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‘How Do I Decide What to Do With My Life?’

Photo: Jason Dempsey/Getty Images/EyeEm

Dearest Polly,

I never had the courage to write to you about a problem that’s been bugging me throughout my life because I was afraid of hearing advice that might make me even more unhappy. But I’ve reached a point where I feel desperate enough to seek help from you because I always feel like we think similarly, just that you are more like a future version of me, who has way more wisdom in life, so I’d really like to hear your perspective on this.

I’m in my mid-30s. For as long as I can remember, I have never been able to stick to one goal. I’m interested in many, many things and am curious enough to delve deeper into said things and want them to be my career. The idea of having a fulfilling career is the most important thing to me, and I’ve been searching for “the one” my whole life. Just when I think I’ve settled in an area, I think something else is better. Because of this, I’ve jumped quite a bit in my career. I’m not talking about jumping between jobs, but drastically different fields. And also because of this, there were several attempts for me to go back to school to get training in different subjects, but before I was even done, I had a change of heart again. I don’t get completely uninterested in those things, however; the feeling for them would always come back at some other time.

What makes matters worse is that I can pretty much handle anything. I am not smarter or better than other people, but my faith that “we can master anything if we try our very best” makes me believe that I can always succeed at something regardless of the difficulty. It’s entirely possible that I am actually just mediocre at something but my ambition and hard work make me believe that I can be good at it. So I have subconsciously created an endless list of things that I’d like to BE in my life. I understand that I could do many things as a hobby, but I cannot multitask, and the mere thought of not being able to do these things as a career depresses me. I feel like I have to breathe “that one thing” day in and day out to make my life worth living.

I often daydream about what I can achieve in a certain field, and at that moment I totally believe that that is the right path for me, that I’ve finally found it at last! And that feeling is so genuine and so intense that I feel like my life wouldn’t be complete if I were not to have that as a career. And I am not exaggerating: There are moments where I cried over how beautiful knowledge can be, and how wonderful it is to be alive just because I learned something amazing. But after a while that intense feeling dies down because it pops up elsewhere when I daydream myself into a different field. It’s very painful because it’s a bit like having dementia and you forget why you are spending time with somebody when you can’t even remember who they are. You know the logical or right thing is to stick with them, but you don’t have the heart to, no matter how hard you try. And knowing very well that these “feelings” will come and go does not help either.

I don’t know who I am as a person anymore. While I’ve learned so hard to accept this part of me (in the past I would try to fit in and be like others and it did not work for me), most of the people around me don’t. And I don’t blame them because it’s just that they cannot understand why I’m wired this way. It took me years to feel it is okay to be different, but the loneliness can be unbearable at times because I don’t feel accepted and I cannot openly share my feelings. I avoid going out because I’ve lost topics to talk with friends and I stay home a lot. I was very outgoing in my 20s because being spontaneous makes you fun; and now in my 30s, this just isn’t how you should behave (or should I care?).

I’m just lost around who I am and how I should present myself when I am with friends or when I meet new people. Even though I have a loving husband who always supports my decisions, I think this indecisiveness of mine is driving him crazy and I feel guilty. It makes me feel like I am not mature enough to handle “life” as a 30-something-year-old because it sounds like a First World problem to many who have to stick to their job to make a living despite their own dreams and desires in life. It’s just that I am blessed (or not?) that I have been able to make a living anywhere I go (not a brag), so I often wish I did not have any options at all. But the reality is, I do have options and I don’t know how to choose or stop.

I’m not sure if this is relevant, but I was able to stay super-focused when I was young, and I was a good student who always knew and got what she wanted: superior grades, clear path/direction, and my parents never had to worry about me because I was always able to take care of myself. But after I moved to the U.S. in my early teens, I completely changed due to getting bullied at school. I got horrible grades and started ditching school and developed poor time-management skills. I developed anxiety, and I no longer enjoyed going to school. Though I still enjoyed learning, and this trait, obviously, is still with me today, it makes me wonder if I’m making up for lost time: I want to do something that I wasn’t able to do but really wanted to when I was young, and that is learning. Or maybe I just really miss being “good” at things, just like when I was young.

