I am senior at Rollins College and will graduate in the winter of 2010 with an English degreea point that marks the end of certainty in my future. Like some nervous tick I can't control, the question of what exactly I'm going to do with my life takes over at the most inconvenient times and with the most counterproductive results. I become anxious about the future when I'm writing essays; I become anxious about the future when I'm taking a test; I become anxious about the future when I think about the money my dad is paying for me to go to Rollins. This irking quandary can get the best of me at times, especially when I'm trying to fall asleep at night.
I never used to feel like this in high school, or any previous time in my life for that matter. I suppose the reality of choosing a career, combined with the finite time in school, has finally settled in as it probably should've when I was much youngernot that I considered 21 an advanced age, but I just have an uncomfortable sense that I have wasted a lot of time during my 21 years. I should've studied more for French. What did I do instead? Answer: I dropped the class, and now I have to take the course over the summer. I should've reworked that last physics problem on last week's homework because I didn't actually understand it. What did I do instead? Answer: I browsed sports websites on the Internet and ended up failing the physics test. Why do I understand what I need to do and then spend hours trying to avoid the task? My dad always says, "Bubba, you spend four hours trying to avoid a one-hour job." He's right. I suppose I've always procrastinated a lot, but it never seemed to affect me so profoundly as it has this year at Rollins. I think it is growing pains; I think my college education has, only just recently, illuminated the strangely uncomfortable notion that I am entirely responsible for every decision I make, as well as the consequences. This may seem like a simple realization, but for me, at this point in my life, it is profound. I don't think I would've forced myself to confront difficult questions about the direction of my life if it hadn't been for Dr. Nordstrom's Personal Writing course, and the subsequent digestion of your book, Getting a Life.
Now, I'm not just claiming to like your book for the purpose of this letterI'm not even sure it has a purposeand I truly feel a connection to your text. The connection is likely the result of serendipitous timing (a confused college student reading Getting a Life certainly seems appropriate); however, the deep reexamination of my life and the choices I make hasn't been stirred so noticeably since the philosophy survey class I took in my second year of college. My introduction to Nietzsche, and his notion that one should work towards the "spiritualization of one's passion" in order to discover meaning in life, provided the base for the beneficial pensive consideration I have done this semester as a result of my increase in personal writing. The personal writing coupled with your book provided the kick in the tail I needed to wake up and understand the opportunities I've been given. In Getting a Life, the chapter titled "Doing It Now" spoke clearly to me above the rest. In the chapter you state: "For some people, procrastination is a habitual coping behavior triggered by a deeply felt need or fear, making it extremely tenacious and hard to get rid of." You follow up this statement with what seemed almost to be a procrastination prescription: " for these people the solution lies in uncovering procrastination's rootsusually through psychological counseling or therapy." Your direct language and tone in the book are what allow for such an immediate synthesis of information, and as one who enjoys both reading and writing for pleasure, I commend you on your clarity. At the conclusion of the chapter I had a pretty good idea about how to combat the negative effects procrastination has imposed on both my school work and my health.
There's been something missing from my time spent at Rollins: a hole that I now see can be filled by structure. Wrestling was my life in high school, and the structure of a typical school day is now what I attribute to my previous happiness during those four years. My four years in college have certainly been a time of growth, but not always a time of happiness. The anxiety resulting from procrastination does create that "fuzziness" and confusion you discuss in the chapter. Your metaphor that one should plan work as an engineer plans a big construction project gave me the concrete advice I needed to hopefully break free from my procrastination and create a positive structure for my life. I know you recommend psychological therapy for extreme procrastinators, but I've always had the feeling inside of me that I can do whatever I want if I just decide to start; it is a comforting confidence that is shoved to the back of my mind by anxiety. The two seem to grapple for dominant position in my brain, and it is procrastination that usually has its hand raised at the end of the match. I don't want any pills, and I don't want to pay someone to care about what I'm saying; all I want is the same kind of confidence and happiness I felt in high school. I want to get back into martial arts and shake the 20 plus pounds I've gained in my largely sedentary college life. I want the thrill of competition I got from varsity wrestling, and the simple, rewarding execution of a long, scheduled dayit is only through these long, hard, scheduled days that one can appreciate rest and feel worthy of reward.
