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!

The Audacity of Hopelessness

Head in Hands

Last sum­mer, I came across another of those darkly hilar­i­ous post-recession job search sto­ries. In this par­tic­u­lar install­ment, one Tay­lor Grey Meyer lost it on a sales man­ager from the San Diego Padres, an orga­ni­za­tion to which she’d applied for a job no less than 30 times. After the stan­dard radio silence response to her appli­ca­tions, she received an out-of-the-blue email alert to an “oppor­tu­nity” to attend a job fair hosted by the Padres for the bar­gain price of $495.

And that’s when Grey–whose pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence report­edly included an intern­ship with Major League Soccer–went a wee bit berserk, fir­ing off an email described by the sports web­site Dead­spin as “one of the great emails of our time.”

After care­ful review, I must decline. I real­ize I may be burn­ing bridges here, but in the spirit of reci­procity, I would like to extend you a counter-offer to suck my dick. Clearly, I don’t have one of these, so my offer makes about as much sense as yours. But for the price you’re charg­ing to attend the event, I’m sure I would have no trou­ble bor­row­ing one.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, her response pro­ceeded to go viral, and—as Dead­spin wrote—“per­haps, on bal­ance, it wasn’t the worst move in the world. Meyer has already received one note from a sales office, ask­ing her if she’d like to come in for an interview.”

All of which got me think­ing about the job search process in the wilds of the Brave New Nor­mal – and how the best strate­gies some­times emerge only after you’ve given up.

My own experience—though far less jaw-dropping—provides a case in point.  One of the stan­dard pieces of advice to any­one who’s gone through a lay­off is to down­play the lay­off part and up-play what you’ve accom­plished. That’s pretty much how I rolled in the begin­ning. I kept busy! Vol­un­teered! Updated my resume! Then, after a year or so, I ran out of steam. I started to feel a bit defeated. And also a bit defi­ant. Which explains my deci­sion to write pub­licly about being unemployed.

The first piece I wrote for Salon on the topic of unem­ploy­ment was pub­lished with the provoca­tive head­line “Even Har­vard Couldn’t Pro­tect Me”—capitalizing on the irony of my edu­ca­tional pedigree—though my real point was some­thing quite dif­fer­ent: That nav­i­gat­ing unem­ploy­ment requires tremen­dous inner resources, far more, in my expe­ri­ence, than what’s needed to nav­i­gate success.

Like Grey’s, my writ­ing elicited a range of responses—from with­er­ing accu­sa­tions of self-indulgence to heart­felt words of sup­port.  (I still cher­ish one defense: “Does Salon have no stan­dards at all?” my sup­porter rhetor­i­cally asks, quot­ing an espe­cially vir­u­lent attacker.  And then goes on to answer: “Obvi­ously not. If they did — most of the first few let­ters in response to a Gut­man piece would be mod­er­ated into obliv­ion. The fact that they allow their excel­lent authors to be harassed by the nation’s under-medicated tells us all we need to know (and more) .…”)

While my Salon essays on unem­ploy­ment didn’t lead to a job right away, in ret­ro­spect they were a first step on the path that got me there. The essays led to Plan B Nation, and this blog—along with being hugely gratifying—kept me vis­i­ble to peo­ple in a posi­tion to hire me. One of these was a for­mer Har­vard col­league who reached out last sum­mer when an open­ing came up in her depart­ment. (A side ben­e­fit: When I inter­viewed, there was no need to explain my time out of the work­force. They already knew my story. It’s how I had come to be there. ) I was hired and started work last Sep­tem­ber. Things are going well.

Let me be clear: When I talk about the ben­e­fits of hope­less­ness, I don’t mean despair, which is never ever help­ful. What I’m talk­ing about is being open, a topic I’ve explored many times before. The dan­ger of hope is that it can tie us to a very spe­cific iter­a­tion of a very spe­cific story at a time when we’re far bet­ter served by stay­ing alert to oppor­tu­ni­ties in what­ever form they take. The more wed­ded we are to a spe­cific outcome—the more we nar­row our sights—the harder it may be to craft a ful­fill­ing life with the mate­ri­als at hand.

