’s far more than office perks—and if we start con­fus­ing the two, we’re likely to get into trouble.

Free sodas are not work­place cul­ture,” Vicki Brown quipped on LinkedIn, in response to my pre­vi­ous post.

A ping pong table, laun­dry ser­vice, or free cof­fee is not com­pany cul­ture; not linked to core val­ues and guid­ing prin­ci­ples,” tweeted Vala Afshar, author of The Pur­suit of Social Busi­ness Excel­lence.

Core val­ues and guid­ing prin­ci­ples, yes: I think he’s on to some­thing. Some­times perks and poli­cies reflect these. Other times, they are sim­ply an over­lay, a cal­cu­lated distraction.

Shortly after I got off the phone with Marci, my boss appeared in my office door­way for our weekly check-in. He was hop­ing to do it quickly since he wanted to head out to the Clover food truck to pick up lunch.

What if I walk over with you, and we can meet that way?” I asked.

This sounded like a great idea to him, so that is what we did. For me, it was another sign that I too have landed in the right place.

Join us in New­ton: The Encore Town Hall is just days away—on Tues­day, April 9, 2013, from 7-9pm at Lasell College’s deWitt Hall. Space is lim­ited. For more infor­ma­tion or to reg­is­ter, please click here.  We hope to see you there!

Purpose. Passion. Paycheck. (Plus a book giveaway.)

Encore Career HandbookI first encoun­tered the remark­able Judy Cock­er­ton when she spoke at Har­vard Law School, where I was work­ing at the time. Her topic was Tree­house, the inno­v­a­tive com­mu­nity she founded in East­hamp­ton, Mass., where fam­i­lies adopt­ing kids from fos­ter care live side by side in a neigh­bor­hood set­ting with peo­ple over 55 who serve as hon­orary grandparents.

My first thought: “This is ter­rific! I want to work with her.” (Which, years later, I did, tak­ing on sev­eral small projects as a vol­un­teer. I also wrote this.)

That reac­tion has been widespread—and this year Judy (now my friend), was one of five peo­ple to receive the $100,000 Pur­pose Prize for 2012, an award for social entre­pre­neurs over the age of 60. For me, as for so many oth­ers, her vision, com­mit­ment, and deter­mi­na­tion to “rein­vent fos­ter care” are ongo­ing inspi­ra­tions, and I’m thrilled that she’s get­ting the recog­ni­tion she so deserves.

But if Judy is unique—and she most cer­tainly is—her broader aspi­ra­tions are not. Behind the high-profile Pur­pose Prize is a larger trend, as grow­ing num­bers of baby boomers seek work that is both per­son­ally mean­ing­ful and serves a larger good. Pro­mot­ing this trend is the goal of Encore.org, the non­profit that awards the Pur­pose Prize, and the topic of an end­lessly use­ful new book by Encore.org Vice Pres­i­dent (and for­mer New York Times colum­nist) Marci Alboher.

Marci Alboher

Marci Albo­her

Being some­thing of an encore careerist myself—as well as a fan of Marci’s pre­vi­ous book on “slash” careers that com­bine two vocations—I couldn’t wait to get my hands The Encore Career Hand­book: How To Make a Liv­ing and a Dif­fer­ence in the Sec­ond Half of Life, out just this month. I wasn’t disappointed.

First and fore­most, the book is jam-packed with excel­lent prac­ti­cal guid­ance. Here are three big-picture sug­ges­tions that espe­cially res­onated with me:

Get com­fort­able with uncer­tainty:  Uncer­tainty is part of any transition—and mov­ing into an Encore career is a tran­si­tion. The good news is you’ve likely already had some expe­ri­ence, tran­si­tions being a hall­mark of life in Plan B Nation. I think about this a lot (as you know if you read this blog). I’ve writ­ten about tran­si­tions here. And here and here and here.

Get con­nected:  In the end, it’s all about the peo­ple you know—and those you meet. If you’re lucky, you (like me) will find this a lot of fun. Marci sug­gests a num­ber of spe­cific ways to engage your friends and oth­ers in the encore career change process. Strate­gies include using oth­ers as a sound­ing board (akin to the idea of hav­ing a per­sonal board of direc­tors), work­ing with career coaches, join­ing a group or tak­ing a class, vol­un­teer­ing as a way to try on a job or sec­tor, and build­ing vibrant net­works (both vir­tual and real-life). I’ve long been a big believer in always erring in favor of con­nec­tion, and there are some great ideas here about how to go about that.

