Oh, Grow Up! (Emotionally, That Is)

"I guess I'll be able to handle it when I'm a senior," one of my freshman students said, talking about the thesis she'd have to complete before graduating. "But for now it totally freaks me out." This student held a reasonable assumption that we all cling to:  we'll outgrow our fears.

Hate to break it to you, but we do not outgrow our fears. (Just ask my grandma, who still hates the dark.) Fears themselves don't "go away" as we get older. What changes is our ability to manage those fears, and other strong emotions. The 20s are a key time for that development.

OK, we're going to get into brain science so get ready. (Do not fall asleep on me, people!)

Brain structures involved in dealing with fear...

During puberty, the area of the brain that creates emotions - the limbic system, including the amygdala - grows rapidly. This causes emotion overload, with strong feelings popping out left and right. I think of it as a field of fireworks that has accidentally caught fire, causing the fireworks to shoot off randomly and in all directions.

That's why your feelings were so intense during adolescence, and why they changed so frequently -  because your brain was churning out emotions the way the Duggars churn out kids.

If there were some way to control the surges of emotions - if we could, say, put a protective barrier over the blazing fireworks - then it wouldn't be too bad. And eventually, as we get older, we are able to do just this. But not for a while.

The part of the brain that controls emotions - the prefrontal cortex - is still developing into at least the mid-20s. In the early and mid-20s, nerve cells that we don't use die off. This makes our prefrontal cortex more efficient at controlling emotions. In addition, insulation (myelin) is accumulating around the nerve cells in that area of the brain, making the neural impulses faster. This insulation building may continue into the 30s.

In other words, we're still a bit unhinged in our 20s.

“The prefrontal part is the part that allows you to control your impulses, come up with a long-range strategy, answer the question ‘What am I going to do with my life?’" said the lead researcher, Jay Giedd, in the New York Times article What Is It About 20-Somethings. “That weighing of the future keeps changing into the 20s and 30s.”

So what's this mean for you? Well, you're not quite your adolescent self any more (thank goodness). But it also means that you do have a lot of "growing up" left to do.

Not "growing up" in the sense of getting rid of fear and the other emotions that block us - an emotionless life would be awful - but in the sense of handling them. That's what psychologists call emotion regulation, and it's a process we begin in the toddler years. (Not so successfully, I might add, as the frazzled mother of a 2-year-old.)

So, as a twentysomething, what can you do?

  1. Accept that your emotions are going to overpower you sometimes (often?!). Especially so-called negative emotions, like being afraid and feeling hurt. You literally can't help it. Your brain isn't equipped to override these emotions efficiently yet. When you feel afraid or sad or angry, just say to yourself "Oh sheesh, there goes my out-of-control amygdala again." You can even say it out loud. But only if you're looking to shed some friends.
  2. Use this knowledge to step back and let the emotion flow past you, whenever you can. You now know that emotional control isn't yet your strong suit, developmentally speaking. So choose to not let the emotions get the best of you. Emotions last only as long as we allow them to last. In her book My Stroke of Insight, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor writes "there are certain limbic system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream." If we keep thinking about whatever triggered the emotion - like fear that we'll let our parents down if we choose to pursue art instead of law - then our bodies continue to feel a flood of chemicals that cause the emotion. If we choose to think differently, the emotion passes. That's where #3 comes in.
  3. Come up with strategies to deal with fear and other strong emotions. Not thinking about fear and anger and sadness sounds great, but how do you do it? Strategically, that's how. You can override your brain's immaturity, if you have a plan in place. Since I've already bludgeoned you with neuroscience today, though, I'm going to end class here. In our next lecture this is where we'll pick up - with strategies that help us regulate emotions, especially that naughtiest one of all:  fear.

In the meantime,  your homework is to write about how your emotions have changed since your teen years. Do they feel different now, or do you just manage them differently?

Brain structures involved in dealing with fear and other strong emotions. The amygdala is a key part of the limbic system. If you're still reading, you might note that this is the most serious caption I've written on this blog. Go me! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fear. Need I Say More?

I'm afraid of writing about fear. There, I said it. I've been stalling - see the Why Interviews Rock post for proof - because the topic of fear is so huge, so central, so debilitatingly fundamental to career avoidance. Freak Out

And because I'm no expert in handling fear. By any stretch.

But I am an expert in having fear.

