Is it too late to get curious?
October 27, 2018 11:58 AM   Subscribe

Through a combination of luck and lack of ambition, I have managed to spend most of my adult life in relatively easy if somewhat painfully boring jobs that paid just enough for me to live alone. I could sense myself becoming stunted by this in various ways but never summoned up the determination to make a change. Then a better paying, more interesting, but MUCH HARDER job fell practically out of the sky into my lap.

Kind of out of nowhere, my apathetic job search served up a really good opportunity in technical writing that I felt I couldn't turn down. The subject matter is varied and interesting and even kind of fits into my idea of "work that is important to the future of society," but I am extremely intimidated by almost everything I have to do there. My life is a lot harder now, and I feel like I need to get interested in and enthusiastic about challenging myself soon, or I'll sink.

I grew up with the "gifted kid" label and have known a lot of people in that peer group who identified themselves with a love of amassing knowledge, finding out how stuff works, and knowing cool facts about things. I have always felt like I was kind of the opposite of them.

Facts and systems and numbers intimidate me and I have trouble hanging onto individual bits of knowledge long enough to build it into any kind of deep understanding of something new. It's actually almost physically distressing to hold information I don't personally care about in working memory, even if it's a topic I find interesting in the abstract but the minutia of which is dry or just jargon-y.

So I'm finding myself on the clock, hypothetically reading some barely intelligible document trying to familiarize myself with it or summarize it or use the information from it in combination with something else, and finding that I'm not even reading it, I'm just scanning mindlessly through the pages so I can "technically say" that I read it. That would be an okay strategy if I was reading it for a class and could chime in when the one bit I actually absorbed came up in a discussion. That's probably where and how I developed the habit. But it's pointless if I literally need to make use of the information within the next 5 hours!

I have a certain kind of intelligence, I think, but it's Lazy Person Intelligence geared at figuring out the lowest effort way to get the best outcome from a given system. So I was the kind of person who got a good grade in a class but didn't really come away from it knowing the material. When it comes to trying to Learn About a Really Specialized Topic So I can Write About it Coherently, I feel like there isn't a shortcut, you have to dive in pretty wholeheartedly and put in a lot of upfront effort to try to decode things.

The new topics are likely to stay new, also -- some things I can build familiarity on that will serve me in the medium term, but new projects on new topics will always be a thing here. Maybe someday that will be exciting instead of threatening? The culture here is also very "agree to do thing regardless of whether you have any idea what you're agreeing to or how to achieve it, THEN figure out how to do thing" so there's some pressure to try to squish myself into that VERY DIFFERENT mode of thinking. I'm already worried my caution about unfamiliar assignments has given people red flags about poor culture fit.

If it's not already obvious, I also have a lot of anxiety -- social anxiety, mostly, but also a more general anxiety about taking on challenges I could fail at. I'm kind of haunted by a sense that this is exactly the trial-by-fire I needed to start facing my discomfort with discomfort and become a proper adult who does stuff even when it's hard, but that it's happening 5-10 years too late and my brain isn't flexible enough for a 180 degree attitude change (I'm in my 30s).

It's possible that this sense of having locked myself in a room with a tiger that's going to maul me is something that will just fade with time, but right now I am just really struggling with feeling like this job is "for" someone else who genuinely loves to learn and I am about to be exposed as a fraud.

Can you learn to like learning? Can you learn to like BEING CHALLENGED without feeling like every assignment is a massive existential threat? Can you build stamina so you don't feel like you should get to be "done" if you do one or two hard or intimidating things during a given week? Can you ease your identity away from "I am a lazy person who can only win if there's a way to hack the challenge?" Any hope and/or actual strategies for doing so would be appreciated.
posted by space snail to Work & Money (11 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
First of all - congratulations on the job! I remember your last thread, great to hear you've got it.

Secondly, go back and read that thread, and anything else you can find about imposter syndrome, and realise it applies to you being in this job now, too, not just the selection process. They know you'll need to grow into the job, they like you, they have faith in you. If you're not getting your anxiety treated, go do that, you deserve it. And it will solve so much of your feeling that you are 'done' if you get too many challenges in a week and all the 'existential threat' drama.

