I blame my economics degree for introducing the idea of opportunity cost into my life. In the economics world, opportunity cost is the benefit or value missed when you choose your first option over the alternative options. You see, I’m a very intentional and purposeful person with my time, relationships, and career goals. I’ve always believed that if I stayed on this linear path I could craft this perfect life that I’ve always wanted. My overthinking mind seems to believe it can enter in all the right inputs (top graduate program, job at a well-known company, goofy and outdoorsy husband, house with land for a vegetable garden, old sailboat to fix up) and out comes the right answer, the perfect life! And if I just try hard enough, if I can just make all these pieces align, I can make it happen.
As a result, I’m incredibly indecisive. I’m afraid that if I take this job, move to that city, pursue this person, that I may be getting further from this life that I’ve always imagined for myself. I’m filled with the what if complexities. What if I choose to continue my career path but it requires me to live in big cities when I feel more at home next to big mountains and small communities? What if I move across the country for a graduate program away from the man that I have a huge this could be my soulmate crush on? What if I invest in an expensive graduate degree only to realize afterward that my heart is really tugging at me to open a yoga studio? It’s like I have this annoying game of Ping-Pong constantly playing in my head. Yet in reality, I’m not actually doing anything. I’m sitting in this headspace of anxiety and fear instead of going out there and Cheryl Strayed–ing my life.
I have two conflicting natures. I can be extremely goal-driven, focusing on my career, financials, and security, yet (more so recently) I can be creative, explorative, and in touch with endeavors and hobbies that make me feel more grounded. I recently read in an astrology book that people who have my birthday have two extremes in their nature — either ruthlessly determined, businesslike, and assertive or compassionate, sensitive, and visionary. It even noted that at age 26 (my current age), emotional concerns take on more importance in your life as you become more sensitive and impressionable.
Now, I don’t always believe in astrology or signs, but the fact that I’m even writing to you at this current phase aligns pretty darn well with that statement. The past couple of years, I’ve invested in other areas of my life (non-career related) such as teaching yoga, taking pottery classes, climbing mountains. These hobbies have challenged me, changed my perspective, taught me many valuable lessons, and shown me the value of community. However, I’m afraid that if I invest in my “businesslike” career path that it will take me away from many of these “creative” aspects of my life. I thought maybe I would switch after having “made it” in my career to open up a yoga studio or a café, something that would enrich more of my visionary and creative side.
Don’t get me wrong, though, my career aspirations and potential path also excite and challenge me, centered around solving social issues to create a better world. However, I tend to see things as either black or white, A or B, this or that. Maybe there are alternatives that I’m not considering that could allow me a fulfilling, meaningful career balanced with a life of creativity, exploration, and community. Side note that I’ve also never been in a relationship, mostly out of fear and because I’m often out chasing these other things that make me feel full. But there is a growing part of me that is ready for the connectivity, vulnerability, and excitement of a relationship. Yet again, I often look at relationships like an equation of If I live in this city, take up this activity, and have a dog, the probability of meeting my own John Krasinski will be much greater. Sometimes I think if I just stop running, maybe the pieces will fall into place.
I have a growing list of inspiring women who have started their own businesses, fearlessly taken risks, are in real and honest relationships, and seem to have this curving path of a story that landed them exactly where they needed to be. You know who I’m talking about … they can rock the crinkly linen top, their hair is perfectly unwashed and messy after just jumping in the ocean, they are involved in an international nonprofit that provides education to young girls, and they are effortlessly confident, fearless, and graceful. A woman, similar to what I just described, once told me that it’s not about finding the perfect job, but rather about composing a life so you can also have the time and space to do the things that you love. Polly, how can I stop being so indecisive and fearful about making the wrong choice, and instead be this badass, confident, multilayered individual? How do I loosen my tight grip and trust that my perfectly imperfect life will truly, actually happen?
Stuck in Mud
Dear Stuck in Mud,
Wow. I was all set to give you an inspired pep talk about how life is all about balance, you don’t have to be one thing or another, and you can’t think about your time as if fixing up an old sailboat means robbing precious hours from finding your John Krasinski.
