Without a Net

Life will force us into circumstances and places we may not always feel we fit. How we adapt and remain flexible, grateful, and also humble is crucial to not only our happiness but for our survival.
07/29/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2014

We each have our stories of survival, not that naked in the jungle stuff or enduring other extremely harsh conditions. I'm referring to the general modern-day survival so many of us deal with, particularly job searches, loss of job, work insecurity and economic uncertainty many people are currently facing -there's no shortage of adversity. The hardest challenge of all is coping with these difficulties while maintaining our balance, flexibility, and sense of humor.

For many of us, a major adventure of survival is a job search; our accomplishments and shortcomings are bared for scrutiny and the whole process can be downright scary. It's difficult to not ooze desperation and often we feel perplexed and try to find some sort of meaning in our struggle, as a way of seeking solace. The truth is, there isn't always some big mystical "why" to explain the reasons we lost a job, don't have a job in our chosen field, or have a job that isn't compensating us to our level of economic need or has cut our hours. It is what it is, and it's important to face our challenges moving forward, and not beat ourselves up over our losses.

You look at where you're going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you've been and a pattern seems to emerge.
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Psychologist Robert Wilkes calls directly engaging life's difficulties "riding the dragon." Engaging with challenges helps us live fully with truth, learn through failure and doubt, and to practice humility. Riding the dragon is living with uncertainty without a safety net, basically, because that is the nature of life. There are no guarantees of security for any of us, which can be pretty frightening to realize.

There is one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.--Laurence J. Peter

Where I'm Coming From

My life has straddled different economic worlds and I move like a shape-shifter through these disparate realms. Most recently, on my drive to work for the past two years, leaving my working-class suburb of Pittsburgh, and traversing through a grittier zone just on the edge of the city. From there, I entered a transitional area deep in the throes of renewal, and landed at the school in which I had a placement as therapeutic support for one of my clients, a student on the autism spectrum. The school is a private school for some of Pittsburgh's most economically and culturally privileged children, whose parents pay more in annual tuition than I made in annual pay as behavior/emotional support.

We got our "starter home" 20 years ago, brimming with optimism and the belief that we were on a five-year plan and would turn the house over and move onward and upward as our parents had done. Two children, a failed family business, a bankruptcy, and our own business dissolution later, we are still in our same neighborhood. The place is a mix of well-kept and run-down Cape Cods and railroad houses that emerged onto the landscape in the early 1950s atop coal mines that once pumped tons of coal to feed Pittsburgh's steel industry. Most of our neighbors aren't keen on sustainable living, didn't bring their kids up listening to Mozart in utero, and don't concern themselves with theatre, museums, or eating mindfully. Many live on the edge, collect disability, or don't maintain their property for whatever reason, and some just fell through the cracks somewhere. Fortunately, we also have neighbors that are hard-working and nice, interesting folks, so it balances out.

I work hard to try to steer my kids to study and learn, to work hard, to use their talents and strive to find what is meaningful for themselves. My children deserve to dream and to believe that they are capable of achieving their goals just as much as the children of privilege at the school where I worked. Sometimes I do wonder if my kids doubt the value of education and hard work since I am highly-educated, work a day job, write, and continue to seek more stable, higher-paying work, yet my financial compensation is sub-standard.

The spiritual, expansive part of me is filled with optimism and gratitude, knowing how blessed I am, but my practical outlook has verged on terror because of the reality of finances and responsibilities. It's natural to have feelings that fluctuate from self-confidence to self-doubt; optimism to despair; feeling open to new experiences and feeling fearful about the uncertainty of the future. For those of us who bought into the college industrial complex and amassed student loan debt that will take many years of veritable indentured servitude, feeling optimistic about a job search and about paying down that debt can be overwhelming.

I rely on my resilience, creativity and enthusiasm to stay motivated and not retract or slip into complete despair when constantly having to be outside of my comfort zone, which is frequently. I've had interviews where my desperation becomes a distraction and I have the fleeting image of the scene in the film, Monster where Charlize Theron, as Aileen Wuornos, has an interview for a job and I start to feel that insane. Okay, well, maybe not THAT insane for real, but it does make me feel that I'm not completely pathetically unemployable.

I ponder changes to how I present my qualifications. Would it be more advantageous to omit my Ivy League degree from my resume? Is it overkill to include my writing gigs that overlap my current job? Do I look too unfocused by having overlap of teaching and homeschooling my kids during the period of time that I had a remodeling business with my husband?

Mostly, I feel optimistic and hopeful, believing the best is yet to come; I know I'm a late bloomer. These days it's not as much about what color your parachute is, but how resilient, how capable of re-learning we can be. My twisted mind shifts to a more happy movie scene: when Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn have their video interview in the movie, The Internship.

