Why birthdays matter (& why they don’t)

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Last winter, I was asked to talk about Plan B Nation on New England NPR. I’d just launched the blog the month before. I was pretty thrilled.

As I prepared for the interview, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to say and how to say it. What aspects of my Plan B Nation journey should I focus on? What would listeners find interesting? What would they find helpful?

One thing I wasn’t too worried about was being caught off guard. I’d already written about unemployment for the mega website Salon. The facts of my story were already out there. Or so I thought.

“How old are you?” The question came at the end of the interview, almost an afterthought.

I didn’t answer right away. I realized that I didn’t want to say.

“Is my age really important?” I finally asked (or something equally lame).

At the time, I couldn’t have told you why I balked at this question. I just knew that I felt strangely committed to holding back The Number. And if I was unclear myself, my interviewer was baffled. “You talk publicly about unemployment and AA, but you don’t want to give your age?”

I had to admit she had a point, but that didn’t seem to sway me.

It took some time for me to piece together what was going on here. The fact is, age has consequences. These are less apparent when our lives are settled, with the big questions of love and work at least temporarily resolved. But if you’ve been on a dating website, or applied for a job lately, you’ll know what I’m talking about. After a certain point, numbers rule us out far more often than they rule us in.

But even more significant—at least for me—is the issue of how age defines us as normal, or, well not. Our cultural assumptions around age are deep and pervasive. The “stage theory” pioneered by Erik H. Erikson and popularized by Gail Sheehy in her blockbuster 1974 bestseller Passages is premised on the notion that our lives move through predictable stages that correlate with our ages. “The Trying Twenties,” “The Deadline Decade” (that’s your thirties, y’all!), “The Flourishing Forties,” “The Flaming Fifties”—Sheehy neatly labeled what are increasingly, for many of us, messy realities.

The more I think about it, perhaps the biggest reason I resist being defined by age is that the train of associations feels so powerfully misleading. For those of us whose lives have followed unconventional patterns—for me that means not getting married, not having kids, and pursuing a career path more meandering than directed—age can tend to put the focus on what we haven’t done rather than what we have (which for me includes, among other things, designing and co-founding the Mississippi Teacher Corps, writing and publishing two novels, practicing law, living in places ranging from the Mississippi Delta to Manhattan, and now thinking long and deeply about the issues I’m exploring in this blog.)

And yet, despite everything I’ve just said, I do pay attention to birthdays—though for very different reasons than I did when I was younger.

For me, birthdays have become a point of reckoning, a marker in the steady progression of days that helps me take stock. As I’ve written before, I’m someone who tends to have a hard time appreciating how far I’ve traveled and what I’ve done. I tend to focus on “what next?” rather than “what then?” Birthdays help counter that. Like the New Year or any other regular marker—and the more, the better, I say—they offer an opportunity both to appreciate progress and to look ahead. (For me, this always involves a rambling foray through my trusty desk diaries.)

This past year: So much! Starting this blog, for one big thing. Writing for Salon, the Chicago Tribune, SecondAct (where I have a new bi-monthly column), and now, Psychology Today. Optioning my second novel for film. Designing and leading a writing workshop for foster kids. Picking blueberries. Making pesto. Hiking the Seven Sisters. Training for a 5K. Making some really good friends and strengthening ties with old ones.

Oh, and for the record, I’m about to turn 52. I really don’t mind giving my age: I just don’t want to lead with it.

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

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Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniversary of my exit from the salaried workforce and my entry into what I’ve taken to calling Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Harvard Law School, where I’d handled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Washington, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplomatically, not an easy time. The economy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I mention the Great Recession?) Floundering in spring 2009 put me in excellent company. Yes, I was freaked out and unemployed, but I certainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the road I’ve traveled since those anxiety-ridden days and feeling a lot of compassion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been thinking about what I’ve learned and what might be worth sharing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Transitions take a long time.  

I’ve written about this before, and it’s a really important point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life accident.”  Five to seven years is common.  A related point: Transitions tend to meander—to be less like ladders and more like the classic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the center, almost arrive, and then suddenly find yourself on the outer rim, and then, just as unpredictably, back at the center again. I often find it helpful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Sometimes the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leaving the Boston area for more than a year on the theory that wherever you go, there you are. Could moving to another place really make me happier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequivocal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that moving to an area that I love is probably the single most important step I’ve taken to move my life forward.  In particular, moving to a place where I have a strong network of friends has made everything far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start moving anyway.

Transitions, by their nature, generally involve a temporary loss of clear inner direction.  That was certainly the case for me: I was searching without really knowing what I was looking for (which, not surprisingly, made it really hard to find).

Looking back, one of the most useful things I did during this time was to take action even if nothing felt quite right—to experiment, try things out. That’s how I came (lackadaisically, glumly) to write my very first personal essay—which led to a blog on Huffington Post, which led to writing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writing for SecondAct (including Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly column), Psychology Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remarkably enough, actually does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across similar advice in books by career guru Barbara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. “You won’t encounter accidental good fortune—you won’t stumble on opportunities that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoffman writes in The Start-Up of You. “When you do something you stir the pot and introduce the possibility that seemingly random ideas, people, and places will collide and form new combinations and opportunities.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mindfulness by now, but this quality doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psychology professor Kristin Neff is a pioneering researcher on this topic, and her book Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind is geared to a popular audience and provides an excellent roadmap for further exploration.

5.  Let yourself be surprised.

The biggest difference between lucky and unlucky people may be that lucky people are open to seeing the unexpected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expanding your peripheral vision can do a lot to expand your opportunities.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to consciously expect the unexpected. (Most recent example: I’m about to go off to look at a potential new home that I discovered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far better than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both meaningful and creative. I have a great community in a place where I love living. The road I’ve traveled to get here was pretty remarkably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did something wrong. It simply tells me that I’m human.

3 things you should know about transitions

Come Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Transitions take a long time.

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

2. Transitions have a predictable structure.

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

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

3. Transitions aren’t linear.  

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

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

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

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