My Life Plan is to Have No Life Plan

As an anxious introvert, I love planning and loathe surprises. Unexpected changes, even if they’re good, can throw all of my plans and to-do lists out the window. Planning makes my serotonin-starved brain happy in a way that few other things can, and I’ve gotten really good at it.

Which is why it’s so unsettling to not have an answer to the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Planning for a life I no longer had

Not having huge life goals never bothered me until a couple years ago, when a former boss really started pressing the subject. The pressure came from a caring place, and it distressed me to be asked the same question over and over again, and still not have an answer.

So I started trying. I thought about where I was at the time (professionally, personally) and tried to think of places/situations I might want to find myself in down the road. What mattered most to me? Where did I “see myself” in five years?

I was in the middle of trying to come up with my Grand Life Plan when my current life went tits up — so for awhile, my only goal was finding a job that could pay the bills.

Then, just when I thought I’d found something that would not only pay well but also give me room to grow, it fell apart as well. This collapse wasn’t as catastrophic, but it yanked me back almost to the same place I had been just a few months previously. Plus now I was angry.

Fuck the Grand Life Plan. What had it ever done for me? Here was all this societal pressure to “choose a career,” this magical path that would take me to…what, exactly? Financial stability? Professional fulfillment? Happiness? I had none of these things, plus I had seen any plans I had crumble right in front of me. How the hell was I supposed to plan for five years from now when couldn’t even say what I’d be doing tomorrow?

Ditch the Grand Life Plan

It was around this time that I heard one of my favorite former college professors say something incredible:

I hear too many people saying, ‘Well, I need to know what I’m gonna do with the rest of my life.’ Nope. Just the next few years, and then it’s gonna take you somewhere. I think you may have been given the impression that you decide on a career and then you have that career the rest of your life, and everything falls into place like dominoes. That’s kind of a huge lie.

It feels like you’re supposed to everything that you’re supposed to do, and you’re supposed to have a life plan. Ditch the idea that you have to know what you’re gonna do. You have to start looking for opportunities and next steps that will take you to a place that you like better than where you are now. And after that, it’s always that kind of, ‘What now? Where are there opportunities? How do I advance?’

Hearing this was a revelation. It had never occurred to me that changing jobs was anything but total failure, a sign that I wasn’t strong enough to stick with something, even if I didn’t like it and it wasn’t what I wanted.

I’m not sure where this belief in a single lifelong career comes from. Maybe it’s something I picked up in school (“You need to do well so you can go to college and then get a good job”), or from my family (“What do you want to be when you grow up?”).

I don’t fault the people in my life for saying and asking these things — they wanted me to be able to take care of myself and be successful — but I think it’s time to adjust how I respond to them, and how I do my own life planning.

My plan is no plan

I don’t know exactly what I want, so I took my professor’s advice and searched for “opportunities and next steps” that would take me to a place that I would like better than where I was. It took me about six months, and fortunately I think I’ve found that place.

During the interview process I was confronted with my favorite question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I said I didn’t know, and that I preferred it that way. I want to leave things open-ended, give myself the chance to see what all my opportunities are — there’s probably something out there that’s a million times more exciting than anything I could plan for myself. Why risk missing out on that by making something as practical as a five-year plan?

This fits in nicely with my attempts at focus and presence, and I believe is helping my tired, hamster-wheel riding brain finally find some measure of peace.

I don’t know where I’ll be in five years (or even one), and for once I’m not freaking out about it. And that’s pretty damn awesome.

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Review: Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails

Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails, Tom WheelerEvery day we send billions of emails, countless text message, and use the internet to access news and information. It’s difficult to imagine a world in which instant communication does not exist. But it wasn’t really that long ago when getting anything but the most local of news required waiting weeks or months for a newspaper or a traveler to arrive in town.

When the first telegraph was sent in 1844, most people considered it a marvelous but impractical technology. The signal couldn’t travel far without help, it required installing thousands of miles of tubes, and there simply wasn’t any information that was so important that it needed to be transmitted quickly.

It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that the true power of the telegraph would become clear: our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, would use it to help win the American Civil War.

“What God hath wrought!”

Much like his presidency, Lincoln’s experience with the telegraph began on a low note: he sent fewer than 20 telegrams in 1861, preferring to communicate by mail (even during the Fort Sumter conflict).

But as the war dragged on and Lincoln found himself saddled with incompetent military leadership, he began using the new “lightning messages” to direct his generals and the movement of the Union Army in a way his predecessors could never have imagined.

It’s no secret that I love Abraham Lincoln. Not only did he struggle with the same anxiety I do, I think his leadership style is something we should emulate (seriously, read Team of Rivals and then tell me bipartisan cooperation is impossible). It was so fun to read more about this specific aspect of his leadership.

