The Power of Thought and the Value of Being Lost

A twisted mythology exists in graduate school that you're not working hard enough unless you're miserable and everyone else can bear witness to that suffering.

The last time I sat down to write this column, I was in the midst of the most tumultuous period of my adult life to date. I had openly admitted to my advisor that I desperately wanted to quit my job, a job that I had once believed would be the most fulfilling and inspiring experience of my twenties. The fact that I had no back-up plan or real-world know how to in any way suggest that everything would turn out alright afterward was no longer a meaningful deterrent. The enormity of my failures as a scientist was too much to bear, leading me to question my purpose and calling in life and whether there was any such thing. I had discovered, in the most unforgiving way possible, that the quarter-life crisis is real and that it was about to propel me into a series of awkward and humiliating encounters with my colleagues and classmates. I felt like I was on fire all the time.

Thankfully, it passed. Or rather, I have since learned to live comfortably in the flames, like an astronaut sitting resolutely in a sweltering space capsule as it breaks back through the atmosphere and barrels straight toward Earth, with literally no possibility of a soft landing. All of my training and life choices up until this moment have placed me on this indelicate trajectory, and I’m making a pretty determined beeline for the ground. At this point, all I can control is how much I enjoy the ride and what I decide to do next, once I get carried back to shore.

So here’s a spoiler alert: I’m still employed, and the question I get most often these days from family and friends who were privy to my struggle is “Why? What changed?”

The answer is actually fairly anticlimactic: I changed. In the past few months, it has become clear to me that the sum of everything in my graduate education that has fallen short of my naïve expectations has been just a drop in the bucket compared to the relentless maelstrom of negative thoughts I rained down on myself every day. I am, to use an insufferable cliché, my own worst enemy. I’m not trivializing how important it is to have resources and educators around you that are genuinely invested in your success; however, it is impossible to make the most of any situation or reach your full potential if you’re constantly getting in your own way.

I know I’m not alone in this tendency to be severely critical of myself, nor am I alone in lending more credence to my inner voice than I should. We all live with an internal monologue that reflects and gives weight to even our most baseless fears and insecurities, no matter how wildly speculative they are. Over the last few months, I have spoken with so many friends, classmates, and mentors who are all currently experiencing, or had at one time experienced, a similar sort of existential crisis, and it seems we are all struggling against ourselves, to varying degrees. Even the most banal of these thoughts—Do I sound stupid? Do they like me?—can gain surprising momentum and affect our behavior. Interestingly, the manifestations of these inner battles can take on many forms. For me, it was a complete meltdown and an overwhelming urge to flee into the night, never to be seen again; for others, it becomes a personal challenge to prove themselves wrong at every turn and start actively answering those big questions in life.

All of this comes down to the power and meaning we assign our thoughts and how we allow them to define our sense of self. This is an epiphany I would never have had without some professional help because I had been trapped in my own head for so long. Thoughts are just thoughts, especially the darkest ones. They are born and then die, over and over again, unless we choose to give them a life, and we can’t control them, ignore them, or push them down. What we can do, however, is accept their brief existence, move on, and realize that they don’t define who we are or what we are capable of doing.

Any graduate student that tells you they never once thought about quitting or questioned their greater goals in life is either lying or incredibly lucky, and I think that is an important thing to know. For many years, I was afraid to admit (outside of this column) that I was having doubts about myself because I thought it would make me look weak, stupid, or uncommitted to my career. None of this is true, and self-doubt is probably one of the most relatable emotions in the world, but I didn’t know this because my peers never spoke about these uncomfortable feelings, probably for the same reasons. At a certain level of competition and achievement, it somehow becomes a badge of honor to stoically accept unhappiness, as if it’s the only true and meaningful measure of just how much you’re willing to sacrifice for your dreams. A twisted mythology exists in graduate school that you’re not working hard enough unless you’re miserable and everyone else can bear witness to that suffering.

Now that I’ve begun spilling the beans to everyone I know, it’s fascinating to discover how many of them actually relate quite strongly to my ongoing crisis and were suddenly inspired to confide in me their own fears or stories of their own meltdowns. It seems like everywhere I look, people are quitting their jobs, are unemployed and searching frantically for new jobs, or looking to leave their four-year-old careers behind and start something totally new. We are all searching. Some are graduate students like me, some are stuck in their first jobs out of college and are slowly realizing that their yearly salary bump and bonus can’t compensate for the emptiness of their profession, and others have had four completely different jobs in four years and are no closer to figuring out what they want. Social commentators love to say, somewhat scornfully, that it is the privilege of my generation to spend more money and time than ever before collecting name-brand degrees, only to graduate and feel lost and spend our prime career-building years trying to find ourselves again. We sometimes even return to the nest to hide out for a few years and find solace in the protective cocoon of our families. The commentators are right—we do that, and it is a privilege, but that doesn’t mean it’s a mistake.