My life is at a standstill
July 15, 2012 10:32 PM   Subscribe

I didn't work hard for anything I have. But all the hard work I have done has ultimately been for nothing. What's the best way to maintain the will to take initiative, when, for most of my life, personal action hasn't mattered?

My life confuses me. I could elaborate quite a bit on this, but what it boils down to is that I feel I have no control over my life. I currently feel no deep(only superficial) motivation to study, or to better or prepare myself for the future, because I see no evidence that everything that lies in my future is not completely dependent on chance.

I've never gotten a job through my own initiatives. I show up to places in suits, write cover letters, call back, volunteer as often as I can, research and so on, and no one ever wants to hire me. Or if they are interested in bringing me on, they want me to work for free. As of late I've given up on the idea of being able to support myself financially and I've started doing that instead. Every paying job I've gotten has been handed to me by higher powers that don't care or know about any of my credentials or the effort I put through.

The only things outside myself that I've been able to enact some purposeful control over are my grades in school, and they most likely won't matter after I graduate. I can't think of a single major thing that I've lost or achieved in my life that wasn't solely based on the whim of some other person. I'm not exaggerating.

I try to do things to better myself every day, but for my entire life I've obviously been doing things that are stupid and wrong. I don't know how to keep up with my ineffectiveness. Hollywood narrative and other people's success stories dictate that as long as I keep at it, I'll eventually break through and be able to create a respectable life for myself. But nothing I've seen or experienced suggests that. Even the hardest workers I know live in abject poverty-- my work ethic sucks compared to theirs. What more can I expect from life?

I really don't believe I'm going anywhere with this whole life thing, and it's hard to keep plodding along in the face of all this cognitive dissonance. I used to be very hopeful about the future when I was a little kid, and I'm thinking it would be cool to go back to that kind of mindset, but I'm also thinking that might not be realistic.

Anyway, I'm hoping that anyone who understands or has been in a similar place can throw some advice my way. Just as a disclaimer, I am aware of the existence of both therapy and medication.
posted by jumelle to Human Relations (25 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I see no evidence that everything that lies in my future is not completely dependent on chance.

The exact opportunities you'll be offered are determined by chance. How ready you are to recognize and take advantage of those opportunities is all you. That's why they say fortune favors the prepared mind.
posted by kindall at 10:49 PM on July 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

The exact opportunities you'll be offered are determined by chance.

I'm not sure even that is totally true - many job-related successes happen via networking, which is certainly a skill you can practice and improve on.
posted by zug at 10:53 PM on July 15, 2012

Hm, well, on a microscopic level, you're taking initiative right now, just by asking the question, and it doesn't sound like you're paralyzed with inaction, but rather wondering what would make it worth it.

The answers that come to mind are a sense of being needed and/or a sense of achievement. The former is easy to acquire but not the path that puts you in the most control. The latter takes time and humility, because for most people it's acquired from chipping away (not necessarily with too much effort--a poor work ethic is tolerable if you just don't quit) at something that has fairly modest results.

Do you have any hobbies or interests that could yield tangible products of some kind, allowing you to take pleasure in the initiative and the results?
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:57 PM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great question. I feel similarly, especially as a med student when my grades are completely irrespective of how hard I try or don't try. The only thing I've been able to do to keep myself motivated to work at all is to remind myself of the intrinsic worth of the material I'm studying, and completely forget about the grade. Additionally, I spend a lot more time these days on my own hobbies and personal interests, which make me a more interesting person, but also keep my day to day life fulfilling.

posted by 254blocks at 10:57 PM on July 15, 2012

Work smart, not hard. See a therapist, graduate.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:59 PM on July 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Feelings of futility and pointlessness can be symptoms of depression. Which is not to say that employment prospects aren't grim for a lot of people right now. But the way you're framing this sounds like depression.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:12 PM on July 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

If you are still in school, or still being aided or sheltered by parents or similar protectors, that's why you aren't seeing strong consequences for your actions. Once you graduate, your choices/work ethic will make a larger difference in what options are open to you.