More generally - sounds like your brain works much like mine, and it's not a personal failing, it's just a way of thinking. In my case I think it's partly natural, and partly the result of being a news reporter for many years - I had to read and absorb stuff enough to sound like an expert for 24 hours and then dump it all at the end of the day to make way for the next topic. It sounds like your job might be similar, so I think in fact you maybe have just the right kind of mind for your work, if you can get over your anxiety and find a way to hold onto information short term. You say that you're the kind of person who 'fakes it' when it comes to learning a new topic, and it sounds like that's pretty much exactly what your job demands of you? If they're going to be constantly throwing new topics at you for the forseeable, they're presumably not expecting you to become the world's greatest expert in any of them - just for you to know just enough, for just long enough, to produce the document you're working on. Are you taking notes when you read this stuff? That's crucial for me, otherwise it drifts straight in one ear and out the other without touching my brain.

I highly recommend the MOOC Learning How to Learn, which I read about on Ask and have completed. It's one of the most popular MOOCs in the world, is easy to follow, lots of short video snippets which you do over 4 weeks. Not only will you learn lots about... well, how to learn, but the utterly delightful presenter, Barb Oakley, is extremely passionate about the fact that adults can learn to be good at things they never thought they were naturals at. She started out as a linguist, hated maths, then decided she wanted to overcome that so started studying... and now she's a professor of engineering.
posted by penguin pie at 12:28 PM on October 27, 2018 [13 favorites]

Oh, and also - I would bet any money that your sky high levels of anxiety are impacting on your ability to learn and remember. Treat that and the rest will get so much easier.
posted by penguin pie at 12:31 PM on October 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

I have a certain kind of intelligence, I think, but it's Lazy Person Intelligence geared at figuring out the lowest effort way to get the best outcome from a given system.

This is by far the most useful type of intelligence for the workplace. People, almost universally, don't do their jobs well by being deeply knowledgeable experts. They do them by being able to work out what they need to know and how to apply it in the easiest (most efficient) way.

Basically though, your problem seems to be that you've convinced yourself that you're lazy when you're actually anxious. Reading your post, it seems pretty obvious that the reason hard things feel horrible is that you're scared of failing and its consequences. I thought I was lazy for an exceptionally long time, and it was a great big lie. Think of all the difficult stuff you do that you enjoy. Given that (from an earlier post) one of your hobbies has involved you building and releasing your own videogame, I'll bet dollars to donuts that you're far, far from lazy.

Keep working on your anxiety, remember that everyone else is faking it at least as much as you, and stop believing, forever, that you're lazy. I promise you it's not true.
posted by howfar at 1:21 PM on October 27, 2018 [8 favorites]

The question I learned to ask is, "will I regret not having tried this?" At least for me, failing is a lot more satisfying and less likely to induce regret than not making the attempt. It took me a long time to learn that.

But, also, some of your specific experiences seem, to an outsider with no medical training, like they might be amenable to clinical treatments. Have you looked into med/psych options? Mindlessly scanning pages isn't doing anyone any good.
posted by eotvos at 1:28 PM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Re: Therapy, since I think it's going to come up a lot:

I know that's kind of the obvious answer, here. I really like the idea of therapy as a way to address the core of my issues, but recently came out of a long (multi-year), expensive, and very counterproductive attempt at it. It exacerbated most of the issues I was there to treat. I'm not eager to try again during a delicate time in my life, especially since it would soak up the financial gains from my new situation, which I have other plans for. I'm not interested in experimenting with medication right now either, for similar reasons.
posted by space snail at 1:35 PM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

How's your note taking and outlining? Those would be critical skills for me in the job you describe, and are skills you can acquire.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:44 PM on October 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

First, separate your work from your job.
Is there anything you like about the people you work with or the office culture? Are there externalities (besides money) that you can focus on to keep you invested in this situation and glad to be at work every day? Also if you make friends with a coworker or two, you might feel less alone in the trenches.

Second, separate yourself from your work.
You don’t have to give a flying *fck* about the content of what you’re writing about. You’re a facilitator, a translator. Think more about the audience you’re writing for and put your focus on your performance as an actor or puzzle solver rather than an expert or teacher.