At its root, Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails is a deep analysis of Lincoln’s leadership method — known today as “Management-by-Walking-Around” — and the three stages of his use of the telegraph to lengthen his reach.

Author Tom Wheeler describes these stages in detail, showing how Lincoln relied on telegrams (as well as letters and in-person visits) to speak to his generals, keep track of their conversations with each other, and suggest battle strategies and troop movements. Never before had a president been in such close, constant contact with his military leadership.

It’s also likely, states Wheeler, that part of the reason the Confederacy lost the war was because they were unable to take advantage of the same near-real-time communications Lincoln and the Union Army were. The Southern states believed in autonomy, even from each other, and so avoided adding the amount of telegraph stations and tubes installed by the Northern states. They simply couldn’t communicate as efficiently across the Confederacy as their enemy could across the Union.

Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails is an intriguing look at Lincoln and how he adapted to and harnessed a new medium during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

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Writing Prompt #4: Puzzle

Writing Prompt(This month’s writing prompt is Puzzle: Write about putting together the pieces of a puzzle.)

Emily sat down across from her grandmother at the rickety kitchen table, box in hand.

“What are you doing, Miss Priss?” asked her grandmother, using one of Emily’s pet names.

Emily smiled as she slipped the lid off the box.

“I’m going to put together this puzzle. Can you help me?” She tilted the box to the side, easing the pieces out onto the red plastic tablecloth. Together she and her grandmother turned all the pieces right-side up, spreading them out so they were easier to see and sort.

“What is this a picture of?” Emily’s grandmother asked, reaching for the puzzle lid.

“A pretty farm scene,” Emily responded, skimming the table in search of corner pieces. “It’s one of those Thomas Kinkade ones. Mom got it for you for Christmas.”

Her grandmother looked at the lid for a minute, then set it upright so they both could see it.

“Goodness, that’s pretty. Where did it come from?”

Emily paused in her search, then continued.

“It’s yours. Mom bought it for you last Christmas. I saw it in the guest room and thought we should put it it together while I’m here.”

“That’s a good idea. You always were my smartest grandchild,” her grandmother said, reaching for a piece of farmhouse.

“I’m your only grandchild, Grandmother,” Emily laughed. Her grandmother’s eyes twinkled.

“That doesn’t make it any less true. Where did your granddaddy go?”

Emily set a few pieces in front of her grandmother.

“These look like they belong to the farmhouse. Granddaddy went to feed the pigs.”

“That’s right, he told me that before he left,” her grandmother said, fitting pieces together to complete the farmhouse.

The pair worked quietly together for a few minutes, Emily’s grandmother whistling absentmindedly as she searched for pieces of a bridge and footpath. Emily recognized the old hymn and began singing; her grandmother’s voice came in on the alto part and they sang a few verses together.

“I like singing with you,” Emily said after the last verse.

Her grandmother patted her arm.

“I like singing with you too,” the older woman said, picking up another piece of the bridge. “Now where could your granddaddy be? We’re supposed to go to town today.”

“We went this morning, remember?” asked Emily, snapping a chunk of the footpath to her grandmother’s bridge section. “We got back before lunch and now he’s feeding the pigs.”

“Oh. I knew that, I just forgot,” her grandmother said, then put down her puzzle piece and leaned back in her chair. “I know I ask a lot of questions. I just can’t ever remember.”

Emily reached across the table, took hold of her grandmother’s hand, and squeezed gently.

“That’s okay, Grandmother. You know we don’t mind answering. Would you like a Coke?”

Her grandmother nodded. Emily squeezed her hand one more time, then got up and grabbed a glass from the cabinet. She dropped in a few ice cubes, then grabbed a Diet Coke from the pantry. She set the glass down next to her grandmother’s elbow, popped open the can, and poured some over the ice.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” her grandmother said after taking a sip. She looked down at the puzzle, running a finger over the now-completed farmhouse, bridge, and footpath. “This is a beautiful puzzle. Where did we get it?”

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Review: Sorrow’s Knot

Sorrow's Knot, Erin BowThe hamlet of Westmost sits at the edge of the world — beyond its wards, dark things creep. For many years it has been Willow’s responsibility to bind the dead, and to keep the restless spirits from harming the living.

Otter, Willow’s only child, has always known that she will become a binder like her mother. It will be up to her to protect the Shadowed People — including her friends Kestrel and Cricket — from the horrors around them.

Something is wrong in Westmost. Willow’s power is legendary, but her abilities are turning backwards, turning inward and backfiring. The wards surrounding the village begin to fail, and Otter doesn’t have the training to repair them.

And then, for the first time in generations, a White Hand steps forth from the darkness. Its touch is poison, turning the limbs white and quickly driving the victim insane. The village is in danger, but Otter cannot save them. Will Westmost’s deliverance come from the wards that have protected them for hundreds of years, or will Otter have to seek salvation beyond where the world ends?

