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When I was little — and even through the years most marked by insecurity, like middle and high school — I was entirely sure of myself. I was weird and witty, and I liked that about myself, and I seemed to be popular in the broad and non-damaging sense. I had a few close friends but almost everyone in general seemed to like me. I spent this time reading a ton and writing and really getting to know myself. I went to a prestigious and nerdy college where I fit in well and I loved my four years there. But since graduating five years ago, I’ve been floundering.
You know how people are supposed to get more secure and confident and sure of themselves as they get older? My life feels like the opposite of that. I’ve had the good fortune of knowing what I’ve wanted to do since I was a preteen. But the path I’m attracted to, the one thing that, when I do it well, feels exactly right — writing, specifically journalistic nonfiction — is also one of the more competitive and unclear ones.
It took a year and a half after graduating to find an adult-type job, and while it’s based in writing, it’s not the fulfilling kind. It’s the deeply repetitive and uncreative kind. I hate when people ask about my job, because I hate talking about it. I don’t think of it as my “career,” as the path I’m going down, because I’m scared that if I start to, I’ll end up in this industry forever. And I know I don’t want that. As a result, I’m fine at it, but I’m not engaged enough and I don’t care enough to throw myself into it and be really great at it. I don’t care if I’m promoted because I don’t even really want to do it. But I have been doing it for almost four years.
I see other people around me change and grow. People I went to college with have exciting careers. They travel the world and do things that engage them deeply, that they’re excited to share on social media. The stagnancy of my life, the lack of having moved on to what I want to be doing, has eroded my sense of control to the point where I’m constantly panicked. Everything makes me panic. I rarely look at Facebook anymore, because other people’s accomplishments make me panic; thinking about the little money I have and my inability to build up a savings makes me panic; I even dread going to bed at night, because when I lie down and turn off the light, I start to think about how I’m not doing what I want to be doing, and I panic. Settling into a job I don’t care about has always been my worst fear, but it feels like there are road blocks everywhere to getting out.
I’ve started to hate myself for my lack of action. As a result, I set goals constantly (what I’m going to eat, half-marathons I’m going to run, how much I’m going to read, how much I’m going to write, how much better I’m going to be) and I make halfhearted attempts for a while but then follow through on almost none of them. Then I hate myself more. I throw my energy into constant social activity even though I’m naturally introverted, because I’m perpetually single and often lonely. I have a lot of friends, mostly due to my own pro-activity, but friendship can only do so much.
I know I won’t be satisfied until I’m on a path toward the type of work I want. I’ve published a few pieces in the past few years, a couple of which have been surprisingly well-received, and those things are my life raft. Hearing positive feedback from random strangers about the sort of work I actually care about was unbelievably satisfying. Going through the actual process itself was satisfying. But these things are now so few and far between. They feel irrelevant to my life now. I feel too embarrassed to approach the people I might want to help me, like they can smell my lack of commitment due to my actions so far. Like even asking for their advice is fraudulent and a waste of their time. I’m 27 and I feel like it’s already far too late. So I avoid Facebook and seek out comfort in small, distracting things. And I panic.
When I know what I want — with all the practical and especially mental blocks in the way — how do I get there?
Stuck in Quicksand
Dear Stuck in Quicksand,
It’s a myth that people get more and more confident as they get older. In my experience, smart, sensitive people struggle with insecurity on and off for their entire lives. Natural charms and talents might see you through your youth, but once you’re out there in the real world, trying to pursue a challenging career without teachers and parents reminding you that you’re brilliant around the clock, it’s a whole different story. When responsibility for the reigning narrative of your life shifts and it’s up to you (and nobody else but you) to be buoyant and optimistic and hardworking, day after day, it’s not hard to find yourself stuck.
Left to their own devices, brains that have turned cartwheels and shouted cheers for two decades turn into wrecking balls. You sit down at your computer and all you can see are old files, projects you started and then abandoned. “You can’t finish anything,” your brain tells you. “You’re different from your photogenic friends on Facebook, who travel the world and have great careers and sip fruity drinks with their fiancés on sandy beaches. You’ll never be like them. You’re gloomy and self-sabotaging.”
But everyone starts things and then abandons them. That’s part of being a creative person. You have good ideas and only a few of them pan out or keep your attention over time. I used to define myself as a quitter, thanks to all of the projects on my computer that I never finished. But the truth is, it takes a lot of stops and starts to figure out what you’re really committed to and what you really love enough to work hard on without much reward in sight.
Everyone has talents that they’re not using. Everyone has potential that winds up wasted. I wrote some great personal essays in college, but I always considered them beneath me. I was going to be an academic! I was going to change the world! Then I wrote songs on my guitar, but that wasn’t enough, either. I needed to be a rock star! Until I was playing to a stadium full of fans, I was nothing! Then I got paid to write cartoons at age 26, but that wasn’t my true calling. I was really a novelist! I was a literary genius, waiting to happen! Then I was a TV critic, but I was supposed to be publishing great books instead!