Luck will still play a role, yes. But, many years out of school, the people I know who've worked hard over many years are, by and large, in much better positions than those who coasted or got by with minimal effort. Effort and initiative and active steering of your own life DO make a difference.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:17 PM on July 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Every paying job I've gotten has been handed to me by higher powers that don't care or know about any of my credentials or the effort I put through. ... I can't think of a single major thing that I've lost or achieved in my life that wasn't solely based on the whim of some other person.

Ah, but you can totally put yourself in a position where you where you can benefit from chance or other people's whims. Especially when it comes to entry-level jobs.

-In an entry-level job, even if you suck and have no idea what you are doing, if everyone else sucks MORE and has even less idea what they are doing, you will become a manager! Then you parlay that into managerial experience somewhere else.

-In an entry-level job, if you are the only person around when people need someone to do something, there is a really good chance they will give it to you even if you don't have the foggiest idea how to do it. In fact, the likelihood of you being asked to do this goes up the more desperate they are. So if you know people are desperately trying to get something done, hang around!

-If you are the only person who volunteers to do something, chances are, you will get to do that thing! People often don't volunteer for things that are hard, boring, or time consuming, but doing those things can open up a lot of paths for you.

-People are way more likely to do positive things for you on a whim if they like you. Just remember that. Worrying about being likable can sometimes be a disadvantage for women. But just be aware of it.

-You have way more of a chance of something lucky happening to you if you are out and about in the world, involved with lots of different things and people.
posted by cairdeas at 11:22 PM on July 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

Oh, I forgot about this one.

-If your workplace needs someone to do X, you only know about 3 things about doing X, but nobody else knows anything at all about doing X, chances are that you will become The Official X-Doer at your workplace. How many graphic design and IT careers have been launched this way...
posted by cairdeas at 11:26 PM on July 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Chance favors the prepared mind. It's great that you recognize the random ways things have happened to you, but you can't think of anything you contributed? If you got a high school job because your friends father said "Johnny likes computers, he might want to set up a website for us" - you wouldn't have got that if you hadn't had and pursued an interest in computers. If you graduate and get hired by your uncle in an entry level position - that still required that you went to school and got the degree.

I also skimmed your previous questions, and gee whiz, are you just aware of therapy or are you in it? You sound depressed. To be honest, the part of me that identifies with your questions is the part that leans toward clinical depression and thoughts of suicide. Been there, spent the time in bed, and anti depressants really fucking helped.
posted by jacalata at 11:35 PM on July 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

The only things outside myself that I've been able to enact some purposeful control over are my grades in school, and they most likely won't matter after I graduate.

Every paying job I've gotten has been handed to me by higher powers that don't care or know about any of my credentials or the effort I put through.

Are you sure the second sentence is true? What exactly do you mean by this (seriously, would you please elaborate?) I ask because the way you talk about your accomplishments (they don't matter, you didn't earn them) sounds exactly the way that people who are depressed and/or have low self-esteem talk.

Honestly, I think the more useful question for you is "why do I persistently discount my successes? What is keeping me from acknowledging them?"
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 11:46 PM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dude (or dudette--I can't tell from your previous posts), but you seriously need to breathe and relax. Your posts reads really similarly if I asked something about this a few months ago!

Despite all that you say you are not successful at, it seems like you've got networking down pat!

Every paying job I've gotten has been handed to me by higher powers that don't care or know about any of my credentials or the effort I put through.

Sounds like you've got networking down. That's something I wish I was better at! And honestly, as someone who just graduated this year, no one really wants to hire anyone. The meme for our graduation had a photo of us happy graduates and a caption that read "Unemployment Fair or 2012 Convocation?? Happy graduation!" You're really not alone in feeling the lack of job prospects and freaking out about it. I see way too many depressive postgrad blues tweets on my feed from loads of my friends already.