I don’t know what’s hap­pened to Meyer since last summer—I shot off an email to her via LinkedIn this morn­ing but haven’t yet heard back. The best clue I found was a “Pub­lic Fig­ure” Face­book page where her photo (she’s a lovely blonde) tops the fol­low­ing tagline: “Tay­lor Grey Meyer had already been rejected by the Padres over 30 times before she got an email from the base­ball team that was the last straw.” No sign of regret. No apolo­gies. What began as an F U moment seems to have become a per­sonal brand.

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.

Job? Check.

Bolso pistacho

I am among the lucky.

After some three years of freelance-punctuated unem­ploy­ment, next month I’ll be return­ing to work. And not only will I have a full-time job, I’ll also have the oppor­tu­nity to work with peo­ple I really like on issues that really mat­ter. As a mem­ber of the Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health’s exter­nal rela­tions team, I’ll have the priv­i­lege of sup­port­ing glob­ally sig­nif­i­cant work in areas rang­ing from dis­ease pre­ven­tion to diet and nutri­tion to health care policy.

I feel both for­tu­nate and grate­ful – espe­cially given my appar­ent demo­graphic handicap.

As the New York Times reported in May, “[a] worker between ages 50 and 61 who has been unem­ployed for 17 months has only about a 9 per­cent of find­ing a new job in the next three months.” (While I’m at the low-end of that range, I’m squarely within it.)  And if that’s not enough: The num­ber of unem­ployed peo­ple between the ages of 50 and 65 has more than dou­bled since the onset of the Great Recession.

The result is noth­ing short of a national emer­gency,” the arti­cle con­tin­ued. “Mil­lions of work­ers have been dis­con­nected from the work force, and pos­si­bly even from soci­ety. If they are not recon­nected, the costs to them and to soci­ety will be grim.”

Given the focus of my new job, it seems fit­ting to point out that unem­ploy­ment is a press­ing pub­lic health issue. To wit, the Times cites stud­ies link­ing unem­ploy­ment to can­cer, heart dis­ease, and psy­chi­atric prob­lems. One study esti­mated a 50 to 100 per­cent increase in death rates for con­sis­tently employed older men imme­di­ately after a job loss.

While my own story has been less har­row­ing health-wise, these years have unques­tion­ably been the most chal­leng­ing of my life. And as I wrote in Salon last fall, “Cop­ing with pro­longed job­less­ness is hugely demand­ing .…Two years of job hunt­ing has required infi­nitely more of me than any of my lauded past achievements.”

That said, while I wouldn’t have cho­sen it, I can’t say that I entirely regret the past three years. There’s some­thing to be said for hav­ing been swept up in the larger story, for lessons that can come in no other way than liv­ing into them. For all my Har­vard degrees and impres­sive resume, I was not immune – nor do I think I should have been. I’m reminded of an inter­view with the late actor Christo­pher Reeve after the acci­dent that ren­dered him quad­ri­plegic. Asked whether he some­times asked “Why me?” Reeve responded: “Why not me?”

Cut loose from expec­ta­tions, I also found a new voice as a writer – I stopped wor­ry­ing about what peo­ple would think and started tak­ing big­ger risks. This was a tremen­dous gift and one that I carry with me. As I wrote here, blog­ging changed my life, and I’m deeply grate­ful to all of you who’ve shared this space with me over the past nine months. I can’t imag­ine the past year with­out Plan B Nation – or with­out you, its readers.

Now that you have a job, will you keep writ­ing the blog?” a friend asked curiously.

My answer: Absolutely.

Going back to work feels like reach­ing home in a storm. I’m grate­ful for the shel­ter, grate­ful for the sus­te­nance. But out­side, the gales are still blow­ing, and many more are home­less. We’re all still liv­ing in Plan B Nation, whether we see it or not.

Stuck in a moment

Shortly after dis­cov­er­ing the won­der­ful Work Stew site, I read an essay by Tasha Hueb­ner that com­pletely wowed me. It was funny and smart and brave, as well as beau­ti­fully writ­ten, and at the time I remem­ber think­ing: “I’d like to know that girl.”

