Porridge and Clouds

Bowl of clouds

The first in an occasional series on things I’m thinking about + things that make me think

Back in the 1970s, Radcliffe President Matina Horner made headlines with research suggesting that American women suffered from a “fear of success” that kept them from reaching their potential. While I came of age in that era, I’ve never felt that Horner’s findings spoke to my experience. What I recall isn’t a fear of success but rather a fear of failure.

I was probably around 14 when I decided not to apply for a spot in a highly selective study abroad program for Indianapolis public school students. I didn’t think my French I was up to par. I didn’t think I’d get in. Today, I feel bad for that girl who gave up before she tried. By all accounts, it was a wonderful program. There’s a good chance I would have made the cut. And if not: Who cares?

All of which is prologue to saying that I have since become a fervent proponent of learning how to fail. Being able to cope with failure strikes me as one of life’s most important skills—which is why I devoted a session to the topic in the Living Strategically Seminar I taught this fall at UMass Amherst (and, on a lighter note, why I couldn’t wait to share the very funny Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success!” video some months back).

It’s also why I was so heartened to see teacher Jessica Lahey’s terrific new piece in the Atlantic on why parents need to let their children fail. As Lahey writes, parents who try to guarantee their children’s personal and academic success are doing them no favors. Rather they are robbing them of opportunities to strengthen resilience—to cultivate “the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.” (My friend Jennifer Rosner also reflects on this issue in an excellent piece just published on the New York Times Motherlode blog.)

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The more open we can be about what life should look like, the greater our chance at happiness.

In this spirit, I was captivated by an essay suggesting that the successful marriages of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may include not only the obvious suspects—Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley—but also the pragmatic Charlotte Lucas and pompous Mr. Collins. “Charlotte did the best she could, and if the result is not exactly blinding ecstasy forever after–well, most of us, for the most part, don’t get blinding ecstasy forever after anyway,” Noah Berlatsky writes.

Somehow this got me thinking about the last time I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which I’d always thought of as a poignant tale of missed opportunities. I was surprised to myself concluding that the life Newland Archer got was precisely the life he needed. (The fact that he never realized this didn’t mean it wasn’t true.)

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The Great Recession gave birth to a subgenre that I’ve come to think of as the Plan B Nation memoir—stories about life after job loss. Food plays an outsized role in many of these—which makes a lot of sense to me given the prominent role it played in my own post-layoff life. Favorites include Dominique Browning’s Slow Love (wherein the eating is followed by a serious diet), Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter (wherein the former Entertainment Weekly book critic reports, sometimes hilariously, on making the things we normally buy—think marshmallows, cream cheese, Pop-Tarts), and guest poster Robin Mather’s The Feast Nearby (wherein I discovered a recipe for winter squash and sausage drizzled with maple syrup with which I became somewhat obsessed for a time).

While my Plan B Nation life has evolved a lot in recent months, I’m still always on the lookout for a good recipe. Here’s one for red velvet cake that I can’t wait to try—via one of my (and possibly your) favorite novelists, Elinor Lipman.

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.