What I’ve learned from following my bliss (straight into the wall)

I Dream of Empty Chairs

I arrived home last night to a great surprise via Google alerts: Plan B Nation—described as “a smart blog by writer and lawyer Amy Gutman on ‘Iiving creatively in challenging times’”—had been dubbed Website of the Week on the SecondAct blog.

Woo hoo!

There’s something especially sweet about recognition that comes out-of-the-blue, and I quickly shared the news with my wonderful friends, who were duly delighted for me.

“That is fabulous—congratulations,” exclaimed one lovely Facebook pal. “As says Joseph Campbell, Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

On the one hand, I loved the sentiment. On the other, I had to laugh. I can’t count the number of times when no such thing has happened. I’m living proof that you can follow your bliss headlong into a wall.

It’s true that in recent months, my life has been on the upswing—I’ve been picking up paying work and this blog (which I love writing) has been featured on New England NPR and otherwise gathering steam. But it’s also true that I’m just emerging from two quite difficult years. And I got there (just as I got here) by trying to follow my heart, my bliss, or whatever you want to call it.

I use the word trying for a reason. We often talk as if it’s easy to know the right thing to do, you just need the courage to do it. I don’t quite see it that way. To me, the whole process of charting next steps is endlessly mysterious (as well as endlessly fascinating).

For example:  How do we know that we’re listening to some true, higher, authentic self (assuming that such a thing even exists, which, as I’ve written before, is subject to debate) as opposed to internalized parental tapes or other conditioning?

The best answer I’ve ever gotten to this question (which I’ve asked more times than I care to count) came from Stephen Cope, author of the terrific Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. What he proposed—and this was a long time ago, so I may not have it exactly right—is to focus on two questions:

1. Is this desire one that has stayed with you over time?

2. How does your body—your physical self—respond to this desire?

Over the years, I’ve referred to these questions a lot, and I’m pretty sure they’ve helped.

Still, as I think back over decades of decision making, it strikes me that my more problematic choices have stemmed not from a failure to consult my heart but rather from careening between extremes.  

Not happy being a newspaper reporter in rural Mississippi? Fine! Why don’t you go to Harvard Law School and then practice corporate law in Manhattan?

Not happy practicing corporate law in Manhattan? Fine! Why don’t you quit your job and study yoga and write mystery novels?

And so on.

It’s not that any of these choices were inherently bad ones—I liked law school. I had fun writing thrillers. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do any and all of these things—just  that they probably weren’t the shortest or simplest path to a stable and sustaining life.

Those who follow a macrobiotic diet believe that when we eat extreme Yin foods (sugar, alcohol) we crave extreme Yang foods (red meat, eggs).  It’s best to avoid such foods, they say, as we are healthiest when we mainly eat foods at the middle of the Yin/Yang spectrum.

Similarly, I’ve come to think that I make better decisions when I’m operating from a baseline of equanimity, not when I’m attempting to race from one peak experience to the next. You might say I’ve adopted a macrobiotic theory of life.

In the end, though, I don’t really see any way around the fact that life is essentially messy and unpredictable, regardless of what we do. It gets bad, then it gets better, then it gets worse, then it gets really really great, and then it sucks, then it’s okay for a while. You can follow your bliss to . . . well, bliss, or follow it into a wall. If you live a long and full life, you’ll likely do both more than once.

Why Newt Gingrich is my new role model

Newt Gingrich  For President 2012

While I’d never in a zillion years vote for Newt Gingrich, I’m awestruck—and more than a little inspired—by his seemingly limitless capacity to bounce back from defeat.

I mean, think about it: This is a guy who not-so-long-ago was dubbed the most hated man in America, the only house speaker ever to be sanctioned by its members.  As recently as last month, his presidential campaign was floundering, polling in the single digits following his campaign staff’s mass exodus the previous June. Pundits pronounced game over.

And yet today, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, he is widely viewed as a frontrunner, playing hare to Mitt Romney’s tortoise as they vie for the lead in the Republican field.

Mulling over the latest Gingrich comeback, I couldn’t help comparing his Wile E. Coyote-esque resurgence to my own tendency to give up—sometimes even before I start.

One recent case in point: I almost didn’t start this blog. For one thing, I was convinced I’d start, and wouldn’t find any readers. This would be depressing and a little embarrassing.  I recalled the words of a college classmate now a famously successful (if curmudgeonly) writer: “You know the average number of readers of a blog? One!”  Who was I to think that I could add to the conversation?