Get a han­dle on your finances: An encore career search means seek­ing “pur­pose, pas­sion, and a pay­check,” as Marci puts it. But exactly what that pay­check needs to look like will depend on your sit­u­a­tion. Encore careers often—though not always—pay less than the jobs they fol­low. What kind of trade-offs are you will­ing to make? What is your risk tol­er­ance? Can you think of cre­ative ways to bring in extra cash or, con­versely, to reduce expenses? (The book offers many suggestions.)

There is also lots of excel­lent nuts-and-bolts stuff: How to go about prepar­ing encore career resumes and cover let­ters (along with sam­ples), exten­sive resource and read­ing lists, basic busi­ness plan­ning guid­ance, and an appen­dix of promis­ing encore jobs.

Once you start pay­ing atten­tion, encore careers are every­where. In my own office at Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health, my col­league Patti came out of the world of hedge funds. “I didn’t want to die hav­ing only been a banker,” she said wryly over a recent lunch. My col­league Chris, like me, spent time in cor­po­rate law.

That said, encore careers often don’t come easy, even for those with excel­lent cre­den­tials will­ing to take a pay cut. In his sear­ingly hon­est Diary of a Com­pany Man: Los­ing a Job, Find­ing a Life, for­mer Time Warner exec­u­tive James Kunen describes his uncer­tain path to ulti­mately ful­fill­ing work teach­ing Eng­lish as a sec­ond lan­guage. “Every­one loves doing something—I love read­ing at the beach—but not every­body loves doing some­thing that you can get paid for,” he reflects at one point. Closer to home, my friend Kenny—whom I met when I inter­viewed him for a Psy­chol­ogy Today piece on career choices—had a hard time find­ing pub­lic school teach­ing work after com­plet­ing Teach for Amer­ica train­ing in his 50s.

But just because some­thing is hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible—or that it’s the wrong thing to do. And thanks to Marci Alboher’s excel­lent book, it’s now eas­ier than it was.

Want to win a copy of The Encore Career Hand­book? Thanks to Work­man Pub­lish­ing, I have two to give away. Tweet a link to this story with the hash­tag #encore­book­win. I’ll pick the win­ners next weekend.

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.”

A Valentine’s date with Leonardo da Vinci

Every now and then you have a chance encounter that turns into some­thing far more. That’s what hap­pened to me with Alle­gra Jor­dan, whom I first met back in 2006 at a women’s pro­gram at Har­vard Busi­ness School.

Some­how we got to talk­ing. One thing led to another, and we made plans to meet for din­ner that evening at a restau­rant in Har­vard Square. Over upscale New Eng­land home cook­ing, we traded life sto­ries, find­ing many over­lap­ping inter­ests. Along with our Har­vard pro­fes­sional degrees (mine a J.D., hers an M.B.A.), we shared ties to the south­ern United States (she’d grown up in Alabama, while I’d spent years work­ing in Ten­nessee and Mis­sis­sippi). But most impor­tant of all was our shared con­cern with find­ing ways to bridge our sec­u­lar and spir­i­tual lives, whether they be devoutly Chris­t­ian (hers) or Bud­dhist eclec­tic (mine).

Flash for­ward five-plus years, and both of us have been through seis­mic changes—jobs, rela­tion­ships, geo­graphic moves.  At the same time, the com­mit­ments that brought us together remain very much the same, and what began as a sin­gle meal is now a solid friendship.

In this guest post, Alle­gra describes how her own Plan B Nation story led her to launch Inno­va­tion Abbey, a social justice-oriented con­sult­ing firm with projects around the world (and with which I’m now hon­ored to be affiliated). 

By Alle­gra Jordan

Feb­ru­ary 13, 2010. Snow is falling as my dog Belvedere and I pull out of my Chapel Hill dri­ve­way and begin the drive to Atlanta. By the time we reach the North Car­olina bor­der, traf­fic is at a stand­still. Eigh­teen wheel­ers slide pre­car­i­ously close to us along the rolling hills. The six-hour trip ends up tak­ing three times that long.