I've been plagued and paralyzed by fears and anxieties ever since I can remember. I was that kid who ate the exact same food for every meal, laid in bed at night wondering if my parents were still alive, and avoided costumed characters like the plague (fine, they still freak me out, but I won't get into my psychological profiling of people who take jobs as characters here). I always thought something was wrong with me. Especially when I reached my late twenties and fears still hounded me. By that point I held adult-type fears - fears of failure, of success, of making the wrong choices, of social censure, of disappointment, of "forever" - but still, shouldn't I have been past fear by then?

It wasn't until my late twenties when I sat down with the book The Courage to Write:  How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes that I accepted that having fear is normal - it's even healthy and beneficial - but obsessing over getting rid of fear is not.

He writes:

We often use the terms fearless and courageous as if they were synonyms. In fact they're closer to antonyms. Mark Twain defined courage as "resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear." General Omar Bradley called it "the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death." In The Courage to Create, Rollo May pointed out that existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre all concurred that courage didn't mean the absence of despair; rather it meant "the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair."

Apparently this is a lesson I've had to learn repeatedly. I jot the date whenever I read a book; the inner cover of The Courage to Write reads like Heidi Montag's plastic surgery log, exhibiting the need for frequent hits:

  • "Read 5/2005 (age 27)"
  • "Re-read 9/07 during a crisis of courage (age 29)"
  • "Re-read 6/09 during yet another (every 2 years?!) (age 31)"

Clearly fear is a common denominator in my life. [A friend once remarked that I have more fears than just about anyone she knows, yet have done more in my life than just about anyone she knows. (RE: the latter, apparently she doesn't know many people.)]

I have faced numerous crises of courage, just like I see many of you grappling with on your blogs. Whoever's in their twenties and claims otherwise, they're lying.

When I picked up and left an all-expenses-paid PhD program in which I was earning an A+? Scared out of my mind. When I moved 400 miles away from all of my friends and family? Frightened beyond belief. When I chose to go part-time while teaching at Bates College, then chose to take a year off to write, then chose to turn down a class just a month ago, even though I need the money? Anxious, terrified, petrified.

Yet I did all of those things. And those are just the career-ish decisions of my life.

I do not, however, believe in the stock notion of "facing your fears." Courage is a muscle that takes loads of mental and physical energy to operate. Why waste that muscle on "facing your fears" as a matter of course? I believe instead in walking past the fears that get in the way of the life I want to lead. The other fears, the ones that are just floating out there not doing me any harm, those don't need to be faced, maybe ever. I mean, I find the Octomom to be scary in many respects, but I'm not about to hang posters of her around my house to get over it.

The way I handle important fears - like the crippling fears that make me want to run to a "secure" and "stable" job every, oh, two months or so - is to simply acknowledge them. And then move on as if they weren't there. Taking Zantac as I go.

And so as we embark on our "Fear Series" here in Career Avoidance 101, starting first with general thoughts on fear and then proceeding to the specific fears that paralyze our career prospects, I'll do the same thing:

I'm scared as hell of writing about fear because I might bungle the topic, not have anything useful to say, and make you all withdraw from the class in mass hordes in the process.

And yet, onward we march. Next lesson:  What does it really mean to "outgrow your fears"? (I promise less professorial navel-gazing in that installment.)

But first, it's time for some class participation (yes, I am grading this):  How do you handle fear?

I suppose that's one way to deal with fear. (Photo credit: Frau Shizzle)

Critical Thinking is Bad for Your Health (or at least your happiness)

I'm about to go on record as a hypocrite. In the classes I teach at Bates - especially my upper-level seminars - I stress the importance of critical thinking skills. A liberal arts education is about learning to think, write and speak critically and creatively, I always say, my chest puffed up professorily. I even put critical thinking at the top of many of my syllabi. But here goes:  Critical thinking skills will be your undoing. Or, in the context of our class, they'll be your fast path to an A. (I suppose they should top our syllabus, too...) I began thinking about this when reading sweetlyindecisive's recent post What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? She did a nice job identifying and laying out her five dream careers. What struck me, though, was how she immediately justified why each path wouldn't work for her. I recognized myself in her post. Here's a younger version of me:

  • I'd love to be a television news anchorperson. But I'm not competitive enough to cut it, and I hate cities, where they're based.
  • I'd love to be a fashion designer. But I can't sew worth beans and I don't follow fashion trends closely enough.
  • I'd love to be a cow farmer in the Swiss Alps. But heights freak me out and cows scare me. (Alright, some justifications make sense.)

