Why follow-through is overrated

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.”

Dazed & Confused in Plan B Nation

268/365 - Default State

In July 2010, amidst continued fall-out from the Great Recession, the New York Times published a front-page story about an unemployed college graduate living with his parents in a Boston suburb who’d just turned down a $40,000-a-year job as an insurance claims adjustor.

“I am absolutely certain that my job hunt will eventually pay off,” said 24-year-old Scott Nicholson, a Colgate University honors graduate with a degree in political science, explaining his decision to hold out for something better even after two years of fruitless searching.

The piece quickly became notorious, setting off a tsunami of online comments—1,487 at last count—the vast majority expressing outrage at what readers perceived as an absurd sense of entitlement enabled by a too-indulgent family.

“Turning down a job for $40,000 a year after graduating from a second tier (at best) school because he is too good for the position? The kid deserves whatever hardship he endures,” was one typically harsh response.

I recently thought back to this article—and the heated debate that ensued—when I got a call from a friend who heads up a big department of a big organization. She’d read some of my posts about the challenges of looking for work after the Great Recession and wanted to share her own quite different perspective.

“I can’t give jobs away!” he (or she—I promised anonymity) insisted. “Nobody knows how to work anymore. They’ll say ‘I might have to miss yoga today, and that’s not okay.’”

I have to say I found this fascinating. And while it was (and is) hard for me to believe that the situation for employers is really quite so bleak, I did start to notice other signs of similar frustration. For example this plaintive tweet from a local tech entrepreneur, formerly of Microsoft: “Why do so few job applicants bother to follow up? And some of the best cover letters don’t even show up for interviews.”

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that such behaviors, along with the resulting frustration, can be traced to a profound confusion about what work is and is not, as well as what it should be—a confusion now thrown into relief by the stressor of hard times.

It’s not news that the so-called millennials—the cohort now entering the workforce—grew up with extraordinary expectations fueled by Baby Boomer parents who encouraged them to dream big. Further feeding such attitudes was the Oprah-fication of American popular culture along with self-help classics such as Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow and the mega-bestseller The Secret, which posits a “law of attraction” that allows each of us to “manifest” our desires. Even the popular maxim that “anyone can be president” (never mind the nation’s declining place on social mobility measures) can be traced to this cultural strand.

At the same time, our nation is deeply rooted in the Puritan work ethic, with its emphasis on frugality, discipline, and self-reliance. Such teachings have been with us from early days, finding expression in the best-selling writings of Benjamin Franklin up on through present-day political rhetoric. (Think Mitt Romney’s tireless if problematic claims of being a self-made man.)

Follow your dreams, whatever it takes.  Pay your own way, whatever it takes.

That millennials are struggling should come as no surprise, given these exacting and often conflicting cultural expectations. Those of us who came of age in the Boom Years may have managed to bridge the two. But when money is scarce and jobs are few (Hello, New Normal!), this is no easy feat.

So what’s a millennial supposed to do? Presented with conflicting absolutes, how are they supposed to choose?

This is precisely the sort of dilemma considered by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan in In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. As Kegan sees it, we live in an age where demands are many and often at odds, and guidelines for choosing between them are scarce. At the same time, relatively few of us are sufficiently grounded in our own beliefs to stand up to social pressures and chart an independent course—to be what Kegan calls “self authoring.” That’s not such a big problem when society’s expectations are consistent. But when a culture makes the sort of conflicting demands that ours routinely does, things can turn ugly very quickly.

Which is where many millennials find themselves right now: Wanting to do the Right Thing but without a way to decide what that right thing is. Where is the line between self-confidence and entitlement? Where is the line between admirable risk-taking and foolish behavior? Where is the line between being responsible and giving up?

Depending on whom a millennial asks, they’re likely to get different answers, and regardless of which one they choose, they’re likely to find themselves at odds with someone whose opinion they value. There may not be much that we can do right now to change this cultural context. What we can do is to acknowledge that Scott Nicholson and other millennials have good reason to feel dazed and confused.


Edited 3/15/12: Various non-substantive revisions for style and clarification.

The Dog Days of Plan B Nation

I met Jan on Facebook through our friend Betsy, and the three of us planned a dinner together, but then Betsy stood us up.

So we sat there in a cozy booth at Casablanca, a Harvard Square restaurant, exchanging tentative smiles and casting about for conversation.

“This is sort of like a blind date!” Jan said, officially breaking the ice. Soon the words were flowing. By the end of the meal, we were friends.