But then you had to go and mention those crinkly-linen-top motherfuckers. And now all I can think about is their perfectly unwashed hair, all messy from jumping in the ocean, probably because they surf at 6 a.m. every morning before arriving at work at that international nonprofit. Now my whole Zen “life is about balance” speech is in shambles, and I’m imagining myself sitting through some meeting where “messy hair, crinkly top, just surfed for an hour” lady is holding forth about bringing clean drinking water to some African village. And the more she talks, the less I can concentrate, all I can think about is what she puts on her fucking face that she’s not breaking out at the age of forty-fucking-nine like yours truly. All I can think about is How does she do it? How does she wake up at 5 a.m. to surf, for fuck’s sake? Why won’t she just admit that she’s an alien who’s come to suck our brains out of our ears while we’re sleeping?
And when I do focus on what she’s actually saying, then I can’t stop fixating on the reasons why her clean-water plan will not work. I’m thinking about logistics. I’m thinking about violating local cultural norms in aforementioned African village. And I’m thinking about how overconfident and white it is of her to imagine that she can just stride her yogified ass into town and fix everything with her white lady magic, the way she might reimagineer a ramshackle crack den in the desert and Georgia O’Keefe the fuck out of it until it looks like James Perse–branded vacation home in Cabo.
But I’m being an asshole again! And this village really does need clean water, doesn’t it? What do I know? Do I know anything about the culture of this particular town? Of course not. I’m just hacking my way into this whole meeting with my hacky bad assumptions like the hack writer I am. I am feeling bad about her pretty skin and her crinkly top and I’m drawing on my own arrogant know-it-all septic tank and shoving my sewage into the proceedings without apology.
But you know what? I might say something valuable along the way, too. If I were hired by such a place (that would never happen, but suspend your disbelief for a minute), if I were still invited to meetings (I am terrible in meetings, but stay with me), my negativity and my insecurities and my arrogance and my errant assumptions might just uncover a few logistical nightmares that really do need to be addressed. My overconfident ability to freewheel straight into the conversation without any facts at my disposal might actually be of use for once.
And eventually, I might learn to bite my tongue and behave more professionally and respectfully and I might even befriend the perfect, glowing, compassionate surfer lady. And she might tell me that she had bad skin when she was younger, and she has bad days, too — and she might tell me this stuff BECAUSE I am openly negative and blustery and weird.
And you might fall in love with someone amazing in Portland because you left a perfectly nice guy who you thought might be your soulmate in New York. You might win with one choice and win even bigger with another choice. That’s the invisible stupidity baked into the whole concept of opportunity cost — and believe me, I know all about it. My dad was an economist. But everything doesn’t boil down to supply and demand, and people don’t smoothly move from X job to Y job or from the country to the city just because the pay is better or the housing is cheaper. Your whims are unquantifiable. You can find your bliss while you’re wasting the $300 per hour you would’ve made as a lawyer if you’d gone to law school. How do you put a price on finding your bliss while you screw up some other career? You can’t.
And even if you don’t believe anything else I tell you, believe this: You can open a fucking yoga studio at any time, anywhere, for any reason, and then change your mind immediately after you do it. (I know someone who did exactly this, and she’d want me to throw in this bit of wisdom: “Running a yoga studio sucks way more than you think it will!”)
So that’s my real advice to you: Loosen the fuck up. Throw all of your selves and traits and affinities onto the table, and see what works. Make an Excel chart of costs and benefits if you must, reconnoiter and strategize to your heart’s content, but then roll out the jazz break, get a little wild, rough up those figures, paint outside those lines. Use all of your quirks and talents and also your WEAKNESSES and strange obsessions and compulsions and underlying desires and longings, and apply them all, everywhere, always.
A few years ago, I noticed that I had all of these weird, smart ideas inside of me, and they were starting to rise to the surface for the first time because I was open to whatever came up. I was okay with my contradictions for the first time. I understood myself as a conflicted person. Before, I was always confused about where to put my focus. My numbers-loving nature and my control-freak tendencies and my creativity and my shifting obsessions and my deep and abiding hatred of perfection and my fixation on/resentment of good style — all of these things were at war, and the war had one message: YOU ARE BAD. You can’t decide. You can’t pick one thing and stick to it. You are always, always wasting your time.
