How do you forgive yourself for wasting 4 years of your life?
August 25, 2013 10:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm 30 and still writing my first graduate dissertation. It's been quite a winding road to find direction and purpose in life. I spent (or probably wasted) a total of 4 years after high school exploring unrealistic paths to find happiness, satisfaction and wealth. Today, back to the real world, it sometimes stings to look back on all that wasted time and speculating where I would now be had I chosen the more reasonable and constructive road. Any useful thoughts to help cope with this mostly useless regretful thought of mine?

Right after high school I got into university to study social work. I dropped out after a few months, not having found the school environment or subject engaging. The following year I got into college to become a teacher, mostly thrived there, and four years later graduated at the top of my class. For the ensuing three and a half years, however, I embarked on an intensive, very time-consuming quest for some illusory "spiritual awakening" that back then I felt would make me happy, wonderful, rich, powerful, and a sort of blessing to the world. That included several hours a day of reading, watching inspirational videos, meditating, attending (and organizing) seminars on metaphysics, new age psychology, writing on my wishful thinking, and seeking connections with people I thought were on the same virtuous path. Nothing substantial came out of it in terms of relationships or finance, and I almost completely neglected my career and education during that period.

I gradually started to restablish links with reality, got back to university to resume my studies, visited a number of therapists, started looking for jobs related to my academic background, found some, and made some progress on designing a more modest and sustainable plan for life. I decided back then that I wanted to stay in the field of education. Given my inclinations and situation, I see this as my best bet to try to find a relatively satisfying, reasonable life and make a valuable yet realistic contribution to helping others.

The problem is I still feel moderately angry at myself for becoming so self-deluded and detached from reality during that mystical spree period. I wasted 4 years which, if well spent, could have put me in a better position (professionally and financially) by now. And in my working class family money has always been (and still is) an issue. I understand being too fixed on past mistakes isn´t very helpful, and in a way I'm present and future-focused now. But I would like to know:

Can you think of guilt-assuaging ways of looking at this?
Or maybe to see it as a lesson for not making similar mistakes in the future?
Looking forward to getting some new perspective on this old baggage
posted by Basque13 to Human Relations (35 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
You aren't doing these things anymore, so what else is there to do besides what you've been doing that isn't what you were doing?
posted by oceanjesse at 10:16 PM on August 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

If the you of four years ago actually had somehow gotten a traditional job even though there was this curiosity about a spiritual awakening, how good do you think you would have actually done?

Who you were four years ago was a different person, with different priorities and different experiences behind them. That person may not have been able to do the kind of job you want to do yet. That person maybe needed to go through that four years in order to become the person today who is looking into a career in education.

You can't jump straight from caterpillar to butterfly without the pupa stage in between, even though the pupa stage looks totally weird. Maybe that's what you were doing for those four years - pupating.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:17 PM on August 25, 2013 [21 favorites]

The path that leads you to where you need to be is many things, but not a waste of time.
posted by The World Famous at 10:17 PM on August 25, 2013 [18 favorites]

You are 30 and writing your dissertation. You are doing better than 95-98% of the world. Instead of feeling guilty, feel lucky and proud that you got through that period and managed to get back on your feet relatively easily. Seriously, good job on that! I'm 29 and worked full time since HS (aka I had my act together) and it was hard as SHIT for me to get back to school... and I'm still working on my BA. You rock.
posted by ancient star at 10:18 PM on August 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

Wow. This, to me, seems like a no-brainer. You did something very admirable, which was to take some time to explore avenues that intrigued you, that you were passionate about. You feel that it was a dead end, but I am sure that those explorations were valuable to you in ways that are just not apparent.

Too many people in the US are essentially the walking dead, leading off the shelf lives with off the shelf values, never seriously questioning the meaning of existence or thinking anything that isn't handed to them by this grotesque materialistic, stupid culture in which we live. You challenged yourself, you explored. That's a beautiful thing.
posted by Unified Theory at 10:18 PM on August 25, 2013 [22 favorites]

Ask yourself how you were supposed to know that {thing} wouldn't work for you until you tried it.
posted by Solomon at 10:22 PM on August 25, 2013 [7 favorites]

The way I see it, those four years were lived all for you, for yourself. Those are not wasted years. Think about where you would be now if you had spent those years advancing your career, not about how you'd be financially, but how you'd feel about yourself. Would you not still have the itch to discover more about your spirituality and such? Maybe you'd then see four years of career advancement as a waste.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 10:25 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with the others. You took the time to explore something you thought was important and essential to your well being. So what if you found out you were wrong? How would you know that if you'd never tried? Those are not "wasted" years. They're years that you needed to answer the question "what if?" because if you hadn't answered that question, you'd be sitting there now asking yourself "what if...?" Seriously, you took a risk and are the better person for it. Way too many people don't even try. Instead of beating yourself up over it, look at it as a growing experience and move on.