Third (maybe this should be first), see if you can identify and break down some of the distorted thoughts feeding into your anxiety and imposter syndrome.
I hear you saying you’re not wanting to go to therapy. I was going to suggest it for helping root out the ingrained beliefs that are the basis for your anxiety, chief among them that you’re too old to change and be good at this job. While your brain may not have the exact neuroplasticity it did 10 years ago, the extra decade of experience can give you a lot more familiarity with your mind and many more tools to work with it (ie: the wisdom to put stairs on a steep hill instead of trying to make the hill flat).

You sound overwhelmed by this situation. Try breaking it out into your three biggest fears/worries, then unpack each one to pinpoint specific dangers, and treat each danger as a solvable problem. A good deal of anxiety comes from the scary power of the unknown, so the more you can research that unknown, the smaller and more manageable it will be. In these situations a therapist can be helpful to keep you on track and not lost in the weeds of it, but it’s possible to do on your own.
posted by itesser at 4:19 PM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hi, similar background - I deeply feel it's your anxiety that is hampering your ability to do all of this. When I was suffering from anxiety as a result of the PTSD I was dealing with, I couldn't retain information anymore. I now use medical cannabis and cbd to help treat my symptoms and it's been going a lot better for me and going back to learn more technical knowledge (since Lexapro gave me too many unwanted side effects) so I would seek out psychological and psychiatric help first.

I also am in my 5th year of therapy, which is one of the best investments you could ever make for yourself. All of my learning from my time in therapy has helped give me much stronger ways of combating my anxiety and really learning about what I want, especially since my anxiety manifests in avoidance and catastrophizing.

Think of it as the university for your mental health, where you learn much better techniques, and there are a myriad of therapists with different approaches that can help you out. I like dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused therapy, and inner child therapy.
posted by yueliang at 7:57 PM on October 27, 2018

Oh I just saw your answer earlier - sorry that therapy hasn't been successful for you, that's very frustrating.

I would give yourself a break...I think it's as simple as stop trying to overachieve. We aren't in class anymore, with suffocating standards of nonsensical achievement. Our self worth isn't based on that anymore, it's whatever we want our self worth to be based on at this point. Anxiety traps us and makes us think we are worth less than what we are, but why not go do something that sounds risky like that job and see what you can do? What are you basing your self worth on that these concerns are even that big? I ask this because I still struggle with it, but I also am learning to go "hey fuck it, if this attempt doesn't work out, try something else!" And not everything is in my control anyway, so I may as well focus on what is in my control, which is me doing the best I can to trust myself. Where is your sense of trust in yourself?

I have a good friend who told me to just be a "basic bitch." It's been pretty great - even my mediocre stuff is well received because why? Because I'm putting stuff out there and improving and learning to handle my anxiety levels. I'm still learning, still growing (check our growth mindset) and still trying. I'm thinking you aren't being challenged enough and to take enough risks so that you don't even have enough time to think about your anxiety, just go do more things and trust yourself to find your feet as you land! Do more things that seem impossible or not what you can accomplish, and make them possible! Just go do your work - the worst thing that can happen is that you will get fired, which is stupid because hiring is really expensive and time consuming. People will more likely help you out instead, and you can always ask for help, you aren't alone.
posted by yueliang at 8:07 PM on October 27, 2018

I'm also wondering if this type of environment is activating your flight or fight because you can't overly prepare for this in the same way you do for a gifted-level school exam that is mostly memorization.

The best way to do this, besides concentrated focused therapy on this specific aspect, is to learn to ask for help as much as you can in being clear about what your standards are. Do not suffer in silence - if this is a good workplace, they just want to see good work and aren't there to judge you as a good worker or not, being proactive about asking for help is to be expected. I would detail your concerns and anxiety to whoever is hiring you or managing you and seeing if they have supportive responses, or if they will just leave you to the sharks. A work environment should do their best to help you out and not get in your way.

That way, you can build confidence in being able to do with less preparation, and to be confident you can find what you need quickly along the way. Cheers to you, this is tough and I'm currently working on it too!
posted by yueliang at 8:21 PM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is just one little piece, but my job also involves reading a ton of long and detailed documents, and I really like to print them out, highlight them, and mark them up physically. For whatever reason, my reading comprehension and retention are a lot better than when I look at PDFs. I also usually keep a running Word document where I write a little paragraph summary of each document or document section and take down notes about ideas to explore later.
posted by capricorn at 6:18 AM on October 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

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