Why birthdays matter (& why they don’t)

Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.