If this had been an ordi­nary trip, I would have turned around and waited for the roads to clear. But it was Valentine’s week­end, a bru­tal anniver­sary. One year before, I’d received a pink slip from my then-husband, fol­lowed by the same at work. The descent was so stun­ning it became intro­duc­tory mate­r­ial for a forth­com­ing book with the tongue-in-cheek work­ing title Is Fem­i­nism in Bad Shape? Check out Alle­gra. The story: our plucky hon­ors Har­vard Busi­ness School grad­u­ate mar­ries, pur­sues a career in inno­va­tion, sac­ri­fices, and ulti­mately becomes a cau­tion­ary tale for others.

Stick around for the week­end anniver­sary? No way.

Instead, I got tick­ets to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. My goal: To rest my eyes on con­se­quen­tial, centuries-old beauty. I hoped this expe­ri­ence would soothe and heal my heart. I was going to show up to life, show up to beauty, and show up to excel­lence. If I had to drive 18 hours, I would gladly do so.

But there was no “a-ha” moment for me on that bleak win­ter day. Tense from the drive, pro­tect­ing a badly wounded heart, I searched in vain for what I was seek­ing. I saw noth­ing that moved me, noth­ing that seemed to jus­tify the long and exhaust­ing trip.

Valentine’s Day dawned in Atlanta to below-freezing tem­per­a­tures. The sun had yet to rise when I embarked on my return trip over black-ice slicked roads. As I care­fully started the long drive back, my spir­its were low. It would have made sense to wait a while, but I didn’t have that lux­ury: I needed to make it back in time to pick up my sons at their father’s.

And then, just a few hours later, every­thing sud­denly shifted.

As I crossed the bor­der into South Car­olina around 10 a.m., the sun peeked into view. As if on cue, the air seemed to warm. My ten­sion and anx­i­ety drained away, leav­ing a feel­ing of calm. For the first time in three days, I finally relaxed. It was then the bless­ing came.

I can only describe it as an epiphany. And epipha­nies or day­dreams are funny, inex­plic­a­ble things. Neu­ro­log­i­cally, I can spec­u­late that after I finally relaxed the exec­u­tive cen­ter of my brain, I opened the door to a series of neuro-tonal images. It was a bit like being awake and dream­ing at the same time.

I saw Leonardo sit­ting on a lad­der. I drew closer.

Why are you here?” I asked.

I can help you,” he said.

How? There’s no place for me.”

There was no place for me either—I did so many dif­fer­ent things and few of them fit with each other. Even Michelan­gelo made fun of me for that big horse I tried. But if I could make it in the 1500s, then per­haps you can too.”

But my work sit­u­a­tion, my home life—I’ve been so betrayed.”

Have you ever worked for a Sforza?”

I laughed. The Sforza coat of arms includes a viper eat­ing a child. It’s hard to think of a more threat­en­ing boss than that.

If I could do it, per­haps you can too,” the mas­ter said. “I’ll help.”

That was it. The epiphany was over.

Nobel Prize win­ner Toni Mor­ri­son writes that a true and good friend is some­one who takes the pieces of “who I am” and gives them “back to me in all the right order.” In that sense, this epiphany helped me see the path for­ward. In those moments, I found my tribe.

One year later I started Inno­va­tion Abbey, recruit­ing a first-class team that shares my ded­i­ca­tion to evidence-based inno­va­tion steeped in deep wis­dom about how peo­ple really work. Since our launch, we’ve worked in 10 coun­tries in Asia and two in Africa, as well as in the United States. Our projects are start­ing to bear fruit, though the work of inno­va­tion— inno­vare or renewal in Latin—is the work of a lifetime.

Our com­pet­i­tive edge? We believe that human beings, not data or processes, are the root cause of inno­va­tion. Yes, peo­ple of faith need peo­ple of spread­sheets, and I have been a per­son of spread­sheets. But it also works the other way: data and processes need the human spirit.

Our name hear­kens back to the ancient abbey sys­tem of Europe and Asia, which man­aged to com­bine oper­a­tions and deep knowl­edge of peo­ple to show a bet­ter way for­ward. While far from per­fect, the 1,400 Cluny abbeys nev­er­the­less helped bring Europe out of chaos, war, and dis­ease 1,100 years ago­—and with­out a sin­gle mobile phone.

I’ll close with a humble—but telling—story from a project we com­pleted in Laos late last year.

In the Lao cul­ture, there isn’t a word for inno­va­tion. But there is a word for love.

