Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress.’ But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to? How for the person to freely choose?[*…]*]How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?’ - David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
I close my work laptop for the last time. It’s 5:01 PM. I am no longer an employee at Facebook.
I wake up the next morning without any items on my to-do list — what is it that people do?
In therapy the next day, I tell my therapist life feels strange, like without the emails, the messages, the outlook calendar, I have to learn to be a person again. My therapist corrects me: “Alex, you started at Facebook right after you finished college. You’re not learning again. You’re learning to be a person for the first time. Be kind to yourself.”
But being kind seems self-indulgent. I’m not sick. I’m not broke. I don’t have obligations to a partner, to children. And I chose this myself. How hard is it to do nothing? How hard can it really be to be totally free?
I lose my mind the way Hemingway describes going broke: gradually then all at once. The first week is fine, if surreal. The first month is lonely but manageable. By the second month, I’m having trouble getting out of bed.
I feel empty. Purposeless. I force myself up from bed each morning even though I have no reason to get up. Nothing seems to matter. I feel no obligations to a boss, to myself, to anyone. But I construct routines to keep myself from spiraling further. I go for runs to kill time. I make sure to see at least one friend a day because, even if I don’t feel like it, I know it’s important to interact with humans. People who have never experienced depression think that it’s about feeling sad, but in my experience, depression is quieter than that: it’s a flatness, a void that seems to surround you wherever you go.
“It’s okay,” I say to myself, “this is the time to figure out a purpose. This is the time to decide what we really want from life.”
And so this becomes my internal refrain and the new project that I use to get out of bed: "I must figure out what I want to do with my life.*
Simple enough, right? Something to focus on.
Not so much. I would spend the next six months in a state of perpetual rumination — what I call the Abyss. I would spend the six months after that learning to climb out of it. Here’s the story of that journey.
I. The Abyss
We all experience existential angst at some point. Many of us shrug it off. Some of us drown it in alcohol or drugs. Or Netflix. Or sex. Or working endless hours. We use these coping mechanisms to distract us from a nagging feeling that bubbles up in quiet moments. The feeling that tells us that we don’t know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. And yet somehow, our time on Earth is continuing to tick away.
My particular choice of coping mechanism for processing that fear is, at first blush, way more innocuous than sex or drugs.
See what I do is this: I think about things.
And because "figure out what you want to do next in your career" is apparently not a big enough challenge, I decide to raise the stakes. I tell myself that life is worth living only if it is well-lived so I need to decide what a well-lived life entails, and do that. Otherwise — why bother living?
So, like I said, the rumination gets off to a good start.
With that super healthy perspective developed, I begin to deploy my logic to construct a “life worth living.” In my mind, it’s like a mathematical proof:
I’ll start by developing premises about what makes life meaningful. Then from that unassailable foundation, I can derive my particular purpose in life. QED. I'll be done in a week.
But that’s when things go really wrong.
You see — solving problems is good. But a pathological need for certainty, a belief that if you don’t know the answer to an unanswerable question then you’re doomed to stay depressed forever… well, that’s another thing entirely.
But I didn’t know any of that yet.
So instead, like the over-intellectualizing, over-read, under-lived-experience dork that I am: I begin my research process. I am so distrustful of my own intuition that I have decided to outsource the most important questions of my life — “What do I want from my time here?” — to the experts I can find on Google and Twitter.
I read endless amounts of philosophy and psychology articles about the purpose of life and ethical philosophies. I spend hours on Twitter devouring one moral outrage after another to try to find a place I can “make a difference.” But rather than getting me closer, these lost-days on the internet end up offering distractions (what I call my Sidequests (TM)) — new and shiny unanswerable questions that suck me in with the false promise that their resolution will help me achieve my goals.
These Sidequests, as I come to call them, include such wonderful traps as: Am I a good person? Are my friends? What does it mean to be good? Hey, what's consciousness? Do we have free will? Does God exist?
So I spend hours each day researching, Googling, thinking -- until I can't stop. Every moment of my life becomes oriented around trying to solve my obsessions. At each step, I convince myself that a little more research will reveal the answer to the particular obsession consuming me and that its answer will, in turn, set me free. If I can just find some kind of “ground truth”, I tell myself, I can build my life around it.
But that’s not how this works.
These obsessions are, of course, not the real issue. The real issue isn't the nature of reality or free will or anything else I could find to obsess over. The issue is that I felt directionless and I am looking for answers to questions that will never provide them.
Because sometimes in life, there is no such thing as certainty. And rumination, obsession, doubt —the things I collectively call “the abyss” — they’re all quicksand. The harder you fight them, drown them out, ignore them, reason with them, analyze them — the more you sink.
So that’s where I end the first half of 2021. Feeling trapped. Not wanting to get out of bed but unable to sleep. Something had to give. I needed another plan of attack.
II. Acceptance, Little Wins and The Road Out
So if you can’t solve a problem, how do you learn to live with it? How do you learn to live with the fear that you might be “wasting your life?”
Enter Buddhism. Or, for those of us that favor the Western Scientific tradition, we can use the co-opted version of Buddhism we use in my therapist's office: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT teaches practitioners to accept reality as it is (warts, uncertainties and all), and commit to living good lives anyway.
The only way to confront the abyss, I am learning, is to stop fighting it. To accept where you are. To accept this moment, this pain, this uncertainty — to sit in it, and let it work with you. To stare whatever demon you are facing directly in the eyes and say: Eat Me if You Wish.
