Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

[Bint.3♥♪♫]

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.

Another reason regrets are dumb

Chicken-regrets illustration

You’ve doubt­less heard the maxim that “You don’t regret the things you do. You regret the things you don’t do.” I’ve never under­stood why so few are both­ered by the major log­i­cal flaw here: You can’t do two things at once. Choose X? You can’t choose Y. Regard­less of which path you choose, there’s some­thing else you won’t be doing.

I think about this a lot when I’m ques­tion­ing past choices or start­ing to second-guess deci­sions made months or years ago. More and more, I’m con­vinced that regrets aren’t signs of bad decision-making but rather reflec­tions of tem­pera­ment and cog­ni­tive style. Regrets don’t reflect objec­tive truth. They’re sim­ply interpretations.

A cou­ple years back, I dipped a toe into the crit­i­cal mael­strom sur­round­ing the book Marry Him, writer Lori Gottlieb’s exhor­ta­tion to younger women to marry that nice if slightly dull boyfriend instead of hold­ing out for true love and risk end­ing up (like Gottlieb—and me) sin­gle at midlife.

Along the spec­trum of Marry Him commentaries—which ranged from the vir­u­lently pro to the vir­u­lently anti—the review I wrote for the Chicago Tri­bune fell some­where in the mid­dle. While I cer­tainly got where Got­tlieb was com­ing from, I couldn’t buy her solution—and not because of its dubi­ous pol­i­tics but because I couldn’t see it work­ing. (Indeed, with some dark humor, I couldn’t stop pic­tur­ing a sea of future middle-aged women, curs­ing that stu­pid book that con­vinced them to marry the guy they’re divorcing.)

The fact is, life is risky. There are no guar­an­tees, no fail-proof roadmaps to a fairy tale end­ing. The answer isn’t to blame our­selves or to look for ways to game the human con­di­tion but rather to do the best we can and accept our essen­tial limitations.

I recently inter­viewed psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Kristin Neff, a lead­ing expert on self-compassion and author of a book by that name, and was struck by what she had to say on this topic: “We love to have an illu­sion of con­trol because it makes us feel safe. In an ironic way, I think what hap­pens when we crit­i­cize our­selves is that we’re say­ing ‘Oh, I should have had con­trol.  If it was some­thing I did, then I did have con­trol, I just made the wrong move.’ When in fact, the real­ity is that I didn’t have a lot of con­trol. I did my best, but I couldn’t make things turn out the way I wanted them to. In a weird way, some­times it’s less scary to peo­ple to blame them­selves than it is to admit that we human beings often don’t have a lot of say over our lives. It’s hard being human!”

My thoughts exactly.

The notion that our biggest regrets tend to stem from things we failed to do bears a strik­ing resem­blance to the maxim that “the grass is always greener on the other side”—the salient dif­fer­ence being that the two are invoked to make oppo­site points. Here again, I’m reminded of the 28 con­flict­ing legal rules famously set forth in a 1950 law review piece. When judges go about inter­pret­ing laws, there are “cor­rect, unchal­lenge­able rules of ‘how to read’ which lead in hap­pily vari­ant direc­tions,” the author dryly concluded.

For her part, along with urg­ing read­ers to make haste and marry, Got­tlieb set out to do the same her­self, albeit belat­edly.  Her pri­mary strat­egy: Be less picky. She expounds on aca­d­e­mic research that places peo­ple in two rel­e­vant groups: “max­i­miz­ers,” who demand the very best, and “sat­is­fi­cers,” who do fine with good enough. As Got­tlieb sees it, the solu­tion is clear. She just needs to switch teams.

It wasn’t until after my review was pub­lished that this thought occurred to me: Got­tlieb has a beau­ti­ful child, a suc­cess­ful writ­ing career. Wouldn’t a true sat­is­fi­cer start by focus­ing there?