[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

Ever since I was little, I held a belief shared by many gifted kids–gifted kids who grow into overachieving teenagers and then sleepless college students and then budding doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, businesspeople, or just those legions of people who wear tailored suits and work in tall office buildings in lower Manhattan and do stuff with money on computers or something.

That belief was this: you must do everything you are capable of. Anything less than that, and you’re “selling yourself short.”

You must participate in every science fair. You must take every honors class. You must play every sport your body can reasonably perform. You must accept every social invitation you are offered. You must matriculate at the most elite college to which you are accepted. You must have as many majors and minors as you can fit into your schedule, and you must have as many leadership positions you can get yourself accepted for.

So last spring I applied and got into the honors program in psychology. This meant that I would spend my senior year designing, carrying out, and writing up my own research study. At the time I was still under the impression that I wanted to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, so this was obviously something I felt I should do.

I was at least mildly excited about it, at first, or at least made a good imitation of being excited. I don’t remember which it was anymore.

But in any case, things soon deteriorated. I discovered that I would not be able to do the study I originally designed about the stigma of mental illness–a topic I care deeply about–because none of the faculty members who study it were able to advise my project for various reasons. I tried to find a different lab to work in, but literally every single professor whose work I found interesting–and there are quite a few–was either already advising too many other honors students or had a requirement that you needed to have worked in their lab first or whatever.

So I ended up in a lab that deals with something I knew little about and that had very little relevance to my future career–cultural neuroscience. Fascinating stuff, but difficult and unrewarding. I couldn’t understand half the words that came out of my adviser’s mouth. What little willingness I had to go through with the program faded away. But still, I did not quit it.

The reasons I gave myself and others for not quitting are interesting mainly due to their blatant inaccuracy:

  • I felt that the department would be annoyed with me, but that’s silly since I was told I could withdraw at any time, and besides, if I quit that would free up resources for others.
  • I worried that this would somehow hurt my chances for admission into graduate school, which is even sillier because I’m applying to do a masters in social work, where nobody will care about my lack of research experience (particularly not in cultural neuroscience).
  • My parents told me not to, but so they did with journalism, and I quit that anyway and never looked back.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I thought that quitting would make me a failure, even though that’s just obviously false.

As it turns out, what it came down to wasn’t any logical reason, but rather a sense of obligation, an invisible hand shoving me forward into doing things that I have no interest in and that bring me little or no benefit.

It is incredible to me how powerful that force was. I have always stubbornly persevered when it comes to getting the things I want, but apparently not getting things I don’t want is a different story.

Several agonizing weeks went by and then The Weekend happened. The Weekend was this past weekend. I saw an amazing speaker talk about microaggressions. I spent hours with friends. I laid around in bed in the mornings. I had a friend visit–someone I care about deeply and am now proud to call more than just a friend.

And at one point, I was sitting in the living room looking at my two bookshelves, which are full of unread books that are calling my name. (A small sample: When Everything Changed, Microaggressions, Outdated, Delusions of Gender, Sex at Dawn, and Thinking Fast and Slow.) I often wonder when I’ll be able to read them. But this time, for some reason, the question took on a new urgency: Seriously, though, when the fuck am I going to read these amazing books?

And it hit me that for the first time, academics doesn’t have to define me anymore. It doesn’t have to be My Thing. I don’t have to throw myself into the work to forget the fact that I have no real friends and no actual meaning to my life, because suddenly, I do.

I have new friends all over the country who are quickly starting to feel like old friends. I have my writing and this blog, which is growing in popularity and bringing me even more good friends and interesting people to talk to. I have the work that I do with sexual and mental health–I could write a whole post about the projects I’m working on and how much they mean to me. I have a new partner I adore, who supported me through this decision rather than pushing me to do and be everything.

This city, this city I used to hate so much, is growing more beautiful and homey to me every day. We spend our weekends out in its streets and thrift stores and cafes and apartments. As the weather grows colder, my heart grows warmer.

The thing is, I can do and be a whole lot of things. If I really wanted to, I could do this thesis. (I could also get a PhD, which I recently decided not to–a decision that parallels this one in many ways.) In the grand scheme of things, a year is not that long of a time to do something I don’t like and don’t need (assuming, of course, that my mental health would survive the year-long onslaught, which I doubt).

I could toil away at it and add another line to my resume, not because this will help me get into a social work program or accomplish any of my actual goals, but just so I could feel a little bit smarter and more accomplished.

But why?

Life is just too fucking short.

It’s too short for this kind of crap.

And so I quit.

[guest post] The Tradeoff Between Ambition and Happiness

A fellow blogger has provided me with this guest post about the psychology of ambition and happiness. Enjoy!

Imagine there’s a big project at work and you decide to come in on the weekend. The
length of you stay is entirely up to you, but you’ll get paid overtime for each hour.
After six hours you’re starting to feel like you’ve had enough. It’s time to decide
whether to stay another hour.

Both options have their benefits. Leave and you get to go hang out with friends. Stay
and you make more money. You go over the pros and cons in your head, but because
you have complete freedom over how to spend the next hour the choice comes
down to one thing: are you unhappier about leaving or unhappier about staying?
The decision will be made based on whether you feel, or convince yourself to feel,
unhappy and unsatisfied about only working six hours.

The point of this little scenario is that while many of us don’t consciously make
these specific decisions every day, the course of our lives and our happiness is
altered by how we incrementally reach these decisions over many months or years.
Are you going rip yourself apart over still not getting that promotion, or will you be
satisfied that you’ve reached the professional level you dreamed about when you
were a college student? Will you be happy if everything in life is great except for the
fact that you’re single, or will you be so unsatisfied that you have no choice but to
dedicate yourself to finding a significant other?