Every step of the way, I told myself I was falling short of my potential. Every step of the way, I looked at what I was doing and I said, “Oh this silly thing? This isn’t important.” I was proud of my cartoons. I was proud of my songs. I thought I was pretty good at writing about TV. But there was always some bigger, brighter, better goal. I bought into hierarchies that weren’t my own: Academics were supposedly more important than essayists. Rock stars mattered, but unknown songwriters didn’t. Novels were far more important than cartoons.
But whom did I admire the most? Did I admire the world’s most renowned academics and novelists, the world’s most celebrated rock stars? No, I admired Matt Groening and PJ Harvey and Mike Judge and Kate Bush and David Foster Wallace and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Björk. I admired determined weirdos who made exactly what they loved without compromising. I admired funny, vulnerable, angry, stubbornly imaginative people who created odd, original things.
But somehow, instead of valuing the fact that I’d already had a chance to make weird stuff myself, instead of leaning into the things that I could already do, that I already loved to do, I wanted to chase down other people’s definition of “success” and “glory.” I didn’t pay attention to how it felt to create and work hard; I paid attention to the imaginary life that would be my reward if I succeeded at the “right” thing.
Part of the problem was that I couldn’t feel my accomplishments, because my brain was too busy scolding me for not doing enough. Nothing was enough. Another part of the problem was that I took ALL of my natural talents for granted. If something came easily to me (writing songs, writing cartoons, writing essays), I wrote it off as not as good as something “more important” or more lucrative (being famous, writing critically acclaimed novels, writing screenplays). And part of the problem was that, even when I was doing pretty well, I often defined myself by WHAT I WASN’T DOING YET.
And now, thanks to the magic of the internet, we’re all exposed to each other’s accomplishments to an unprecedented extent. It’s no longer easy to ignore the fact that lots of people are accomplishing impressive things with their smarts and their talents. When you see people succeeding at great things, when they seem to be BASKING IN THE GLORY of those accomplishments, it’s easy to eat yourself alive instead of just working hard at your own peculiar stuff, the stuff you do like nobody else.
Glory is exactly the kind of imaginary abstraction that haunts you when you’re procrastinating. What does it add up to, exactly? Money? Blow jobs? An exciting Instagram account?
The point is, you can’t get distracted by what other people do. You can’t envy other people’s careers, or perversely value other people’s talents over your own. You have to recognize your own talents and nurture them. You have to make some space for your creative work, and appreciate the slow, slow process of making something you love. Once you learn to do that, motivating yourself to work hard and finish what you start gets much easier.
Of course you socialize a lot when you’re 27 years old and lonely. But you have to make a space for your work, and appreciate the process itself. You have to teach yourself to soothe your loneliness, at least some of the time, with your writing. That’s why you’re a writer in the first place, isn’t it? Because you’re sensitive and smart and you feel lonely A LOT. You have a lot to say. You have a lot to mull over. Pour those feelings onto the page at least once a day. Remind yourself of who you are and what you love.
Forget what you want to accomplish or who you want to be for now. Forget glory. Forget imaginary lives that are bigger and brighter than your own. Instead, think carefully about what you love to DO. Think about what you’re good at. If you have to take those pieces you wrote and print them out and tape them over your desk, do that. Admire your work. Remind yourself of what your talents are, every day.
You don’t have to choose between BECOMING SOMEONE IMPORTANT and NEVER AMOUNTING TO MUCH. That’s a bullshit way of looking at yourself. The world will embrace us or ignore us or chew us up and spit us out. I just want to wake up and feel good about what I do with my time. So do you. The good news is that, as writers, all we really need to do is wake up extra early and sit down to a blank page. Turn off the bad voices and write.
You are not a joke to anyone. Age 27 is the very beginning point of most creative careers. Don’t take your false starts so seriously. Don’t take your inertia, at age 27, so seriously. No one else does. There is no shame at all in where you are.
Your ego is what makes you panic, so put your ego aside. Imagine working hard for ten years without any accolades or acknowledgement. What else would you need to survive? Would you need deep, strong friendships? Would you need to exercise every morning? Would you need to meditate? Would you need a pet? Would you need to learn to cook? Would you need to learn to spend time alone without chasing empty distractions all the time?
Build a humble life in your mind, one filled with beauty and calm and hard work and a strong, weird, witty you. When you sit down to write, conjure that humble life, knowing who you are and what you’re here for. Repeat it like a prayer: This is what I do. I’m good at this. This is how I want to live. Get up early and write. Go to work. Be patient. You’ll make a move when you’re ready. Keep your eyes peeled for new opportunities, but above all, write every day and simply commit to believing in your work and in yourself. It’s simple. Every writer does it, every day. It’s a choice. It’s mind over matter. It’s a struggle. It’s excruciating! But it feels so good when you push through, AGAIN, and you say, “I didn’t think I could pull it off and push through the resistance one more time, but I did. I rocked it out.”
There is no magical, perfect version of you waiting in the future. You are here. This is all you have. Live exactly the way you want to live, starting right now.
Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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