We were invited to work with a pub­lic health admin­is­tra­tor work­ing to teach her team about innovation.

She gath­ered her whole team—including her driver—to talk about inno­va­tion, using the mate­ri­als we had pro­vided as a jump­ing off point. The first dis­cus­sion caused con­fu­sion. But the team did not give up. “We don’t know what this is but we love our regional man­ager who tells us this is impor­tant. We will do it for this man­ager whom we respect,” was the gen­eral consensus.

The tide finally began to turn when the Lao team con­nected in Thai with another group study­ing inno­va­tion with us. After this, the Lao team began to feel more com­fort­able with the inno­va­tion process and related con­cepts, the team leader told us. How did she know? Here’s what she said:

I got in my car. Usu­ally you tell the dri­ver where to go street by street and they drive you that way. But this time the dri­ver turned to me and said, ‘I’ve been think­ing. For two years we’ve dri­ven that way. I know a shorter route. May we try it?’”

When I heard this, my heart lifted. Think of the time value in money! How much time had two years of the direc­tive mind­set cost the team? And how much time might be saved going for­ward? Not to men­tion the larger changes likely to fol­low as the inno­va­tion mind­set begins to take root and flour­ish.  And sig­nif­i­cantly, the break­through stemmed from love—from the feel­ings of respect and con­nec­tion that bound team mem­bers to their regional manager.

I see inno­va­tion as the response of human­ity strug­gling to renew in the midst of a com­pet­i­tive and dys­func­tional world where there are amaz­ing things yet to be dis­cov­ered. I’ve had to give up almost every­thing to gain this wis­dom. It’s becom­ing slowly appar­ent to me that it is worth it.

It’s our chal­lenge to build a beau­ti­ful future together on the cold embers of a past that did not work. We have the spirit of a genius engi­neer, painter, drafts­man, sculp­tor, and inven­tor that can meet us, even today. As I walk into this unknown, and poten­tially beau­ti­ful, unbounded future, I do so with a new con­fi­dence that I’m not alone. I’m search­ing for—and start­ing to find—the mem­bers of my lost tribe, the bril­liant, vision­ary, heart-centered tribe of Leonardo da Vinci.

Note: To learn more about Inno­va­tion Abbey and its projects, email Alle­gra with ques­tions or to request an inau­gural set of white papers: “The Devil in Inno­va­tion,” “Redis­cov­er­ing Ancient Wis­dom about Mod­ern Inno­va­tion,” and “What We Learn about Inno­va­tion with the Bot­tom Bil­lion.” Read­ers are also warmly invited to attend a Tedx event on the theme “Beloved Com­mu­nity” in Chapel Hill on March 3, 2012.

Stuck on New Year’s resolutions? Try this instead

Up Above!

I’ve always loved the idea of New Year’s resolutions—the clean slate, the fresh start, the opti­mistic resolve—but for all my ever-so-good inten­tions, I never quite seem to keep them.

So this year, I’m try­ing some­thing new. Instead of estab­lish­ing a list of goals and strug­gling (and fail­ing) to reach them, I’ve decided to think in terms of possibilities.

Inspired by an essay in Wise Bread, I took 20 min­utes out of Christ­mas morn­ing to scrib­ble down 100 things that I want to do—things that, at some level, seem to be call­ing to me. Noth­ing was too big. Noth­ing was too small. As more thoughts came to mind later in the day, I added them to the list.

By the time I was fin­ished, I had some 85 items rang­ing from going to Thai­land to tak­ing a pho­tog­ra­phy class to buy­ing a KitchenAid mixer.  To some­one else, this com­pi­la­tion might appear a weirdly ran­dom assort­ment. To me, it makes total sense. Read­ing it makes me happy.

Let me be clear, this is not a to-do list—it would take me years, if not decades, to accom­plish every­thing I wrote down, and besides, that isn’t the point. What I was after was some­thing more intan­gi­ble, a frame­work for think­ing about what mat­ters to me and how I spend my time.

Look­ing over my list, I was instantly struck by how the things that call me come in clus­ters. Travel is a big one—no surprise—but so is orga­ni­za­tion, or rather the idea of cre­at­ing a more ordered home and with it a more ordered life. Cre­ative work, time in nature, and cook­ing with friends are other recur­rent themes.