I'd like to reference my favorite quote from your book at this time: "In my experience, whenever my life has been characterized by fullness, purpose, and significance, loneliness has not been an issue." The quote doesn't come from the chapter "Doing It Now," as I'm sure you are well aware, and I didn't highlight it because I'm plagued by loneliness. I was struck by the formula of characterizing one's day by fullness, purpose, and significance. It caused an epiphany: hard work and long hours combat procrastination and anxiety. If I actually get up at 8 when my alarm goes off, eat, go for a run, shower, go to class, do my homework, go to the gym, and then finish up the last of my reading in the comfort of my bed, how can I have trouble sleeping or feel anxious? Answer: I can't.
So, Mr. Macdonald, I will now bring my long-winded letter to an end. I have a habit of writing too much for school assignments, but only when I enjoy the subject matter. That actually sounds pretty narcissistic considering I've just written nearly 1500 words about myself, but I still wanted to convey to you that the I believe the quest for personal wisdom is a truly worthwhile pursuit in a world where so much is uncertain. I feel I have broken free from my detrimental ways; I just have an easier time making the right decisions. All it took was a little dedication to organization and planning, and a "do it now" attitude.
Thank you for your book and your time on the Skype chat. I look forward to pursuing wisdom in my future, and I believe I'm on the right path. I know you above most people understand how important a few wise words can be to a person who needs them.
PS, Sorry for my late submission of this letter. I actually had it done long ago de-spite any preconceived notions supported by the subject matter. I turned in a hard copy, but everyday when I got home from Personal Writing I would continually forget to post a digital copy. It's not really an excusejust an explanation. Anyway, I hope to hear from you despite the unfashionably late submission. All the best.
May 12, 2010
It is a real delight to hear from you. Many thanks for your appreciative comments, and for sharing with me your anxiety about the future and your struggle with procrastination.
A few positive thoughts about the procrastination issue. The first bit of really good news is your insight into the situation. You are able to step back from the problem and see things as they are. There is a problem, and you recognize it.
The second bit of good news is your realization that, in your own words, "I am entirely responsible for every decision I make, as well as the consequences." As you say, a "simple" realization, but "profound." (The Existentialists drummed that one into me though I was a lot older than 21 when it happened.)
The third bit is that you are working to "break free from my procrastination and create a positive structure for my life." As I see it, what is needed here is intentional practice to move from the old habit of mind and action to a new habit. Just as it took you many wrestling matches to become a skilled wrestler, and it takes many hours of piano practice to become a pianist that people enjoy listening to, so it will take you many times of facing the urge to procrastinate and saying, "No! I'm going to do it now." Eventually, like riding a bike, or writing well, it will become your effortless way of being. A new habit of mind and action. But till then, it will take effort and practice.
Regarding that anxiety about the future, it is totally understandable. Some people of your age have already found their initial life passion, and their movement to post-college life is relatively smooth. Others, and perhaps you, will need to go through a series of life experiments to find their passion. What is clear to me is that you are a highly-skilled writer and an excellent communicator. For some who can write well, writing IS their passion. They are often writers of fiction or poetry. For me, writing has been an exciting and rewarding way to share my passion-of-the-moment, whatever that was. When I was your age, and for a decade after, it was writing about my passion for amateur radio and a technology I developed called slow-scan television. Then, following a backpack trip around the world, my passion morphed into concern about the planet, and for the next ten years I shared my feelings about it in a column in The Mother Earth News magazine. Writing as a free-lancer about energy conservation and renewable energy sources supported me for a dozen years after that. Most recently, I became passionate about wisdom, and much writing has emerged from that passion.
Regarding your post-college situation, I would make two points. Point 1: Skill at writing will stand you in good stead no matter what string of life activities you get involved with. Whether it is something specifically writing-oriented like journalism, or an important but secondary tool (as writing is in business), or a way of sharing the person you are (and will become) via fiction or nonfiction writing, be very glad you can write well.
Point 2: I have found that thinking of my life as an adventure, an exploration into unknown territory, has been helpful. A lot of anxiety about our personal futures comes from our society's dogmas about success and failure. What egregious bullshit! Switching from the "Lord, I mustn't fail or make a wrong decision" model to a "life experiments" way of looking at things is so much more helpful and anxiety reducing. In a life experiment, like a science experiment, we have certain expectations beforehand. We try the experiment. Either our expectations are confirmed, or we have learned something of value, something that might help us design a better next experiment. It may take a while after college to find your thing, your groove, your passion. But I have no doubt that you will find it and live a life that is full, purposeful and significant.
Eric, thanks again for writing. And if you should ever feel like giving me a progress report, writer to writer, I'd love to hear from you.
All the best,