Ask MR: I’m Freaking Out About My Future

Collages by Maria Jia Ling Pitt

It’s hard for me to begin describing what’s going on inside my head. Over the course of the last six months I’ve been dealing with an existential…uncertainty. Namely, who am I, what am I genuinely good at, what do I want to do after I graduate, are my goals TOO ambitious? Some days I feel like I’m doing too little; other days I’m overwhelmed by how much I’m doing at once.

I’ve talked to people close to me about it who mildly attempt to reassure me with, “You’re going to be okay.” But I want to be great. You know? Part of me wishes I could just fast-forward these years. But that’s the whole part of life, right? To enjoy the journey. To enjoy all the shittiness and learn from it.

Above all, Haley, I’ve felt a massive lack of motivation. Every time I think about my goals, I can’t help but belittle myself by thinking of the hundreds (if not thousands) of other people who are far more qualified and/or skilled than I am.

Not sure if you’ll respond, but even if you just read this, thank you.

-Freaking Out

Ooooooh boy have I been there, Freaking Out. I could have written this exact message 10 years ago! In that sense, I could agree with your peers, confirm that “you’re going to be okay,” but I remember how viscerally unhelpful I found those words. It felt like my arm was broken and someone was patting my head saying I’d be fine. It drove me up the wall.

Having confidence in the journey takes a lot of practice. It actually takes years. It’s not something you just hear once and accept. In fact, if you think about it, most of us know all of life’s “biggest lessons” already, including that one. We’ve heard them from wiser people since we were kids. But knowing truisms is very different from believing them in your bones and letting them seep into how you think and feel. The only way to learn life’s lessons, really, is to live. Until we stumble across them ourselves, they’re mostly just words.

I guess what I’m saying is, try to accept that you may not be able to think your way out of this anxiety by reframing it. You can’t get through this time by plugging in whatever wisdom I’ve gained from my experience. No matter what I say right now – and whether or not it makes you feel temporarily better — you’re going to have to ride this out. That’s precisely how you’ll get smarter, more interesting, more you. Uncertainty will always be a part of your life. That’s the whole game. Certain people are boring. What matters is how quickly you learn to roll with life’s punches, cliché as that sounds.

So let’s say you’ve accepted you’ll be fine. That this, too, shall pass, blah blah blah. That doesn’t really help with the issue at hand, which is that you don’t know what to do. You’re frozen, scared, you’re not sure what problems you should tackle first, which of your problems you’re even supposed to tackle and what your role is in figuring that out. It’s a lot. No wonder you’re freaking out! “Finding yourself” looks much tidier in the movies, huh? Your journey will seem tidy one day too, but only with years and years of hindsight. Kind of a bummer, I know, but after years of reminding myself of that, I find the idea oddly comforting. It will all make sense one day.

I think your challenge right now isn’t to come to a decision about your future, it’s to not let your indecision about your future cripple you. Believe me when I say that caring about personal growth, trying different things and letting yourself dream (EVEN AMBITIOUSLY) will guide you towards new ideas, new opportunities and new twists and turns you didn’t anticipate. Those are the parts of myself I’d honor right now, if I were you. The ones that believe you can do big things. Not “big things” according to some superficial standard, and not “the best things” – it’s not a competition – but big things for you. The things that feel a little out of your reach, that excite and scare you. I’m not even urging you to pursue them because I think they’ll come true if you do. I can’t know that and neither can you, but for me, allowing myself to try things without judgment changed my life. I just think dreams are worth pursuing, outcome notwithstanding. (Unless they require a shit ton of debt, then pause and tread carefully, please.)

There are a lot of paths you could take from where you are – a beautiful notion, by the way, and one you should try to relish when the sky looks pretty – and none of them are right or wrong. They’re just different. If I split your life off, right now, into 50 parallel directions, and we sat on a cloud and watched the stories play out, I’m sure each one would possess its own unique blend of joy, sorrow and novelty. At the end of those lives, I bet most versions of “you” would say: I’m so glad that everything happened the way it did, even the bad parts, because it led me here. It’s a supremely optimistic take, but you know why I think that? Because you’re lucky enough to concern yourself with personal fulfillment, for one, and thoughtful enough to care deeply about finding it.

I’ll warn you right now that, after all of this, you may get to an urgent crossroads and still not know what to do. That’s when you’re going to have to guess. We all have to guess, all the time. In my opinion, people who are dead sure of anything aren’t thinking critically enough. Guessing is scary, but remember that your estimation of the paths that lie ahead are more than likely wrong anyway. Nothing ever looks like you’d expect it to. You just can’t know.

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to fuck up, there’s no stopping that. Maybe you’ll pursue a career you end up hating and have to pivot. Or fall in love and get distracted for a whole year. Or waste a bunch of time on something that turns out to kind of suck. Doing all that stuff is really important. Bonus points for doing it early. It’s helpful to see the other side of good decisions, so try not to be so afraid of making the wrong one. As Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

Mistakes, in that sense, are incredibly subjective. I spent a lot of years regretting what I studied in school (business administration) and regretting the jobs I did after college (office management, human resources) because they weren’t what I really wanted to be doing. But once I made it to a place that felt really fulfilling (it took work and it sucked and I spiraled a lot because I wasn’t sure!), having a different background actually helped a lot. It even helped to be a little older, coming into myself slightly later than is celebrated in pop culture. All of it rounded out my perspective and experience — maybe it was part of the reason I even got to where I did. This anecdote is not meant to be a lesson on career changes, it’s meant to be a lesson on life being a weird crapshoot. Sometimes the thing you deemed a mistake will end up seeming like the best thing five years later.

I understand your anguish, but don’t think it’s the wrong thing to feel. And don’t be fooled into thinking there is some combination of words I or anyone else can string together that will help you escape it. Uncertainty is an emotion worth really feeling. It’s worth noticing, tipping your hat at, checking in on. It’s especially an interesting catalyst for thought. Lately when I feel uncertain, I’ve been practicing thinking about how it will lead me somewhere interesting rather than wasting energy fighting it. It helps. Maybe let it stew for a while on the back-burner. That’s not the same as giving up. Honestly, sometimes your subconscious and everyday life will do more for untangling it than your panicked wondering ever will. Of course, you’re entitled to both.

Sometimes navigating all of this will feel like running in place. Sometimes it will feel like going backwards. Other times like you’re really getting somewhere. That flip-flop will feel frustrating, but it’s not something you can avoid. That’s life. And by the way — you’re allowed to chill out sometimes, too. Constantly living in pursuit of some bigger and better life will rob you of enjoying the present. Practice holding both the future and the present in your mind at once. Be okay with putting one aside in order to invest in the other every once in a while. Try to strike a balance between the two, if you can. It will give you the space to breathe and grow organically.

You’re not “going to be okay” because you already are. There is no end point where life will no longer present you with big, scary questions. Uncertainty is an emotional space you’re going to want to become comfortable occupying. I’ll meet you there.

Have a question? Email write [at] manrepeller [dot] com with the subject line “Ask MR.”

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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