I was heart­ened to see that my big changes of recent years—most notably my move to west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts from the Boston area—have made it far eas­ier for me to spend time in ways that feel mean­ing­ful. It was good to feel that I’ve been head­ing in the right direction.

And as inter­est­ing as what I wrote down was what I left out. Many (though not all) of the things on my list are inex­pen­sive or free. Big-city glamor is in notably short sup­ply. Mak­ing waf­fles, play­ing mini-golf, cross-country ski­ing. String­ing white lights around my liv­ing room win­dows. Re-learning how to knit. Cor­ralling kids to make a gin­ger­bread house and hol­i­day cook­ies next year.

Think­ing in terms of pos­si­bil­i­ties seems espe­cially appro­pri­ate for Plan B Nation, where we need to be open-minded and strate­gic if we’re to move forward.

Rather than choos­ing a sin­gle con­crete goal—say, get­ting a job at X organization–we’re well advised to think more broadly. What is the essence of what we want? (Mean­ing­ful work, an income ade­quate to sup­port us in other life goals, inter­est­ing col­leagues.)  What are some alter­nate paths to these same ends?

I imag­ine con­sult­ing this list many times in the year ahead, espe­cially when­ever I’m feel­ing at a loss or stuck. Twelve months from now, I’ll def­i­nitely be curi­ous to see how many of the items from the list made it into my life. But again, that isn’t really the point. These aren’t goals so much as poten­tial paths: They are step­ping stones, not the destination.

Searching for meaning in Plan B Nation

Searching the Ox  -  I

Ear­lier this week, I wrote about how much hap­pier I’ve been since mov­ing back to my beloved Northamp­ton roughly a year ago. While I feared this would be just a tem­po­rary boost, I’m pleased to report that it’s proven far more sat­is­fy­ing and delight­fully sustaining.

At the same time, the past year has (not sur­pris­ingly) brought new chal­lenges. Apart­ment hunt­ing, nego­ti­at­ing a lease, find­ing movers, packing—these prac­ti­cal tasks amounted to a full-time job that left me lit­tle time for wor­ry­ing about larger and more amor­phous ques­tions such as What am I doing with my life? Once I’d landed on the other side, how­ever, they soon reclaimed cen­ter stage.

Regard­less of where you go for guidance—psychologists, reli­gious lead­ers, soci­ol­o­gists, friends—pretty much every­one will tell you that pur­pose is a key ingre­di­ent for a sat­is­fy­ing life.

In his cel­e­brated 1946 Holo­caust mem­oir Man’s Search for Mean­ing, Aus­trian psy­chi­a­trist Vik­tor Frankl went so far as to say that this search is our pri­mary moti­va­tion in life. But while the prin­ci­ple may be a sim­ple one, putting it into prac­tice can be far more complicated—and in cir­cum­stances far less dire than Frankl’s Nazi death camp. Frankl him­self rec­og­nized this in a pref­ace to the book’s 1984 edi­tion, where he glumly con­cluded: “I do not at all see in the best­seller sta­tus of my book so much an achieve­ment and accom­plish­ment on my part as an expres­sion of the mis­ery of our time: if hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the ques­tion of a mean­ing to life, it must be a ques­tion that burns under their fingernails.”

If any­thing our hunger for mean­ing has only grown more des­per­ate since Frankl penned those words. There may be peri­ods of our lives—sometimes long periods—when we don’t give it much thought. The big ques­tions are (tem­porar­ily) set­tled. The big deci­sions are made. What remains is exe­cu­tion, the liv­ing out of their impli­ca­tions through the days and years.

At other times, how­ever, the big ques­tions are right in our face—and, more and more that’s the case for those of us liv­ing in Plan B Nation.  More and more, we’re drop-kicked into unfa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions, left to make major deci­sions with­out mean­ing­ful guid­ance.  Our par­ents’ rules for decision-making no longer seem to apply. Friends give con­flict­ing advice. Depend­ing on our spir­i­tual out­look, we may pray or look inward for guid­ance, but often we still find our­selves com­pletely at a loss—at a loss and anxious.

Per­haps my favorite descrip­tion of this mud­dled state comes from a short story by the peer­less Lor­rie Moore. Describ­ing a baf­fled pro­tag­o­nist, she writes, “She hadn’t been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She’d been given a can of gravy and a hair­brush and told, ‘There you go.’”

