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.)

* * *

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.)

* * *

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.

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.

Failure is the new success

For me, one of the very best things about blogging has been the opportunity to connect with people I’ve long admired from afar. One of these is writer Laura Zigman, author of several books including the darkly hilarious bestseller Animal Husbandry.

Like practically every writer I know, Laura has been riding out the ups and downs of a publishing world changing so fast that it seems in perpetual free fall. But unlike most writers, she’s managed to turn setbacks into material, most recently in a series of brilliantly witty Xtranormal videos, including “Failure Is the New Success,” which she graciously agreed to share here. (She has a lot more to say about the Xtranormal series — and the creative process — in this terrific interview.)

The ability to make creative use of setbacks — to incorporate them into our larger story — is perhaps the most useful of all Plan B Nation talents (with added points for black humor). No one does this better than Laura. I’ve never admired her more.

Laura Zigman

by Laura Zigman

Five or six years ago, I wrote 100 pages of a non-fiction book about failure.

And guess what?

It failed to sell to a publisher!

I love that punch-line — now — but at the time, the failure of my failure book made me feel like a total loser. No one was buying failure at the time as a general topic — even all tarted up with a “positive” title like “Failure: A Love Story,” since failure, especially financial, wasn’t as widespread as it is now. The fact that my own personal economic recession started long before everyone else’s — before the actual and legitimate economic recession — was embarrassing, and alienating. Back then, failure was failure, plain and simple: a shameful little secret you confessed to as few people as possible, not only to preserve your own dignity but also to spare others the discomfort of dealing with your lack of success.

It’s different now!

Failure is cool! Failure is hip!

Failure has had a complete make-over and rebranding!

Failure has become a competitive sport everyone wants to win at!

If I were pitching my failure story now, I’d boast that I was a failure long before everyone else was. That I was at the “forefront in the trend of downhill-career-trajectories.” A “trail-blazer in metabolizing professional and artistic disappointment.”

Failure has become something to brag about and these days; everyone’s out there bragging about what a huge failure they were.That little word — were — is crucial, because it’s past tense. It means recovery from failure, triumph over failure. Failure is the ball and chain of success and there isn’t anything more brag-worthy than shedding the ball and chain and living to tell the tale. Or, living to boast about the tale. Nothing’s more American than a great comeback story — a story of redemption and reinvention, a story of survival, and self-reliance, resilience, and will to claw your way back from failure to the shores of success, even if you’re down on all fours combat-crawling upon your arrival.

This Xtranormal video is about this new kind of failure: “shame-free failure.” And about the new phenomenon of bragging about failure: the idea that if you succeed at failure long enough you will ultimately win at it. I’m not sure that winning at failure is the same thing as winning in general — as true success — but for those of us who are tired of losing, we’ll take it!

Note: Guest post revised by the author on 6/22/2012

 

6 things that cracked me up in 2011

The Happiest Place On Earth

Who needs positive thinking when you have a dark sense of humor?

This was my Facebook status update on Tuesday, billed as my “Insight of the Day.” (Actually, it was my first and only insight likely to be so labeled, but Facebook  is forgiving that way.)

In any case, I’ve been thinking a lot about humor lately—and the critical role it’s played during my past year in Plan B Nation. Of all the qualities that serve us well in this place of uncertainty—optimism, gratitude, and perseverance, being just a few—humor is perhaps the only one that comes naturally to me.

People often tell me that I am funny, and it’s true that sometimes I can be, but where I really excel is in recalling funny things I’ve read and heard. In that spirit, here are six things that cracked me up this year—and helped make my roller coaster search for work both bearable and (at times) entertaining.

1. I’m sorry I bit you during my job interview: For most of us in Plan B Nation, job interviews are serious stuff.  In any case, rest assured that whatever happened at your last interview, it was nowhere near as bad as this guy’s.

2.  And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles: But perhaps you are totally sick of thinking about jobs, work, the economy, or anything remotely related to any of these. If so, perhaps the time has come to spend some time reflecting on BIG METAL CHICKENS.  Seriously, I recommend it. You’ll be glad that you did.

3. Adventures in depression: Still, no doubt about it, life in Plan B Nation can really suck, and you may find yourself becoming just a teensy bit clinically depressed. In which case, I’d like to introduce you to this darkly hilarious little cartoon about how even the saddest among us can still find a way through.

4.  Why yoga can be so irritating (although you should go anyway!): Of course, one of the best ways to avoid depression is regular exercise. Yoga has the added benefit of fostering a deep sense of connection to the world around us—except when it doesn’t.

5.  An honest Facebook political argument: Just because you are home alone on your computer looking for work doesn’t mean you can’t take part in discussions of the major issues of the day.  And where better to do this than Facebook?

6. Need a role model? If so, look no further than bestselling author Laura Zigman, whose Xtranormal video series has quickly been gaining a cult following and offers textbook examples of Plan B Nation humor.

* * *

I hope you enjoyed these. Please help add to my collection! Share your personal 2011 favorites in the comment section below.

NaNoWriMo for the rest of us (NaPerProMo, anyone?)

Don´t do a NaNo without them

NaNoWriMo: Assuming you know what it is, you either love it or hate it.

For those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, the annual word fest wherein participants commit to writing 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and November 30. Since its launch in 1999, NaNoWriMo has exploded, going from 21 participants to—get this—250,000.

Now at this particular point in my life, I have close to zero interest in writing a novel (been there, done that). I do, however, have high hopes for this little blog o’ mine.

So here’s what I plan to do: During the month of December, I’m going to commit to drafting a post every day. They won’t appear every day—that would likely drive you nuts—but they’ll be in the pipeline for when the time comes. That’s 31 posts in all, and if I do this—or even come anywhere close—it will mark a quantum leap for this tiny baby blog.

Great, but it’s only November 20. Why am I telling you this?

Here’s a secret: Anything I write between now and December 1 still counts towards my 31 posts. I admit it–I cheat. In fairness, December is a holiday month, so I know there will be some down days. (Also, chances are some of these posts will need some, er, polishing before they’re ready for you.)

I’m a big fan of plans like this. This is how, in another lifetime, I wrote (and published) my two novels. My goal was 500 words a day—about two double-spaced pages. And while I didn’t always meet the goal (in fact, far from it), I did track my progress, and that made all the difference.

The prolific Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, who I recently discovered used a similar strategy, put it this way: “[I]f at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied.”

Community support always helps—that’s the purpose of NaNoWriMo—and I’d love it if you would join me. Here’s how it works: Pick a project you want to get done and set a daily doable goal. For example, if you want to clean and de-clutter your house—Now why would I think of that?–you could commit to tossing three items a day. If you want to get in shape, commit to 30 minutes of exercise a day.

Tip: Try to keep your goals reasonable—and if you find you’ve set the bar too high, don’t be afraid to adjust.

If you’re on Twitter you can send your updates to @planbnation with the hashtag  #naperpromo. Or feel free to post your progress on the Plan B Nation Facebook wall or comment on this post. I’ll be doing the same. I hope to see you there!

Note: Anyone who feels like a slacker for opting out of NaNoWriMo this year can take comfort in bestselling writer (and cyber pal) Laura Zigman’s witty take on the project—part of her terrific Annoying Conversations series of Xtranormal movies. (And if you are doing NaNoWriMo, best of luck. I’m quite sure you’ll be an exception.)