While our lives are quite different in many ways—I’m single, she’s married with three kids, among other things—we also have much in common, including literary tastes, curiosity, and a dry sense of humor. During the past year or so, we’ve also been fellow travelers in Plan B Nation. Here, Jan shares some thoughts on her journey—and a furry guy who’s helping her through it.  





By Jan Devereux

This Valentine’s Day I sent my 23-year-old son a card with a photo of a young man and his dog sitting side-by-side, wearing identical frizzy red wigs: “May you never grow to look like the one you love,” the card teased. With neither a sweetheart nor a pooch, my son is in no imminent danger of this romantic peril. The joke was on me, as it’s certainly no secret that his old lady has been crushing on her puppy lately.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether I’ve yet begun to resemble my dog, physically, but I have begun to recognize, and even embrace, a few emotional parallels. If you’ve ever lived with a dog, I don’t have to tell you that change stresses them out. Dogs thrive with a predictable routine, well-defined expectations and limits, and consistent, positive reinforcement. As dog trainers know only too well, many “problem” dogs are merely reacting to challenging circumstances created by humans.

Fellow citizens of Plan B Nation, is this starting to sound familiar?

The challenge of being between jobs in today’s economy is stressful enough to make us all behave like this dog:

Photo credit: Tastefully Offensive.com's Tumblr

Now, if I actually were a dog, I’d probably be a Border collie. Bright, hard-working and a quick study, I like to be busy and to get things done. A straight-A student straight through graduate school, I was the (admittedly annoying) girl who always did all the assigned reading before class and finished her term papers before the due date. Laser-focused on my studies and too much of a worrywart to procrastinate, I managed to earn two Ivy League diplomas with honors and without ever pulling an all-nighter. I’m still punctual to a fault, the party guest who habitually arrives unfashionably early.

I’ve always worked—being a stay-at-home mother for a few years doesn’t count as “not working” unless you think meeting the 24/7 demands of three young children is a walk in the park. I went back to paid office work when my youngest child, now 17, started preschool. Most nights, I went to bed dog-tired, but I usually awoke excited to tackle whatever the next day might bring.

When I left my most recent job, as director of communications at an independent school, I experienced an initial rush of exhilaration, like a dog unleashed. There were so many avenues I wanted to explore, both professionally and personally, so many paths beckoned that it seemed as if it might even be hard to choose among them! After a few months, however, it gradually dawned on me that, especially in this economy, the choosing was not entirely up to me. Without a job to provide the scaffolding for my days, a clear purpose to guide my actions, and the reward for a job well done, I felt like a dog cut loose from the pack.

Worse, by focusing all my energy on finding the right job, I’d inadvertently created a dynamic that was bound to frustrate a goal-oriented person, at least in the short-term. Picture the Border collie faced with a field full of plastic lawn sheep: I eventually realized I could exhaust myself trying to herd inanimate objects, or I could reframe the problem.

I needed an interim project with a more certain payoff. So, naturally, getting a puppy seemed like the solution! There were plenty of good reasons not to add the distraction of raising a puppy while I was supposed to be figuring out my next act, professionally. But, the fact is, getting Eddie was the one of the smartest decisions I’ve could have made.

Training and bonding with Eddie these past months, I’ve re-discovered the restorative power of friendship, canine and human. Now I organize my day around our walks with friends who have dogs. If you’ve read Gail Caldwell’s poignant memoir of walking with her best friend, the late Caroline Knapp, and their dogs, then you’ll be able to picture us following in their footsteps at Fresh Pond. Its title, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is what one of my friends always says when we reach the point where the path loops around a wildflower meadow. Having a ready excuse to get away from my computer and out in the fresh air has been a lifesaver.

Eddie has also been my inspiration for a new creative project, a blog called Cambridge Canine. I’d been looking for a focus for my writing and found plenty of fresh material right at the other end of the leash. They say, “write what you know” –well, dogs are what I know best right now. The blog may never claim a huge following, but the posts are fun to write, and the occasional encouraging comment or Facebook “like” is reward enough to keep me in the hunt.

A recent health scare underscored that we can never be certain what will happen next; like players in a game of Whac-a-Mole, we slap down one stressor only to see another pop up. Watching my dog cavort with his friends is a daily reminder that life is lived most fully in the moment. My professional future is still in limbo, but when I’m out walking Eddie, I try to stop worrying so much about where I’m heading and focus instead on enjoying the journey as much as he does.

Recently, a friend remarked, “My dog is my sanity.” I couldn’t agree more.