Good, but not great

Sorrow’s Knot earned the Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2014, and I can see why: it’s a good novel. The plot is tight, most of the characters feel real, and the magical precepts are intriguing.

That said, it just wasn’t one of my favorites. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a couple weeks, you know that excellent world building is my jam — and poor world building is an enjoyment killer.

That’s where I think Sorrow’s Knot falls a little flat. The world building, while detailed, is never really very clear. Who are the Shadowed People, how do their magical knots and wards work, why is Westmost populated almost entirely by women? The reader has to make a lot of inferences; not a bad thing, but I think the author forced me to infer things she could have explained outright — and explained outright some things I would have liked to infer on my own.

Erin Bow’s novel is full of strong female characters, fascinating magic, and a twist that forces Otter to confront her deepest-held beliefs. Plus I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a crush on Cricket. Sorrow’s Knot won’t make it onto my list of favorite reads this year, but it’s worth a look if you enjoy thoughtful YA fantasy.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. April’s challenge was to read a book that’s won recognition or a literary award.)

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The Long Drive: Podcasts I Can’t Stop Listening To

The Long DriveLike the breathtakingly uncool person I am, I’ve only just recently gotten into podcasts — possibly a little too into them. I listen to them while getting ready in the morning, while driving to and from work, during my evening coloring sessions, and any other time I can squeeze them in.

Listening to podcasts gives me the opportunity to learn (my favorite thing), laugh, and keep up with news and trends. I’m currently subscribed to 12 podcasts, and want to share a bit about my favorites here. All of these are well worth a subscribe!

The Way I Heard It, Mike RoweThe Way I Heard It with Mike Rowe

I’ve had a huge crush on Mike Rowe since the early days of his show Dirty Jobs. He’s smart, funny, seems like a genuinely nice guy, and I am a huge fan of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation’s mission. So when Rowe announced he was launching a podcast, I knew it was something I should look into.

The Way I Heard It claims to be “the only podcast for the curious mind with a short attention span.” Episodes are less than 10 minutes long (often closer to five), and have a Paul Harvey The Rest of the Story feel to them. Rowe is an excellent storyteller, introducing listeners to fascinating information about historical and cultural figures they thought they knew. The episodes are bite-sized, well-crafted, and fun. Give it a listen right now on Rowe’s website.

SawbonesSawbones

With a subtitle like A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine, who wouldn’t want to subscribe? This podcast was recommended to me by my fabulous friend Lauren — we roomed together in college and it’s kind of scary how well she knows me and my taste in weird medical crap.

Sawbones is hosted by Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin, and focuses on the history of medicine and all the ridiculous things humanity has done in an effort to prevent, treat, and cure illnesses. Not only is it interesting, it’s also hysterically funny — Justin in particular has a great sense of humor, and plays an excellent “dumb guy” against Sydnee’s clearly well-researched medical knowledge. My husband and I listened to several episodes on a recent long car trip, and they kept us laughing the whole way. Check out Sawbones online now.

Ask Me AnotherAsk Me Another

I subscribe to several NPR podcasts, and Ask Me Another is currently my favorite. Contestants and special guests (VIPs, or Very Important Puzzlers) solve puzzles, play word games, and answer trivia questions. The games are smart, the guests are funny and interesting, and I enjoy yelling out answers in the car on my commute. Listen to Ask Me Another on NPR’s website.

LimetownLimetown

“Ten years ago, over three hundred men, women and children disappeared from a small town in Tennessee, never to be heard from again. In this seven-part podcast, American Public Radio host Lia Haddock asks the question once more, ‘What happened to the people of Limetown?’”

Okay, I’m cheating a bit here because I haven’t actually started Limetown yet. But I’m so excited to get started! Not only because it sounds like a good mystery, but also because of the podcast’s format: it’s a fictional story set up to sound like a “ripped from the headlines” tale of an investigative reporter becoming obsessed with discovering the truth. The whole thing’s already aired, so you can listen to all of Limetown online here.

Honorable mentions

Other podcasts I’m loving and think you will too:

  • StarTalk Radio – Hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson (and Bill Nye filling in occasionally), who does a great job of explaining some incredibly complex scientific concepts. Fantastic guest interviews.
  • Note to Self – Interesting intersections between tech and real life, and balancing the two.
  • Sorta Awesome – A little bit of everything, most of it falling in the “people are looking for ways to live better and happier” category. Very positive, interesting, silly, and fun.

What’s your favorite podcast?

I’m the last person hopping onto this bandwagon, so I know you’ve already got some favorite podcasts. Let me know what they are in the comments so I can subscribe, too!

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