I mentioned this because, firstly, I’d like to rule out ADHD, as I was able to focus in my early life (I could be wrong). Secondly, I know that being simple and sticking to one goal is key to a content and fulfilling life, because I remember being content and happy when I was young, and I actually know the way back. But now the thought of parting with all these could-be careers immobilizes me and makes me second-guess my decision to sticking to one thing. And more importantly, even if I decided to do that, how should I choose that one thing? I want to live normally. I want to enjoy life again without always thinking I have to focus on choosing that one thing for my career and feeling like I am running out of time.

Drowning in Choices

Dear Drowning in Choices,

Two weeks ago, my editor asked me to write a piece about New Year’s resolutions. “Great!” I said. “Sounds like the perfect subject for me.” So I started to write an essay about how I was swearing off New Year’s resolutions forever and ever, Amen. The next day, I thought that was boring, so I started a new essay about how all resolutions should be less focused on becoming “better” and more focused on identifying what you value and honoring those values. The next day, I thought that sounded bland and gutless, so I started an essay about how I hate resolutions, hate structure, hate schedules and alarms and diets and anything at all that feels limiting or restrictive. The next day, I thought that topic was pretty pathetic, so I started an essay about how my only resolutions this year are to (1) read 100 books and (2) bake more bread. The next morning, I changed it to 52 books, because one book a week is much more realistic. The next day, I lost interest in reading 52 books because it’s less inspiring to read a regular, sane amount every day than it is to focus on a wildly unrealistic goal.

I never turned in an essay about New Year’s resolutions. But I did resolve to write down my values each morning, so I can remember what they are. Right now, I have five different pages that say “What are my values?” at the top, and every single list is 100 percent different from the last. One morning, I wrote a bunch of stuff like “Living in the imperfect moment” and another morning I wrote “An organized house with zero clutter” and “Perfectly trained, well-behaved dogs.” A few days later, my list was much more dreary: “Get out of debt.” Obedient dream dogs were replaced by the much more utilitarian “Walk dogs every day.”

But here’s the best part: This morning, when I caught a glimpse of the words “Living in the imperfect moment” on my first list, I cringed. SHUT THE FUCK UP, I thought. WHO CAN EVEN DO THAT? HOLY GOD YOU ARE INSUFFERABLE AND DULL, DULL, DULL.

So you know what I think? I think complicated, inspired, engaged people are also (very often) irascible, moody, and neurotic. Are we good at many things? Maybe. Or maybe we just believe that we’re good at many things, at different times, on different days, depending on which way the wind is blowing. Do you catch my drift? It’s a type. We’re intense and we love a lot of stuff and seconds later we hate it. We wake up at 4 a.m. and feel inspired, certain that we’ve found the answer, and then later in the week we feel like jackasses for believing in anything at all. Maybe we’re a little manic, a little depressed. Maybe we love diving into new things and learning everything about them, but maybe we also get sick of things easily. Maybe we’re hardworking but a tiny bit commitment-phobic. Maybe we love feeling ahead of schedule but we otherwise hate schedules because they make us feel trapped and it’s very easy for us to feel like we’re falling behind. And we’re sensitive to that feeling. We’re sensitive to ALL FEELINGS, in fact.

We’re utterly engrossed in our work one day and then we’re not. We love to show ourselves, and then we want to hide. We’re filled with love, and then we’re annoyed. We’re ruled by pure, brilliant bursts of light, and then the dark clouds rush in. We’re ruled by joy and shame, in equal parts.

We are incredibly, abidingly inconsistent. We follow joy, we get tripped up on shame. And when we don’t find joy — or inspiration, or focus, or belief, or anything at all, beyond dread — we make meaning out of that. We build churches quickly and easily, and then we knock them down. “I’m all about living in the imperfect moment,” we say, and then we write the outline of a book on that subject, and then we set that outline on fire because it’s boring and stupid and we’d prefer not to sound exactly like an army of self-serious Instagram douchebags.

I liked how you wrote “It’s a bit like having dementia and you forget why you are spending time with somebody when you can’t even remember who they are.” I relate to that a lot.

So how do you decide what to do next? I think that the answer, for you, begins with your shame. (Yes, I know, I’m all about shame lately, how repetitive! But bear with me!) You wrote that you feel embarrassed about your indecision and you don’t know who you want to be and you wonder how to present yourself to your friends. It sounds like you’ve fallen into a strange hole where you’re much more focused on your presentation than you are on just being who you are.