Flash for­ward another six months or so. Last week I saw that Tasha was among the win­ners of Work Stew’s essay con­test. No sur­prise there. Read­ing her new piece, I had the same reac­tion I did to the first, but this time, I acted on it. I sent her a Face­book mes­sage say­ing how much I admired her work and intro­duc­ing myself. What fol­lowed was a rapid-fire exchange, rang­ing from movies (Melan­cho­lia, The Pianist) to thoughts about resilience (Is it or not the same as adapt­abil­ity? My kind of question.) 

The con­nec­tion was yet another reminder of why I love blog­ging – because of the peo­ple it brings into my life and how it expands my hori­zons. In this spirit, I also love to share my favorite dis­cov­er­ies. I asked Tasha if she’d con­sider let­ting me post her orig­i­nal Work Stew piece here. Hap­pily for all of us, her answer was “absolutely.”  

Tasha Hueb­ner

by Tasha Hueb­ner

Damn, I was arrogant.

Hmph,” I smirked, even with a bit of an eye roll thrown in for good mea­sure. “I’ll never be one of those peo­ple try­ing to sell more corn­flakes, or—god forbid—figuring out what color hats the Kee­bler Elves should wear. I’m going to do some­thing a lit­tle more impor­tant than that.”

So, with Whar­ton MBA in hand, I set out to con­quer the world, self-styled Mas­ter of the Uni­verse that I was. And what kind of impor­tant things am I doing now? Let’s see. Today I was out at my gar­den plot fuss­ing over the tomato plants, because I’m hop­ing that later in the sum­mer I’ll have enough to sell and make at least a few hun­dred dol­lars. Had lunch with my mom, which she paid for. Sent an email to a per­son I write blog arti­cles for on var­i­ous top­ics, for a miserly amount of money, telling her that sure, I’d be happy to write arti­cles for a strip­per recruit­ing blog—why the hell not?

Strip­per articles.

When you grad­u­ate from busi­ness school, you are led to believe that strik­ing out on your own—because you’re so damn bril­liant and all—is a great idea, just won­der­ful. You may not expect to hit it big, as in hawking-schlock-sold-expensively-on-QVC-big, but you do feel con­fi­dent that you’ll at least get by.

But then some­thing like, say, The Can­cer comes knock­ing at your door. No, for­get knocking—the rude bas­tard comes bar­rel­ing in guns a’blazing, tak­ing no pris­on­ers, leav­ing you shell-shocked and stunned, because seri­ously, WTF is this? You have no fam­ily his­tory of can­cer, you’ve always been healthy to a fault, you’re train­ing for your sec­ond IRONMAN, for chris­sake, so really, WTH? Then if you have the really shitty luck, like some of us (ahem), a month later you’ll still be train­ing for said Iron­man, and will get into a bad bike crash going down­hill at 40 mph that will leave you with a severely bro­ken col­lar­bone, bleed­ing on the brain, no mem­ory of the crash or the three days in the hos­pi­tal, and oh yeah, that pesky can­cer that still needs to be taken care of.

And mean­while, back at the ranch, because you’re sin­gle and self-employed, you have no income any­more because you’re in a cancer-treatment and brain-injury fog, and while you do have health insur­ance (whew!), you dis­cover that insur­ance com­pa­nies are evil bas­tards who MSU (=Make Shit Up) in order to get out of pay­ing your bills. So you come home one day, exhausted in your 6th week of daily radi­a­tion treat­ment, and burst into tears when you get yet another bill from Blue­Cross­BlueShield say­ing that they’re not going to pay $5K of your surgery because there was “an extra nurse in the room.”

Even I don’t have the cre­ative cojones to make this stuff up.

And at the same time that your life is being totally derailed by The Can­cer, you have peo­ple help­fully telling you about all the lessons you should be learn­ing from this “jour­ney.” Life is short! Seize the day! Live every day as if it were your last!

