Failure: a love story

015 - A moment of weakness

When I told my stu­dents that our final class would focus on the topic of fail­ure, there were winces all around. But in the end, most of them told me that this unit was their favorite. “Next time, why don’t you start the class with this?” one stu­dent even asked.

The idea of spend­ing a ses­sion on fail­ure came to me after lis­ten­ing to an NPR piece about its promi­nent place in the lives of Sil­i­con Val­ley entre­pre­neurs. “This is, like, fail­ure cen­tral. We are, like, con­nois­seurs of fail­ure, experts in both avoid­ing it and liv­ing with it ongo­ing,” said Paul Gra­ham, founder of the start-up fun­der Y Com­bi­na­tor.

The nine stu­dents in my “Liv­ing Strate­gi­cally” sem­i­nar are mem­bers of UMass Amherst’s Com­mon­wealth Hon­ors Col­lege. They are tal­ented, artic­u­late, and thought­ful, with high aspi­ra­tions and tran­scripts filled with As. All of them are prepar­ing to apply for post-graduate fel­low­ships. They have lots of expe­ri­ence with suc­cess, not so much with failure.

They reminded me of myself at their age, and I wanted to offer them some­thing that would have been use­ful to me then: The idea that fail­ure can be a fer­tile start­ing place. That it’s a nat­ural part of life — tem­po­rary, not defin­ing. It took me a long time to learn this. I’d like to think that my stu­dents are well on their way to learn­ing it now.

Our jump­ing off point was jour­nal­ist Rick Newman’s Rebound­ers: How Win­ners Pivot from Set­back to Suc­cess, which I pre­vi­ously wrote about here. The book had res­onated with me when I read it last year – New­man shares my curios­ity about the under­pin­nings of resilience – and hap­pily my stu­dents loved it, one describ­ing it as the “punch­line” of the semes­ter. In par­tic­u­lar, they responded to Newman’s per­sonal story of climb­ing back from set­backs. The rebounder as role model:  It’s some­thing we could use more of.

Per­haps more than any­thing, I wanted to drive home the notion that fail­ure doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Like the Wiz­ard of Oz – “Pay no atten­tion to the man behind the cur­tain!” — fail­ure isn’t really what it claims to be. Behind the cur­tain is this lit­tle guy, madly gin­ning up the spe­cial effects to cre­ate a lot of noise. And because there’s noth­ing like humor to put things into per­spec­tive, I had stu­dents watch Laura Zigman’s “Fail­ure is the New Suc­cess” video, as funny as it is true. Point made.

Finally, we read a piece that I’d serendip­i­tously stum­bled across at work the week before – New Yorker writer and sur­geon (and Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health pro­fes­sor) Atul Gawande’s  beau­ti­ful med­i­ta­tion on “Fail­ure and Res­cue,” deliv­ered as a com­mence­ment address at Williams Col­lege. Gawande observes that good hos­pi­tals have lots of things go wrong – as many as their less suc­cess­ful peers. Research has shown that great hos­pi­tals “didn’t fail less. They res­cued more.”  (This piece also won stu­dent acco­lades, with one say­ing that she’d sent it on to a num­ber of friends.)

A major focus of the “Liv­ing Strate­gi­cally” sem­i­nar is writ­ing a per­sonal story, and through­out the semes­ter, we spent a lot of time talk­ing about craft­ing a com­pelling nar­ra­tive.  What makes some­thing inter­est­ing? What makes it bor­ing? In a fas­ci­nat­ing Har­vard Busi­ness Review piece, Her­minia Ibarra and Kent Line­back reflect on why so many career chang­ers are ter­ri­ble sto­ry­tellers. The answer: They rely too much on chronol­ogy, fail­ing to craft sto­ries that tap into sources of con­ti­nu­ity and coher­ence. They fail to choose story forms that suit their tales of reinvention.

Sto­ries are pow­er­ful. We shape our sto­ries, but our sto­ries then shape us. That has never been clearer to me than it’s been since I started Plan B Nation. Here is what I wish for my stu­dents, for all of us: That our suc­cess sto­ries are vibrant and expan­sive enough to incorporate—and honor—our failures.