A can of gravy and a hairbrush.

I can so relate.

In the first decade of the new mil­len­nium, an evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor named Rick War­ren tapped into this moth­er­lode of anguished con­fu­sion with The Pur­pose Dri­ven Life, now billed as “the best­selling non­fic­tion hard­back book in his­tory.” (The Bible, pre­sum­ably, is entirely fac­tual so not in the run­ning here.)

While I was raised as a Con­gre­ga­tion­al­ist I’ve spent lit­tle time in churches in my adulthood—except for a brief foray into Epis­co­palian­ism. (“We’re Uni­tar­i­ans who like liturgy,” our priest once said, describ­ing those drawn to this small and decid­edly cre­ative church.) Still, I couldn’t help but be curi­ous, so I ordered myself a copy.

The (trade­mark reg­is­tered) Pur­pose Dri­ven Life is described as a “40-day spir­i­tual jour­ney” that “will trans­form your life.”  War­ren urges us to read no more than one of the 40 chap­ters each day, but I decided that a sin­gle after­noon would have to suf­fice.  After all, I didn’t plan to do the pro­gram, I just wanted to get a sense of what it’s about—and indeed, it took just a few chap­ters to grasp its appeal.

War­ren claims The Pur­pose Dri­ven Life is not a self-help book, but while his under­stand­ing of the genre may dif­fer from mine, it strikes me as exactly that. In fair­ness, I found much with which to agree. In his anti-materialism, his belief in the para­mount impor­tance of rela­tion­ships over things, Warren’s is a counter-cultural voice, exhort­ing us to care for the planet as well as for each other. To that extent, I’m with him.

This only takes me a short way, though, and I’m soon baf­fled by Warren’s blithe pre­sump­tion that all we need to do is lis­ten.

Warren’s God speaks with unmis­tak­able clar­ity. The prob­lem isn’t that we can’t hear God but that we refuse to obey him.

If God asked you to build a giant boat, don’t you think you might have a few ques­tions, objec­tions, or reser­va­tions?” War­ren asks his read­ers, con­trast­ing our imag­ined obsti­nacy with Noah’s eager­ness to get right on that ark.

And that’s where he loses me.

Because the thing is, if God were speak­ing to me—and I knew for sure that this was God—I’m pretty sure I’d be fine with build­ing what­ever boat he (or she) wanted. And I’m pretty sure the same would be true for most any­one read­ing the book. (Or at least almost any­one: My friend Jennifer—a law professor—insists she would indeed take issue with this heav­enly direc­tive, explain­ing she’s not trained in ark-building, though she’d gladly write a paper.)

But this doesn’t seem to be how God usu­ally speaks, even to those of us des­per­ate for guidance.

Not that we don’t wish he did.

I’m reminded of a scene in The Movie­goer, Walker Percy’s National Book Award-winning 1960 novel. “Don’t you see?” the despair­ing Kate Cutrer asks her cousin Binx. “What I want is to believe in some­one com­pletely and then do what he wants me to do. If God were to tell me: Kate, here is what I want you to do; you get off this train right now and go over there to that cor­ner by the South­ern Life and Acci­dent Insur­ance Com­pany and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people—you think I would not do it? You think I would not be the hap­pi­est girl in Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi? I would.”

For most of us, like Kate, clear direc­tion often proves elu­sive, how­ever much we long for it. That was cer­tainly the case for renowned writer Dan Wake­field, a nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist and screen­writer who, after decades of athe­ism and hard liv­ing, redis­cov­ered the reli­gious faith of his youth. Some years later, he recon­nected with a child­hood friend, a woman from his home­town of Indi­anapo­lis (which also hap­pens to be my home­town, but I digress).  After years of tumul­tuous rela­tion­ships, Wake­field believed he was finally on the right path, on the road to which God had led him. The cou­ple married.

And then, almost imme­di­ately, things fell apart.

In his soul-baring spir­i­tual mem­oir How Do We Known When It’s God?, Wake­field reflects back on this painful time, writ­ing: “The hubris of imag­in­ing we’ve ‘got it together,’ fol­lowed by a jolt of real­ity that plunges us back to earth, is prob­a­bly one of the most famil­iar and often-traveled arcs of human expe­ri­ence. And yet we think each time, ‘This is dif­fer­ent, this time I’ve really got it right.’”