This is not, to put it mildly, how Newt Gingrich thinks. Newt Gingrich is convinced that he has something to offer the world. And if you don’t agree with him, it’s your problem not his.

In fairness, this sort of against-the-odds confidence is far easier to come by if you’re a narcissist or a sociopath or trend towards bipolar mania. There’s a brilliant scene in Gary Trudeau’s presidential campaign mockumentary Tanner ’88 where a seasoned political reporter educates a younger colleague on this point. “We’re talking about someone who wants to be the most powerful person on the planet,” he says. “We’re not talking well balanced.”  (I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but you get the idea.)

That being said, those of us living in Plan B Nation have a special need for the sort of chutzpah demonstrated by Gingrich and his ilk. We live in an era where positive reinforcements are in increasingly short supply.  Perhaps for the first time ever, we’re facing repeated rejections and setbacks in our professional lives. We have to find ways to keep going when it feels more sensible to give up.

A primary goal of this blog is to identify concrete strategies that help us do just that. For me, a supportive community has been a big piece of this. I’ve also found it helps to make an effort to keep an open mind, to remind myself that I really don’t know where the events in my life are leading.

And now I have another strategy to add to my arsenal. The next time, I’m feeling like a failure, struggling to move on, I’m going to sit down and ask myself: “What would Newt Gingrich do?”

Why you should stop telling me what to do

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Let me be clear: By “you,” I do not mean you, lovely reader of this blog, but the “yous” who’ve felt obliged to tell me elsewhere that I’m screwing up my life.  And by “me” I do not mean me alone but all of us sharing our tender, uncertain, sometimes-painful stories in the larger blogosphere.

In particular, I’m thinking back to comments sparked by the guest post I wrote for the Wall Street Journal’s “Laid Off and Looking” blog in my early days of unemployment.

In this post—which ran just a few hundred words—I talked about the possible upside of losing my job. Mind you, I acknowledged the anxiety and risk but I also admitted to a certain excitement about embarking on what I described as The Next Big Challenge.

Here are two typical responses:

“Get real folks and stop dreaming. I stopped dreaming a long time ago, and it’s better now because I don’t get let down each and every day.”

“If you’re laid back and irresponsible, then the bills don’t mean a thing to you. Well we’re not blessed with being the laid-back type who don’t give a damn about doing what’s right.”

In fairness, there were many positive comments. Still, I found myself intrigued by the vitriol heaped on this little post by those for whom it hit a nerve.

As I pondered the dynamic, I found myself thinking about risk tolerance—a topic all-too-often left out of the job search conversation.

We frequently seem to assume a one-size-fits-all answer to questions such as: “Should I do everything in my power to keep the job I have, or should I read the writing on the wall and accept the offered package?”

In fact, risk tolerance varies with the individual. Without knowing where a questioner falls on the spectrum, it’s impossible to offer sound advice.

If you have a mortgage, kids, and are a few paychecks away from financial crisis, your risk tolerance—and thus your “right” answers—will differ from those of someone without those obligations who has a financial cushion.

If you’re comfortable with uncertainty, your answers will be different from those of someone who freaks out if they can’t predict what they’ll be doing a year from Monday.

This isn’t because one person is right and the other is wrong: It’s because people have different obligations, different temperaments, different levels of risk tolerance.  Our risk tolerance is ours alone.  It’s not a moral virtue, a settled fact—it’s simply our situation.

And for the record, I’m happy to say that I’m doing fine now. The decisions I made two-plus years ago were—for me—the right ones.  My search for work is now paying off, in part thanks to this blog.  I’ve also had a chance to grow in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’d be lying if I said that this was the path I would have chosen. But while these aren’t the experiences I would have picked, I can’t say that I regret them.

Do the wrong thing

BSOD 0x07B

I spent last Friday working (for pay), and this week I have phone calls with two more prospective clients.

As you likely know if you read this blog, this is an excellent development, as I’ve been in search of employment for, well, a while now.  Being an analytical sort, I’ve been giving some thought to how this came about (the theory being that, whatever it is, I should do more of it).  My conclusion: I should stop doing things right and keep doing things wrong.

If I were to offer a work-search road map based on my recent success, it would look something like this:

1.  Make a big deal about the fact that you are among the long-term unemployed. Tell everyone you know. Better yet: Find a national platform where you can broadcast this news to the world. No one will hire me! This sucks! You get the idea.

