I know there's nothing more trite and irritating than a "quarter life crisis." I know that, really, I do. And I try not to talk about it, except in some charmingly off the cuff, self-deprecating way, that is always less charming than desperately sad. But I have to talk about it. I have to think about it. It consumes me about 80% of the time.
Here's the deal: I'm getting a PhD right now. Why? God knows. Probably because unemployment sounds fun, and taking a long, winding, and cripplingly lonely path to that unemployment sounds even better! (See what I'm talking about? Not charming. Desperate.) I entered the program after one year out of college, because I listened to my father's advice. And I don't hate it. Not always. Sometimes I love it, and I think I might be Good at History, so that's something. Plus I really like the teaching part, and everyone else hates that, so I take that as a good sign. But I just feel ... like a failure at 27?
I have a lot of opportunities, and my parents raised me with so many advantages, and I feel like I'm throwing them away. Shouldn't I be saving baby seals or something? My sister basically saves the world. My brother's an artist, but he's legitimately good at that. I'm just here. I used to have this thing where I told myself I would live my life in a way that would seem absurd in the past tense — live it so I'd have stories to tell my children. That time I spent months alone in archives is not, you know, a great story. Plus the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Shouldn't I be out changing it? Or at the least having great adventures trying? My sister has diagnosed me with acute FOMO — Fear of Missing Out, and she's probably right.
Here's the thing: I know its okay. I know life doesn't end at 30 or with commitment. I know that picking a career is the beginning of a path, not the end. I know I can change it if I want, and that not much happens while waiting around. I know that time will be the only thing to tell if my boyfriend will be my husband (that's a whole other basket of crazy I won't go into here). I know that there's so much more coming and I should just CALM DOWN. But I can't help feeling trapped or like I'm throwing away my youth or not doing all the amazing things I should be. So how do I just embrace this? How do I take it one step at a time? How do I not die crippled by FOMO?
Aw, honey. You sound like a pretty smart cookie, and you pretty much answered your own question there in the last paragraph. But I wanted to talk about this anyway, because I think these are pretty common thoughts and anxieties. Another year has passed — did it add up to anything, or did I piss it away? What am I doing with my life? Shouldn’t I be saving the world, or something?
But these questions can be tricky, because they frame the process of change as something dramatic and binary. We are either saving the world or not saving the world, nothing in between.
And of course this trips us up because, in reality, the world is not really that savable. Unless you're a fictional character named Buffy Summers and the Hellmouth is opening up again this week, I guess. Salvation means a sudden dramatic flip from everything’s wrong to everything’s right, but that’s not generally how it works. There never has been or will be a moment when everything is sorted and we feel free to kick back with a pint for more than a short while — even Buffy had to stop like a hundred different apocalypses.
Here’s how change happens in the real world: Problems are encountered and solved, and the solutions cause more problems, and the next solutions cause even more problems, and so on. Progress does seem to march on, but it is slow and messy and it takes forever. Literally.
Of course I know you know this, and of course I know you are saying “saving the world” as shorthand for “making a positive contribution.” But it’s important to make the distinction, because one of those activities is in the realm of possibility, while the other is not. So … maybe try to think about contributing, not saving. Tiny contributions that add up to big ones over time.
And there are tons of ways to do this. Just remember as you sift through all the options that people who are able to make big things happen are people who have gotten really good at what they do. Like your brother with art, or Hillary Clinton with badass feminist diplomacy, or Neil Young with endless shimmering guitar solos.
To make an excellent contribution, you kind of have to be excellent at something … and that has far less to do with talent and much more to do with commitment. It requires that you make a choice to put your head down and work very hard to develop your unique set of superpowers.
We tend to get this backward. We believe that if we only choose the perfect option — the one we’re passionate about, the one that has this enormous potential to save the world — our lives will become awesome and we’ll quickly transform into famous fulfilled geniuses because that’s how it works when you're tapped into your own deepest potential or something.
