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

five

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?