Why are we so quick to shoot down our dreams? Why do we naturally follow up our desires with our "and here's why I can't/won't/will never do it"? It's our critical thinking skills, I tell you. They're the culprit. So hone up those bad boys up, committed Career Avoiders. The finer your critical thinking skills are, the more readily you can train them on yourself. If you want to get really good, go to grad school. Particularly a PhD program. First you'll learn how to tear apart other people's research and writing, bloody shred by bloody shred. Then you'll start tearing your own work apart. Then you'll start tearing your self apart. Before you know it, you'll be criticizing your actions before you even make them. Me at the dining hall (circa 2002):  What was I thinking, reaching out to get a hamburger? That's an awful choice, both for my health and for the well-being of animals the world over. I'll get a salad instead. But wait, is that lettuce locally grown? Or was it shipped from across the country - or worse, from another country - unleashing barrels of used oil in its wake? I think I'll just sit down and eat my nails instead. It's fun. My grad school classmates and I were very happy people. (So what if more than one of us was flagged as "hypochondriac" at the Health Center?) We do the same critical thinking with our dream careers. We shoot them down before we've even begun to make progress toward them. Yes, decision making requires us to discard options so that we can zero in on one choice. But what if we discount ALL of our options? Or worse still, what if we discount them for questionable reasons? Like with my childhood fantasy careers above, I could've learned to sew or to be more assertive; I could've started following fashion trends; I could've realized that many cities aren't big and bad like the New York City in my hometown's backyard. (There is, alas, absolutely no way of saving the cow farmer dream.) I see my students doing this all the time - discarding all of their options, and largely for reasons that are well within their control. There's a term for this:  analysis paralysis. The venerated scholarly source Wikipedia defines analysis paralysis as "over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome." It's highly related to the paradox of choice, which we explored in a previous class. Case in point:  I've been planning this very blog for five years. FIVE years. Talk about paralysis. Entire cities have been planned, built and occupied in less time. But my laser-sharp Ivy League critical thinking skills generated every conceivable reason for why I shouldn't start a career blog for twentysomethings. (I'd reconstruct those criticisms for you here but I'm afraid it would then take me another five years to post again.)

Water dream

If you're going to dream, then dream. Lose track of reality. Imagine possibilities, not limitations. Conjure what's possible, not probable. After all, is there a little thought cloud that appears in the middle of your nighttime dreams that says "That doesn't make sense! That could never happen!" When I was recently married to Daniel Craig, kissing my real-life husband, and flirting with Dan Stevens all while boldly navigating a raft down a raging torrent that led to a boiling sea of chocolate sauce, nobody said, "that is ridiculous!" (Least of all me; it was hella exciting.) Let your dreams grow - without interference from your meddling critical thinking skills - because I'll tell you, life will throw plenty of "reality" into your path soon enough. The only way you'll make it to some reasonable approximation of your dream career is if you've let that dream grow super-sized and robust enough to survive the chipping away life will inevitably do. It's like hurling a snowball at a friend - if you start with a teeny, tiny, soft, dopey snowball, the friction with the air will make it disappear long before it reaches its target. But if you start with a large, tough, herculean snowball, it won't only reach your friend, it just may knock him out. (Score!) Unless, of course, you're actually here to learn how to avoid a fulfilling career. In which case, enroll in one my real-world classes. I'll give you plenty of training in the critical thinking skills that'll screw you up royally. So tell me, what's your dream? (No reality intrusions allowed!)

I don't know what the heck this is. But it looks as otherwordly as a dream to me. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

How To Create Your "Life Goal"

Paper Weaving Just a quickie here, to give you a handout that accompanies the most recent lecture (yes I'm one of those unorganized professors who provides materials out of sequence. Aren't you glad you "enrolled" in such a quality course?). The handout is your very own personalize-able "All I Want to Be" statement. Aw gee, just what you always wanted!

Not sure how to use it? If you want to pass our class with flying colors, then don't bother to read the following. But if class failure (and career bliss) is your goal, read on:

1) Save it on your computer (it's a PDF file; if you'd rather be able to alter it, here it is in Word format).

2) Ignore the file for days/months/years (length dependent on the depth of your Career Paralysis).

3) After the waiting period, stumble upon the file on your hard drive and decide to print it out.

4) Ignore the printed copy for another period of time. (You're really paralyzed, aren't you?)

5) When you're ready - really ready (i.e., you've exhausted all the excuses explored in our class) - hang the blank print-out somewhere you'll see it morning and night, like next to your alarm clock.

5b) Be sure to have a snappy one-liner prepared for when your roommates/friends/parents make fun of you for completing this step.

6) Don't think about the answer too much. Simply look at the blank space daily and let your unconscious mind work on the answer. (This is actually completely serious - psychologists find that letting the unconscious do its work, called incubation, is often key to problem solving.)

7) When your mind one day spurts out a possible completion, jot that jammy down!