And vs. Or


Shortly after I launched this blog, a friend suggested that I feature stories about people who lost their jobs but ended up triumphant, which got me to thinking about this seductive and increasingly iconic Great Recession storyline.

The appetite for such stories is easy to understand. They’re a welcome antidote to the anxious uncertainty that pervades our times. They fuel our optimism, calm our fears. They tell us that no matter how bleak things may seem they’re still likely to end well. “This is a series about people who stared down the Great Recession—and reinvented themselves along the way,” is how the online magazine Salon describes its series “My Brilliant Second Career.”

But for all this narrative’s compelling appeal, I’ve found myself balking at it, uneasy with the vision of a fantasy future squared off against the past. In particular, I worry that in our eager rush towards happier times, we risk losing sight of what these years have had to teach us—that we’ll come to view this era’s difficulties as things that “shouldn’t  have happened to me” rather than as a shared experience that shaped and transformed our lives.

Our individualist culture thrives on hierarchies and dichotomies. Good vs. Bad. Success vs. Failure. Winner vs. Loser.  It’s easy to fixate on securing a spot on the right side of the divide. When we come to the end of a challenging stretch, we often heave a sigh of relief and do our best to forget.  That was then. This is now. I am not that person anymore. (Thank God, I am not that person!)

But there’s another way through such transitions, one that involves expanding to encompass even the hardest parts of our pasts. I thought of this recently when reading my friend Allegra Jordan’s beautiful guest post on how the abrupt end of her marriage, which also coincided with a job loss, led her to launch her public-spirited Innovation Abbey consulting firm. What I especially loved about his piece was its recognition—and acceptance—of the ways in which past and present necessarily coexist.  As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Why does this matter? Because once we accept that our lives are inherently messy, imperfect, and informed by a past we didn’t choose, we can start to let go of the futile notion that life should be an endless progression upwards.  We can be kinder to ourselves—and kinder to each other. We can start to understand—really understand—that we are not good or bad, successes or failures, winners or losers. We are all of these things, many times over, and many more besides.

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.

The “P” word in Plan B Nation

While I’m not really a religious person, I’ve always been fascinated by religious beliefs. As a child, I once spent a good part of a slumber party poring over Time-Life’s The Worlds Great Religions with a like-minded peer. (Hello Katie Plimpton!) At different points, I yearned to be both a Roman Catholic and a Mormon, faiths that fired my imagination far more than my family’s easy ecumenicism.

When my mother refused to buy me a rosary, I was not to be dissuaded: I made one for myself out of a stash of Campfire Girl beads and set up an altar on a footstool positioned in front of my bedroom window.

A flirtation with evangelical Christianity was intense if short-lived. Aside from the late-night revival that I barely made it through, what I most remember is the fact that the neighbors who took me had a dad who sold snack foods. I was thrilled to be the recipient of one of his corporate give-aways: A pressed felt hat topped with a tin inset filled with dirt and seed. You watered your hat and waited for grass to sprout from the crown.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining how I’ve come to be at a Catholic retreat house sometime in 1990s. It was there that I acquired a small unprepossessing pamphlet of prayers that I’ve had ever since.

In my continued journey as a spiritual eclectic, I’ve thought a lot about prayer. In particular, I’ve pondered how I can take comfort (as I do) in words that I don’t technically “believe.” My all-time favorite answer came from an Episcopal priest at a church I frequented some years back, when I asked her how I could in good conscience repeat the (gorgeous, soothing, mesmerizing) Nicene Creed.

Her response: When we say “We believe”—which is how the Creed begins—it simply means that this belief is held somewhere within the body of the Church. Maybe I don’t believe this. But someone does.

Some—perhaps you, dear reader—will find this disingenuous. I, on the other hand, found it deeply satisfying. It appealed to the parts of me that had studied literature in college and later learned to parse the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Which brings me back to the pamphlet. Among its contents is a prose poem of a prayer that has meant a lot to me over the years. Penned by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest, it speaks to the cultivation of patience during times of darkness and uncertainty. In that way, it strikes me as pretty much the perfect Plan B Nation companion. Over the years, I’ve shared it with many friends, and now (in the spirit of all the above) I’d like to share it with you.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are all, quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
without delay.

We should like to skip
the intermediate stages;
we are impatient of being
on the way to something unknown,
something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that is made by passing through
some stages of instability. . .
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually –
let them grow.
Let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

How a (jobless) Harvard Law grad turned opera singer built a new life in Turkey

As I prepared for a trip to Turkey a couple years back, a friend suggested a local contact—an American Harvard Law School grad and former Metropolitan opera singer, who had recently picked up and moved to Antalya. How could I not be intrigued?

