In high school they told me, “just wait for college. That’s where you’ll find like-minded people.” In college, they told me the same thing about graduate school. “Just wait. That’s where you’ll be at home.”
I didn’t need telling twice. Not only was grad school purportedly the place where I would find “my people,” but it also happened to meet my requirements for what would constitute success. Earning a PhD would mean I'd “made it."
I did everything to be a good candidate. I conducted as much research as I could, I specialized as deeply as possible in my clinical interest, I gained relevant internship experience, I aced my classes, and I studied hard for the GRE. Everyone told me it was enough. When interviews started trickling in, I thought: Is this it? Have I arrived? My ego, which was constantly wavering between my being the best and the worst person ever, thought maybe we had reached a decision.
I spent the spring semester neurotically checking my email and voicemail, hoping to hear back from schools. With my entire self-concept on the line, it was a little hard to concentrate. By mid April, I had moved from the "waitlist" to the "rejection" pile at all potential schools. I had not made it. I was not good enough. I was maybe even -- dare I say it -- the worst person ever?
I had been praised from an early age for my focus, certainty, for knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, I tried to interpret this praise as reflecting something positive or special about me. I know now that it is more-or-less neutral. I know what I want because options scare me. Uncertainty scares me. I don’t want to know what I don't know, what I might be missing out on. If I developed a Plan B (or C or D or Z), I just might take it.
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” In this case, I think God was weeping a little, too. Not because she wanted me to get into graduate school, but because her daughter was needlessly drowning in a puddle of narrow-minded and self-induced misery at not having measured up to something that God never even said was important.
She had better plans. Because I did not get into graduate school, I moved from Arkansas to Wisconsin instead to work at a software company. In Madison, I was bored, nervous about forming a community, and I was making real money for the first time. Just add water, oil, and eggs, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for hitting bottom.
Because I failed - first, at getting into a PhD program, and then, at drinking like a normal person - I am now the most alive I've ever been. If you showed my 20-year-old self my current resume, she'd be both disappointed and confused. But if you showed her my current state of mind, she'd want her some of that.
My point is not that everything happens for a reason. I hate that phrase, and I’m even considering hating the people who use it. This is not a blog post on causality.
My point is this: I'm beginning to realize that our "things" - what we think will constitute personal success, what will make us matter - are circumstantial, even arbitrary. I had decided that a PhD equaled success, but I could just as easily think that about something entirely different.
Need proof? Just look at what your weirdo friends care about. I have friends who are convinced that “success” means being a talented musician, or a mom, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a poet, or a politician. They feel compelled to be well-traveled or to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. What's more, they feel guilty if they aren’t working towards these things. Me? I’m not even considering adding the middle east to my agenda, and I sleep like a baby knowing I haven't practiced the mandolin yet today.
Right now, writing is my "thing" which constitutes success. Sometimes, the guilt over whether I'm doing it right and whether I could be doing it better keeps me up at night. If I half-ass an article or avoid market research, I get the guilty feeling I used to have when I'd half-ass a personal statement or avoid the practice sections of the GRE. You're doing it wrong. You're failing at your thing. You might well be the worst person ever.
One of my favorite authors, Esther Perel, likes to set up a paradox beautifully only to leave it entirely unresolved. And while I'm not sure there's much of beauty here, I do plan to leave with the coffee pot still on and the door wide open. Identifying sources of meaning is a vital part of existence, and yet gleaning any self-worth from those things is arbitrary, painful, sometimes even wrong.
For my part, I plan to hang on to writing - my thing. I'll do my best to hold it lightly. I'm prepared to go hard, fail, and be okay. I'm prepared for better things.