How do I overcome the inertia?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column TUESDAY, MAR 21, 2006

I have so much potential I can’t decide what to do!


Dear Cary,

I’m 23 and panicking.

I’ve been working at a fairly small company in New York for about two years now. Immersed in my studies during my senior year at college, I hadn’t looked very hard for employment and landed this job a few weeks after graduation almost by accident. It has been good for me in some ways; I’ve learned new skills and improved others (both professional and social), and with the luxury of never having to take work home, I’ve been able to spend my limited free time pursuing numerous hobbies and projects. The pay could be better, but I’m living at home with minimal rent and other expenses and the salary is enough that I can afford to feed my book and movie habits and to travel when I can get the time off. However, I’ve long since hit the top of the learning curve here, there’s no opportunity for advancement, the hours are long, the work endless and repetitive with ever-decreasing time to do what I was hired for (writing) — and I’m restless to the point of desperation. I frequently feel burnt out but don’t want to stop what I do outside of work because that’s what really makes me feel alive.

My family, friends and even some co-workers are trying to convince me to quit. I know that’s the right thing to do. If any of them were in my position, I’d tell them in no uncertain terms that it was time to move on. But I can’t seem to do it, despite feeling overqualified and stagnating in my current position, if not decaying. I’ve started filling out grad school applications only to leave them half-finished. I’ve idly looked for jobs online, but the activities I do after hours to keep me sane (writing/presenting papers for conferences, for instance, and running a Web site) are convenient excuses preventing me from conducting an intensive search.

Part of the trouble of being stuck in this job (or seeming to be stuck, or self-defeatingly sticking) is that the number of possibilities once I leave are daunting. Although I’ve considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember and know that I will be writing for the rest of my life no matter what else I end up doing, I’m an intelligent young woman with varied interests and the potential to succeed in just about any field I choose. I was an excellent student (straight A’s, double major, Phi Beta Kappa, the works) with one of those ludicrous laundry lists of extracurricular activities, an itch to stay busy and intellectually stimulated that hasn’t left me (hence the aforementioned projects and hobbies). I can think of a dozen careers and academic disciplines that I might enjoy. So I ask myself: Should I apply to grad school? In what subject? Move somewhere new? Take a new job? What kind? Where? Quit for a set period of time and write? Travel? And so forth. For months I’ve been caught in circular thinking patterns and a paradox of atheistic mortality: I only have one life and want to choose carefully, so I’m putting (too much) thought into the next step — yet it’s only one life, so why am I wasting time at a job that has nothing left to offer me? I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?

It also doesn’t help that I feel under a good deal of pressure to achieve something significant. Like anyone, I want to make a difference, create something I’m proud of (a book, I’ve always assumed), leave a legacy. At school I was part of a community where expectations for our futures were discussed on national or even global scales. Such ambition is pretty new for me, and it’s very stressful to be fueled by this desire to achieve without knowing where to direct it.

Almost everyone I’ve asked for advice has said I should “just choose,” “just take action,” that things will work themselves out, that I’m young and have lots of time, that people go through multiple career changes nowadays and you never know where you’ll end up. One perceptive friend pointed out that I don’t have as many choices as I might like to think, and that by the time I narrow down all these possibilities to realistic opportunities (e.g., getting accepted to particular programs or landing specific job offers), the choice among them will be easy. I know there isn’t one “right” path and that a job or degree doesn’t define me as a person. I just don’t know where or how to start. How do I overcome the inertia?

Paralyzed by Potential

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Dear Paralyzed,

I could give you a to-do list and some deadlines. Would you like that? OK. Sketch out three possible book ideas — one or two paragraphs for each book idea — and send them to me by April 1.

Identify five graduate programs you are interested in and rank them, with explanations. Send that to me by April 15.

Also, on the work front: First, back up your contention that there is no upward mobility at your present company by explaining why that is. Are you sure that your company isn’t going to expand in some way that might accommodate you? Then identify five other jobs you might get. Send that to me by April 30.

There. That should justify your existence to God for six weeks or so. Oh, but you don’t believe in God. Well, I kind of don’t either. It’s complicated, no? But we’ll get to that.

I’m serious, by the way. I mean to see if this works. If it does, I can say to readers, here is something you can do with your own friends: Give each other deadlines. Help each other when you are stuck! This is the action approach — the part of the action approach that is crucial. It is not enough to simply say, do something! One has to find out a way to make something happen.

People who say, “Relax, just pick one, you’ve got plenty of time,” may not remember 23 — may not remember just how important the world is at 23, how limitless is the horizon, how fresh is the air, how ready the mind, how spirited the walk, how eager one is to begin. At 23 I rode the hippie bus from Manhattan to San Francisco and ended up in a falling-down Victorian on Fulton and Baker one floor up from a deadhead with bad teeth named Sunshine.

I thought I had it made.

I note with interest this sentence: “I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?” If you think about it for a minute, you will realize the limited effectiveness of such insight. Recognizing you have a broken leg doesn’t cure it. It’s just the beginning of a process of understanding.

But my guess is it’s not really mortality that terrifies you. At 23, I thought I was terrified by death, but the actual things that terrified me were less impressive: failure, weakness, shame, appearing to be mediocre. I romanticized my fears. What I actually feared was not death, but the risks one takes in living.

It was fear of failure, and fear of being judged. It was fear of being mediocre, of joining the human race and being a worker among workers, of not being special, of turning out to have all the same problems and limitations as everyone else. To avoid facing those things, I avoided doing many things. I chickened out. I walked off the ice (I am still lacing up my skates on the sidelines, slowly watching the action out of the corner of my eye.)

So, using my experience as a guide (even though we are different in many ways), I would try to locate some fears closer to home. These actual fears may be harder to accept, though they sound less powerful: fear of choosing the wrong occupation, fear of not living up to your “potential,” fear of wasting these precious years, fear of not being as happy as you are right now.

I did have one thing at 23: I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a writer. So, it seems, do you.

So why not just write the book? Wouldn’t that be enough right there?

That brings to mind another danger of believing the whole “You’ve got so much potential” thing: Actual accomplishments are much harder than they look. Not only does the world itself seem to resist our efforts to accomplish even the smallest objectives, but you will resist yourself; right now, theoretically, you could do a million things. But in reality you can’t even quit your job. That’s what I mean. Even easy things are hard to do.

So send me your assignments. And if this works, I will recommend that readers do this with each other. I already know that it works in many settings where one gets stuck. I hope it will work here.

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