The future is scary

Jan. 10, 2023, 9:42 p.m.

Right now, there’s this entire stretch before me called my sophomore year of college, and everything feels uncertain. I am staring down the path leading into the future and I can’t see through the fog. And that just fills me with anxiety.

I’m writing this as a sort of time capsule for the future. We live in an age where we are constantly seeing successful people, and by the nature of us having noticed them, they are successful. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have known who they are or seen their work in the first place, and I struggle to imagine the people who are currently so successful as anything but the successes they are now. It’s near impossible to see Lebron James or Elon Musk or one of my professors at Stanford as people who weren’t destined for success. There must have been a point in these people’s lives where they doubted themselves and didn’t know if they’d make it, but I can’t even begin to imagine that. Of course you hear stories from them about what it was like coming up, but that’s always colored by the fact that we all now know that they would eventually become successful. Personal narratives are always backwards facing, but we’ll get back to that later.

So I wanted to document where I’m at right now, when it feels like my life is nothing except uncertainty and anxiety, and then I’ll talk about how we can transform this anxiety and shift our mindset into something that will help us find peace and, maybe, even a bit of excitement for the future.

One of my biggest sources of anxiety is my creative pursuits — mainly, my YouTube channel and a novel that I’m currently working on. Probably once a day, I question whether or not I’m wasting my time with these two projects. I pour so much time into these ventures, and I just never know if they will “pay off.” Sure, on some philosophical level this time is already paying off — I think there is value in just working hard and applying yourself to things you genuinely care about — but I also want to know if I will ever get published or whether people will ever watch these videos. The life satisfaction that I get from this won’t ever pay the bills or let me quit working at Salt and Straw. I don’t write for monetary rewards or attention, but any creative wants their art to be acknowledged and to impact people.

I take my writing as seriously as I take any schoolwork. It’s the first thing I do every single day, and I do it to the detriment of my health, grades, sleep and more sleep, but I do it anyway. I know how ambiguous the path that I’ve signed up for is — that’s just the nature of doing anything creative. But when I’m still an amateur and trying my hardest to get better and not seeing immediate results, it’s really easy to start doubting myself and thinking, “maybe I should just quit. Maybe this isn’t worth the struggle.” I’ve poured over 100 hours into the novel I’m currently working on, twice that on the novel that I wrote last year, and probably somewhere in between on this YouTube channel, and I have very few tangible results to show for all that time.

I think this is especially hard because it feels like I’m surrounded by people who are aiming for pretty straightforward jobs. All of my friends are STEM majors and are going to be software engineers or something where they’ll be making six figures right out of college. The effort they put in now seems to be directly building their future, and the harsh reality is that this isn’t true for my creative endeavors. At least once a week, I think, “screw all of this. Who cares about creative fulfillment or taking risks. It’s probably not too late to become a CS major.”

Speaking of school, another source of anxiety is my academic pursuits. I’m pretty set on pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology and trying to become a clinical psychologist. Often, it is only the somewhat stable ground of attempting to become a psychologist that allows me to even attempt my creative endeavors. But even this “stable” goal of mine fills me with anxiety. This idea of going to grad school or becoming a psychologist is really out of left field for me. I’ve never known anyone closely who has gone to grad school or talked to anyone about what that path even looks like. Even if being a psychologist is “stable”, the path that leads there is shrouded in uncertainty for me. I have zero connections in the industry at the moment, I don’t have personal relationships with professors that could really guide me, nor — and this is the big one — do I have any research experience.

Research lab experience is extremely important to get into grad school, but I have no research experience or any idea how to get some. It’s also one of those paradoxical things where a lot of research jobs look for people with research experience… huh??? Most of the time, I don’t even get responses to these emails. I consider myself lucky to even get a rejection email. Also, do I just take the first lab that accepts me, like a desperate guy that latches onto the first girl that gives him attention, or do I have standards? But sometimes having standards is a privilege! And this feels doubly worse because I need to do research, so every rejection or unanswered email feels like a direct roadblock to this goal that I’ve oriented my entire academic career around.

And it feels quadruply worse, because there is nothing I hate more in this world than doing administrative work. I love sitting down and getting absorbed into work, whether it’s reading books, writing or even doing PSETs, because I’m sitting down for multiple hours and really focusing on something. But I hate sending emails, filling out random forms or just constantly having to switch my attention between different things — all things I have to do when applying to labs. Then, I have to figure out what I’m supposed to say in these applications and how to create a decent resume, which just all seems like busy work! None of this administrative stuff feels like I’m actually doing anything! Luckily, things have just recently gotten better — I’ve gotten one or two responses, so I’m hopeful, but this entire application process has been excruciating.