5 great guidebooks for Plan B Nation

Compass Inlay

When ven­tur­ing into ter­ri­to­ries unknown, the more knowl­edge, the bet­ter. We need to under­stand the ter­rain, the weather, and likely dan­gers. We need to equip our­selves with maps, proper cloth­ing, and medications.

Just as I’ve relied on guide­books to nav­i­gate for­eign coun­tries, I’ve also turned to expert guid­ance for my Plan B Nation trav­els. While every jour­ney is unique, it helps to be pre­pared. In this spirit, here are five guide­books I rec­om­mend stash­ing away.

Find­ing Your Own North Star: Claim­ing the Life You Were Meant to Live, by Martha Beck (Crown 2001)

There’s lots to love about this book by Oprah dar­ling Martha Beck, which has the advan­tage of being super funny as well as super smart. Beck writes a lot about resolv­ing the con­flict between what she refers to as our social and essen­tial selves, but to my mind, the aspect of the book most use­ful to us Plan B Nation voy­agers is her elab­o­ra­tion of the so-called Change Cycle, a struc­ture that under­lies every life tran­si­tion. While Beck’s isn’t the first pop­u­lar book about adult life tran­si­tions — William Bridges’ mod­ern clas­sic Tran­si­tions came out in 1980 – I’ve found her model espe­cially help­ful and, even more, reassuring.

Nudge: Improv­ing Deci­sions About Health, Wealth, and Hap­pi­ness, by Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sun­stein (Yale 2008)

In this book, pro­fes­sors Thaler and Sun­stein – pio­neers in the field of behav­ioral eco­nom­ics – start with the idea that human beings are not ratio­nal. We make deci­sions for a whole bunch of rea­sons, many of which have lit­tle to do with our real best inter­ests. This is why we need to pay close atten­tion to the “choice archi­tec­ture” of our lives – the exter­nal con­di­tions that nudge us to behave in cer­tain ways. For exam­ple, if I don’t buy ice cream, the choice archi­tec­ture now in place makes it far less likely that I’ll  devour a pint of Ben & Jerry’s while watch­ing “The Bach­e­lorette.”  Make sense?  Like many pro­foundly impor­tant ideas, the con­cept of choice archi­tec­ture is at heart a sim­ple one, but pay­ing atten­tion to it day by day can be transformative.

Mind­set: The New Psy­chol­ogy of Suc­cess, by Carol S. Dweck (Ran­dom House 2007)

For those of us accus­tomed to a world where effort brings results, Plan B Nation can be enor­mously demor­al­iz­ing. How to sur­mount the dan­ger of learned help­less­ness, the ten­dency to give up when our best efforts fall short, some­times again and again?  I found part of the answer to this ques­tion in Stan­ford psy­chol­o­gist Dweck’s dis­tinc­tion between “fixed” and “growth” mind­sets.  As Dweck explains it, if we have a fixed mind­set, we tend to believe that our suc­cesses and fail­ures reflect some­thing absolute about who we are. On the other hand, if we have the health­ier “growth mind­set,” we are able to view chal­lenges as oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn, improve, and trans­form. “This is the mind­set that allows peo­ple to thrive dur­ing some of the most chal­leng­ing times in their lives,” says Dweck – under­scor­ing why it’s such a crit­i­cal asset in Plan B Nation.

Rad­i­cal Accep­tance, by Tara Brach (Ban­tam 2003)

If you want to drive your­self nuts, start think­ing about how things (most notably, your­self) should be dif­fer­ent from how they are. You should have made dif­fer­ent choices. You should have said dif­fer­ent things. You should have mar­ried (or not mar­ried) that guy/girl you didn’t (or did).  Brach’s Buddhist-infused psy­chol­ogy is a per­fect anti­dote to such self-imposed suf­fer­ing, offer­ing tech­niques for break­ing out of what she calls our “trance of unwor­thi­ness” in the con­text of illu­mi­nat­ing per­sonal sto­ries. “Rad­i­cal Accep­tance means bring­ing a clear, kind atten­tion to our capac­i­ties and lim­i­ta­tions with­out giv­ing our fear-based sto­ries the power to shut down our lives,” she writes. Over the years, I’ve rec­om­mended this book count­less times, and if you haven’t read it yet, you have a treat in store.