Take advantage of these opportunities and use them to get to know people who are doing your dream job after you graduate and figure out how to be like them and do what they're doing. While you might not have complete control of where exactly you get a job, you do have control of what you do after you land that job.

From the people I know who were a year ahead of me in school, they still haven't figured anything out, but at least most are employed in some capacity or another and are pretty happy at where they are at, right now. Sure most of it isn't exactly where they imagined they ended up, but they're happy about it.

We all have our different ways of defining what success is and that definition is highly fickle and dependent on your situation. My definition of success is different than it was 6 months ago, different from my best friend's, and different from yours. Rethink long and hard about what it means to be successful for you.
posted by astapasta24 at 11:51 PM on July 15, 2012

Life is all about taking advantage of the opportunities you get. People who don't do that are doomed to madness. Or grad school. Or being a 35 year old backpacker at a rave in Thailand for eternity. People who tell you that the sky is the limit and you can do everything you want to and 75 is the new 30 are mad. It's not. Look around you, make a few decisions and run with what you've got. We are all born into a place and time and with certain skills and the sooner you accept that the happier and more fulfilling life you're going to have, imho.
posted by fshgrl at 1:02 AM on July 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also looking for a problem that needs fixing and that you have a few ideas and some skills for is basically the key to happiness. It might lead to founding the next Microsoft or to 50 years of tinkering in the garage building an anti-gravity machine but either way you'll be perfectly happy doing it. Due to a number of happy circumstances I had a lot of choices after college for careers. I ended up doing something that I, personally, think needs doing! Since I get paid a living wage for this and I get to work with like-minded people I'm a pretty happy camper most of the time these days.
posted by fshgrl at 1:43 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most people are going to invalidate what you've written here, because that's just the way Western culture is. But I hear you. I think we have way less control over our "destinies" (to use a corny word) than most of us think we have and that our cultural myths claim we have. I have experiences similar to yours although maybe not as extreme, of not getting jobs I was perfect for while randomly having an opportunity that I didn't ask for or wasn't even that good at tossed in my lap. I've also observed people who don't "deserve" it have lush jobs handed to them (via money and family connections) or beautiful people having suitors throw themselves at their feet, while others who seem to have worked hard or to possess better characters, intellects, etc. etc. have been unsuccessful.

Acknowledging your lack of power or the world's unfairness is not wrong, no matter how many people try to "correct" you into believing what they (want to) believe. The world is chaotic and unfair and Just World Theory notwithstanding, often people do NOT get what they "deserve".

So, that being the case, how do you proceed? How do you have any sense of motivation?

One way of approaching things is to define success based only on things you have control over. For example, if I'm trying to lose weight, I don't focus on the number on the scale, because that fluctuates due to things out of my control like my period or how much water my body feels like retaining. But I can take a walk each day, and I can avoid eating dessert. If I define my success by the things that were under my control rather than something that wasn't, I am more motivated to continue.

A more extreme version of this is to let go of concern over results entirely, and focus only on intention and process alone. This is difficult in such a results-oriented society as ours; pursuing a discipline like meditation might help.

Remembering how short life is also helps, in my experience. Yes, you don't have ultimate control. yes, you could continue to work only to not have it make any difference. But you only get one brief life, one shot at getting whatever it is you think you want in life, and why not do everything you can, try everything in your power to live a fulfilling life? Don't look back decades from now and regret what might have been had you done XYZ. Give it a whirl and keep the thought of your death in the forefront of your mind.

Someone else wrote that "Feelings of futility and pointlessness can be symptoms of depression". Ok, but they are also "symptoms" of seeing the world clearly, in all its frustrating and chaotic glory. Depressed people see the world and themselves more accurately than non-depressed (objectively true; look up the research). The downside of your clear-eyed perception is that you are now unmotivated and forlorn. But don't forget there is an upside, that you are a perceptive and honest person who sees things that others don't (allow themselves to) see.
posted by parrot_person at 3:48 AM on July 16, 2012 [16 favorites]

You're right. Everything you have received has been 100% at the whim of other people. All you can do is work hard, and it's other people who decide whether you're a success.