2.  Once you have succeeded in spreading word of your unemployability, do something to up the stakes. For example, you might consider telling everyone you know about your struggle with alcohol and how going public with unemployment reminds you of the first time you attended an AA meeting. Again, this is best done in the most public way possible—ideally on a national platform.

3.  Start slacking off a bit on your job search. Spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Go to the movies. Again, do your best to tell everyone you know that no one will hire you and that this has been the case for a long time.  Actually, don’t limit yourself to people you know—go up to strangers, introduce yourself, and try to work this into conversation.

4.  When the publicity around your unemployment starts to die down—if you’ve done things right, hundreds if not thousands of people will have been informed of your futile search for work—find a way to keep it in the spotlight. You might consider starting a blog about how no one will hire you. Update it regularly and post links to Facebook and Twitter so that strangers as well as friends become aware of your dilemma.

5.  Repeat the above as often as possible.

Okay, this is partly tongue in cheek, but really, only partly. The fact is, both my recent freelance project and one of my new work leads came from people who read this blog and the two much-discussed essays I previously published in Salon. The second lead came from a former neighbor I bumped into at the movies.  (This same friend has also become a terrific source of support and guidance for this blog.)

Before going public with my unemployment—you might even say I’ve made it my “brand”—I spent a good number of months following traditional job search guidelines:  Recognize that if you’re unemployed you’re at a disadvantage, so do your best to obscure this fact. Write enticing cover letters. Hone your interview skills.

Now, this is fine advice, great so far as it goes. At the same time, it clearly has its limits.  As for me, I’ve concluded that the time has come to diversify my strategies. There’s a place for doing everything right. And there’s a place for doing things wrong.

Searching for meaning in Plan B Nation

Searching the Ox  -  I

Earlier this week, I wrote about how much happier I’ve been since moving back to my beloved Northampton roughly a year ago. While I feared this would be just a temporary boost, I’m pleased to report that it’s proven far more satisfying and delightfully sustaining.

At the same time, the past year has (not surprisingly) brought new challenges. Apartment hunting, negotiating a lease, finding movers, packing—these practical tasks amounted to a full-time job that left me little time for worrying about larger and more amorphous questions such as What am I doing with my life? Once I’d landed on the other side, however, they soon reclaimed center stage.

Regardless of where you go for guidance—psychologists, religious leaders, sociologists, friends—pretty much everyone will tell you that purpose is a key ingredient for a satisfying life.

In his celebrated 1946 Holocaust memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl went so far as to say that this search is our primary motivation in life. But while the principle may be a simple one, putting it into practice can be far more complicated—and in circumstances far less dire than Frankl’s Nazi death camp. Frankl himself recognized this in a preface to the book’s 1984 edition, where he glumly concluded: “I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”

If anything our hunger for meaning has only grown more desperate since Frankl penned those words. There may be periods of our lives—sometimes long periods—when we don’t give it much thought. The big questions are (temporarily) settled. The big decisions are made. What remains is execution, the living out of their implications through the days and years.

At other times, however, the big questions are right in our face—and, more and more that’s the case for those of us living in Plan B Nation.  More and more, we’re drop-kicked into unfamiliar situations, left to make major decisions without meaningful guidance.  Our parents’ rules for decision-making no longer seem to apply. Friends give conflicting advice. Depending on our spiritual outlook, we may pray or look inward for guidance, but often we still find ourselves completely at a loss—at a loss and anxious.

Perhaps my favorite description of this muddled state comes from a short story by the peerless Lorrie Moore. Describing a baffled protagonist, she writes, “She hadn’t been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She’d been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told, ‘There you go.’”

A can of gravy and a hairbrush.

I can so relate.

In the first decade of the new millennium, an evangelical pastor named Rick Warren tapped into this motherlode of anguished confusion with The Purpose Driven Life, now billed as “the bestselling nonfiction hardback book in history.” (The Bible, presumably, is entirely factual so not in the running here.)

While I was raised as a Congregationalist I’ve spent little time in churches in my adulthood—except for a brief foray into Episcopalianism. (“We’re Unitarians who like liturgy,” our priest once said, describing those drawn to this small and decidedly creative church.) Still, I couldn’t help but be curious, so I ordered myself a copy.

The (trademark registered) Purpose Driven Life is described as a “40-day spiritual journey” that “will transform your life.”  Warren urges us to read no more than one of the 40 chapters each day, but I decided that a single afternoon would have to suffice.  After all, I didn’t plan to do the program, I just wanted to get a sense of what it’s about—and indeed, it took just a few chapters to grasp its appeal.