While we didn’t manage to meet up during my trip, I began to follow her blog—Talking Turkey—and am delighted that she’s now agreed to kick off this blog’s guest post series spotlighting creative Plan B Nation lives.

By Ellen Rabiner

Why did I come to Turkey? This is the question I’m asked even more often than why I’m not married. I wish I had a good answer (for either question) but the truth is I sort of stumbled upon the idea of moving to Turkey.

The idea of leaving New York started to germinate when I realized I could no longer afford my ridiculously overpriced Upper West Side apartment.  In Amsterdam, on my final singing job in December 2009, I had to face the fact that I had no work coming up. Not a slow year, or a long time between engagements, but absolutely nothing.

Okay, that’s why I have a (Harvard) law degree to fall back on. But as fate would have it, the Great Recession hit just as my singing work was drying up, making it impossible for me to get even a lousy temp job doing document review, the legal equivalent of working on a factory assembly line. With so many laid-off lawyers now forced to take those unappealing jobs, even my illustrious J.D. was not going to make up for the fact that I’d been traipsing around the world singing for the past 20 years. There was simply no way I could compete with vastly more experienced attorneys.

So there I was, of a certain age, unemployed and essentially unemployable. I was living in a tiny apartment from which I could walk to the Met, but since I was no longer singing at the Met this advantage was hardly worth the $2,350 a month I was paying for the privilege.  And if I wasn’t working at the Met—or anyplace else—I couldn’t continue to pay for it much longer.  If I wanted to stay near Manhattan, I’d have to find a place in Queens, Inwood, or New Jersey. Plus, I’d still need a job.

In theory I had the credentials to hang out a shingle as a voice teacher or a lawyer, but in practice I didn’t really feel qualified to do either.  I didn’t want to add to the plethora of singers claiming expertise in vocal pedagogy simply by virtue of having had singing careers.  I knew what a real voice teacher was, and I wasn’t it.  And I didn’t have enough legal experience to open my own law office.

Since it seemed impossible to find a job commensurate with my education and experience, I decided to look at things another way:  To forget what I’d like to do for a living. To ask what I wanted to do with my life—and where I could go to do it.

Once I came at it this way, new answers began to emerge. What did I really want? I wanted to sit in the sun and read novels. And maybe travel to places I hadn’t been and learn a new language.  And have an apartment that rented for less than the price of a small car.

Antalya, Turkey, seemed to fit the bill: Along with being sunny and warm, it offers the opportunity to learn a new language and culture. It’s also a place I can blend in, and it’s a short flight to Western Europe. The cost of living is a fraction of what it is in New York.

While I wasn’t down to my last dollar when I moved, I would have run through my savings long ago if I’d stayed in Manhattan without a well-paying job. It was pretty clear to me that, whether I was teaching English or transitioning into something else, I’d be better off in a $300 apartment than in a $2,300 one. (By the way, if any readers are interested in moving to Turkey, living here legally as an American requires you to have $6,000 in the bank. That’s the minimum they think you need to live here for a year. Incidentally, it was also how much it cost me to live in New York for two months.)

Winters in Antalya can be a bit of a challenge for those of us accustomed to central heating. Of course it’s not as cold outside as it is in New York, but it’s much colder inside. I finally solved the problem of the noisy and inefficient wall unit by buying a portable heating fan to supplement it. I keep it next to me most of the day and move it into the bathroom to defrost the place before I take a shower. I also bought a reasonable facsimile of a down duvet (filled with polyester) that keeps me really warm at night.  A side benefit: I’ve found that spending time on chores like cooking, laundry, and staying warm can be a wonderful thing for an underemployed person, as it cuts into the time one might spend lamenting one’s uselessness.

My original idea for a job was to teach English, and I’m still doing a bit of that, teaching nine-year-old Russian kids once a week. I’ve come to accept, though, that teaching isn’t really my thing. On the other hand, it turns out I really enjoy writing my blog.  (It’s not exactly like the legal writing I used to do, but it’s not as alien to me as trying to corral a bunch of nine-year-olds.)  The logical step from that realization was to branch out into writing elsewhere, so I took an online course in travel writing.

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing my best to break into the travel-writing field.  I’ve had a few low-paying gigs, and I’m a long way from making a career of it. (Luckily, since my apartment costs only about $300 a month I’m not under too much pressure to earn a U.S.-style living wage immediately.)