First of all, if I lived every day as if it were my last, well, let’s just say that there’s a level of rapa­cious bonbon-eating there that even I don’t care to con­tem­plate. Sec­ond, and more impor­tantly, I would love to “seize the day” and do all the things I’ve ever dreamed of. Visit Mon­go­lia! White water raft­ing again in Costa Rica! Vis­it­ing my Can­cer­Chick friends, the group of women who live across the U.S. that I’ve come to know and love as we together deal with the shit­can that is can­cer at a young age!

There’s one prob­lem with this, and for­give me for stat­ing the obvi­ous here, but: this costs money. I know, shock­ing! But true. And to a per­son, my Can­cer­Chicks and I, we’re po.’ The mar­ried ones have a bit more lee­way, but if you’re sin­gle? For­get it. Sin­gle and self-employed? Dou­bly for­get it. Do we want to work? Hell yes. I’d like to be able to pay my bills with­out con­tem­plat­ing how much I could get if I gave blood on a reg­u­lar basis. Yet for some rea­son, in spite of my Whar­ton MBA, my fan-fucking-tastic resume (every­one tells me this) (though okay, I admit I’ve para­phrased slightly), the fact that I’m really good at what I do (shame­less plug: mar­ket­ing, communications/writing), I have yet to find work, even project work.

So while I’d like to report that as some­one with The Can­cer who real­izes full well the impor­tance of embrac­ing all that life has to offer, that I’m doing so every sin­gle day—the truth is that I can’t quite fig­ure out how to spend every day in some whirl­wind of fan­dango fun and excite­ment, because real­ity kind of gets in the way. Those pesky bills. The minu­tiae that make it hard for me to move boldly for­ward into my post-Cancer life. This is true for every­one I know who has this dis­ease that’s deter­mined to kill us.

The other bit of advice that peo­ple like to share with you, whether you have The Can­cer or not, is this: do what you love to do—the money will follow.

This, my friends, is a bold bit of com­plete and utter horseshit.

Me, what I love to do is write. I have a blog that’s sweep­ing the nation (You’ll laugh! Cry! Rally to laugh again!), that I make absolutely no money from. (Note to IRS: no money what­so­ever.) I’ve been work­ing on a book, but in the mean­time I need to be able to pay my bills, so the book often has to go by the way­side. Such is life. Work­ing as a strat­egy con­sul­tant post-Wharton, that brought in a decent amount of money. The writ­ing, the acer­bic wit, the pan­der­ing to the eigh­teens of blog read­ers who hang onto my every word? Not so much.

So what are our key take­aways here? I think they’d be along these lines:

  1. Don’t get The Can­cer. If it offers to latch onto your life, just say hey, no thanks, I’m kinda busy now
  2. But if you do, make sure you’re part of a two-income house­hold, or inde­pen­dently wealthy, because…
  3. (to para­phrase George Bailey)…money comes in pretty handy down here, bub.
  4. If you’re the quin­tes­sen­tial Schleprock like I am, don’t fol­low your dreams. Stick with the well-paying cor­po­rate gig; do what you love to do in your spare time. Trust me on this.
  5. Real­ize that if you have the afore­men­tioned crap luck, it makes for some fan­tas­tic writ­ing on the blog. Hey, lemons, lemon­ade, mar­gar­i­tas, go with it.
  6. And if you look at the shell cas­ings sur­round­ing the destruc­tion of your for­merly orderly and log­i­cal life and are com­pletely baf­fled as to how you wound up here, it’s impor­tant to real­ize that it’s not all bad, that there are always patches of sun­shine hid­den among the shadows.

And if I at times sound a bit bit­ter, well, that’s only par­tially true. I’m not bit­ter about The Can­cer, because quite frankly, shit hap­pens. Not bit­ter about the bike crash/brain injury, because that ele­vated things to an almost sub­lime level of absur­dity that holds up well in the retelling.

What I AM bit­ter about—or per­haps dumb­founded is a bet­ter word—is the fact that I have a Whar­ton MBA, for god’s sake, yet am will­ing to write strip­per sto­ries for a tiny bit of cash, as I lay awake at night won­der­ing how I’ll pay my bills. Whar­ton! MBA! Amaz­ing resume and expe­ri­ence! Bril­liance all in one neat lit­tle pack­age! The mind reels.

