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.