Besides, it's in the past, you can't change it, so leave it in the past, let it go, and focus on what you're doing now.
posted by patheral at 10:34 PM on August 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sometimes this happens when I get bored, so I distract myself. I literally just think about another thing like what furniture I want to buy, or I daydream, or start a to do list, or think about what friend I haven't spoken to recently and compose an email in my head, or...

I ALSO have luck by thinking to myself "why do I feel anxious now?" or "what am I avoiding by thinking about this?" The answers are often very interesting because it's much, much easier to beat yourself up about something you can't change than it is to think about a problem or difficulty that you do have the power to change.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:03 PM on August 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

You are 30 and writing your dissertation. You are doing better than 95-98% of the world.

This, seriously. There's a lot of food for thought here about ways to reframe your thoughts about your "mystical spree period." In case any of the guilt you mention has to do with the feeling that you ought to be done with your dissertation by age X, though, I'll offer this: almost all of the folks in my graduate program whom I've seen finish their dissertations did so after age 30. Some came into the Ph.D. program after age 30. It sounds like you're ahead of the game, to me.
posted by Austenite at 11:11 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ha! 30! You are but a young buck!
I am currently studying education, and loving it. And sometimes I wonder why I didn't start studying it in 2002, right after finishing my degree at 40! Yep, that's right, I am 50 years old and you are streets ahead of me, educationally wise.

Do I lament those wasted eleven years? Truthfully, occasionally. Heck, I could be a school principle by now, or have my PhD and being a lecturer instead of a student. But I wasn't asleep for those years and neither were you for your four. You were living. Learning. Experimenting. Despite feeling that those years were spent pursuing something you would not pursue now (and how would you know if you hadn't done it, huh? huh?), you should be accepting that those years were all part of making you who you are now.

Perhaps the problem you are having is that your focus during those years was not actually aligned with the ethics and sense of yourself you have now. If so, it might be worth exploring that ethical mis-match.
posted by Kerasia at 11:15 PM on August 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you're being really hard on yourself. Really, even if you weren't writing your dissertation and being impressive, no years where you're learning and exploring and becoming more fully yourself are a waste of time. That time prepared you to do your current work in ways you can't understand. You made good decisions for you at the time, and need to bear in mind that those good decisions are informing who you are now in many positive ways. The time you're wasting is not those four years, but the time you spend on regret about a period you should hold no regret for. Read some great literature and reflect on the fact that professional and financial security aren't what anyone extolls as being the purpose of life.

Are things going okay for you right now overall? This is a tough time in the process of getting a PhD, and people sometimes get freaked out at 30. When I start being self-critical, especially about things I can't change, it's because I'm subconsciously displacing my worry about something currently happening onto something that has already happened. Think about taking some time to check in and see if there's something else that might be going on.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 12:03 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

But you know so much about those things that you never would have learned without that time!
I'm dead serious. My husband spent more than ten years exploring different things, trying new careers, before he settled down. One could consider it wasted time, but everyone we know considers him to be amazingly talented and knowledgeable about a host of subjects. He and I know that a lot of that is from things that he learned during what you would call wasted years.

You cannot know now what you learned during that time, but it will bless you someday.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:15 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

This happens to me a lot, too. Ways I look at it:

If you are 30 now, you are probably going to be working until you're 70 (or older!). That's another 40 years! 4 years is nothing compared to that.

If you had done what you wish you had done, you have absolutely no way of knowing how it would have turned out. This is a bit morbid, but you could have been hit by a bus or caught a deadly disease or any number of things if you had taken a different path.

Don't compare yourself to friends, acquaintances on Facebook, or other people on your course. Sure, some people seem to have it all, but they may have terrible personal problems or other things in their life making them unhappy.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 1:20 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

during that mystical spree period.

