In praise of erring

Guiding Light

I was hang­ing out at Sip yes­ter­day, doing my usual thing: Get­ting a lit­tle writ­ing done, drink­ing a lot of coffee.

But as I worked (and sipped) I found myself dis­tracted by two young women a few tables away. It’s not that they were loud, it’s that they were inter­est­ing.  At first, I just thought (as I often do) what a great town this is!  From there, it was a quick leap to “You know what? I’d like to meet them.”

A quick leap in my mind, but an awk­ward one to enact. This is what I thought as I fin­gered two busi­ness cards I’d pulled from my bag and con­tem­plated next steps. For a few min­utes more, I went back and forth. And then: I just did it.

I approached their table, smil­ing. Cau­tious smiles in response. I blath­ered some­thing about how I couldn’t help but overhear—and I knew that this must seem sort of strange—but that they just sounded so inter­est­ing that I’d decided to say Hi!

And you know what? They were lovely. Exactly like they’d sounded.

Not sur­pris­ingly, this being the town that it is, we already shared friends. Kate co-owns the vibrant Imp­ish, a “mis­chie­vously play­ful” Northamp­ton children’s store that I’ve vis­ited with my friend Sarah, whom Kate also knows.  Fran is a for­mer busi­ness law stu­dent of my pro­fes­sor friend Jen­nifer and about to begin a new job on Maine’s  same-sex mar­riage cam­paign. (I knew they were interesting!)

My friend Naomi quotes her mother as say­ing “Always err on the side of gen­eros­ity.” This encounter got me to think­ing how the same could just as well be said about human connection.

There are many times when the “right” course of action isn’t totally clear. If we’re going to over-steer, in which direc­tion should we risk erring?

Always steer­ing towards human con­nec­tion strikes me as a good default rule.  And I say this not just because it sounds good but for very prac­ti­cal reasons.

Look­ing back, I see that, time and again, the choice to con­nect has enriched my life in many and var­i­ous ways. No, not each and every time but more often than you might think.

A cou­ple of recent exam­ples relat­ing to this blog:

After writ­ing about celebrity blog­ger Pene­lope Trunk, I tweeted the post to her on a lark. To my sur­prise (and delight) she read it and left a lovely com­ment, which lifted my spir­its on a day that my spir­its needed lifting.

More recently, I wrote the (tongue-in-cheek) post “I Should Be You” about The Flu­ent Self’s mag­i­cal Havi Brooks, and once again, sent it on with no real expec­ta­tion of response. When she linked to the post, it resulted in my blog’s high­est traffic-ever day—and, in the process, con­nected me with a bunch of really won­der­ful people.

I’ve also gained a lot from being on the other side of the equation–the per­son being con­nected to rather than the con­nec­tor. The fact that I’m liv­ing in this town at all is largely due to the fact that the afore­men­tioned Jen­nifer (my law school class­mate) wrote me a warm con­grat­u­la­tory note after my first novel came out. We’d been friendly but not really “friends” before—and out of touch for years. Today, much of the good in my life can be traced to that out-of-the-blue email.

Another reminder came this week via writer Car­olyn Nash (a pen name), who’d read that I work with fos­ter kids and left a com­ment on my blog offer­ing to send a copy of Rais­ing Abel, her fos­ter care mem­oir. As it hap­pened, I’d already heard about the book on Work­stew and been mean­ing to find it. (“A woman of remark­able resource­ful­ness single-handedly raises a trou­bled child all the way to man­hood in this inti­mate and inspir­ing blog-to-book mem­oir,” is how Kirkus Reviews describes it.)  I told her I was eager to read it. And I’m already writ­ing about it.

Of course, not all attempts to con­nect will yield the hoped-for con­nec­tions. In another life, when I was writ­ing thrillers, I mus­tered up my courage, and placed a call to some­one I’d been friendly with in col­lege, who some­times reviewed books. I caught her at a bad time. She was icy. The call ended quickly. I felt terrible.

