2013: keeping fucking going

I’m sure your inboxes, Facebook feeds, and blog readers are already chock full of reflections on 2013, and the snarky contrarian asshole in me doesn’t want to follow the trend, but the sentimental and celebratory side of me gets to win today.

See, I didn’t start 2013 in the greatest of places. I had amazing people around me, and that played a big part in getting me through to where I am now (we’ll get back to this in a bit), but I was hugely bummed out about leaving grad school and feeling pretty lost and directionless. For awhile, everything hung on finding a job by the time I graduated in March—if I did, well then this all worked out and I wasn’t a failure, and if I didn’t, well then clearly I sucked at everything and the world was going to end.

Of course, in the end, I neither got a full-time position right out of school nor crashed and burned. Instead, I scraped by on teaching/tutoring/freelance gigs where I could find them, paired with the kindness of a few good friends helping me out with places to stay between apartments, moving my shit from place to place, and even chipping in a few times when I was came up short financially. It wasn’t pretty, a lot of the time, and my poor girlfriend had to listen to a lot of me whining about how I had RUINED EVERYTHING—but the world certainly did not end.

In fact, if I had to pick just one thing 2013 made abundantly clear for me, it was that the one thing the world can be relied on to do is not end. The universe does not care that your dreams have been crushed, that you’re depressed, or that some catastrophic event has exploded your little world. People go to work, bills come due, the sun rises and sets, and so on and so forth. And eventually, no matter how much your circumstances make you feel like you’re in suspended animation, you realize that if the world keeps moving, you have to as well, even if you have to figure things out as you go.

I think some of my previous posts have made one thing very clear: historically, I have not dealt well with uncertainty, at least not in my actual day to day life. Mysteries of the universe? Bring them on. Not having a concrete plan for my future? Terrifying.

Basically, from kindergarten through my graduate degree, I had a sense of my place in the world, and fairly concrete benchmarks to judge myself by. In my mind, if I worked hard and checked the tasks off the list, I would make it to the next step. The path was clear, the uncertainty limited.  It was safe.

Getting kicked out of graduate school was difficult because of the failure, sure, but it was paralyzing because my safety was gone. I didn’t know my next step.

When I first started looking for jobs as I left my graduate program, what I was looking for was a new path to jump onto. Everything had fallen apart, and I was looking for my quickest way back to safe, familiar ground, a world of tasks to complete that led reliably to approval from those around me.

I didn’t find one, but it turned out that that was… kind of okay. I’m not going to tell you that I’m glad I was so marginally employed for much of this last year—my bank accounts certainly aren’t happy about it, and remember,  sun rises and sets and bills come due and all that—but I do think that it was actually a fortunate thing that a new plan for the rest of my life did not immediately present itself, that I’ve had to sit with some uncertainty for awhile.

This year of muddling through meant no more clear expectations, no more checklist of steps between point A and point B, and I didn’t know what to do with myself and it was terrifying. But it also left me with space to figure out who I was and what mattered to me outside of those expectations. And here’s what happened:

  1. For the first time in my life, I started to get out of my own way long enough to start writing some shit and sharing it with the world on a semi-regular basis, and that made me feel heard and understood and useful and fulfilled in a way I never really had before.
  2. I realized that [the vast majority of] my friends were my friends whether or not I was a student or a scientist, that they were awesome, and that building and contributing to the amazing community I am a part of (and that I promise to talk more about in 2014!) was and is very important to me.
  3. I recognized that I have some useful work skills outside of understanding and doing science–specifically, my lifelong interest in education and in understanding how other people think paid off in that it made me a pretty decent teacher. And I like teaching, and people will pay me to do it.

And #3 might have [mostly] paid the bills, but those first two things–writing and good relationships–kept me sane and kept me working, even when I wasn’t sure of anything else.

 

My future isn’t a hell of a lot more certain than it was a year ago. Yes, I have a full-time job, and so far I think it’s a good fit, but I have no guarantees that I’ll be there in six months, and I’m not even sure whether I’ll want to be. I don’t, at this point, even have a singular, concrete career goal. I don’t know that I want to be a science journalist, or a writer, or [insert other succinct career description here]. I do know that I want some financial stability, and that there are certain things I want out of my life in general—challenges, the opportunity to learn new things, a fair amount of autonomy, opportunities to be creative, some engagement with science, making some meaningful contribution to the world, meaningful relationships and community—and that ideally my career would contribute to at least some of those things. But that’s about it. I don’t have a “plan” beyond doing things that interest and fulfill me, and taking advantage of whatever opportunities come my way that seem to point me in the right direction.

The difference between me a year ago and me now isn’t the specificity (or lack thereof) of my future. It’s my degree of comfort with the uncertainty, and my willingness to just try to do things that interest me, even when I don’t have clear goals in mind, and trust that something will come of some of it.  Don’t get me wrong, this stuff still makes me nervous, but I am trying to chill out. And I no longer have the crazy idea in my head that once I have a perfect, concrete new plan in place, everything will be okay, and until then I have to live in a state of constant panic as I search for one. I’m actually okay with not having a long-term plan.

{Important side note: Of course, all of this is easier to say with money in the bank and a relatively secure source of income for the medium term. Not knowing how you’ll pay the bills next month is a legitimate reason to panic, no matter how chill you are about life in general, and I definitely don’t want to go back to that state again if I can help it.  But I can find ways to pay the bills without having a grand plan for my life all sketched out, and while paying the bills isn’t optional, having life or at least a career plan all figured out certainly is. For a lot of this year, I was entangling the legitimate issue of paying-for-life with a more general panic, a who-am-I-and-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life existential crisis… and the giant ball of anxiety that created didn’t help me solve either problem. In this economy, the paying-for-shit problem can be a tough one to solve, but it’s still just figuring out a next step, as opposed to figuring out the whole damn plan. What I’m saying here is that, external circumstances permitting, you can take that next step without having steps 2-10 planned out.}

I have nothing against plans or goals in and of themselves—I still have quite a few. But it’s so easy to use them as shields to protect us from having to engage with uncertainty. And uncertainty can be scary, but it can also be opportunities and possibilities and discovery, and the false security of keeping your eyes on the pre-determined path at all times isn’t worth missing out on those things.

So this year, my only real resolution is to keep fucking going. I’m going to show up—working hard at my job, writing at least twice a week, being the best tutor possible to my remaining students, investing time in my relationships and my community—and be open to opportunities, and see where that gets me. Honestly, that isn’t too much different than my plan a year ago. But this time around, I’m a little more hopeful than I am terrified, and I think that’s going to make all the difference.
[Blog business note: This post marks my return from vacation and to a regular posting schedule. Expect to hear from me Sundays and Wednesdays for the foreseeable future.]