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.)