But then I learned to love the war and ride the bomb, Dr. Strangelove–style, and my mind started to work in brand-new ways. I could relax. I could work hard. I could sleep at night. I could make up really good, stupid songs while doing the dishes.
At first, I thought: OH SNAP, I’M A GENIUS! But now, my feeling is that we are all geniuses who’ve been corralled into very narrow pens, asked to specialize, asked to sum ourselves up with one word, asked to explain ourselves with nonsensical strings of letters: ENJP. ISTJ. (Are you a THINKER or a FEELER? Are you kidding me?) And pretty soon, you’re ignoring 70 percent of your strengths because you’re convinced that they don’t exist anymore. You’re a creative person, so you’re not into numbers and order. You’re an extrovert, so you must crave a social job. You usually judge instead of perceiving. Is this some kind of a trap? I judge constantly and I also cannot dial down my perception. I am massively extroverted and I like to spend 90 percent of my time alone. I think way too much and I also feel way too much. Which one leads? Depends on the day. Depends on the hour. Depends on the millisecond.
I’m not against Myers-Briggs at all. I’m not against the DSM-V or astrology or fortune tellers or palm readers or Reiki healers or tarot cards. I’m fine with non-interdisciplinary fields of study. I’m not even against sitting in a narrow pen, doing what I’m asked to do. “Do this and only this!” is one of my favorite commands, in fact. I love to work very hard at one very small, stupid thing for a long time. I love it in part because I’m inherently conflicted, so I love the certainty that this one stupid task is important and it is definitely not stealing time from something else.
But we can all be many things and do many things. We just have to stay open to how many affinities and proclivities and talents and urges and obsessions we have. We have to let our distaste and our aversions and our weaknesses into the picture, too. We have to get a little bit loose with all of it, like letting a room full of rescue dogs mingle, growl, sniff each other’s butts, battle it out a little, run away, come back, and finally, settle down and be who they were meant to be.
Some rescue dogs really want to make Excel charts. Other rescue dogs want to Cheryl Strayed their lives.
The only thing these dogs and you cannot do is actually become Cheryl Strayed. You can hike the Pacific Crest Trail, sure. You can write like a motherfucker. But only Cheryl Strayed is going to Cheryl Strayed the hell out of those things.
I know this because I’ve met Cheryl Strayed. She can walk into a room and command an audience immediately. She is a person with flaws like anyone else, but she has a certain flavor of confidence that is almost otherworldly. Trying to Cheryl Strayed your life is like trying to become Beyoncé. Even trying to Kondo your life is like trying to move to Mars or bend a spoon with your mind or become Prince. Imagine trying to be Prince. Imagine saying, “I am the next Oprah.” No, you’re not. There is only one Oprah. This is the stupidest thing you could ever try. It’s not even good for you to try that. You’ll only be disappointed.
Now imagine me, trying to become that crinkly-linen-top-wearing motherfucker. It’s obscene. I spill tea on crinkled linen, always. That’s not a metaphor. I am who I am: disheveled, unruly, a human irritant. And the only reason I acted like an asshole in that imaginary meeting was because I told myself that I could become that crinkly surfer yogi lady. I told myself that I should become her. I told myself that my inability to become her was a moral failure on my part.
Luckily, I don’t have to be her. I just have to be who I already am. Once you let all of your selves live together without fighting, you get to be brilliant.
It’s time for you to enjoy how brilliant you already are. Trust yourself. Move here or there, and trust that it’ll work out. That’s mostly what Cheryl Strayed does. She sees the wisdom in what’s already happened. She sees the magic in what’s about to happen. She replaces her regrets with pride in how she handled it all. That’s why she sounds the way she does. That’s why people listen when she speaks.
You and I can’t be exactly like that, though. We have to do it our way, and maybe there will be some regrets for us, because that’s just how our minds work. It’s important to know the difference between emulating someone’s strengths and trying to erase your own weaknesses. So don’t erase yourself. It will only make you angry and resentful. Maybe you will always overanalyze and reassess and second guess, and that’s how it should be. Your path to brilliance necessarily leads to the person you already are. So stop fighting with her, and listen to her instead.
All letters to email@example.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.