How do I overcome the inertia?

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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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My family gives me no respect

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 7, 2006

I’m accomplished and responsible but they treat me like a loser.


Dear Cary,

I have a great job, own my own home, car, dog and medium-size 401K, have put myself through college and law school. I am not a loser! So why does my whole family treat me like one?

My family is not a normal set of folks; we are in a whole new category of dysfunctional and it would take 20 hours’ worth of couch time to even come close to describing the crazy things below the surface. Anyway, the issue is that I want to be loved and respected. I am loved by some but respect is just not there.

My youngest sister is forever telling me how poor my judgment is, how bad my understanding of people is and how unprofessional I am, despite the evidence of my high-powered job at an internationally renowned organization. I have a résumé to die for. That is not just a boast but a statement of fact (OK, a boast, too. I need to bolster myself since I am not getting it from outside sources). She tells me that she has no faith in me, in my judgment or in anything about me, that my house is awful, my neighborhood sucks, my dog is poorly trained, etc. And this is the sister I get along with best.

My mother makes it clear that a woman of 39 (me) without a husband and without children is a loser by definition. I had a husband, a drug-abusing, foul-mouthed yet charming brute who almost bankrupted me, stole from me and my friends, cheated on me with other women and possibly men, and verbally abused me in public and private. Dumping him after seven years of marriage was the best decision of my life. I feel lucky that any of my self-esteem survived that one. Yet, here we are five years later and my mother still criticizes me for not keeping that guy! Her current advice: Find a man who wants American citizenship and trade my bed for a green card!

My father barely speaks to me because I dated a guy he did not like a year ago. Two of my sisters do not speak to me at all. I honestly do not know why but both claim to be angry at me. My brother thinks I am an irresponsible idiot. My last sister, who is the only one who acknowledges me as a fully grown and responsible adult, still tells me that my divorce from an abusive ex is a sign of my inability to keep a commitment!

For God’s sake, what is it going to take to get these people to admit that I am fine as I am and why the hell do I care! Are these people overly judgmental or am I insane?

Dissed by My Family

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Dear Dissed,

You are fine as you are. I know that. You know that. It’s the truth.
But your family is never going to give you what you want. That’s also the truth.

You will never be at peace with your family until you stop wanting what they will never give you.

It is easy to say, “Accept the way things are.”

But exactly how do we accept things? What is this action called acceptance? I would say that acceptance is knowing rather than wishing. You studied law. You committed many laws to memory. You may wish they were one way but they are the way they are. If you go into the courtroom and expect the laws to be different from the way they are you will not succeed. You must accept that the law is the way it is. You must know the law.

The same is true with your family. You must know your family as it is. You must study your family and know it thoroughly. That is your route to acceptance. Regard your family as a fact, immutable as the law. They are what they are. They behave in a certain way. The facts are unpleasant. But they are facts.

What happens to people who do not like the law and so do not obey it? They get their asses kicked.

You may not like what you know about your family but you must accept it or you will get your ass kicked. You will step into the ring expecting a kiss and get slapped. Don’t do it. Don’t let them kick you around.

You may find it hard to accept your family as it is. There are reasons for that. One reason is that in accepting your family as it is, you have to give up, or mourn, the ideal family that never was. You may have to go through a sort of grieving process. You may have to feel the hurt, the lifelong ache of wanting a family that is loving and kind and supportive and never getting it. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It hurts for a long time. But that is the price of knowing the truth.

I think the truth is worth it.

Here is a consolation: This other family, this ideal, imaginary family that you always wanted, this family that really gets you, that supports you, that appreciates you as you appreciate yourself: It is a real family, too. It is real in your mind. You can keep it, in fact. You can keep this imaginary family in your mind. This dream family is your family, too. It’s the family you deserve. It lives on a different street in a different neighborhood where only you can go.

Here is another consolation. Sometimes if you leave something alone long enough it begins to heal on its own and one day long after you have given up even thinking about it a gift arrives in the mail that is so delightful you break down right there on your doorstep because you had given up all hope of such a thing ever, ever happening.

I’m just saying it’s possible. Maybe one day if you leave this alone it may fix itself. But don’t hold your breath. Let it be.

Your family today is sad and difficult and dangerous. Remember that. Accept it. Don’t give them the opportunity to kick you around anymore.