But for most of us, buying into the myth of the perfect option doesn’t help us find it. It only stresses us out to think that we haven’t found it yet and may never find it ever, and MY GOD have we already doomed ourselves to lives that are far less thrilling and fulfilling than they could and should have been?
Worrying like this is worse than useless. Just like body craziness, just like repeating the loop of a bad relationship, constantly having a cow that you’re not doing life right is in and of itself a wretched waste of it.
Let’s be clear: you’re not missing out on your perfect option, because it doesn’t exist. There is no one true path to amazingness. We have to create the amazingness for ourselves, by committing to something and then busting our asses. There is no other way.
I’m not saying that you can only focus on one thing forever. I’m just saying, if it takes roughly 10,000 hours to get great at something, well, you can get that many in every seven or eight years if you hustle. Which gives you, what, ten or eleven lives? Given the way our brains work, and given the focus it takes to get deeply into something, it makes sense to think about living those lives sequentially rather than simultaneously.
So … what do you want to do with this one of your many possible lives? My advice is to pick something that is ethically acceptable and interesting to you, that you have some aptitude for, and that someone will pay you to do. Then put everything you have into doing it extremely well, better today than yesterday, every day. Because that is how the world gets saved — slowly, incrementally, by people who are excited about what they are doing and do it with great skill and gusto.
For instance, if you decide to stick with teaching for awhile, why not aim to be one of the life-changing teachers, one who makes students feel like they’re discovering new frontiers in their brains with every class. You have the opportunity to become a person who can inspire other people to greatness. That’s gotta help, right?
And when you get down deep into the nuances of your profession, you'll likely discover fascinating and astounding stuff at the edges, and maybe you can help push those edges even further. Which is another excellent way to contribute.
Also, don’t underestimate the enormous and generally unsung value in simply being dedicated and trying hard. There are days in my life where the only thing that relieves the feeling of entropy crushing my skull is a pleasant encounter with someone who's thoughtful and competent — it can really feel like a miracle. Aim to be this kind of person, and you can’t help but make a quiet yet huge addition to the world’s net goodness.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that the only thing that makes FOMO real is FOMO itself, because of the waffling and wailing it causes. People do need to experiment and run around bumping into stuff for a while when they're young and figuring things out. So, experiment if you feel you need to! Go run into some stuff!
But honestly, it sounds like you have already found something worthwhile and interesting to work on for your first life or two. And you’ve already gotten quite far working on it. So, at this point, doesn’t the constant worrying / second-guessing / being 49% willing at any moment to throw it all away all feel a little silly? Not to mention painful and crazy-making.
So let’s talk about how to cut it out. Because unlike saving the world, changing your brain a little is very possible and not even all that hard. It’s not like you’re ruined or anything — you just have a bad habit of thought. A bug in your software. It’ll take a bit of effort, but you can shift it.
How? The first step is to notice when the script starts to play. Just notice it. Hey, whaddaya know, there’s the ditherer again. What does it feel like in your body? Are your shoulders tensed up? Take a deep breath. Pay attention to right now.
The next step is to poke holes in the script. Your brain is spewing factual errors at you, so question and correct them. What you are trying to do here is be logical and also be loyal to yourself. You’ve been down this road before and you know it doesn’t go anywhere, so stop. Use your imagination and knock the destructive thoughts down to their actual tiny size.
Finally, find something else to do with your mind and/or body, something engrossing that will take up all or most of your attention. Take a shower, read a book, volunteer, watch “Band Candy," whatever. Anything will be better than sitting around FOMOing.
Over time, you’ll be able to recognize this pattern clearly and quickly, and you will get quite good at shutting it down, and you’ll laugh at how hilariously unhelpful certain parts of your brain can be. And then you’ll be able to turn your attention back to what is crucial if you want to live a remarkable life: developing your abilities so you can make concrete, valuable, and possibly even tremendous contributions to a world that needs them a lot.
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