Warren claims The Purpose Driven Life is not a self-help book, but while his understanding of the genre may differ from mine, it strikes me as exactly that. In fairness, I found much with which to agree. In his anti-materialism, his belief in the paramount importance of relationships over things, Warren’s is a counter-cultural voice, exhorting us to care for the planet as well as for each other. To that extent, I’m with him.

This only takes me a short way, though, and I’m soon baffled by Warren’s blithe presumption that all we need to do is listen.

Warren’s God speaks with unmistakable clarity. The problem isn’t that we can’t hear God but that we refuse to obey him.

“If God asked you to build a giant boat, don’t you think you might have a few questions, objections, or reservations?” Warren asks his readers, contrasting our imagined obstinacy with Noah’s eagerness to get right on that ark.

And that’s where he loses me.

Because the thing is, if God were speaking to me—and I knew for sure that this was God—I’m pretty sure I’d be fine with building whatever boat he (or she) wanted. And I’m pretty sure the same would be true for most anyone reading the book. (Or at least almost anyone: My friend Jennifer—a law professor—insists she would indeed take issue with this heavenly directive, explaining she’s not trained in ark-building, though she’d gladly write a paper.)

But this doesn’t seem to be how God usually speaks, even to those of us desperate for guidance.

Not that we don’t wish he did.

I’m reminded of a scene in The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s National Book Award-winning 1960 novel. “Don’t you see?” the despairing Kate Cutrer asks her cousin Binx. “What I want is to believe in someone completely and then do what he wants me to do. If God were to tell me: Kate, here is what I want you to do; you get off this train right now and go over there to that corner by the Southern Life and Accident Insurance Company and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people—you think I would not do it? You think I would not be the happiest girl in Jackson, Mississippi? I would.”

For most of us, like Kate, clear direction often proves elusive, however much we long for it. That was certainly the case for renowned writer Dan Wakefield, a novelist, journalist and screenwriter who, after decades of atheism and hard living, rediscovered the religious faith of his youth. Some years later, he reconnected with a childhood friend, a woman from his hometown of Indianapolis (which also happens to be my hometown, but I digress).  After years of tumultuous relationships, Wakefield believed he was finally on the right path, on the road to which God had led him. The couple married.

And then, almost immediately, things fell apart.

In his soul-baring spiritual memoir How Do We Known When It’s God?, Wakefield reflects back on this painful time, writing: “The hubris of imagining we’ve ‘got it together,’ followed by a jolt of reality that plunges us back to earth, is probably one of the most familiar and often-traveled arcs of human experience. And yet we think each time, ‘This is different, this time I’ve really got it right.’”

Wakefield’s experience got me to thinking about how we go about pursuing our goals—how we decide what to do next. It’s all well and good to say, as the evangelical Warren does, that we should just do what God tells us—or some secular equivalent of this—but what does this really mean?  At the most basic, practical level, how do we go about this? And, most immediately, how should I go about it?

The notion that there exists some absolute truth to which we should look for guidance pervades American culture.  For Evangelical Christians like Warren, it’s God. For those of a more ecumenical bent, it may be Your True Self, Your Inner Voice, or some general force for good.

But not everyone buys such theories. Alongside the widespread view that there exists some pre-existing and essential truth is a less well-traveled but parallel track known as constructivism. As constructivists see it, the self is something that we create, not something that we find. Until we’ve constructed our self, there isn’t a self to consult. Until then, to paraphrase Harvard professor Robert Kegan, we’re no more than the collection of beliefs taken on from “important others”—parents, teachers, peers, celebrities, employers, to name just a view. And because these perspectives so often diverge, we often find ourselves in trouble—caught between conflicting demands with no way to choose between them.

Make a lot of money, but don’t overvalue material things.

Put yourself first, but also put your family first.

It’s important to look your best, but don’t think too much about how you look.

Be assertive but modest.

As the old saying goes, you can’t please everyone—and yet, without quite noticing, many of us in Plan B Nation can’t seem to stop ourselves from trying.

But while the constructivists’ theories make a lot of sense to me, they still leave the biggest question unanswered.  If we’re charged with “constructing” our selves, how do we best proceed?

I’ve spent much of the past year thinking—and reading—about this question, and more and more, I’m convinced that life in Plan B Nation isn’t something that can be planned or neatly charted out.