Get what you need some other way. Get it from people who have it to give.

I got derailed somehow!

Write for Advice

 I feel like I’ve failed at everything. How do I get back on track?

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, FEB 16, 2005

Dear Cary,

I need help. I don’t know how my life got so badly off the rails, but it has. I have no idea what I can do to ever be happy again.

I used to have a lot of promise. I grew up in a small Rust Belt city, with good parents who loved me tremendously. I was always the smartest kid in the class, the one with straight A’s, the one who as a kindergartener was brought before the fourth-grade class to show off how well I could read their reading textbooks, the one who was going to be brilliant and amazing some day. I had enough friends of my own, but I got bullied a lot and never felt like I fit in, all through high school. Everyone told me that I would find my place in the world once I got out of high school. So I did; I graduated near the top of my class and headed off to a Great University in another part of the country. I remember my 20th birthday, walking around the campus, thinking how wonderful it was to be there and thinking about how bright my future was. At that moment, I thought the whole world was open to me.

Nothing has worked out like I had hoped. I had dreamed of a journalism career and worked on student publications, but I gave up while still in college when I repeatedly failed to get an editorial position above that of a lowly staff writer. Looking for a replacement career, I decided to become a lawyer. Part of me was thinking that law would be a good profession for me, but deep down I knew I chose it because it was the only profession I could get into without having to change my major and take an extra year to graduate. Right after I started law school, my reservations about being there and the stress of the workload threw me into a deep depression that kept me from getting good grades or following the regular career path of getting summer jobs with law firms. I started therapy for depression just before graduation, and recovered, but too late to help my career prospects.

So I moved back to the same miserable Rust Belt town where I grew up, living with my parents, unemployed. Eventually I passed the bar and got a low-paying legal job with a local government agency. I met and fell in love with a woman right before she moved to take a good job about a hundred miles away, in a much nicer and less depressing town. We kept up a long-distance relationship until she wanted something more; then we got engaged and she moved back, giving up her job for a much lesser one. Our relationship became much less pleasant once we were together all the time, and there are a lot of ways in which we are incompatible. But despite all my doubts, I felt that I couldn’t break up with her, since she had given up so much for me that I felt I owed her. So we got married, and still are.

Before the wedding, she wanted me to try to earn more than a civil servant’s paycheck, so at her urging, I opened up my own law office. I soon realized that my minimal career experiences up to that point had done nothing to prepare me for the pressures of litigating as a sole practitioner. I knew nothing, and was quickly swamped. I don’t have many clients, but that’s OK, because I can’t handle the work for the few that I have. I have tried to give up my practice for a regular job, but no one will hire me; in the legal profession, failing at a solo practice is viewed as a sign that you’re just not able to hack it as a lawyer. This has been a tremendous strain on my marriage, and my wife often lets me know just how disappointed she is in my inability to bring in as much money as she had expected when we got together.

Now, at age 34, I find myself a million miles from where I hoped to be when I started out. I haven’t accomplished anything great; instead I have only failed. I’m living in the same miserable town where I was born, unhappily married, and operating a failing business. I can’t help feeling like a complete failure. So what do I do now? How can I get anywhere? How can I regain the hope that I once had when I have no more faith in my ability to make the right decisions?

Swamped and Lost

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Dear Swamped and Lost,

I enjoyed your story very much. I should say I “related” to it I guess — enjoying other people’s tales of woe sounds so vulturish, doesn’t it? — but the truth is I do enjoy hearing tales such as yours because I relate so strongly to it. I mean, I got the feeling you should be a writer. You sound a lot like me. You seem to have the dour temperament for it, and failure in life seems so key to success in writing — it has a way of stripping away illusion. I also note that your use of language is very familiar to me personally; it’s that pattern of depression in which your depression is not delineated by the language so much as buried in it, mixed in it, like pebbles in concrete; pieces of your depression lie suspended in your language. I am very familiar with this. This is the kind of chatter that goes on in my own head.

I also see that you have done many of the things I did — quitting an organization, for instance, when you were not given your due as quickly as you thought you deserved to be given your due. Those of us who were singled out as children for being exceptionally bright often go through this, apparently; we are always the smartest one in class and we come to expect special treatment; we aren’t toughened sufficiently, perhaps, as younger children — especially if we only do what we are good at, the academic stuff, but shy away from sports and other activities where we might not be able to be the best; so we aren’t taught how to accept being second best, how to be just one among many; so when we encounter such situations later in life, we quit; we crumble; we throw a fit.

