Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Steaming Pile of Human Garbage

Apparently, she does not have very high self-esteem. A letter writer who dubs herself Anxious and Lost writes to New York Magazine’s advice column, Ask Polly, to confess that she feels like a “steaming pile of human garbage.” She feels like she is a bullshitter and that she might just be bullshit. At least she feels her feelings.

Since Polly herself has mastered the art of bullshit, AL has come to the right place. Clearly, if AL had wanted to get over her tendency to bullshit and especially to whine and complain she would not have written to Polly… a kindred spirit if ever there was one.

At first glance, AL is suffering from a distinctly modern condition. It does not take too much imagination to figure out where she ever got the idea, but she believes that without a career her life is worthless. Does she need career counseling? The last time she sought it out she found it in the words of a psychic. Naturally, she followed the psychic’s advice and, would you believe, it worked out badly.

It turns out that AL has a boyfriend. She has friends and family. She says that she whines to them all the time. Might it not be better for her to stop whining to her sweet boyfriend so that perhaps he might want to marry her? Then, she might find her true calling as a wife and mother. Yes, I understand that such thoughts are anathema, but what are blogs for if not to speak the unspeakable.

Anyway, her priorities are out of whack. And she feels even worse since she has a twin sister who is an overachiever and who apparently does not spend her days and nights complaining about everything that is wrong with her life.

Want to hear AL’s version of her tale of woe? Here it is:

For most of my 20s, I dreamed about doing my Ph.D. I worked a couple of well-paying, practical office jobs that I hated, and I was miserable. I paid off my loans. I saved. Every few months, I would have an existential crisis where I would try to think of the career paths that might lead me to happiness, and every time I was convinced that doing a Ph.D. was the only way to go. I wanted someone to tell me what to do, or to give me permission to do what seemed crazy but felt right. On my 28th birthday, my wish came true. I saw a psychic who told me that I was a teacher, and I burst out laughing with relief. Finally, someone who saw me! She told me that I would be accepted to two schools to do my Ph.D. I applied to two schools and got into both.

Before proceeding, note the phrase: she is looking to find a career path that will lead her to happiness. 

In any case, I recommend that AL go easier on the scatology. It isn’t ladylike.

I do think it was important for me to try grad school for myself and realize that I hated it. But, Polly, I feel like a steaming pile of human garbage, and when I look into the future, it just feels bleak. I can’t stop comparing myself to other people my age. It feels like everyone has their shit figured out, or at least enough that they are doing jobs that don’t make them want to kill themselves and are making enough money that they can afford to pay rent, save a bit, take vacations, and do nice things for the people they love. I know comparing yourself to others is a recipe for disaster, but it’s impossible for me not to, considering I have an identical twin sister (whom I love and am very close to) who has never been unemployed, never made a wrong career move, and makes more money than I can ever imagine earning. I’ve gone back to work part time at a service-industry job, but I’m only getting two shifts a week and I’m terrified of what the next few months will look like. I feel like an infant. I had no backup plan. I had grad school on a pedestal for so long that I don’t know how to imagine anything else.

As one reads this, one gets the impression that AL is out there on her own, detached from other people, living a solitary life. As it happens, she has a boyfriend… so we are puzzled to hear her whining about how she seems to want to do it all by herself.

I don’t know how to get rid of this belief that other people can see me better than I see myself. My whole life I’ve just wanted people to tell me who I am and what I should do. I just want to be at the part where I don’t have to worry anymore. I want the career that feels life-affirming. I want to be financially comfortable. I want to have disposable income again so I can take piano lessons or a writing class. I want to love myself and be healed from my stupid traumatic upbringing. I want to settle down. Going through the mess of figuring it all out just feels exhausting and unfair. I thought I would have had it all sorted out by now. I don’t know how much more uncertainty my self-esteem can endure.

This paragraph tells us that she has done too much therapy. In truth, as research, especially that of Tasha Eurich, has pointed out, other people always see us more clearly than we see ourselves.

One can question precisely how traumatic her upbringing was, since her twin sister does not seem to have suffered from it. Anyway, the paragraph is pure psychobabble. One suspects that her anguish and despair have been fostered, if not produced, by a dumbass therapist.

Naturally, AL’s friends are trying to help her out. They recommend that she regress to her girlhood and ask what she liked doing at the time. It feels like good advice, but it’s really bad advice. Still, Polly lights on it and sees AL as a creative, emotional person who loves beauty. AL does not know what to do with her love of beauty, and Polly will tell her to become an artist or something. In truth, if you love beauty you can also go to work in a flower shop, but I digress.

Anyway, here’s the rest of the letter:

Recently someone close to me asked me what I liked doing when I was a kid. The things that really mattered to me then still really matter to me now: books, music, and art. I think I’m obsessed with beauty, and I think there’s something there. But how do I turn that into … well, anything? My résumé is a fucking mess. I have no experience being paid to do the things I care about. I don’t even make time for them as hobbies anymore, not even with all the free time I have since dropping out of school. Lately, I’ve been considering going back to school to become a therapist, but the thought of spending more money on school makes me feel queasy. And the question of which jobs to work while I save up to be able to do that just makes me feel like crawling into bed and sleeping for six months. I feel bad for still not having my shit together. I feel bad for my sweet boyfriend, who has to put up with me, and for my family and friends, who have listened to me whine incessantly for YEARS about how every job sucks and then had to listen to me gush for a year about how grad school was going to save me, only to have to watch me go through the crisis of realizing that that was also bullshit. What do I do now that everything feels like bullshit? What if all of this means that I’m bullshit?

Telling this woman to enter into a creative field is genuinely bad advice. It’s what you would expect from Polly. The therapy world has persuaded far too many people that they should become artists. It is extremely difficult to have a career as an artist. Better to work in a flower shop.

Yet, the one question that AL is not asking is the only real question that she should be asking. You may recall, or perhaps you do not, that famed management consultant Peter Drucker wrote a pamphlet called Managing Oneself. It offers serious guidance to young people who are looking for career success.  In many corners of the therapy world it should be required reading.

What does Drucker say? He does not tell people to agonize over finding their passion. He does not tell them to find out what they really, really want to do. As AL points out so clearly, that approach leads nowhere. Instead, Drucker recommends that people ask themselves what they are good at, where their talent lies. Good question that. You gain more satisfaction from having greater success. And you achieve greater success if you are pursuing a career in something that you are good at.

Interestingly, if you want to find out what you are good at, you should not search your soul. You should look at your relative performance, on different activities. You should ask yourself what other people have told you about what you are good at. You see, it’s all in other people. They see you more clearly than you see yourself. And they know what you are really good at better than you do.


Shaun F said...

An observation as to how women can obtain their education, at least in Canada, is worth noting. A single mom will have her education paid for as well as day care by the government. Every couple years she has another child. The previous one is now in kindergarten and she's enrolled for her next diploma/certificate/degree program. I think the cycle is self evident.

David Foster said...

"For most of my 20s, I dreamed about doing my Ph.D."

I think a person who was genuinely interested in a field would dream about working in that field, not about getting a PhD as a generic sort of thing.