Think­ing about this phone call now—still clear in my mind after all this years—it occurs to me that it’s an excel­lent exam­ple of the human “neg­a­tiv­ity bias.”  As described by Buddha’s Brain author Rick Han­son, our brains are “Vel­cro for neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences but Teflon for pos­i­tive ones.” This is because our brains evolved to keep us from get­ting eaten, not with the goal of assur­ing that we live happy and pleas­ant lives. As Han­son sees it, we need to do what we can to push back this tendency.

For me, choos­ing con­nec­tion is one way to do this. Life is full of risks, and the choices we make on any given day won’t always leave us delighted. But by erring on the side of human con­nec­tion, I’m pretty sure we raise our odds.

The magic of cause & effect

low gravity

Years back, when I first found my way to AA, I used to roll my eyes at old-timers’ earnest promises that “things will get bet­ter.” Don’t get me wrong. I loved AA from the start and didn’t ever think seri­ously about going back to drink­ing. (I was lucky that way.) Still, it struck me as absurd that peo­ple I’d never spo­ken to thought they could pre­dict my future. What made them so cer­tain? How could they pos­si­bly know?

It took a long time—months, in fact—before it finally hit me: “Hey! Maybe if you stop pour­ing gal­lons of a toxic depres­sant into your sys­tem things are likely to look up! Maybe, if you stop ingest­ing a sub­stance that wreaks havoc on your rela­tion­ships, life will (as a gen­eral rule) tend to run more smoothly!” Amaz­ing. Who knew?

These thoughts came back to me the other day when a Very Nice Thing hap­pened. Brazen Careerist founder Pene­lope Trunk—who, of all the blog­gers on the planet, is prob­a­bly the one I most admire—commented on the post I’d writ­ten about the ben­e­fits of blog­ging (or more specif­i­cally, about how research sug­gest­ing that blog­ging may help new moms could well also per­tain to the newly unemployed).

Here’s what she wrote:

Amy, I really like this post. I started blog­ging when I had my first baby. I didn’t do it inten­tion­ally as a way to con­nect. I did it as a way to make sure my career didn’t tank while my emo­tions were tank­ing. But I totally under­stand how blog­ging could help new moms.

The other thing I love about blog­ging is that blog­ging gives me a way to share all the inter­est­ing research I come across. I’m with kids most of the day, and believe me, they really don’t care what I’m read­ing about. The blog is a way to keep my life intel­lec­tu­ally stimulating.

And, I love the research you have in this post. It makes me feel con­nected to read it and talk about it :)

Pene­lope

I was so excited! Not just a pro forma “thanks for link­ing to me” but a real live gen­uine com­ment reflect­ing on what I’d talked about and how she liked what I’d said.

And what had I done to spark this happy devel­op­ment?  Okay hold on to your seats. After link­ing to her blog on mine, I told her that I had done this.

Could any­thing be sim­pler or more obvi­ous? And yet, I almost didn’t do it. Here’s why: In the world in which I blog, Pene­lope Trunk is a celebrity. I thought about the zil­lions of emails she likely gets each day. I didn’t want to be tedious. I didn’t want to push. I didn’t want to annoy her. (And she can be annoyed.)

But in my delib­er­a­tions, I’d some­how over­looked two cru­cial facts: First, if you don’t tell some­one you wrote a post about them, they most likely won’t find out.* Sec­ond, if you do tell them, there’s a chance they will actu­ally read what you wrote and turn out to like it.

Give how uni­ver­sal this cause-and-effect stuff seems to be, it’s remark­able how often I have to remind myself to pay atten­tion to it. True, if you make an effort to con­nect with some­one it’s pos­si­ble you’ll annoy them. But if you don’t make the effort, chances are good you won’t con­nect at all. Yes, you’ll avoid the down­side risk, but you’ll also miss the upside. Cause and effect, it turns out, tends to cut both ways.

* Unless you’re Pene­lope Trunk, and then they most likely will.

How blogging changed my life–and how it can change yours

I´m blogging this.

Ear­lier this month, the New York Times Moth­er­lode blog fea­tured new research sug­gest­ing that blog­ging may make new moth­ers hap­pier.

It got me to think­ing about how this is also true for us denizens of Plan B Nation—and for much the same reasons.