Having said that, if jobs are being handed to you, the other things you're doing must be putting you in the right place at the right time. I guarantee you if you just sat in your room eating Cheetos all day nobody would be handing you jobs. So you actually are affecting the outcomes you're getting, just not in the linear way you've been led to expect.

You should still try to get good grades because knowing stuff and being good at stuff will increase the number of opportunities you'll be ready for.

Basically though just keep doing what you're doing.
posted by tel3path at 4:20 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since you don't give specifics, it's hard to say why you're in the situation you're in, but didn't I just read on the blue that 1 year out of law school, only 46% of graduates are working in their field? Getting the kind a job you've worked for isn't necessarily easy and it isn't necessarily a reflection on you or your abilities. Your situation doesn't mean your efforts are irrelevant or that it will never happen for you, but it's less likely to happen if you give up.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:51 AM on July 16, 2012

I've never gotten a job through my own initiatives. I show up to places in suits, write cover letters, call back, volunteer as often as I can, research and so on, and no one ever wants to hire me.

My sophomore year, I spent the entire spring semester sending out resumes, applying for jobs, and contacting professors so that I could find a summer internship. The best I was able to find was a half-funded position at the last minute. Then I responded to an email about a web development internship (in the paleolithic days of the web) during finals week, faxed my resume on Wednesday, had a phone interview on Tuesday and got a well-paid job on Thursday. And why was I such a good candidate? Mostly because I happened to maintain a "personal web page" that I put together on a lark a few months before.

There are some things that pay off slow and steadily via hard work, where you make incremental progress each day. And there are some things where you have to do hard work every day, but you only see the payoff down the road and not necessarily when you expect. That's why people encourage you to develop the virtue of "hard work for its own sake", because without it, our brains can't necessarily keep up the pace of hard work without any immediate payoff.

That said, not everything that is difficult is useful. Not every effort of "hard work" has a payoff. If I could give advice to anyone around your age, it would be to specifically seek out the fields and areas where hard work has a real, tangible reward for most people in the field. There are plenty of fields that work people to the bone because it's a professional/cultural norm but, as you say, most everyone is living in abject (but gentile) poverty. But that's a choice-- you can avoid these fields if you want.
posted by deanc at 5:07 AM on July 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with being handed a job. Someone else's influence can get you in the door. After that, it's your job to make something out of it.

Serendipity is what gets you where you want to go, and, better yet, where it never occurred to you to go. My freshman college roommate came in convinced he would be a physics major and graduated with a degree in medieval German literature.

Chance favors only the prepared mind. When you work hard, the chances will jump up out of the context.
posted by KRS at 5:12 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recommend meeting some people at least ten years older than you who think like you are thinking. Do you want their life? That's what you are choosing - a life of doing more or less nothing, because you can see something wrong with each individual thing. Marinating in self-pity. Blaming your failure on the unfair system, and even growing to resent the unnamed people whom you expect to be financially supporting you. It's easier to drift into than this prolonged adolescence than it is to break out of.
posted by thelonius at 5:24 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you are still in school, and young, of COURSE most of what you've received in life has been handed to you. Duh!

Once you are graduated and out in the world, you will be required to actually work for what you want.

Having connections is awesome. If people are handing you jobs because of who you know, well cool, take whatever comes your way. It's better than getting nothing from nobody.

Keeping jobs is another story. I find that it's easier to be enthusiastic about things that I enjoy (I don't think I'm alone here.) Most of your first jobs will suck, and 80% of what you do will be pointless, busy work. But 20% of what you do will be crucial to your future success.

Once working you'll focus in on the things you enjoy. If you're analytical, spreadsheets might turn you on. If you're creative, you might enjoy putting out a newsletter, if you enjoy problem solving, unraveling accounting mysteries may be up your alley. Sometimes you don't know what you'll like until you wade in and get to work.

