Why Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point

Sheryl SandbergThe offi­cial pub­li­ca­tion date for Lean In is still a day off, but as the Sheryl Sand­berg tsunami approaches land­fall, its his­toric scope and impact are read­ily apparent.

Like any self-respecting trea­tise in the Inter­net age, Sandberg’s opus—currently  #1 on Amazon.com—has spawned wave upon wave of impas­sioned com­men­tary, crash­ing ashore in pre­dictable stages. First comes the announce­ment, then the cri­tique, then the back­lash against the cri­tique, then the meta con­ver­sa­tion about the con­ver­sa­tion. (For the record—and likely due to time con­straints and a prob­lem­atic Face­book habit–my own con­tri­bu­tions tend to come towards the end of this cycle.)

My ini­tial plan to track Super­storm Sheryl quickly fell by the wayside—there was sim­ply too much com­ing in too fast for me to absorb (at least absent a deci­sion to lean out of my full-time job). That said, I’ve been pay­ing atten­tion and read­ing quite a bit. And more and more, I find myself stuck on a sin­gle ques­tion: Why aren’t we just tak­ing what we can use and for­get­ting about the rest?

A some­what baf­fled Paul Krug­man seemed to say as much this morn­ing on ABC’s This Week: Of course, Sandberg’s pre­scrip­tion is not for every­one. It seems to be quite help­ful for some. What is the big deal?

So what is the big deal? (Because, clearly, there is one.)

The more I think about it, the more I sus­pect that some of the debate’s feroc­ity stems from an atavis­tic faith in the myth of the Right Answer. Many of us, me included, grew up in an era where female ambi­tion often found its out­let in efforts to be the Good Girl, to ful­fill goals set by oth­ers, not to define our own. The suc­cess­ful Good Girl’s stock in trade was her ready store of right answers. Not right for her, but right period. She cul­ti­vated excel­lent lis­ten­ing skills and became a world-class mimic.  In return, she got gold stars and As. She did not get raped or killed.

Put dif­fer­ently, per­haps one of the rea­sons we care so des­per­ately about what Sand­berg thinks is because we are aren’t entirely clear what we think our­selves. We latch on to her ideas—or, alter­nately, lash out against them—because we don’t see (or aren’t com­fort­able with) other more nuanced options. This shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing. We live in an age when the com­pet­ing voices are loud and many—and often far out­strip our capac­ity to choose among them or shape our own course. (Intrigu­ingly, even Sand­berg her­self sounds famil­iar with the dilemma: “Every woman I know feels guilty about the choices they’ve made,” she told 60 Min­utes this evening.) We are, in the words of Harvard’s Robert Kegan–who put forth this the­ory in a book of the same name–“in over our heads.” (N.B. This is a prob­lem not just for women but for pretty much every­one.  Another place it’s espe­cially visible–and anxiety-provoking–is, as I wrote here, around career choices in the after­math of the Great Recession.)

But there’s another rea­son that it’s a big deal, and it’s an impor­tant one: The dan­ger that a vision intended to inspire could become an oppres­sive cud­gel. The dan­ger that women already struggling–and they are infi­nitely more numer­ous than Sand­berg and her black swan peers–will be told that, if they’d just lean in more, Presto!, prob­lems solved. Not that anyone’s likely to say this in so many words, or that it’s what Sand­berg intended. But these things have a way of seep­ing in. The process is grad­ual. That Sand­berg and other uber achiev­ers have become the most vis­i­ble faces of women’s work­place issues is, as Car­olyn Edgar com­pellingly writes, both absurd and disturbing.

Late last month, the ever-thoughtful Kate Gace Wal­ton, who runs the blog Work Stew, mused that Sandberg’s choices would never be her own. “For me per­son­ally, a book that would res­onate more might be called ‘Lean In, Gasp with Hor­ror, and Run the Other Way,’” she quipped. At the same time, she took the oppor­tu­nity to take the con­ver­sa­tion deeper—to ask friends and read­ers how they’d responded, what was true for them: “What path makes sense for you, and what changes (in your­self, and in soci­ety) need to hap­pen to make that pos­si­ble?” she wrote on Facebook.

This is another kind of lean­ing in that I think we could use more of—a lean­ing into our own lives, to our own val­ues and needs. How do we decide whose advice to fol­low? Where do we look for guid­ance? Here, Sheryl Sand­berg is beside the point. We can only look to ourselves.

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.

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.

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 thing you should know about time

Time Jumper

This one comes from rock star blog­ger Chris Guille­beau:

[W]e tend to over­es­ti­mate what we can com­plete in a sin­gle day, and under­es­ti­mate what we can com­plete over longer peri­ods of time,” he writes in his Brief Guide to World Dom­i­na­tion (which is hap­pily far from the mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal screed the title might suggest).