8) Live with the drafted statement for a while. Don't think about it too much, but do look at it daily.

9) When a revision idea hits you, print a new copy and try again.

10) Repeat Steps 7-9 ten, 20, or 500 times. Whatever it takes to get an answer. Yes, it's that worth it.

11) When your revisions start to revolve around word choice and sentence structure, you're done! Congratulations on failing this assignment (and being well on your way to failing class)!

(If you're reading these steps and questioning whether it's actually worth all this effort to find a fulfilling career, go directly to Step 2. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. I'll meet you there in the next lesson with another good excuse, you star student, you!)

How many drafts will you go through? (Photo credit: FeatheredTar)

Awash in Choices

I remember the exact moment when Career Paralysis struck. I had just left graduate school orientation – a somber, lackluster affair compared to the grand show of college orientation; this one seemed to announce, “there’s no more fun – the coming years will simply suck” – and sunk onto the hand-me-down couch in my cinder block apartment to sort through the barrage of information. I quickly landed on the Cornell University catalog. I should have stopped right there. Right there. Because I already knew what I was going to study. I was at Cornell to pursue a PhD in developmental psychology. End of story. And yet how could I resist the thick, creaseless, shiny catalog lying in my open hands? It called to me in urgent whisperings. Go on, open me. Glimpse the many paths untaken. You know you want to.

So I did.

I started by flipping to the list of majors in the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. I’d come from a liberal arts college, where the most exotic major is Art (alright, Women's Studies...), so to say I was blown away by the list before me is an understatement. The majors weren’t just foreign, they included terms I didn’t even know. Entomology? Biometry? Viticulture and Enology?

I stopped breathing then and there. Well, for a few seconds; I’m no world class breath holder or anything. All I could think was, If I don’t know about all of the possible career paths out there, how could I possibly have landed on the right one?

And that was it. Career Paralysis had taken hold, soon followed by Internet Addiction (Subtype:  Ceaseless Career Research). Before long, I was a graduate school dropout working a plum job I wasn’t sure I wanted.

I share my sordid story because, alas, I am not alone. There’s no better way to stymy progress and undercut contentment with the choices you make than to consider all of your options. It turns out psychologists have known this for a while. They find that the more choices we have, the less likely we are to make a choice and the more likely we are to be dissatisfied with our eventual choice, should we make one.

The classic study on this so-called paradox of choice was conducted using homemade jam. One day the experimenters set up a table that offered grocery store patrons tastings of six types of jam. On another day, their table offered 24 types of jam to taste. Lo and behold, they sold much more jam when there were fewer varieties available to taste. In fact, only 3% of the people who saw the large jam display bought a jar, compared to 30% of the people exposed to the small jam display. Which may mean that if you follow my advice and consider all of your career options, only 3% of you will end up actively choosing a satisfying career (i.e., failing this class). Now wouldn’t that be something?

Cover of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More...

Follow-up studies have found that having more choices also makes us less satisfied with our eventual decision. We inevitably come to regret our choice, thinking longingly of all the roads not taken. If only I’d pursued animal husbandry, my life would be lined with gold.

The advice psychologists offer, then, is to limit the choices you consider before making a decision. Don’t look at the array of options out there, look only at the options that are meaningful and feasible for you.

If I’d been honest with myself while lying on my crusty grad school couch, nothing in an agricultural school would ever remotely interest me. I’ve never gotten a houseplant to survive more than two weeks, let alone bred crops and reared animals. In truth, the majority of that expansive Cornell catalog was not in my realm of possibility, due to my interests, skill sets, experiences, and optimal work environments. I should have been considering those first (we’ll talk about how to do this – er, how to avoid doing this – in future lessons).

I’ll tell you, though, conducting unending research on all possible careers is a terrific fake out. Not only can you tell yourself you’re being super-productive – you’re researching careers, after all, isn’t that what you’re supposed to be doing in your twenties?! – but your parents will be pretty darn proud of you, too. All the while, you’ll be decreasing your chances of ever finding a fulfilling career. Triple score!

So the long and short of it is, if you want to avoid choosing your career for as long as possible, and to hate your career once you finally pick it, peruse some university catalogs, breeze through the lists of careers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Google the many thousands of graduate degrees you could possibly earn.

And if you have time in amongst all of that, do this week’s assignment. You’ll be too inundated with information, too awash with paralysis, to let Barry Schwartz’s practical advice sway you. Go ahead, read the book. I dare you.


Read The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More by Barry Schwartz, PhD. (2005, Harper Perennial).

(Or at the very least, watch his TED talk)

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less