The cited research—a small research study by Penn State Ph.D. can­di­date Bran­don T. McDaniel—suggests that blog­ging coun­ter­acts new moth­ers’ feel­ings of iso­la­tion. It found a pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion between “blog­ging and feel­ings of con­nect­ed­ness to fam­ily and friends—which in turn cor­re­lates … with mater­nal well-being and health,” writes Moth­er­lode blog­ger KJ Dell’Antonia (who, in another life­time, prac­ticed law with me, but I digress .…)

Feel­ings of iso­la­tion are also a hall­mark of life in Plan B Nation—and one of its most dan­ger­ous poten­tial side effects. Long-term unem­ploy­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, has been repeat­edly linked to a down­ward spi­ral in per­sonal rela­tion­ships. Gallup Chair­man and CEO Jim Clifton sums this up suc­cinctly in his new book The Com­ing Jobs War: “Peo­ple who have been out of work for 18 months or longer lose engage­ment in their net­work of friends, com­mu­nity, and fam­i­lies. The worst things in life start show­ing up when peo­ple expe­ri­ence extended unemployment.”

Speak­ing from per­sonal expe­ri­ence (hello read­ers!), blog­ging can go a long way to help with such feel­ings. Two months ago, when I started Plan B Nation, I was in a pretty demor­al­ized place. I’d been un– and under-employed for more than two years and was hav­ing a hard time imag­in­ing a light at the end of the tun­nel. I didn’t really think blog­ging would help, but I’d been think­ing about doing it for a while and finally took the leap. If noth­ing else, I fig­ured, I’d at least learn some new skills.

Flash for­ward to today, and my whole out­look has changed—and largely because of this blog. Sim­ply put, blog­ging about my story has trans­formed my rela­tion­ship to it. It’s gone from being a source of suf­fer­ing to being my sub­ject. When I step back to mine it for mate­r­ial, I start to find it inter­est­ing. I start to see what it has to teach me (and how, in shar­ing it, I can maybe even help others).

And there’s a huge addi­tional poten­tial bonus to blog­ging in Plan B Nation: It can be a ter­rific source of pay­ing work. That’s cer­tainly been the case for me and—a quick Google search reveals—for many oth­ers as well.

Iconic blog­ger Pene­lope Trunk—if you haven’t read her, you should; you’ll either love her or hate her—is a big pro­po­nent of blog­ging as a career strat­egy. For doubters, she lists the fol­low­ing five rea­sons to embark.

1. Blog­ging makes career change easier.

2. Blog­ging lets you skip entry-level jobs.

3. Blog­ging opens up the world of part-time work.

4. Blog­ging makes it eas­ier to re-enter the workforce.

5. Blog­ging builds a net­work super fast.

I can’t say every­thing in this post will be true for every­one, but for me, it’s come pretty close. (For more evi­dence in sup­port, check out blog­ger Jen Gresham’s post on blog­ging as a career tool—part of BlogHer’s ongo­ing series on career rein­ven­tion.)

Will it be true for you? You’ll never know if you don’t try. (Pene­lope Trunk also offers tips on how to get started.)  You might con­sider, as I did, that even if your blog doesn’t fly, you’ll still have learned a lot.

Need more inspi­ra­tion? Try check­ing out other blogs that explore life in Plan B Nation. A few examples:

  • Brett Paesel’s darkly hilar­i­ous Last of the Bohemi­ans (about a fam­ily vaca­tion to India in the shadow of bankruptcy)
  • Whar­ton M.B.A. Sharon O’Day’s blog about women and money (which evolved from her own expe­ri­ence of start­ing over at age 53)
  • From Prada to Pay­less (“The life and times of a once glam­orous NYC fash­ion indus­try insider, to a mother of three girls, liv­ing pay­check to pay­check , fac­ing fore­clo­sure, and try­ing to find humor, and san­ity in it all, while look­ing (try­ing!) deli­ciously chic in her Pay­less shoes”)

Plan B Nation takes lots of things away from us, but it also fills our life with amaz­ing (if painful), strange, intrigu­ing, and unfor­get­table sto­ries. The trick is to see them, to lean into them. Blog­ging can help with that.

Do you have a favorite Plan B Nation blog? Please share it in the com­ment section.