Listen closely now, because this is one of the most important things I ever figured out: IT’S OKAY TO BE A QUESTION MARK. When you feel like a question mark inside and you pretend to know exactly what you’re doing on the outside, you’re in a bad state for socializing, for connecting, for making forward progress, for interviewing for new jobs, all of the above. People can always tell when you’re conflicted and pretending not to be.

So stop pretending. Be a question mark. Take up space, own your lost, confused feelings, and forget your slideshow and your prepared comments. Listen instead. Own where you are, and then make more room for where other people are. When you’re undecided and wishy-washy, that’s a very good time to recede into the background slightly and train your focus on others.

No one will mind or demand an explanation. Your shame makes you think that people want to know WHAT YOUR PLAN IS. Maybe your parents or your husband really, truly want to know, but your friends are fine with whatever. Practice saying, “I’m not sure yet.” And then look the other person directly in the eyes like, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Tolerate the silence. Tolerate the feeling of being judged. Let it go. Own your current state of limbo. Own it, own it, own it.

And while you’re there, in that waiting place, own your shame, too. All of your passion for learning grounded to a halt when you were bullied. And now your shame is grinding your passion to a halt all over again. Your shame is kicking up your fear. “There must be something wrong with me, since I can’t focus. I must be a broken kind of a person who will never accomplish anything because she can’t stick to one thing.” I used to tell myself stories like that, before I learned how to just take a leap and deal with the consequences after the fact — which includes the fear and dread and negativity and shame that kicks up around every single commitment I’ve ever made, including good commitments like STARTING A NEW BOOK or TRAVELING SOMEWHERE NEW.

In other words, facing your shame includes allowing some room for all of the bullshit that will get kicked up by your shame along the way. Facing your shame means taking a step from “I never finish anything” to “I will continue to do this one thing, even though I am 100 percent certain to hate it soon.” Recognizing how much shame you have helps you to see that you will hate stuff you thought you loved. Then you’ll love it again. Then you’ll hate it again. That’s who you are. And it’s who you are, in part, because the second you don’t love something, your shame immediately tells you that you hate it.

But is that so terrible? Or are these just the sounds your head makes?

Let’s go back to that “living in the imperfect moment” thing I wrote on a pad of paper a few days ago. When I saw those words, did I think, “Oh, I do truly value that, I’m just not feeling it today, tee-hee!” Nope. I immediately thought, “Bleccch. I can’t believe you run around tweeting this shit and saying it out loud. WHAT A TOOL YOU’VE BECOME!”

Okay, that’s the truth, and it’s a little embarrassing. But here’s what happened next: I noticed how absurd it was, to be so repulsed by something I cared about so much just days before. And then I told my husband about it and we both laughed about what a tool I am while we walked our very badly trained dogs together.

In other words, the point is not to eliminate a very normal shame-based reaction. Because honestly? I’m pretty happy and I feel reasonably balanced, but I don’t think my shame is going anywhere. A part of me will always feel that giving other people advice is patently absurd and embarrassing. And I’m always going to disappoint anyone who wants me to be a consistent “brand” or a reductive, simple product of a person, because I’ve got a lot of contradictions packed under my skin. I’m good at a lot of stuff, sure, and I’m also moody as a motherfucker. And I value honesty, and that’s really great but it’s also annoying and embarrassing. I will never be Zen enough to feel otherwise, and if I did become that Zen, this column would sound like a “daily inspiration” Instagram post by a lifestyle brand that basically boils down to the same feel-good magnet poetry rearranged in new ways each day and paired with a close-up of someone’s ass in yoga pants. No thank you, sir.

Is that my shame or my impeccable taste talking? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Am I negative and neurotic or do I just dislike stuff that is truly empty OR maybe just mildly anti-intellectual and nonsensical? I’m not sure. All I know is that I need some conflicting ideas and rough edges and nasty asides to cling to or I slide off the face of the flat Earth.

I am a human being, in other words, and so are you. We are inconsistent animals. And when you know and accept that, you can SEE YOUR SHAME ENTER THE PICTURE, and that makes you want to hide. But instead of hiding, try to welcome it in and laugh at it. Might as well make yourself at home, you’re obviously never leaving.