Buddhists say that pain is inevitable, but suffering — which comes from resisting and wanting things to be different — is a choice. And after six months of suffering, I want to find another choice. So I begin to try acceptance of my present moment.
Sitting in meditation each day I breathe in my experience. Yes, I feel purposeless. I feel disconnected. I feel sad. But rather than resisting, I let those feelings sit in me, and try (am still actively trying) to accept them as they pass through me — rising and falling each day. I accept that a definitive answer to “What is the purpose of my life?” will always elude me, and that there will be no magical resolution or final clarity. I even accept that part of my brain will never fully accept this and will always believe that real clarity is just one more rabbit hole away...
But this new perspective toward my angst allows me to change tact. If I can't be certain about the future, I can at least ask what I want today. So my project changes from define my life purpose to find something that interests me.
And that starts to make a difference.
I stop my quest to methodically examine different philosophies or global problems, and instead surrender to whatever is grabbing my attention that day. Though I always hated science in school, I find myself excited by quantum physics (rec: Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli is a beautiful book). I start reading science fiction again. I explore AI not because I want to build a career there, but because I find writing code gratifying. I fall down the crypto rabbit hole, not because I see a chance to make a quick buck, but because the design of economic institutions was a passion in College. I trust -- I am trying to trust -- that if I find something I love, and if it aligns with my values, I can build a good and meaningful life even without the confidence of “having found my purpose.”
With each passing book or experiment, I can feel parts of myself coming alive again. Reminding me that there are things to be done, experiences to be had — and if I just keep going, I might find one that will stick.
I’m not sure what’s next. In fact, I’m very, very uncertain. But I’m recognizing that feeling unsure, feeling lost, feeling confused -- Hell, even occasionally feeling depressed— that’s what being human is. And I hope to stay human for a while longer. If all of this sounds cliche, then I remind you of another one of my favorite quotes: “Important things are inevitably cliché.” (Chuck Klosterman)
A Few Tips for Fellow Travelers:
If you find yourself experiencing something similar — whether it's run-of-the-mill existential angst or something more gnarly — while trying to find your “next thing,” I put together a few tips. I’m not certain they will work for you. Every self help book, every philosophy, every study on well-being, is true for some people and not for others. Other people can offer hypotheses, but the only way to know what works for you is to experience things for yourself.
1. Accept the purposelessness. There is no direction, no to-do list to prioritize. You will waste time. You will throw away work. That's the journey you have signed up for, and it is the only way to get where you want to go.
2. Learn to Meditate. Not to clear your mind. Not to learn to pay attention to your breath. Learn to sit still and focus on what’s happening inside your body and your mind. It’ll be frustrating. It’ll be hard. But that’s part of the process. Put down your phone and all of the distractions, and just observe what happens. If you’re not in touch with your gut, you can’t learn to trust it. If you don’t acknowledge restlessness or anxiety or pain or even joy or excitement, you won’t be able to hear the signals you need to navigate the abyss for yourself.
3. Therapy. If you have the means, I can’t recommend it highly enough. The idea that you need to be “sick” to utilize therapy is foolish. If you’re on this journey you’re going to spend a lot of time in your head. Find a trained professional to help you navigate it.
4. Start with values not rigid rules. Avoid saying things like, “I have to work in X.” Focus more on identifying the things that feel important to you — my list is Compassion, Connection, Curiosity, Contribution, Freedom and Self-Development. Find yours. When in doubt, even of these values, act according to what you chose. You’ll be glad you did.
5. Look for hints of flow. Start books. Throw them away when they’re boring. Play video games. Don’t feel a need to finish them. Learn to code. Stop if you hate it. You’re not chasing completeness, you’re chasing a spark. Find and follow the things that capture your attention. 99% of them won’t lead you to the next thing, but you’ll at least develop a sense of the feeling you’re hunting.
6. Set routines and commitments. Life has lots of paradoxes. One of them is that total freedom is its own kind of prison. Set constraints so that your mind can relax on the basics, and focus on where you want it to be free. Go for runs. Set a meditation schedule. Set a regular dinner or date night. Bind yourself to some structure so that free time feels like a gift rather than a trap.
7. Set meetings. People think they hate meetings at work. But, if you’re alone, you’ll find very quickly how much worse it is to not have socialization every day. Build your own meeting schedule. Do it right away.
8. Get the fuck out of your home. We learn through forming connections and having novel experiences. We feel best when we have some time around other people (and I’m saying that as an introvert). COVID makes this hard, but not impossible. Getting space at a WeWork was the single best decision I made last year. Find a coffee shop or somewhere to do work and be around others.
9. Let go of certainty. Humans hate uncertainty. We actually find it more stressful to be uncertain if a bad thing will happen than to know that it absolutely will. Remind yourself it’s OK to not know the answer. Remind yourself that no one knows all the answers — no matter how wise or scientifically minded or spiritual. Remind yourself that we’re all trying to figure shit out together. Beware those who would offer you simple solutions to life’s unending questions. As a great Zen saying goes, “Not knowing is most intimate.” Feel the intimacy of not knowing with your fellow humans.
10. Do not - under any circumstances - set a timeline for “knowing” something. I know this is hard to do, especially when you want reassurance that this period of uncertainty will end. But inspiration doesn’t work like that. And the more pressure you put on “figuring something out soon”, the more sure you can be that you’re always going to feel like you settled for “Good enough.”
11. Find your people. I cried in front of a lot of friends over the last year. Not my favorite thing. But not a single one of them made me feel shitty for it. Find those friends who you can share how you’re really feeling. Those are your people. Hold onto them.
Good luck and godspeed.