Work­ing Iden­tity: Uncon­ven­tional Strate­gies for Rein­vent­ing Your Career, by Her­minia Ibarra (Har­vard Busi­ness School 2003)

This is, with­out a doubt, my all-time favorite career book. Its mes­sage: The idea that you can (and should) fig­ure out what you want to do then sim­ply go out and do it is hog­wash.  Rather, research shows that suc­cess­ful mid-career chang­ers – the research demo­graphic that informs the book — live their way into new lives through a process of trial-and-error exper­i­men­ta­tion. Ibarra, a pro­fes­sor of orga­ni­za­tional behav­ior, illus­trates her points with com­pelling case stud­ies and con­cludes with a series of nine “uncon­ven­tional strate­gies” employed by suc­cess­ful career chang­ers. I go back to this book again and again and can’t rec­om­mend it more highly.

Do you have titles to add to this list?  Please share them in the com­ment section.

2012: My year of experiments

The Chemistry Of Inversion

In Work­ing Iden­tity—one of my all-time favorite books about career transitions—author Her­minia Ibarra urges us to approach our lives as a series of experiments.

Instead of research­ing, plan­ning, and exe­cut­ing our next moves, we need to live into them, says the Yale-educated pro­fes­sor of orga­ni­za­tional behav­ior, who con­ducted an exten­sive study of suc­cess­ful mid-career changers.

As she suc­cinctly sums it up, “We learn who we are—in prac­tice, not in theory—by test­ing real­ity, not by look­ing inside. We dis­cover the true pos­si­bil­i­ties by doing—try­ing out new activ­i­ties, reach­ing out to new groups, find­ing new role mod­els, and rework­ing our story as we tell it to those around us.”

This is advice I’ve taken to heart in my own jour­ney through Plan B Nation, and I often return to Ibarra’s book when I’m feel­ing lost or confused.

Among Ibarra’s sug­ges­tions is to try new things and see what hap­pens:  “Only by test­ing do we learn what is really appeal­ing and feasible—and in the process, cre­ate our own oppor­tu­ni­ties,” she writes.

More specif­i­cally, she pro­poses “craft­ing experiments”—getting started on one or two new activ­i­ties while mak­ing sure you have a sound way to eval­u­ate results.

This year, I’ll be adopt­ing Ibarra’s approach with a slight twist. Rather than focus­ing just on my career, I’ll be exper­i­ment­ing more broadly. I’m inter­ested in my life as a whole, not just in pay­ing work (crit­i­cal though that is).

Here’s what I’ll be doing: Each month, I’ll embark on a new experiment—a con­crete set of activ­i­ties tied to a par­tic­u­lar time frame. At the end of the month, I’ll reflect on how my life has shifted as a result of tak­ing these actions.

One of the things that most intrigues me about this approach is the idea that exper­i­ments often take us in unex­pected direc­tions.  We may not get what we thought we would, but we may get some­thing bet­ter. Or if not bet­ter, dif­fer­ent. Or at least interesting.

All of my exper­i­ments will reflect three criteria:

1.  The activ­i­ties are process goals, not out­come goals: In other words—things that I can accom­plish on my own, with­out the world’s coop­er­a­tion. (Exam­ple: Writ­ing a book is a process goal. Sell­ing a book to a major pub­lisher for eight mil­lion dol­lars is an out­come goal. Make sense?)

2.  The activ­i­ties are not directly related to my pri­mary goals: This one is a bit murkier, but basi­cally I’m curi­ous about how tak­ing actions appar­ently unre­lated to life’s big chal­lenges may para­dox­i­cally help us sur­mount them. Is this true? We. Shall. See.

3.  The activ­i­ties are sat­is­fy­ing (and even fun) in them­selves: Life coach Tara Sophia Mohr, who writes the Wise Liv­ing Blog, urges us to “cre­ate goals that feel like huge gor­geous presents to our­selves,” hav­ing found that they are “not only more fun but also more effec­tive.” This sounds almost too good to be true, but Ms. Mohr, who is equipped with a Stan­ford M.B.A., makes a pretty strong case here, and I’m going to give it a try.