I’m bit­ter that tomor­row when I go for my 6-month checkup with my oncol­o­gist, the one whose mantra is “no scans with­out symp­toms,” I’m not going to try to con­vince her that I should be scanned at least once. Because if they do find a recur­rence or advance­ment, I can’t afford to treat it. “Thanks, doc, but I’ll pass on more of The Can­cer today—it’s just not in my bud­get right now.”

I’m bit­ter about the fact that I’m being audited by the IRS, because the brain trust over there flagged my returns when I had a sud­den drop in income and, oh, huge med­ical bills! Lawsy me, what ever could be the connection?

I’m slightly bit­ter about the fact that The Can­cer will be back at some point, because the stats for young women with stage II breast can­cer basi­cally suck. I wish I could be earn­ing money so that I could in fact be doing the carpe diem-ing I’d like to do in what­ever time I have left. But I can’t.

I’m very bit­ter about the fact that my fel­low Can­cer­Chicks, who I love dearly and would do any­thing for, are all deal­ing with this same shit. And the bit­ter­ness becomes black indeed when I think about the lie per­pet­u­ated on us all: that breast can­cer is so cur­able, which is total hog­wash, espe­cially for young women. Hell, it’s barely treat­able, based on the fact that seven or eight of my friends in just the last week have either found out that they’re now stage 4, or have taken a turn for the worse because their treat­ments are no longer working.

Cur­able, my ass.

And yet, in spite of the fact that my life is a total sham­bles, I have amaz­ing women in my life because of The Can­cer, and I wouldn’t give up those friend­ships for any­thing in the world. Not for all the tea in China, not all the pots of gold in existence.

So to sum up: Money = good. Jobs = good. Can­cer = bad. If you mea­sure suc­cess by the amount of money one has accrued, then clearly I’m the least suc­cess­ful per­son from my grad­u­at­ing class at Whar­ton. A wash-up. A failure.

If you mea­sure it in friendship—I’m the rich­est woman in the world.

Note: This piece first appeared on Work Stew, and I’m grate­ful to Kate Gace Wal­ton for her will­ing­ness to share it. 

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.

Plan B Nation: The Podcast (now on Work Stew)

Per­haps the best thing about start­ing this blog has been the oppor­tu­nity to meet really cool peo­ple who are think­ing and writ­ing about the very things that most inter­est me.

This fact hit home again ear­lier this week, when Work Stew found­ing edi­tor Kate Gace Wal­ton con­tacted me about doing a pod­cast for her site.

Like me, Kate is some­thing of a cul­ture straddler—a Har­vard grad who spent time in the cor­po­rate world (she has an MBA from Wharton)—before engi­neer­ing a life more in line with her val­ues and inter­ests, a tran­si­tion she elo­quently describes in the essay Ran­dom Acts of Busi­ness.  A mother of two, she now works in recruit­ing near her Bain­bridge Island, Wash­ing­ton home.

In the year since launch­ing Work Stew, Kate has gath­ered dozens of sto­ries reflect­ing a vast assort­ment of work expe­ri­ences, with the goal of cre­at­ing a forum that both informs and inspires. The essays and pod­casts are as fas­ci­nat­ing as they are diverse. Hol­ly­wood screen­writer, par­ti­cle physi­cist, min­is­ter, ex-spy, restau­rant cook, and flight-attendant-turned-gorilla-caretaker are just a sam­pling of the paths represented.

My own recent con­ver­sa­tion with Kate about life in Plan B Nation cov­ered a lot of ground, rang­ing from what my career has in com­mon with a tra­di­tional mar­riage plot to what comes next for all of us in the New Econ­omy. Want to lis­ten in? Click here.

How blogging changed my life–and how it can change yours

I´m blogging this.

Ear­lier this month, the New York Times Moth­er­lode blog fea­tured new research sug­gest­ing that blog­ging may make new moth­ers hap­pier.

It got me to think­ing about how this is also true for us denizens of Plan B Nation—and for much the same reasons.