Rather, we need to “live into” our new lives—to discover our purpose through trying things out, regrouping, then trying again. The process isn’t linear. It’s often messy. But it’s also necessary.

And in fact, the process may not be all that different from how we’ve always lived.  After extensive research into successful mid-life career transitions, organizational behavior expert Herminia Ibarra concluded that the traditional “plan and implement” model is at odds with reality. Facing a major crossroads, would-be career changers often spend countless hours and dollars on counseling and batteries of standardized tests, all in the interests of determining what it is they really want.  In other words, first figure out what you want. Then go after it.

This all sounds pretty logical, except that, according to Ibarra, our lives don’t work that way. “We learn who we are—in practice, not in theory—by testing reality, not by looking inside,” she writes in Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.  “We discover the true possibilities by doing—trying out new activities, reaching out to new groups, finding new role models, and reworking our story as we tell it to those around us.”  

Over the past months, I’ve taken this advice to heart (in part because it appeals to me and in part because I don’t really see a whole lot of other options). I still feel pulled in multiple directions—at the time of this writing, I’m taking an introductory social work class, planning to teach a writing workshop, actively seeking full-time and freelance jobs, and contemplating taking the Massachusetts bar exam.  (In the dry words of one friend, “Amy, maybe you should consider monetizing your Harvard Law degree.”)

If this post seems longer than previous offerings, that’s because it is: Much of it was pulled from a book proposal that I may (or may not) be reworking.  As with so many other things: Time. Will. Tell. For now, one of the ways I’m finding meaning is through writing this blog.  And while I can’t say where it’s taking me, I’m sure enjoying the ride.

Good news? Bad news? Who knows?

Question mark

A few years back, while still working at Harvard Law School, I heard this story:

After weighing her options, a soon-to-graduate student turned down lucrative offers at prestigious law firms to accept a low-paying fellowship with a non-profit organization. This did not sit well with her family, who expected her to “do something” with her Harvard Law School degree.

Flash forward a few months: The Great Recession has hit. Both of her parents have lost their well-paying jobs. Classmates who’d thought their post-graduation lives were set are now seeing their law firm offers postponed or withdrawn. She alone, among her friends and family, is untouched by the crisis.

I’ve thought about this story a lot–and what it says to those of us navigating Plan B Nation. As I see it, the take-away is this: We never really know for sure where our choices will take us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t do our best to plan. It does mean that we are well-advised to keep an open mind about what events “mean.”

The past two years of my own life are a case in point.

After my Harvard Law School job ended in the wake of the Great Recession, I embarked on an exhaustive (and exhausting) search for paying work. At the time of this writing, I’ve long lost count of the dozens (hundreds?) of jobs for which I’ve applied. You see, my resume is impressive, but it’s also quirky. I’ve published suspense novels, written speeches for a Harvard Law School dean (now a U.S Supreme Court Justice), and designed a program to bring public school teachers to rural Mississippi. At the same time, I’m not a whiz with Excel or PowerPoint. Basically, I’m a writer, and as smart and talented as I may be, I don’t easily fit into an identifiable niche.

But here’s the thing. If I’d gotten any of the jobs I’d applied for (and believe me, I did my best) I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog, or the pieces for Huffington Post and Salon that paved the way for it. And these essays that I’m writing now—they feel important. Hard as the road to this point has been (and you’ll be hearing much more about that), right at this moment the life I’m living feels deeply meaningful.

One of my meditation teachers told this classic story:

There once was a poor rice farmer, who had a very small field just large enough to feed his family.

Then one day a herd of wild horses came running through the village. They ran into the farmer’s rice field and got stuck in the mud, and since they couldn’t get away, they were his.

His neighbor came running over and said, “This is good news! Such good fortune! You are rich, this is amazing!” And the rice farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A few weeks later the farmer’s 12-year-old son jumped up on one of the wild horses for a ride, only to be thrown off and have his leg broken. The neighbor comes running over and says, “Oh no, this is such bad news!” And the farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A week later a Chinese general is marching through the farmer’s village on the way to war. On this march, the army is conscripting every healthy boy over 10 years of age. So they took every boy in the village except the farmer’s son because of his broken leg.

The neighbor comes running over and says, “Yes! This is wonderful news, how lucky are we!” And the father replies, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

And the fact is we never do.

Failing at something you don’t really want—even if you think you do—may be a step on the path to a wonderful life you can’t even imagine today.

Good news, bad news, who knows?

Since we can’t know what the future holds, why not keep an open mind?