Happiness is influenced by a number of things that are out of our control – random
events, brain chemistry, immutable mental schemata developed as a young child – but
we can control some piece of our happiness through the stories we tell ourselves.
We can tell ourselves we’re successful and be happy, or we can tell ourselves we’re
not successful enough, and in doing so motivate greater achievement that ultimately
leads to a higher and more-stable level of happiness.

All of this is to say that it seems as though life involves a significant tradeoff between
ambition and happiness. Ambition requires focusing on what you don’t have.
Happiness requires focusing on what you do have. Yet the best way to truly strive
for more is to make yourself unsatisfied and unhappy with your current state. Thus,
in order to achieve more and push yourself to greater long-term happiness, it is
helpful to destroy short- or medium-term happiness.

The big question is what’s the optimal equilibrium between current life satisfaction
(i.e. happiness) and current life dissatisfaction (i.e. ambition)? The answer to this
question is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the driver of
many of the big dilemmas people face in their lives. Should you accept what you’ve
accomplished on the grounds that it will keep you happy forever, or should you
convince yourself to feel unsatisfied on the grounds that one day you will wish you
achieved more? Clearly the answer is different for each person at each point in their
lives.

The happiness-ambition tradeoff is also one that society as a whole must grapple
with. It’s probably efficient to stigmatize things like delinquency, ignorance,
and lawlessness, but what if there happens to be a smart upper-middle class kid
whose childhood dream is to become a lowly janitor? If somebody has such great
perspective on life that they are truly happy with becoming an uneducated janitor,
is that something social norms should discourage? Is it wrong for society to try and
rob them of their happiness in order to push them to do something that might have
more social value?

The point of all of this is…well, I’m not quite sure. Hopefully it helped generate some
unique thoughts about what happiness really means and what we can do about it.
And hopefully the next time you’re unhappy about where you are in life, you’ll think
more clearly about the emotions driving your thoughts. Is your level of ambition
really worthwhile given what it’s doing to your happiness? Or alternatively, is
your happiness “legitimate” enough that it’s worth taking your ambition down a
notch?

Perhaps with improved metacognition you’ll even find a way to mitigate the
ambition-happiness tradeoff – to somehow increase motivation by making yourself
unsatisfied with what you have, but do it without robbing yourself of present
happiness.

Eric hails from the D.C. suburbs, though he now spends his days in New York City working to improve/ruin the lives of children by conducting research on the benefits of extending the school day. His blog – Peer-reviewed by My Neurons – is a wondrous hodgepodge of posts that all somehow relate to social science and social policy.

On Ambition

I used to be what most people would call an ambitious person. That is to say, I knew exactly where I wanted to go in life, and it was a place that everyone respected. I was also willing to do everything necessary to get there–the perfect grades, prestigious college, and on and on.

What my actual ambition was doesn’t matter, because I had several phases that I went through. I remember at one point I wanted to be a psychologist. Then an architect, then a physicist, then a lawyer, then a statistician, then an economist, then a sociologist, and then, finally, a journalist. That was the dream that ultimately led to the breakdown of all the other dreams.

My parents were always very proud of me for being so ambitious, even if what I actually wanted to do was always changing. That, after all, was only natural, and it was clear to everyone that I had what it takes to get to the top of any field I chose. My parents were certain that once I started college, I’d immediately settle down with whatever major happened to be conveniently available to me and begin the process of climbing up the totem pole like a good little girl.

Well, what they forgot to tell me was that it’s pretty damn hard to be ambitious when you no longer know what the hell you want to do with your life. Journalism sucked, sociology might as well have been Political Correctness 101, and I’m terrible at science, so I picked psychology. But then I started having doubts. What if I’d make the most amazing computer programmer in the world? Or photographer, or novelist, or graphic designer, or architect, or engineer?

But all of these paths were closed off to me, because most of them don’t even have departments at my school, and those that do are special programs that one needs to apply for (much like my nemesis, journalism). Furthermore, I could no longer afford to take any more random classes if I wanted to graduate on time (which I must, given the cost of attending college). The uncomfortable truth was that you really can’t be whatever you want to be. If I wanted to study architecture or engineering, I should’ve thought of that earlier. But I didn’t, and besides, there was still no guarantee I’d like any of those, either. I was now, I realized, completely and inexorably stuck. And that’s when I lost my ambition–and my faith in myself.

I don’t know how, at 18 years old, I was supposed to just magically know what I want to do for the rest of my life. I certainly didn’t get any room for experimentation. I spent freshman year slaving away in the name of journalism and ended up choosing psychology because it seems to be the only subject I’m good at. But as for architecture and other subjects not even offered at my school, who knows? Maybe in a parallel universe, I could’ve designed a revolutionary green skyscraper or the next crazy-popular Apple gadget, or coded a new Google project or a better version of Windows. Not in this universe, though.

Life without ambition is a new experience for me. These days I couldn’t care less about my future. I don’t really try that hard in my classes, and I avoid internships like the plague. All I want to do is read books and lie by the pool. After all, if I’m going to get trapped into a life I never wanted anyway, why bother working hard for it? Might as well enjoy whatever freedom I have left.

If that seems nihilistic, well, most people hate their jobs. This is nothing unusual. I’ve just realized earlier than most people that all that bullshit they tell you about how any dream is achievable is really just bullshit. It’s really all just a matter of luck. Some people get lucky and happen upon the right calling, and others don’t.