The cited research—a small research study by Penn State Ph.D. can­di­date Bran­don T. McDaniel—suggests that blog­ging coun­ter­acts new moth­ers’ feel­ings of iso­la­tion. It found a pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion between “blog­ging and feel­ings of con­nect­ed­ness to fam­ily and friends—which in turn cor­re­lates … with mater­nal well-being and health,” writes Moth­er­lode blog­ger KJ Dell’Antonia (who, in another life­time, prac­ticed law with me, but I digress .…)

Feel­ings of iso­la­tion are also a hall­mark of life in Plan B Nation—and one of its most dan­ger­ous poten­tial side effects. Long-term unem­ploy­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, has been repeat­edly linked to a down­ward spi­ral in per­sonal rela­tion­ships. Gallup Chair­man and CEO Jim Clifton sums this up suc­cinctly in his new book The Com­ing Jobs War: “Peo­ple who have been out of work for 18 months or longer lose engage­ment in their net­work of friends, com­mu­nity, and fam­i­lies. The worst things in life start show­ing up when peo­ple expe­ri­ence extended unemployment.”

Speak­ing from per­sonal expe­ri­ence (hello read­ers!), blog­ging can go a long way to help with such feel­ings. Two months ago, when I started Plan B Nation, I was in a pretty demor­al­ized place. I’d been un– and under-employed for more than two years and was hav­ing a hard time imag­in­ing a light at the end of the tun­nel. I didn’t really think blog­ging would help, but I’d been think­ing about doing it for a while and finally took the leap. If noth­ing else, I fig­ured, I’d at least learn some new skills.

Flash for­ward to today, and my whole out­look has changed—and largely because of this blog. Sim­ply put, blog­ging about my story has trans­formed my rela­tion­ship to it. It’s gone from being a source of suf­fer­ing to being my sub­ject. When I step back to mine it for mate­r­ial, I start to find it inter­est­ing. I start to see what it has to teach me (and how, in shar­ing it, I can maybe even help others).

And there’s a huge addi­tional poten­tial bonus to blog­ging in Plan B Nation: It can be a ter­rific source of pay­ing work. That’s cer­tainly been the case for me and—a quick Google search reveals—for many oth­ers as well.

Iconic blog­ger Pene­lope Trunk—if you haven’t read her, you should; you’ll either love her or hate her—is a big pro­po­nent of blog­ging as a career strat­egy. For doubters, she lists the fol­low­ing five rea­sons to embark.

1. Blog­ging makes career change easier.

2. Blog­ging lets you skip entry-level jobs.

3. Blog­ging opens up the world of part-time work.

4. Blog­ging makes it eas­ier to re-enter the workforce.

5. Blog­ging builds a net­work super fast.

I can’t say every­thing in this post will be true for every­one, but for me, it’s come pretty close. (For more evi­dence in sup­port, check out blog­ger Jen Gresham’s post on blog­ging as a career tool—part of BlogHer’s ongo­ing series on career rein­ven­tion.)

Will it be true for you? You’ll never know if you don’t try. (Pene­lope Trunk also offers tips on how to get started.)  You might con­sider, as I did, that even if your blog doesn’t fly, you’ll still have learned a lot.

Need more inspi­ra­tion? Try check­ing out other blogs that explore life in Plan B Nation. A few examples:

  • Brett Paesel’s darkly hilar­i­ous Last of the Bohemi­ans (about a fam­ily vaca­tion to India in the shadow of bankruptcy)
  • Whar­ton M.B.A. Sharon O’Day’s blog about women and money (which evolved from her own expe­ri­ence of start­ing over at age 53)
  • From Prada to Pay­less (“The life and times of a once glam­orous NYC fash­ion indus­try insider, to a mother of three girls, liv­ing pay­check to pay­check , fac­ing fore­clo­sure, and try­ing to find humor, and san­ity in it all, while look­ing (try­ing!) deli­ciously chic in her Pay­less shoes”)

Plan B Nation takes lots of things away from us, but it also fills our life with amaz­ing (if painful), strange, intrigu­ing, and unfor­get­table sto­ries. The trick is to see them, to lean into them. Blog­ging can help with that.

Do you have a favorite Plan B Nation blog? Please share it in the com­ment section.