It's a cliché, but time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.
posted by three blind mice at 1:27 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

The path that leads you to where you need to be is many things, but not a waste of time.

I quoted this from The World Famous above because it hits on something that I find true for my past as well. A look at my background would make you think I don't know what I'm doing and couldn't settle on a thing to do. That may be true for some, but if you ask me about it, I can explain how all of those disparate topics are linked. You listen to the story, and you start to think that wow, those really do fit together, and it was awfully prescient to consider the disparate elements so far in advance.

Truth is that story I tell is one I made up after the fact, to get people to think exactly that: there was a rhyme and a reason to the diversity. You come up with the story, you start telling it to people (e.g. job interviews, second dates), you add in your next steps and how they are so logical, and you come to believe the story yourself and see that yeah, it does makes sense, and I must have been planning this all along!

From the information above, I think you can come up with a nice story. The angle you take will depend a bit on what you are studying now and how to tie it in. But none of those activities was "neglect". Even if you don't have a degree to show for it, you learned stuff and gained experience.
posted by whatzit at 1:44 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.” -- Steve Jobs
posted by applesurf at 2:18 AM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I didn't even manage to get my bachelor's degree until I was 33 but I don't think of my twenties as being wasted. You didn't kill anyone, you just did something different than most people.
posted by octothorpe at 4:11 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Four years? Heh. You got off cheap. Trust me, 20 years from now, this will seem a lot less like a huge problem. You may even look back on them as good years.

That whole transition from childhood and school into the real world is a huge turning point. Often it's your first time really stepping outside a family or local culture that has defined your life up to now, but clearly cannot define your future.

And so some people (including perhaps some people of my height and general build) find themselves out of high school, in college perhaps, and realizing that there are things about their lives they need to work on a hell of a lot more than they need another four years of academic instruction.

It's also worth noting that those experiences weren't really wasted as they shaped you into the person you are now.

Basically, it's cool. You're okay. You're not going to get billed for those four years at the gates to the afterlife.
posted by Naberius at 5:28 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's not wasted time if you learned a lesson at the end of it. You now know what you do and don't want to do. You know what to value and what's a dead end. You're growing and you've grown.
posted by inturnaround at 5:37 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stop framing the debate as if you "wasted" four years.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 6:50 AM on August 26, 2013

Do what I do: Take the position of your future-self, and see what he thinks about what you're doing right now. Would he think you're wasting your time now? Yes? Then make a change. No? Then carry on, full-steam ahead!
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:53 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing I'm really grateful to my dad for doing is being 100% steadfast in the belief that, as he puts it, the most successful people don't travel in straight lines. If you want to be reasonably accomplished at something, at about the same level as a million other people, then sure, follow the exact same life path as they do. But if you want to do something unique, then you have to take a different route. I'm 31 (and still not done with my degree either!) - did I waste the year I spent as a nanny, or all the time I spent as a cashier in a bookstore during the holiday rush, or all those low-level jobs I took in hospitals because I thought I might want to be a doctor someday? Maybe. In a really literal sense, yes - those jobs do not serve a useful purpose on my academic CV. But if I think about it even for a second, I can see all the ways they shaped my brain, the ways they make me a different kind of person and thinker than the people around me, and I bet that's true of you, too.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:01 AM on August 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

Is there a reliable benchmark to evaluate if you've wasted your time ? Don't think so... I can remember a younger me comparing himself to other people and feeling so bad because he had wasted so much time. Now it seems to me that I haven't had that much fun or experience that much freedom in ages. How could I waste my time that way now ? I'd like to if I could !
anyway, Naberius has nailed down precisely what I wanted to say.
posted by nicolin at 7:24 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cursing the rungs is never a good idea. The things you did then got you to now. Focus on the now.
posted by hworth at 9:02 AM on August 26, 2013

I also agree with Naberius. Check this out. I started using alcohol and drugs in high school and was an alcoholic by the age of 17. My disease had me by the throat from 17 until I got sober at 35. I "wasted" 18 years of my life. I am now 44 and have been sober for over 9 years.

I have spent the last ~ 10 years digging myself out of a alcoholic hole. I went back to college when I was still drinking. Now I have an A.S and a B.S. and the B.S. is from an Ivy League University. Who would have thought a miserable old sot like myself could have made it into a big league school? Now I'm applying to grad school to get an M.S. in my field. I am determined to succeed in school and in my profession no matter how long in takes.

