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.