Re-Learn to Renew

The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.--Alvin Toffler

I've had to adapt and think drastically differently, both personally and professionally many times. I always felt somehow defective for my adaptability, but since the importance of the ability to unlearn and relearn has wandered into my consciousness a number of times recently, I've begun to appreciate my adaptability as an asset and your adaptability is an asset, too.

I relearned enough to switch from typewriter to WordPerfect to Microsoft Office. I relearned writing using other types of editing software, too. I learned about SEO and writing for the internet and frequently relearn. I've unlearned and re-learned things about life I took for granted as change has necessitated.

Margie Warell wrote an article in Forbes Magazine, "Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn: How to Stay Current and Get Ahead" that gives guidance on Toffler's prophetic quote. The takeaway: to succeed today you must be in a constant state of adaptation and have learning agility. We have to be resilient- the "human capacity to deal with, overcome, learn from, or even be transformed by the inevitable adversities of life." We cannot always seek to achieve balance, according to business coach, Dr. Andrew Thorn is his recent book, Leading With Your Legacy in Mind, we need to stop striving so hard for balance, seeking to focus instead on moving forward, which will keep us motivated and ready for opportunities where we can live and lead with purpose to fulfill both our personal and professional purposes.

I'm not suggesting anyone do anything I haven't had to at least try.I adapted when the business my husband helped to build with his father failed and we started a new business when our daughter was two months old. I learned how to do payroll, quarterly taxes, and a host of left-brain tasks that previously confounded me. But I had to have a willingness to adapt and learn; having two kids depending on me changed everything. The most beneficial outcome was that all of these experiences gave me opportunities to assess what is really important in life and what really brings meaning and contentment.

In a job interview I recently had, the man interviewing me said rather condescendingly that I couldn't just assume that I could work at that school and "fly by the seat of my pants" like having such flexibility was a liability. I consider my abilities to reflect, adapt, devise strategies, and to re-learn, and yes, even fly by the seat of my pants, as assets- skills worth transferring to kids, my own and the kids I help through my job as therapeutic behavior support. I can learn, I can un-learn and I can re-learn. I've had to do so to stay buoyant, to not completely sink when things haven't gone according to my plan. I trust there is a bigger plan, but I often wonder what that plan is when I continue to run into barriers to success. These days, very few people graduate, find meaningful well-paying work in a chosen profession and get entrenched until retirement; those days are over.

The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.-- Herbert Spencer

As adults and in educating young people, we need to model the traits we want to transfer to children. The website, Education is My Life: For Teachers, Leaders and Learners emphasizes the value of adaptability for today's educators, encouraging being "reflective practitioners; not only to be able to continually improve our craft, but to continue to model the type of behavior and cognitive demands we want our students to emulate."

The article from Huffington Post Blog March 17, 2014 ,"Getting Unstuck Along the Way" by Jean-Paul Bedard, also has some practical tips for staying positive when the going gets rough.

We must be willing to sit on the edge of mystery and unlearn what has helped guide us in the past but is no longer useful.-- Robert Wicks

So how is it possible to face challenges, stay flexible and remain hopeful? Here are some strategies:

- Practice gratitude- try to think of at least 3 things to be grateful for every evening, even if it's something you're glad did not happen.
- Develop a sitting practice- quiet meditation to tune out the chatter around us and in our minds is essential for focus.

- Don't waste time focusing on mistakes- what did the mistake teach?

- Stop comparing yourself to others- everyone is on their own path and has their own challenges. Focus on yourself and your own goals and the people most important to you.

- Keep self-talk positive- it's easy to wallow in negativity, but there is a connection between self-talk and health, well-being and problem-solving..

- Be resourceful resilient and a little ridiculous
I remember having an epiphany when I saw a bald man on TV who was an expert on women's hair. I realized I need never limit myself based on my age, gender, hairdo, or anything for that matter.

- Arm yourself with knowledge; here's what some writers and thinkers have to share with us:

Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Good Life, Richard J. Leider and David Shapiro, (2012).

Resilience:for Today: Gaining Strength from Adversity. Edith H. Grotberg, (2003).

What Got You Here Won't Get You There. Marshall Goldsmith, (2007).

- Stay active stay balanced- ride a bike, do yoga or use a balance board or exercise ball all good ways to develop your core and physical balance

- Keep a journal of thoughts and action plans to implement.

Life will force us into circumstances and places we may not always feel we fit; how we adapt and remain flexible, grateful, and also humble is crucial to not only our happiness but for our survival. This time in which we live sometimes requires that we move with agility, often without a financial safety net as we change, learn, and grow continuously on the non-stop thrill ride that is our modern life.