So that’s your first step: Notice your shame and accept it. It’s probably not going anywhere. But stop trying to “seem” okay. Stop trying to DECIDE. Simply write down what you love and value every morning. Notice how often it changes. Embrace that instead of fighting it. And when you feel like you’ve done that for long enough (let’s say three months?), I want you to ARBITRARILY CHOOSE something that you love a lot, that comes up often, day after day (even though sometimes not on consecutive days) and make a solid commitment to doing that thing for a while. Not a lifetime. Maybe three years. Maybe five. And at the end of five years, you are permitted to reassess. That’s it.

This is how most people make decisions, by the way. It’s not this heartfelt, deep, therapeutic process. It’s almost completely random. You have to accept that, once and for all, instead of acting like making a decision only feels weird and arbitrary and terrifying for you and you alone. Because look, I have three books I want to write next, and they’re all pretty different from each other. (Which makes sense, since the three books I’ve already written are pretty different from each other, too.) Every morning, I’m sure that I should write a different one of the three. Sometimes I call my agent to convince her which book I should write. Sometimes I email my publisher to convince him about a different book. Sometimes I gush to my husband, “This is it, this is absolutely the best choice!” But then I change my mind the next day.

A few days ago, I decided that I would try to write three books at once. After all, ISN’T THAT WHAT A TRUE ARTIST AND SCHOLAR WOULD DO?

But you know what? Like most humans, I need to earn a living. And that’s not happening if I sit around writing three books at once. And as much as I hate feeling “rushed” by a book contract, when I’m left to my own devices, I get slow and weird and wishy-washy.

So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to arbitrarily decide to write one of my three books. I’m going to sell it (I hope?). And then I’m going to hate it and wish I could write a different book instead. Each morning, when I get up to write, and I’m going to have this voice in my head that says THIS BOOK SUCKS, YOU MADE THE WRONG CHOICE!

I know this will happen because the same thing happened with my first three books. But I still read each of them now and think “Hey, this isn’t bad. Did I really write this?” Do I turn on my books as I write them out of shame? Or am I just an inconsistent human being? Or are all human beings inconsistent, full stop? Is this self-hatred, or a personality disorder, or is it simply having a pulse?

Who knows? All I know is that I have to finish my next arbitrarily chosen book so my kids can go to college eventually.

Sometimes financial pressure forces you to get off your ass. It sounds like either your husband supports you, or you have a trust fund that makes it possible to go to school over and over again. I want to address that not because I want to guilt you about having that luxury — quite the opposite. I think having endless time and money to explore new things is similar to having no ties and being able to move anywhere in the world. Having too many choices can be immobilizing. Some of the most depressed people I know grew up rich, have trust funds, or have parents and/or spouses who support them. Being idle and trying to FINALLY DO SOMETHING is rough. So give yourself a tiny bit of love and understanding there. I know it flies in the face of our current thinking about privilege, but you need to make some space in your life for how crazy-making it can be to TRY TO DECIDE day after day, in a vacuum.

If you want to fix that, write down all of your goals for your life and write down how much those things will cost. Chances are you don’t have the cash to do everything you want. Find some non-inspiration-linked reasons to stick to one thing, and write those reasons down where you can see them every day. That doesn’t mean that you’re giving up on having a meaningful career. It just means that personal fulfillment is just one reason to work hard, among many.

The “meaningful” part, even when it’s in place, varies wildly from day to day. I will hate my next book while I’m writing it. But when I finish it completely, I’ll say, “Whoa, I’m glad I stuck with this!” And then I’ll be forced to talk about it for two months straight and by the end of that time I’ll hate myself and my book and everything under the sun.

It’s funny once you look at it from a distance. So invite your shame into this picture. Make some room for it, but step back and examine it from a distance, too. Then arbitrarily commit to one thing, knowing that EVERYTHING will continue to feel at once gorgeous and perfect and brilliant and stupid and pointless and annoyingly random to you, until the end of time. That’s just how you are. It’s what makes you who you are, a hardworking question mark of a genius.

That’s not a bad thing to be, once you accept it. It’s pretty fun, actually. So stop condemning yourself for it, and start enjoying it. Stop running in tight little circles in your head. Slow down and live inside your heart, where your shame and your inspiration are waltzing in graceful arcs across the floor. Everything is exactly as it should be.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

‘How Do I Decide What to Do With My Life?’