Follow Your Heart 2.0

Big Heart of Art - 1000 Visual Mashups

In 1998, I walked away from a six-figure job prac­tic­ing law to write a novel. I had never writ­ten a novel before and had, what is in ret­ro­spect, a laugh­ably (or rather fright­en­ingly) small cush­ion of sav­ings. A year later, I had a lucra­tive deal with a major pub­lisher.  My first novel was a Peo­ple mag­a­zine Page-Turner of the Week. We sold tons of for­eign rights.

Do what you love, and the money will fol­low. Along with being the title of a pop­u­lar self-help book, it sums up a dis­tinc­tive ethos of a dis­tinc­tive time in Amer­i­can history—an Oprah-fied vision of pos­si­bil­i­ties where the only lim­its were the bound­aries of our dreams.

Times have changed.

Look­ing back, the Fol­low Your Heart love fest was a reflection—you might say a symptom—of an econ­omy in over­drive. The wide­spread fail­ure to see this link was a sig­nif­i­cant if not sur­pris­ing ves­tige of ways of think­ing that have deep roots in west­ern cul­ture. It is the same point made by any num­ber of char­ac­ters in Jane Austen’s nov­els and stated with par­tic­u­lar clar­ity in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. “You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands,” Mar­garet Schlegel tells her aunt. “It is so firm beneath our feet that we for­get its existence.”

The dan­ger of such for­get­ful­ness is now appar­ent from any num­ber of cau­tion­ary tales, most recently Eliz­a­beth Wurtzel’s melt­down in the pages of New York mag­a­zine. “I was alone in a lonely apart­ment with only a stalker to show for my accom­plish­ments and my years,” writes the best­selling author of Prozac Nation and grad­u­ate of Yale Law School, now in her mid-40s. “I have no hus­band, no chil­dren, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no invest­ments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emer­gency fund—I don’t even have a sav­ings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present.”

And should this exam­ple not be suf­fi­ciently chill­ing, we also have the object lessons of once high-flying Oprah-endorsed celebri­ties brought low by finan­cial mis­steps. Most vis­i­ble among these is Sarah Ban Breath­nach, author of the block­buster Sim­ple Abun­dance: A Day­book of Com­fort and Joy, Oprah’s favorite book of the year for 1996. After mak­ing a for­tune pro­claim­ing the joys of sim­ple liv­ing, Breath­nach went on a spend­ing spree, with pur­chases includ­ing Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in Eng­land and Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s furs. She ended up with noth­ing. (While Sim­ple Abun­dance spent years on best­seller lists, her Decem­ber 2010 come­back effort—Peace and Plenty: Find­ing Your Way to Finan­cial Seren­ity—is ranked 396,776 on as of this writing.)

My own story lacks both the highs and the lows of either Wurtzel’s or Breathnach’s— after pub­lish­ing two books and strug­gling with a third, I ulti­mately made my way back into the paid workforce—but look­ing back, I see a sim­i­lar thread. I too had a ten­dency to see the present as pre­lude, to live as if suc­cess, once achieved, laid the ground­work for the future. (Which is true to some extent and in some ways but not to the extent or in the ways that some of us seemed to assume.)

All of which goes to explain my inter­est in a trend that I’ve taken to call­ing Fol­low Your Heart 2.0. In this iter­a­tion, we no longer have a stark dichotomy between ide­al­ism and prac­ti­cal­ity. Rather, the new model rec­og­nizes that con­tent­ment gen­er­ally requires sta­bil­ity as well as pas­sion. It’s Fol­low Your Heart remixed for the 21st century.

An espe­cially clear for­mu­la­tion of what I’m talk­ing about appears in The Start-up of You, a book by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man and co-author Ben Cas­nocha. The pair urge their read­ers to con­sider three inter­lock­ing pieces when mak­ing work-related deci­sions: Assets, aspi­ra­tions and val­ues, and mar­ket real­i­ties. Assets are the resources we bring to the table—our tal­ents, edu­ca­tion, and skills, as well as our bank accounts. The other two cat­e­gories are pretty much what they sound like.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the authors aren’t telling read­ers to for­get about their dreams. Rather, they’re say­ing that dreams exist within a larger frame­work. Depend­ing on your goals–and depend­ing on your needs–context, includ­ing the mar­ket, may be crit­i­cally impor­tant. “Of course, it’s worth men­tion­ing that [her] pas­sion is mobile pay­ment sys­tems,” Work Stew blog­ger Kate Gace Wal­ton remarked dryly of one suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur. All dreams are not cre­ated equal.

For those of us with ample stocks of edu­ca­tion and social cap­i­tal, the late 90s econ­omy was for­giv­ing and often fun. Risks were not so risky. You could always get a job. The econ­omy circa 2013 is a very dif­fer­ent place. “$100,000 is the new $300,000,” one lit­er­ary agent remarked to me, shortly after the Great Reces­sion began. Five years later, it seems increas­ingly unlikely that we’re ever going back.

More and more, I’m see­ing Fol­low Your Heart 2.0 infuse the pop­u­lar conversation—and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s appar­ent in Marci Alboher’s excel­lent new Encore Career Hand­book, which acknowl­edges the crit­i­cal role that finances play in mak­ing a tran­si­tion to more mean­ing­ful work in the sec­ond half of life. It’s also cen­tral to Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Pas­sion in the Quest for Work You Love, which makes the case that pas­sion most often fol­lows hard work and suc­cess, not the reverse.

As for me, I’m older and wiser (I think), but I still have a strong inner sense of direc­tion, and I strug­gle when cir­cum­stances chan­nel my ener­gies into other things. For many of us, work that feels mean­ing­ful is a big part of what makes life worth­while, and there may be times when pur­su­ing that is worth almost any sac­ri­fice.  But today, the stakes are dif­fer­ent, maybe higher, for many of us. Happy end­ings are harder to come by. Uncer­tainty is guaranteed.

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons


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.