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.