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.