I had a particularly jolting moment last year in a conversation about my childhood when I described how, after a traumatic move away from my beloved boyhood home and neighborhood, entering a new school in seventh grade, finding myself stirred to a kind of intellectual frenzy, carrying home a stack of books taller than I was, books on, of all things “the halogens.” In this conversation, someone said to me, “Thinking is not enough.” I realized then that I had tried to think my way through adolescence! It might not sound like much, but like many things that strike us for reasons only we understand, it appeared to me that I had done all my thinking in order to avoid confronting the true challenges of becoming a person. Wow. And then I started to drink! I had no center! I had no heart! I was a walking, talking avoidance mechanism!

So without going into all of it, let’s just say it’s been a long road for me, learning humility, learning to be a worker among workers. And to this day, one of the most shameful aspects of my personality, the one that I still try to hide by adopting an air of being a regular guy, is that I think of myself as a superstar. Even saying it right now makes me cringe. I love to make myself cringe. I figure I’m hitting some kind of nerve. I do this like a performance: Watch me mutilate myself! Watch me cringe!

It took failure to bring me to my senses. Failure can be a great gift. If you can finally allow yourself to fail, perhaps you can let go of being such a great and responsible guy, and so miserable. The way you’re going now, it sounds to me, you are failing very slowly, in such a way that you will never ever give up, but just keep failing interminably, never giving up but always failing, never surrendering but always sinking lower, never admitting that you might have made some choices that weren’t based on what you really needed but on what you thought you were supposed to do, never having the courage to just say, Screw it, I hate the law! This is not what I want! I want what I have wanted since I was a kid! … which is … what? To be a journalist? To study frogs? To move to the tropics? To live your life the way you want?

If there were no compelling psychological needs to keep you from living your life the way you want, it would not be a difficult thing at all. The practical barriers are minimal. The barriers are all psychological. That doesn’t mean they’re not real. Oh, boy, they’re real all right. It means, on the contrary, they are so real that they must be confronted head-on. The lack of practical barriers is deceptive. Maybe that’s exactly it: You’re so expertly functional that if you want to, you can stay right on that miserable edge of functional depression and buried rage your whole damned life until you’re lying on your deathbed thinking, Wow, I’m finally starting to feel like a human!

You could spend the next 40 years in a slow-motion free fall, agonizingly failing to live up to your dreams. You can stay there your whole life! In that way, those of us who have some definable problem are much better off. We hit bottom, as they say, and then we can start to get better.

What would it take for you to “hit bottom”? What would it take for you to realize that you need to stop slowly failing and have a good, healthy crackup? Would it take losing your practice? Your wife leaving you? Losing your house, your car, your clothes? Would you have to be on the street, wracked with clinical depression, dragging a few belongings down an alley, bruised from a beating you don’t remember, swollen from infection, weak from malnutrition, haunted by nightmares? What would it take? How far would you take this before you got up the courage to truly fail once and for all?

Maybe all you need is to go see a therapist now, before you lose everything. Maybe you’ll go in there all shaky and uncertain and when you sit down you realize that for the first time ever you can tell someone everything — and I mean everything! — and it starts to come out in tears and rage and sadness, and as you shake with the fever of grief and loneliness, as your hot tears fall, as all this surprising but curiously familiar activity begins in your heart, you start to realize how aloof you have held yourself all these years and thus how alone you’ve been, and this doesn’t even come as a thought but as a reality: In your body suddenly you’re human again, and only later do you reflect upon how difficult it has been to simply be a part of the human race, how above it you’ve held yourself, how numb you’ve been, and finally you can say screw it, screw the law, screw the demands of everybody that I be everything the test scores said I should be, screw my own Little Lord Fauntleroy specialness, screw my expectations, my vengeance, my dreams of power, I am what I am and that’s going to have to be good enough.

You’re only 34. You’ve got a couple of lifetimes to go.

p.s. I got sober at 35. It’s a good time to let everything come crashing down all at once — you’re still strong enough to lift a few of the timbers and crawl out of the wreckage!

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