And now, here it is: 2012 Life Exper­i­ment #1: Over the next month, my plan is to con­nect (or re-connect) with 30 people—and then observe what follows.

I’m a pretty social per­son, so it’s not alto­gether unlikely that I’d be doing this any­way with­out giv­ing it much thought. But that’s exactly the point. Over the next month, I plan to be mind­ful of such connections—savoring the plea­sure they bring, curi­ous about where they’re lead­ing. Because, when all is said and done, the spirit in which we go about things tends to be at least as impor­tant as the things them­selves (as I wrote last night in my final post of 2011).

As always, you’re wel­come to join me—or to share your own life exper­i­ments (or pretty much any­thing else). In the mean­time, have a great day—and a great start to 2012.

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.

Searching for meaning in Plan B Nation

Searching the Ox  -  I

Ear­lier this week, I wrote about how much hap­pier I’ve been since mov­ing back to my beloved Northamp­ton roughly a year ago. While I feared this would be just a tem­po­rary boost, I’m pleased to report that it’s proven far more sat­is­fy­ing and delight­fully sustaining.

At the same time, the past year has (not sur­pris­ingly) brought new chal­lenges. Apart­ment hunt­ing, nego­ti­at­ing a lease, find­ing movers, packing—these prac­ti­cal tasks amounted to a full-time job that left me lit­tle time for wor­ry­ing about larger and more amor­phous ques­tions such as What am I doing with my life? Once I’d landed on the other side, how­ever, they soon reclaimed cen­ter stage.

Regard­less of where you go for guidance—psychologists, reli­gious lead­ers, soci­ol­o­gists, friends—pretty much every­one will tell you that pur­pose is a key ingre­di­ent for a sat­is­fy­ing life.

In his cel­e­brated 1946 Holo­caust mem­oir Man’s Search for Mean­ing, Aus­trian psy­chi­a­trist Vik­tor Frankl went so far as to say that this search is our pri­mary moti­va­tion in life. But while the prin­ci­ple may be a sim­ple one, putting it into prac­tice can be far more complicated—and in cir­cum­stances far less dire than Frankl’s Nazi death camp. Frankl him­self rec­og­nized this in a pref­ace to the book’s 1984 edi­tion, where he glumly con­cluded: “I do not at all see in the best­seller sta­tus of my book so much an achieve­ment and accom­plish­ment on my part as an expres­sion of the mis­ery of our time: if hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the ques­tion of a mean­ing to life, it must be a ques­tion that burns under their fingernails.”

If any­thing our hunger for mean­ing has only grown more des­per­ate since Frankl penned those words. There may be peri­ods of our lives—sometimes long periods—when we don’t give it much thought. The big ques­tions are (tem­porar­ily) set­tled. The big deci­sions are made. What remains is exe­cu­tion, the liv­ing out of their impli­ca­tions through the days and years.

At other times, how­ever, the big ques­tions are right in our face—and, more and more that’s the case for those of us liv­ing in Plan B Nation.  More and more, we’re drop-kicked into unfa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions, left to make major deci­sions with­out mean­ing­ful guid­ance.  Our par­ents’ rules for decision-making no longer seem to apply. Friends give con­flict­ing advice. Depend­ing on our spir­i­tual out­look, we may pray or look inward for guid­ance, but often we still find our­selves com­pletely at a loss—at a loss and anxious.

Per­haps my favorite descrip­tion of this mud­dled state comes from a short story by the peer­less Lor­rie Moore. Describ­ing a baf­fled pro­tag­o­nist, she writes, “She hadn’t been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She’d been given a can of gravy and a hair­brush and told, ‘There you go.’”

A can of gravy and a hairbrush.

I can so relate.

In the first decade of the new mil­len­nium, an evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor named Rick War­ren tapped into this moth­er­lode of anguished con­fu­sion with The Pur­pose Dri­ven Life, now billed as “the best­selling non­fic­tion hard­back book in his­tory.” (The Bible, pre­sum­ably, is entirely fac­tual so not in the run­ning here.)