Wakefield’s expe­ri­ence got me to think­ing about how we go about pur­su­ing our goals—how we decide what to do next. It’s all well and good to say, as the evan­gel­i­cal War­ren does, that we should just do what God tells us—or some sec­u­lar equiv­a­lent of this—but what does this really mean?  At the most basic, prac­ti­cal level, how do we go about this? And, most imme­di­ately, how should I go about it?

The notion that there exists some absolute truth to which we should look for guid­ance per­vades Amer­i­can cul­ture.  For Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians like War­ren, it’s God. For those of a more ecu­meni­cal bent, it may be Your True Self, Your Inner Voice, or some gen­eral force for good.

But not every­one buys such the­o­ries. Along­side the wide­spread view that there exists some pre-existing and essen­tial truth is a less well-traveled but par­al­lel track known as con­struc­tivism. As con­struc­tivists see it, the self is some­thing that we cre­ate, not some­thing that we find. Until we’ve con­structed our self, there isn’t a self to con­sult. Until then, to para­phrase Har­vard pro­fes­sor Robert Kegan, we’re no more than the col­lec­tion of beliefs taken on from “impor­tant others”—parents, teach­ers, peers, celebri­ties, employ­ers, to name just a view. And because these per­spec­tives so often diverge, we often find our­selves in trouble—caught between con­flict­ing demands with no way to choose between them.

Make a lot of money, but don’t over­value mate­r­ial things.

Put your­self first, but also put your fam­ily first.

It’s impor­tant to look your best, but don’t think too much about how you look.

Be assertive but modest.

As the old say­ing goes, you can’t please every­one—and yet, with­out quite notic­ing, many of us in Plan B Nation can’t seem to stop our­selves from trying.

But while the con­struc­tivists’ the­o­ries make a lot of sense to me, they still leave the biggest ques­tion unan­swered.  If we’re charged with “con­struct­ing” our selves, how do we best proceed?

I’ve spent much of the past year thinking—and reading—about this ques­tion, and more and more, I’m con­vinced that life in Plan B Nation isn’t some­thing that can be planned or neatly charted out.

Rather, we need to “live into” our new lives—to dis­cover our pur­pose through try­ing things out, regroup­ing, then try­ing again. The process isn’t lin­ear. It’s often messy. But it’s also necessary.

And in fact, the process may not be all that dif­fer­ent from how we’ve always lived.  After exten­sive research into suc­cess­ful mid-life career tran­si­tions, orga­ni­za­tional behav­ior expert Her­minia Ibarra con­cluded that the tra­di­tional “plan and imple­ment” model is at odds with real­ity. Fac­ing a major cross­roads, would-be career chang­ers often spend count­less hours and dol­lars on coun­sel­ing and bat­ter­ies of stan­dard­ized tests, all in the inter­ests of deter­min­ing what it is they really want.  In other words, first fig­ure out what you want. Then go after it.

This all sounds pretty log­i­cal, except that, accord­ing to Ibarra, our lives don’t work that way. “We learn who we are—in prac­tice, not in theory—by test­ing real­ity, not by look­ing inside,” she writes in Work­ing Iden­tity: Uncon­ven­tional Strate­gies for Rein­vent­ing Your Career.  “We dis­cover the true pos­si­bil­i­ties by doing—try­ing out new activ­i­ties, reach­ing out to new groups, find­ing new role mod­els, and rework­ing our story as we tell it to those around us.”  

Over the past months, I’ve taken this advice to heart (in part because it appeals to me and in part because I don’t really see a whole lot of other options). I still feel pulled in mul­ti­ple directions—at the time of this writ­ing, I’m tak­ing an intro­duc­tory social work class, plan­ning to teach a writ­ing work­shop, actively seek­ing full-time and free­lance jobs, and con­tem­plat­ing tak­ing the Mass­a­chu­setts bar exam.  (In the dry words of one friend, “Amy, maybe you should con­sider mon­e­tiz­ing your Har­vard Law degree.”)

If this post seems longer than pre­vi­ous offer­ings, that’s because it is: Much of it was pulled from a book pro­posal that I may (or may not) be rework­ing.  As with so many other things: Time. Will. Tell. For now, one of the ways I’m find­ing mean­ing is through writ­ing this blog.  And while I can’t say where it’s tak­ing me, I’m sure enjoy­ing the ride.