For now, I continue to work on my writing career. I’m doing my best to take the long view—to recognize that building a whole new life is a marathon not a spring. And of course, I’m still giving myself some time sit in the sun and read novels.

Plan B Nation on NPR! (plus a few thoughts on faith)

NPR Sign

Plan B Nation is ending the year on a high note, having been featured in a terrific report by Karen Brown on New England NPR. You can listen, here. (My writer friend Naomi Shulman, also featured in the segment, tells me the story begins at the 7:25 mark. If you’re not sure what that means—I I wasn’t—try starting about halfway through.)

[12/3/12 update: there is now a separate audio link for this report.]

As I listened to WFCR this morning, I marveled once again at how quickly things can change. I launched this blog just last month—November 13, to be exact. Since then, I’ve published more than 20 posts and connected with dozens of amazing readers from all over the country.  I’ve also picked up a bunch of freelance work, started drawing up a business plan, and—for the first time in quite a while—been feeling pretty optimistic.

If you’d described this state of affairs to me two months ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.  In fact, as I’ve written before, I almost didn’t start this blog.  I was at the point where it was hard to believe that anything I tried would pan out.  To put it diplomatically, I was feeling sluggish. Psychologists call this “learned helplessness,” this much I knew. But while I was clear on the diagnosis, I was clueless as to the cure.

I’ve written a good bit about transitions lately—about why they (always) suck and also about key points to keep in mind while wrestling with change—but I failed to mention that they rarely proceed at a steady pace.  We work and work for what seems like forever with no apparent result.  And then one day, for no apparent reason, everything seems to shift.

I’ve seen this in my own life again and again. And I was reminded of it the other day when I spoke with a lovely friend who had been waging a lengthy and devastating struggle with Lyme disease. She’d followed doctor’s instructions for months, to no obvious effect. Then she woke up one morning to find that the pain had disappeared overnight.

In the same vein, in my own (and still ongoing) transition, I’d been doggedly plugging ahead for more than two years, without sensing much progress. I’d given up keeping count of the number of jobs I’d applied for. And while I got the occasional freelance project, they were few and far between. Then, out of the blue, things started to click.

In this way, change often feels more like a quantum leap than like a steady climb, as if we’ve traveled from point X to point Y without passing through the points in between. We may wonder why things took so long if all we had to do was this.  (The answer: Because that’s just how transitions seem to work.)

For me, this is where faith comes in. And by that, I don’t mean some abstract metaphysical belief—I’m not someone who believes that Things Work Out For The Best or Everything Happens For A Reason. (In fact, I’m the sort of person who responds to such claims by instantly invoking the Holocaust or genocide in Rwanda.)  But I do believe in cause and effect—the power of our actions. I have faith that if we keep taking small steps, our lives are going to change.

Why transitions (always) suck—and what you can do about it

an unwitting victim...bwahahhahahaa

Scanning over my recent post about transitions, it struck me that I glossed over one key fact: Transitions always suck.

That lost, confused, hopeless feeling that seems like it will never end?  No, it’s not just you. It’s the nature of the beast.

How do I know this?  Well for one thing, I’ve been through a lot of transitions, and it was ever thus. For another, I’ve read a ton about transitions, and everyone seems to agree.

Those who study and write about transitions even have their own names for this uniquely unsettling phase:  Change guru William Bridges describes it as “the Neutral Zone.” Life coach Martha Beck calls it “Death and Rebirth.” Novelist and journalist Sara Davidson refers to it as “the Narrows.”

But while the names may be different, the core feelings are the same: Disorientation, anxiety, fear. Panic and desperation.

Fun, isn’t it?

So, you may be thinking, it’s all well and good to know that I’m on track, but that only goes so far. How do I keep moving forward when I don’t want to get out of bed?

In his groundbreaking book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges offers the following 10 suggestions for navigating these challenging times.

1. Take your time

As I noted in my previous post, transitions often take a long time—far longer than we’d expected and far longer than we’d hoped. Think years not days or weeks.

2. Arrange temporary structures

Do what you need to do to bridge this period of dislocation. It may be taking a temporary job, adjusting your commitments at home or at work, connecting with a spiritual community, or joining a support group. Ask yourself what practical adjustments you can make that are likely to ease your passage.

3. Don’t act for the sake of action

As Buddhist teachers sometimes quip: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”  Recognize that sitting with uncertainty is often the best option—and in itself, a real accomplishment.

4. Recognize why you are uncomfortable

You are uncomfortable not because you’re doing something wrong but because you are in transition. Remind yourself of this again and again (and again).