It took me a long time to realize that everything that has happened in my life has led me to exactly where I am and has allowed me to become the totally imperfect awesome person I am today.

You never know. Your 4 year "detour" might turn out to put you on a better path than what you can even imagine right now.
posted by strelitzia at 9:16 AM on August 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

It can be a challenge to act with sufficient compassion toward yourself. To create some distance from the situation, imagine what you'd say to a friend who described this same experience to you. Would you be more compassionate? What advice would you give her?
posted by kelegraph at 10:29 AM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was coming in to second applesurf. Check out the entire graduation speech that was the source of Jobs' quote.

My career has been a bit of a "go here, then go over here, then wander over here" sort of path. It's the reason I have my current super great job - they saw my path, and instead of thinking, "Wow, she's all over the place", they saw the truth - I give my all to a job that I find interesting, and am able to adapt to a variety of positions.

You can't connect the dots going forward.
posted by RogueTech at 11:56 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

You say that you got some therapy. Have you considered getting a little more therapy to help you be more compassionate with yourself?

All of your wording around "wasting" time shows contempt for the choices of your younger self. It doesn't really matter if other people spent ten years of their youth doing drugs and being lazy or if others have struggled but not gotten as far as you have. All you have is yourself and your choices. It's great that you'd like to be more positive about your experiences, so if this thread doesn't quite do it for you, consider talking with a therapist about integrating your experience of your past into the pretty cool You of today.
posted by ldthomps at 12:57 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Better now then when you're 45-50, married with kids and about to do something really stupid (your secretary.)
posted by Jacen at 1:39 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

It makes no sense to beat yourself up over this.

Say you had gone straight into your career and established yourself in the way you wish you had. How do you know you wouldn't have agonized constantly over that spiritual path you had abandoned, dreaming everyday about what could have been?

Consider the lives of your more established co-workers. There is a good possibility that they will eventually ask themselves the same questions you did in your early 20s. They will burn their bridges and set off for enlightenment while you continue working towards your more mature goals. It's also possible that your early "mistakes" might help you network better, being in a position to empathize better with others who face the same questions you did.

Ultimately, who comes out on top involves luck and mostly a well curate facebook profile.
posted by laptolain at 1:41 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I feel similar about some of my choices, and have no difficulty wallowing in regret. From that angle, I think most of the other replies have already hit the nail on the head. I just wanted to add that four years reading, meditating, organising seminars, and trying to build relationships could be regarded as four years building some damn useful transferable skills.
posted by UncleCaveMan at 1:58 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's like you were a scientist of your own life, and you spent four years exploring the hypothesis that mysticism might be the thing that made you happy, and then you debunked the hypothesis. That's not wasted time, that's an experiment! We love it when our hypotheses turn out to be true, but debunking hypotheses is important work too. If you hadn't had this period, who knows how many lingering spiritual questions you would have in the future?

(Similarly, you tested and debunked a hypothesis when you went to school for social work and rejected it as not your calling.)

We only have so much time to be the scientists of our own lives, but I don't think four years in your twenties is too much time to spend on spiritual questions, at all. A lot of people spend their twenties exploring hypotheses about drugs, status and bad relationships, and a lot of them turn out great.

Finally, what The World Famous said should be a bumper sticker, practically, so let me just say it once more: The path that leads you to where you need to be is many things, but not a waste of time.
posted by feets at 4:42 PM on August 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

If we only counted our years by only those without regrets, its likely most wouldn't be more than five or ten years old when we died.

Not every route is straight to secure job, marriage, house with 2 car garage, two kids and Disney vacations every year. I'm 37 and I only eclipsed 24 year old me's financial stability at 35 after three careers, and a host of bad decisions. I mean, I don't think I should be a role model for how to live your life, even more so - knowing that other people took longer to figure out what they want doesn't help you accept how long it took you to figure out what you wanted. But, knowing now what you should have wanted four or five years ago and beating yourself up about it is called hindsight bias.

There are much better things to do with hindsight, some of them you still won't actually get to do.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:00 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is only related to your question, but this really makes me think about the self-esteem issues David Sedaris delves into in this episode of American life. The transcript is here, but David Sedaris's narration is solid gold.
posted by nicolin at 3:33 AM on August 27, 2013

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