This is so true! When I came across these words the other day, I felt instant relief. Never mind that I already knew this. I needed to hear it again. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been feel­ing slow mov­ing and uncer­tain. How great to be reminded that most goals require us to take the long view.

Viewed from this per­spec­tive, I’m doing just fine. Things may not be where I want them to be, but they cer­tainly aren’t where they were.

For one thing, I have a new job! A small job, to be sure, but one that I’m really excited about and hope will lead to more. Start­ing this fall, I’ll be teach­ing a course at UMass Amherst in the Com­mon­wealth Hon­ors Col­lege. I also just fin­ished up final edits on a fea­ture story on career decision-making – you can find it in Psy­chol­ogy Today’s September/October issue – and began seri­ous strate­giz­ing about a big new project.

Which isn’t to say I’m not up against some daunt­ing chal­lenges. Those pesky evic­tion pro­ceed­ings. Find­ing a new place to live. Deal­ing with health insur­ance issues. Sev­eral writ­ing projects.  When I look at this list all at once, I can start to freak out. My life feels like some­thing of a high-wire act. Will I make it across?

Then I remind myself that I don’t need to take care of every­thing right now. Each of these things will take time to get done. And, the fact is, time takes time.

My SOBCon permission slip

A few weeks back, I was perus­ing upcom­ing con­fer­ences likely to expand my knowl­edge of all things blogging-related, when one in par­tic­u­lar caught my eye: The renowned SOB­Con would be tak­ing place in Port­land Ore­gon this fall.

An event that I’d long wanted to attend in a town I’d long wanted to visit.

How much more tempt­ing could this be? But could I jus­tify it?

I had no trou­ble com­ing up with rea­sons to take a pass: Who knew what my sched­ule would look like in Sep­tem­ber? What about the cost? Was I even far enough along with my ideas for the trip to be useful?

But while the cost-benefit analy­sis seemed any­thing but clear, I found myself recall­ing some words of advice from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man. In a career guide dubbed The Start-Up of You, Hoff­man pro­poses set­ting up an “Inter­est­ing Peo­ple” fund. The idea is to allo­cate a cer­tain amount of money each year to cul­ti­vat­ing rela­tion­ships. That way, when a great oppor­tu­nity comes along, you’re less likely to angst over whether to act on it. You’ve iden­ti­fied the pri­or­ity. You’ve already made the commitment.

Why is this so impor­tant? Because the more con­ver­sa­tions we have, the more peo­ple we meet, the more we expand our uni­verse of pos­si­bil­i­ties. “You won’t encounter acci­den­tal good for­tune – you won’t stum­ble upon oppor­tu­ni­ties that rocket your career for­ward – if you’re lying in bed,” Hoff­man and his co-author Ben Cas­nocha note. “When you do some­thing, you stir the pot and intro­duce the pos­si­bil­ity that seem­ingly ran­dom ideas, peo­ple, and places will col­lide and form new com­bi­na­tions and opportunities.”

Rock­et­ing images aside, this made total sense to me. My deci­sion sud­denly seemed far sim­pler. Reader, I registered.

Only some time later did it occur to me that I’d already known every­thing that Hoff­man was telling me. I’d even writ­ten about it more than once not too long ago – about the magic of cause and effect and erring towards con­nec­tion. It was then I real­ized that what I’d needed wasn’t guid­ance but a green light, per­mis­sion to ignore the voices of doubt  and do what I knew felt right.

Life Experiment #7: Nesting

Nesting Storks

Last week, I was served with a 30-day Notice to Quit, the first stage in evic­tion pro­ceed­ings. I’m not happy about this, but such is life. This is my real­ity. So what am I going to do?

Not sur­pris­ingly, I’m really anx­ious. I have a house­ful of stuff – books, art, fur­ni­ture, dishes, appli­ances, writ­ing projects, not to men­tion a cat. The idea of mov­ing in less than a month is hugely stress­ful. Friends have reas­sured me that, prac­ti­cally speak­ing, I likely have far more time than the legal paper sug­gests, given our state’s landlord-tenant laws and the nature of judi­cial pro­ceed­ings. But things are already unpleas­ant enough. At this point, I just want out.

Still, get­ting out takes time and effort. Much as I might wish it oth­er­wise, I can’t mag­i­cally snap my fin­gers and be some­where else. The ques­tion: How to make the best of this par­tic­u­lar bad sit­u­a­tion? How to go about reduc­ing its impact on the rest of my life?

A com­ment from my friend Alle­gra was help­ful here, point­ing out how the specter of evic­tion likely evokes past threats and rejec­tions. “I’ve never known a notice to quit not to hurt,” she observed, speak­ing metaphor­i­cally. Sep­a­rat­ing the past from the present strikes me as emi­nently use­ful. How much of my reac­tion is about now? How much is about then – about newly retrig­gered pain surg­ing from the past. (“Now is not then,” Havi says, over and over and over.)