While I was raised as a Con­gre­ga­tion­al­ist I’ve spent lit­tle time in churches in my adulthood—except for a brief foray into Epis­co­palian­ism. (“We’re Uni­tar­i­ans who like liturgy,” our priest once said, describ­ing those drawn to this small and decid­edly cre­ative church.) Still, I couldn’t help but be curi­ous, so I ordered myself a copy.

The (trade­mark reg­is­tered) Pur­pose Dri­ven Life is described as a “40-day spir­i­tual jour­ney” that “will trans­form your life.”  War­ren urges us to read no more than one of the 40 chap­ters each day, but I decided that a sin­gle after­noon would have to suf­fice.  After all, I didn’t plan to do the pro­gram, I just wanted to get a sense of what it’s about—and indeed, it took just a few chap­ters to grasp its appeal.

War­ren claims The Pur­pose Dri­ven Life is not a self-help book, but while his under­stand­ing of the genre may dif­fer from mine, it strikes me as exactly that. In fair­ness, I found much with which to agree. In his anti-materialism, his belief in the para­mount impor­tance of rela­tion­ships over things, Warren’s is a counter-cultural voice, exhort­ing us to care for the planet as well as for each other. To that extent, I’m with him.

This only takes me a short way, though, and I’m soon baf­fled by Warren’s blithe pre­sump­tion that all we need to do is lis­ten.

Warren’s God speaks with unmis­tak­able clar­ity. The prob­lem isn’t that we can’t hear God but that we refuse to obey him.

If God asked you to build a giant boat, don’t you think you might have a few ques­tions, objec­tions, or reser­va­tions?” War­ren asks his read­ers, con­trast­ing our imag­ined obsti­nacy with Noah’s eager­ness to get right on that ark.

And that’s where he loses me.

Because the thing is, if God were speak­ing to me—and I knew for sure that this was God—I’m pretty sure I’d be fine with build­ing what­ever boat he (or she) wanted. And I’m pretty sure the same would be true for most any­one read­ing the book. (Or at least almost any­one: My friend Jennifer—a law professor—insists she would indeed take issue with this heav­enly direc­tive, explain­ing she’s not trained in ark-building, though she’d gladly write a paper.)

But this doesn’t seem to be how God usu­ally speaks, even to those of us des­per­ate for guidance.

Not that we don’t wish he did.

I’m reminded of a scene in The Movie­goer, Walker Percy’s National Book Award-winning 1960 novel. “Don’t you see?” the despair­ing Kate Cutrer asks her cousin Binx. “What I want is to believe in some­one com­pletely and then do what he wants me to do. If God were to tell me: Kate, here is what I want you to do; you get off this train right now and go over there to that cor­ner by the South­ern Life and Acci­dent Insur­ance Com­pany and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people—you think I would not do it? You think I would not be the hap­pi­est girl in Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi? I would.”

For most of us, like Kate, clear direc­tion often proves elu­sive, how­ever much we long for it. That was cer­tainly the case for renowned writer Dan Wake­field, a nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist and screen­writer who, after decades of athe­ism and hard liv­ing, redis­cov­ered the reli­gious faith of his youth. Some years later, he recon­nected with a child­hood friend, a woman from his home­town of Indi­anapo­lis (which also hap­pens to be my home­town, but I digress).  After years of tumul­tuous rela­tion­ships, Wake­field believed he was finally on the right path, on the road to which God had led him. The cou­ple married.

And then, almost imme­di­ately, things fell apart.

In his soul-baring spir­i­tual mem­oir How Do We Known When It’s God?, Wake­field reflects back on this painful time, writ­ing: “The hubris of imag­in­ing we’ve ‘got it together,’ fol­lowed by a jolt of real­ity that plunges us back to earth, is prob­a­bly one of the most famil­iar and often-traveled arcs of human expe­ri­ence. And yet we think each time, ‘This is dif­fer­ent, this time I’ve really got it right.’”

Wakefield’s expe­ri­ence got me to think­ing about how we go about pur­su­ing our goals—how we decide what to do next. It’s all well and good to say, as the evan­gel­i­cal War­ren does, that we should just do what God tells us—or some sec­u­lar equiv­a­lent of this—but what does this really mean?  At the most basic, prac­ti­cal level, how do we go about this? And, most imme­di­ately, how should I go about it?

