5 great guidebooks for Plan B Nation

Compass Inlay

When venturing into territories unknown, the more knowledge, the better. We need to understand the terrain, the weather, and likely dangers. We need to equip ourselves with maps, proper clothing, and medications.

Just as I’ve relied on guidebooks to navigate foreign countries, I’ve also turned to expert guidance for my Plan B Nation travels. While every journey is unique, it helps to be prepared. In this spirit, here are five guidebooks I recommend stashing away.

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, by Martha Beck (Crown 2001)

There’s lots to love about this book by Oprah darling Martha Beck, which has the advantage of being super funny as well as super smart. Beck writes a lot about resolving the conflict between what she refers to as our social and essential selves, but to my mind, the aspect of the book most useful to us Plan B Nation voyagers is her elaboration of the so-called Change Cycle, a structure that underlies every life transition. While Beck’s isn’t the first popular book about adult life transitions — William Bridges’ modern classic Transitions came out in 1980 – I’ve found her model especially helpful and, even more, reassuring.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein (Yale 2008)

In this book, professors Thaler and Sunstein – pioneers in the field of behavioral economics – start with the idea that human beings are not rational. We make decisions for a whole bunch of reasons, many of which have little to do with our real best interests. This is why we need to pay close attention to the “choice architecture” of our lives – the external conditions that nudge us to behave in certain ways. For example, if I don’t buy ice cream, the choice architecture now in place makes it far less likely that I’ll  devour a pint of Ben & Jerry’s while watching “The Bachelorette.”  Make sense?  Like many profoundly important ideas, the concept of choice architecture is at heart a simple one, but paying attention to it day by day can be transformative.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck (Random House 2007)

For those of us accustomed to a world where effort brings results, Plan B Nation can be enormously demoralizing. How to surmount the danger of learned helplessness, the tendency to give up when our best efforts fall short, sometimes again and again?  I found part of the answer to this question in Stanford psychologist Dweck’s distinction between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.  As Dweck explains it, if we have a fixed mindset, we tend to believe that our successes and failures reflect something absolute about who we are. On the other hand, if we have the healthier “growth mindset,” we are able to view challenges as opportunities to learn, improve, and transform. “This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives,” says Dweck – underscoring why it’s such a critical asset in Plan B Nation.

Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach (Bantam 2003)

If you want to drive yourself nuts, start thinking about how things (most notably, yourself) should be different from how they are. You should have made different choices. You should have said different things. You should have married (or not married) that guy/girl you didn’t (or did).  Brach’s Buddhist-infused psychology is a perfect antidote to such self-imposed suffering, offering techniques for breaking out of what she calls our “trance of unworthiness” in the context of illuminating personal stories. “Radical Acceptance means bringing a clear, kind attention to our capacities and limitations without giving our fear-based stories the power to shut down our lives,” she writes. Over the years, I’ve recommended this book countless times, and if you haven’t read it yet, you have a treat in store.

Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business School 2003)

This is, without a doubt, my all-time favorite career book. Its message: The idea that you can (and should) figure out what you want to do then simply go out and do it is hogwash.  Rather, research shows that successful mid-career changers – the research demographic that informs the book — live their way into new lives through a process of trial-and-error experimentation. Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior, illustrates her points with compelling case studies and concludes with a series of nine “unconventional strategies” employed by successful career changers. I go back to this book again and again and can’t recommend it more highly.

Do you have titles to add to this list?  Please share them in the comment section.

When goals collide

scream and shout

A friend’s two-year-old once pitched a tantrum on a stairway landing between two floors of the family home.

What provoked the meltdown? Once the furious howls subsided, he choked out the following explanation: He wanted to be upstairs with his dad and downstairs with his mom. He wanted both, at the same time. He didn’t want to choose.

I don’t know about you, but I can really relate. Especially, during the past few weeks, as I’ve gotten increasingly busy.  At any given moment, I’m conflicted about what I should be doing—and doing next. There are so many things that need to be done, all vying for my attention.

Such conflicts are especially common in times of transition, at least that’s true for me. Right now, I’m juggling freelance writing with blogging, leading a writing workshop for foster kids, and looking for more paying work. I’m also trying to organize my home—a task that’s especially pressing since my lease is up in a couple of months, at which point I’ll need to move. (Speaking of which, I’ll also need to find another place to live.) Also: resolve legal matters relating to the Plan B Nation trademark, prepare my 2011 taxes, help out a friend with cat care, and pack for a trip to Boston. Plus: Be happier!

Not surprisingly, such internal conflicts are fertile breeding grounds for dissatisfaction. In her mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert notes that Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most want in life.  If any item clashed with another, he warned them, they were destined for unhappiness.

But while this may be a sound observation, it doesn’t tell us how to deal with such conflicts when they arise in the course of daily life.  How do we best move forward while engaged in an internal tug of war?

While I don’t have a magic bullet (sorry!), I do have a few strategies that have helped me in the past, and to which I’m now resorting.  As is so often the case with this blog, I’m sharing what I need to remember.

1. There’s no “right” decision

Consider the situation. Decide on next steps. Once you’ve made an informed decision, do your best to ignore that voice that’s second-guessing you. That nagging sense that whatever you’re doing isn’t the “right” thing? It’s just not true.

2. Keep moving forwards

Some years back, at a similar point of overwhelm, I remarked to a wildly efficient friend that I was tempted to give in and simply do nothing at all.  He gave me a horrified look: “No, no,” he said. “That way lies madness!”  Which made me laugh, which is always a good thing. And besides, the point’s a good one.  A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, as the old saying goes.  For me, tracking progress is an essential strategy here.

3. Exercise

Sadly, I’m not one of those people who enjoys the actual experience of exercise, so I often let this one slide.  That being said, I always feel so much better after I’ve gotten moving that I’m determined to do better in making it a regular part of my life. In the meantime, as they say in 12-step programs: “Take my advice. I’m not using it.”

4. Say No

This is no time to add to your to-do list. Be ruthless (or as ruthless as you can be) about saying No. Need help? Read this.

5. Self-compassion

Simply put, give yourself a break. Recent research suggests that self-compassion is more effective than self-esteem in fostering contentment. Recognize that you’re in a tough situation and doing the best you can.  If you need some help in figuring out how to go about this, Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is a great starting point.

As I look ahead to the rest of the day, I still have that anxious feeling. Then I remind myself I’ve written this post. And that’s, at least, a start.