That said, I’m def­i­nitely con­fronting a very real present-day chal­lenge, one that goes to the core of how I live and work. Even if I don’t want to fight evic­tion, I already feel embat­tled. It’s affect­ing the qual­ity of my days and my abil­ity to get things done. I have a hard time sleep­ing. I awake awash in cor­ti­sol, already on overdrive.

Years ago, I took a class in Early Freud at a psy­cho­an­a­lytic insti­tute in Man­hat­tan. (“Early Freud, that’s great. Stuff even Freud doesn’t believe any­more,” a friend dryly remarked.)  Most of what I learned there is long for­got­ten but one prin­ci­ple stayed with me. “Never deal with a neu­ro­sis by attempt­ing to uproot it. Always work to build up other aspects of the per­son­al­ity,” our teacher said (or some­thing pretty close to that; it’s been a long time).

I see an anal­ogy here. On the one hand, I could focus on the bad thing hap­pen­ing. Or I could train my sights on the life and home I’m hop­ing to cre­ate. What are the qual­i­ties I want them to have?  Where – and how — am I most likely to find them?

And here’s where the idea of nests comes in (another thing inspired by Havi). What are the qual­i­ties of a nest? (It holds EGGs. It’s a place where small crea­tures grow from help­less­ness to self-sufficiency. It’s a prod­uct of instinc­tual needs. That’s a start.) What am I look­ing for in my nest? (Safety. Sup­port. Ease. Con­tent­ment.) How can I cre­ate it? (That’s what I’m sit­ting with now.) The nest metaphor feels espe­cially apt given the sus­te­nance I’ve gained in recent months from both bread­crumbs and bas­ket weav­ing.

So that’s it: Life Exper­i­ment # 7 will be all about nest­ing, watch­ing how the metaphor works and (I’m hop­ing) starts to shift things.

Update on Life Exper­i­ment #6: Present Me is delighted that Past Me got rid of some of these pesky nag­ging tasks, espe­cially given the pres­sures Present Me now faces. I sewed on the but­ton! And did some 20 other things besides – got my bike tuned up, hemmed a pair of linen pants, got a long-overdue hair­cut.  I didn’t make it through all 30 things, but I def­i­nitely made progress. And as I’ve learned through these Life Exper­i­ments, that itself is cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

30 small things (aka Life Experiment #6)

There are no large plea­sures in life, only small ones,” a much older boyfriend once pro­nounced to an impres­sion­able 25-year-old me. He paused for a moment, reflect­ing. “Except maybe the Prado or the Louvre.”

I’ve already been to both,” I ventured.

Well.…” He raised his hands as if to say: “So, that’s that!”

The older I get, the more I take his point. Not that there aren’t large plea­sures and that they aren’t, well plea­sur­able. But the qual­ity of our days, and thus our lives, is largely deter­mined by small things.

Mulling over pos­si­ble Life Exper­i­ments for June, I hit on the idea of doing one (small) nice thing for myself each day. Given that June 1—today—is my birth­day, this seems espe­cially apt. Plus it’s also in line with my ongo­ing quest for more play­ful­ness and fun.

Last month’s Life Exper­i­ment involved Doing Less. With­out going into a lot of detail, I’ll say that, strictly speak­ing, you could count it as a fail­ure. In fact, if my goal had been to Do More, you might say I’d triumphed.

But this isn’t the whole story. More and more, I see these Life Exper­i­ments as plant­ing seeds. The fruit they bear won’t nec­es­sar­ily be within a pre­dictable time frame. This hit home for me a few weeks back when I signed up for a dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy class that starts next week. As reg­u­lar read­ers may recall, my Photo-a-Day exper­i­ment lasted just a few days. But now, here I am return­ing to the ter­rain I staked out then. The seed I planted is tak­ing root, just not the way I planned.

When I sat down to the make the list of 30 small things, I had the idea of small pleasures—a mas­sage, a din­ner out with friends, new run­ning shoes—but as I started to write, what leaped to mind were small nag­ging tasks. Exhibit A would be the sweater with a but­ton that’s been wait­ing to be sewn back on for some­thing like 10 years. (In a novel this might be a metaphor, but in my life, it’s fact.)

In Life Coach-land such tasks-in-waiting are known as “tol­er­a­tions” and are said to be con­stant drains on our store of energy. In any case, I’m pretty sure I’d feel bet­ter with a shorter list. Mas­sages and restau­rant din­ners are nice, but so is cre­at­ing order. My hypoth­e­sis: Get­ting that but­ton sewn back will make me unrea­son­ably happy.

Life Exper­i­ment #6: Do once small nice thing for your­self each day—which may mean plea­sur­able in the doing but could also mean plea­sur­able in the sense of feeling-happier-having-done-it. (Hi there, sweater and button!)