The notion that there exists some absolute truth to which we should look for guid­ance per­vades Amer­i­can cul­ture.  For Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians like War­ren, it’s God. For those of a more ecu­meni­cal bent, it may be Your True Self, Your Inner Voice, or some gen­eral force for good.

But not every­one buys such the­o­ries. Along­side the wide­spread view that there exists some pre-existing and essen­tial truth is a less well-traveled but par­al­lel track known as con­struc­tivism. As con­struc­tivists see it, the self is some­thing that we cre­ate, not some­thing that we find. Until we’ve con­structed our self, there isn’t a self to con­sult. Until then, to para­phrase Har­vard pro­fes­sor Robert Kegan, we’re no more than the col­lec­tion of beliefs taken on from “impor­tant others”—parents, teach­ers, peers, celebri­ties, employ­ers, to name just a view. And because these per­spec­tives so often diverge, we often find our­selves in trouble—caught between con­flict­ing demands with no way to choose between them.

Make a lot of money, but don’t over­value mate­r­ial things.

Put your­self first, but also put your fam­ily first.

It’s impor­tant to look your best, but don’t think too much about how you look.

Be assertive but modest.

As the old say­ing goes, you can’t please every­one—and yet, with­out quite notic­ing, many of us in Plan B Nation can’t seem to stop our­selves from trying.

But while the con­struc­tivists’ the­o­ries make a lot of sense to me, they still leave the biggest ques­tion unan­swered.  If we’re charged with “con­struct­ing” our selves, how do we best proceed?

I’ve spent much of the past year thinking—and reading—about this ques­tion, and more and more, I’m con­vinced that life in Plan B Nation isn’t some­thing that can be planned or neatly charted out.

Rather, we need to “live into” our new lives—to dis­cover our pur­pose through try­ing things out, regroup­ing, then try­ing again. The process isn’t lin­ear. It’s often messy. But it’s also necessary.

And in fact, the process may not be all that dif­fer­ent from how we’ve always lived.  After exten­sive research into suc­cess­ful mid-life career tran­si­tions, orga­ni­za­tional behav­ior expert Her­minia Ibarra con­cluded that the tra­di­tional “plan and imple­ment” model is at odds with real­ity. Fac­ing a major cross­roads, would-be career chang­ers often spend count­less hours and dol­lars on coun­sel­ing and bat­ter­ies of stan­dard­ized tests, all in the inter­ests of deter­min­ing what it is they really want.  In other words, first fig­ure out what you want. Then go after it.

This all sounds pretty log­i­cal, except that, accord­ing to Ibarra, our lives don’t work that way. “We learn who we are—in prac­tice, not in theory—by test­ing real­ity, not by look­ing inside,” she writes in Work­ing Iden­tity: Uncon­ven­tional Strate­gies for Rein­vent­ing Your Career.  “We dis­cover the true pos­si­bil­i­ties by doing—try­ing out new activ­i­ties, reach­ing out to new groups, find­ing new role mod­els, and rework­ing our story as we tell it to those around us.”  

Over the past months, I’ve taken this advice to heart (in part because it appeals to me and in part because I don’t really see a whole lot of other options). I still feel pulled in mul­ti­ple directions—at the time of this writ­ing, I’m tak­ing an intro­duc­tory social work class, plan­ning to teach a writ­ing work­shop, actively seek­ing full-time and free­lance jobs, and con­tem­plat­ing tak­ing the Mass­a­chu­setts bar exam.  (In the dry words of one friend, “Amy, maybe you should con­sider mon­e­tiz­ing your Har­vard Law degree.”)

If this post seems longer than pre­vi­ous offer­ings, that’s because it is: Much of it was pulled from a book pro­posal that I may (or may not) be rework­ing.  As with so many other things: Time. Will. Tell. For now, one of the ways I’m find­ing mean­ing is through writ­ing this blog.  And while I can’t say where it’s tak­ing me, I’m sure enjoy­ing the ride.