Moving away from work-related stuff, let’s talk about my social life because who doesn’t like talking about social anxiety? I would like to preface this by saying I’m very lucky to have really good friends here, but I think I’m still searching for a community on campus where I feel like I really belong. I wanna branch out more, but making new friends is hard and there’s so much uncertainty about that. Like how the hell do I meet new people in ways that don’t feel terribly forced? How do I go from being acquaintances with someone to being genuine friends with them? And naturally, you’re just gonna meet a lot of people who you don’t vibe with, and it can feel like you’re putting in all of this effort to meet new people, but a lot of the time you don’t know if it will really pay off. It takes a bunch of effort to “put myself out there,” and it’s hard to put in that effort to be social and still not find your people. And I’ll just acknowledge the elephant in the room. Am I ever going to find a girlfriend?

But anyway, there’s a common thread running through all these different sources of anxiety and stringing all of them together. Anxiety arises when there is a disconnect between the effort that we are putting into things and whether we can see how that effort is shaping our future. I pour effort into my creative pursuits, applying to research labs and trying to make friends, but I have no clue as to whether or not the work I put in will produce the results I want, which often leaves my life feeling like a chaotic void. But: there are ways we can deal with this anxiety.

The first part is to stop caring whether or not things ever work out because we can’t control the outcome. Detachment. I think a lot of wisdom in life is separating the things that we can and cannot control and then zeroing in on the things we can control. And to be completely honest, we can almost never control the outcome of events. The only thing we can control is our actions, so we need to find peace in the fact that we did the right thing — or the thing that we were supposed to do.

It’s something I tell myself all the time when I sit down and attempt to write my novel. I constantly have fears over whether this novel that I’m working on is going to be good or whether it’s a gigantic waste of time because it might never get published, but I can’t really control if this novel or any future novel I write ever gets published or if it’s even good. The only thing I can control is whether or not I sit down to write every single day. So I do. I try to find enjoyment and solace in that action, every single day. I try my hardest not to even think about the end goal of the novel or what will happen to it. I write because that’s the only thing I can do. This is why I got a custom made mug that reads, “You have the right to work but never to the fruit of the work” from the Bhagavad Gita, and I drink tea from it every morning as I write.

Anxiety only affects us because we care about the outcome of the future. However, if we completely cede control of the future to some universal physical law or Jesus or the flying spaghetti monster, we begin to detach from it, and then, we can really hone in on the work that really matters. Detachment is the antidote to anxiety. Everyone can benefit from training their mind in this way, and it’s not an all-or-nothing lesson. We don’t have to become monks and give up all worldly attachments to benefit from it, but there’s only so much that we can detach ourselves from because we’re just human. We’re not enlightened beings who spend our days meditating and training the mind to overcome all expectations and desires.

The other mental tool I use to help me cope with the anxiety of the future is to remember that we have never known what the future would have looked like. All of the great moments we’ve had up till now were at one point unimaginable to us. When I was a freshman in high school, I could not have imagined getting into Stanford. When I got into Stanford, I couldn’t have imagined taking a gap year and getting my nail license. When I was in nail school, I couldn’t have imagined living out of my van and exploring the country, but now all of these memories or experiences seem almost commonplace or inevitable.

Life only makes sense looking backwards. We create these narrative threads in our heads that connect all of these disparate events in our past to make sense of them, but we can only connect the dots once we’ve moved through them. We’re so used to our past following this linear structure that we project that onto the future and try to predict what the future will look like, but that has never and will never work. We just don’t know what the future holds. So let’s zoom out on the timeline that we use to look at our life. Realize that we very well could still be a couple weeks away or even months away from all of the loose ends in our lives tying themselves up — though new loose ends will surely also appear. Our life will have so many great and not so great moments that we can’t imagine right now, so look towards the future with a certain level of curiosity and detachment, almost like we’re watching a movie. When watching a movie, we obviously care about the main characters and their well-being, but we’re also just really curious to see what happens to them next. Who knows what crazy adventure or tragedy might befall them? There’s only one way to figure it out, and that’s to live through it!

Right now, it does feel like there are a million unknowns in my life — how will my creative pursuits go? Will I get into a research lab and manage to set myself up well for grad school? Do I find these so-called “life-long friends” in college, or have I already found them? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I do know that I am going to try my hardest to do whatever I can, and then, I’m gonna sit back and watch with cautious excitement and a prying curiosity as the future unfolds right in front of me.

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