5. Take care of yourself in little ways

In particular, Bridges suggests small pleasures that bring a sense of continuity. Think watching a favorite TV show or eating a favorite meal.

6. Explore the other side of change.

This is an interesting one.  As Bridges sees it, both positive changes (such as having a baby) and negative changes (such as losing your job) both have upsides and downsides.

If you’re facing a change that you didn’t choose, Bridges suggests spending some time reflecting on its possible benefits. On the other hand, if your change was a welcome one and yet you’re feeling inexplicably uneasy, he suggests giving some thought to what the change may have cost you as well as to its gifts.

 7. Get someone to talk to

Having at least one reliable and empathic listener is critically important when your life is in flux. If no one in your network can serve that role right now, consider finding a professional counselor or joining a support group.

8. Find out what is waiting in the wings of your life

Bridges notes that transitions open up space in our lives for us to grow in new ways. Ask yourself: What is waiting to happen in my life now? (Try setting aside a bit of time to put this down on paper. You may be surprised at what comes up.)

 9. Use this transition as the impetus to a new kind of learning

What do you need to learn right now, and how can you start to learn it?

10. Recognize that transition has a characteristic shape.

As I wrote earlier this week, every transition follows a similar structure. This period where everything sucks is normal and necessary. The good news? This phase will come to an end.  (It just may take a while.)

Do you have a strategy that’s helped you to navigate a major life transition? If so, please share it in the comment section.

3 things you should know about transitions

Come Together

Two years and eight months ago, I found myself abruptly launched into a prolonged transition that continues to this day. The job I’d held for the past five years suddenly disappeared when my boss was tapped to join the fledgling Obama administration as solicitor general. (You may have heard of her: She’s now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.)

As is so often the case with major change, there was much ambivalence. While I was anxious about the plunge into unemployment, I was also ready to move on.  On the one hand, the news came as a welcome push. On the other, I was freaking out.

But whatever my reaction on a given day, there was one thing I never imagined from the vantage point of April 2009: That this transition would go on and on in precisely the way it has.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, my layoff came at the peak of the Great Recession. Still, I had great references, great skills, and a great education. I somehow assumed they’d ease my way. In large part, I was wrong.

Which is different from saying I have regrets. The more I learn about transitions, the more I realize that what I’ve experienced is completely normal. Just because something is painful and hard doesn’t mean it can’t yield fruit.

Years ago, I took a course with psychologist Robert Kegan at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and one thing he said stuck with me. (Well, actually, many things he said stuck with me, but this one is relevant here.)  He said, and I paraphrase from memory: “Growth comes from stretch-not-break challenges.”

In other words, hard times—if they are too hard—can crush us. When they’re just right, they may be uncomfortable, but they also move us forward.

One of the things most helpful to me in navigating this transition has been getting a better handle on what to expect. Over the past two-plus years, I’ve spent a lot of hours delving into the subject, and for the record, here are three of my most useful takeaways.

1. Transitions take a long time.

Three years, five years, seven years—these are the time frames that popped up again and again in my reading.  In New Passages, bestselling author Gail Sheehy ballparks two years as the minimum time needed to stabilize following a layoff or other “life accident.”

2. Transitions have a predictable structure.

Transitions guru William Bridges—author of the groundbreaking Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes—has identified a three-part structure reflected in every major life transition:  An ending, followed by a period of confusion and distress, followed, in turn, by a new beginning.

In Finding Your Own North Star—a book that I count among my personal favorites—life coach Martha Beck describes a four-part “change cycle”: A shocking “catalytic event” is followed by “death and rebirth,” “dreaming and scheming,” “the hero’s saga” (a trial-and-error implementation stage), and finally “the promised land,” or equilibrium regained.

3. Transitions aren’t linear.  

It’s tempting to think that transitions can be neat and orderly, that we can figure out a game plan and simply execute it. In fact, transitions are almost always messy, punctuated with false starts and regroupings.

In Working Identity, an extensive study of successful mid-career career changers, business professor Herminia Ibarra concluded that the “plan and execute model” is not realistic. Rather, successful transitions tend to adopt a “test and learn” approach, following a “first-act-and-then-think” sequence.

Well into the third year of my transition, I’m finally starting to feel that I’m turning a corner. I can’t say for sure that the feeling will last but I’m enjoying it in the meantime.

Looking back, it’s fascinating to see how little I could have predicted where my various steps were leading.  For better or worse, our transitions seem to shape us at least as much as we shape them.