Your personal pride in your work product should be your incentive to work hard and do a good job.

Do see someone to rule out depression. I had it in collage, I think most people suffer from it in one form or another as young adults.

As for the rest of it, the more prepared you are, the more you'll make of those advantages you have.

Besides, what's the alternative? Doing shitty for the rest of your life and counting on chance to take care of you? That's no way to live.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:53 AM on July 16, 2012

In addition to ruling out things like depression, you might try using that networking ability to find yourself a mentor. I have benefitted tremendously from mentors both through structured mentoring programs and informal relationships I've developed with people further along in their careers than me. If you're in school, there are probably programs you can take advantage of, or you can probably find someone through alumni connections. Can you find someone who has pride in their work who you admire who would be willing to take you on? If you're exposed to a different perspective, it might help you see the point of trying.
posted by *s at 9:01 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It only seems as if you have no control over outcome because the parameters involved are far too complex for you to make sense of. Perhaps you are more easily overwhelmed than most people, who for the most part can see causal relationships working in their lives. People who tend to believe that they have no personal power just don't want to dissect the paramters, IMO. Maybe you could start small, such as examining how getting up in the morning leads to eating breakfast. Clearly, eating breakfast takes some effort on your part, it doesn't just occur whether or not you get out of bed. Just because eating breakfast doesn't *seem* to take any effort on your part, it most certainly does. If you scale up to the act of getting a job, you do have to show up on many levels, even if you are just focusing on the immediate effort of the moment and not taking into account past efforts.
Think about the sequence of events that put you where you are rather than just the most immediate. Do you think you are different than everyone else and that the rest of us have more power over our own lives than you do? If so, you may be prone to narcissism.
posted by waving at 11:30 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Luck is where our opportunities come from. Talent and perseverance are how we take advantage of our opportunities. You may not have direct control over the opportunities you have, but you can indirectly influence them (those higher-ups who have handed you opportunities have done so because of something you're doing), and once you have them you can either let them lay there like a dead fish, work with them just enough to get by, or bring your talents and energies to bear and turn them into opportunities you can control.

But hey, don't sweat the luck part. Every successful person had at least one lucky break that wasn't under their control, whether they admit it or not.
posted by davejay at 2:09 PM on July 16, 2012

It sounds to me like you're asking "What is the meaning of life?," or "Why do bad/good things happen to good/bad people?" Considering your past questions, they all have the same sort of feeling. Looking for a roadmap, such as, If you put X kind of effort into Y situation, you can reliably expect Z result. And you are finding that there is no such roadmap. This is a classic conundrum - lots of people experience it at some point, and college is a prime situation for it. Some might call it depression, some might call it an existential crisis, or a loss of faith, what have you.

I encourage you to look at the mental health aspects of your state of mind and get some support. On the existential side, ... it's hard to know from outside what advice is going to point you toward the answer that's right for you. Here's my attempt:

First, you might look for a philosophical framework that appeals to you, and try experiencing it. Many people use religion for this purpose. That's not my thing, who knows if it'll be yours. Alain de Botton gets mixed reviews around here, but I quite enjoyed The Consolations of Philosophy. Or take a look at Pema Chodron - Start Where You Are might be a good place to, ah, start.

Also, can you find something that you enjoy doing for its own sake, that does not prompt perfectionism or fear-of-failure or worries about its lack of profundity, or anything like that? It doesn't have to be anything big.

And finally, you might be able to give yourself some direction by picking a theme for your life for the rest of the year. Like 'compassion,' or 'intellect,' or 'work ethic,' or anything you want to cultivate. Then whenever you have a decision, or a dilemma, or a crisis, you can relate your choices to this theme. The point is not to straitjacket yourself into considering only one aspect, it's to provide an initial direction to focus on instead of spinning around in an ungrounded fog.

YMMV of course. I am not an expert of any kind, just someone who's had my share of existential angst.
posted by expialidocious at 2:58 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older What is this sci-Fi book that disturbed me as a...   |   Now what? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.