Ask MR: I’m Freaking Out About My Future
06.27.17
Collages by Maria Jia Ling Pitt

It’s hard for me to begin describing what’s going on inside my head. Over the course of the last six months I’ve been dealing with an existential…uncertainty. Namely, who am I, what am I genuinely good at, what do I want to do after I graduate, are my goals TOO ambitious? Some days I feel like I’m doing too little; other days I’m overwhelmed by how much I’m doing at once.

I’ve talked to people close to me about it who mildly attempt to reassure me with, “You’re going to be okay.” But I want to be great. You know? Part of me wishes I could just fast-forward these years. But that’s the whole part of life, right? To enjoy the journey. To enjoy all the shittiness and learn from it.

Above all, Haley, I’ve felt a massive lack of motivation. Every time I think about my goals, I can’t help but belittle myself by thinking of the hundreds (if not thousands) of other people who are far more qualified and/or skilled than I am.

Not sure if you’ll respond, but even if you just read this, thank you.

-Freaking Out


Ooooooh boy have I been there, Freaking Out. I could have written this exact message 10 years ago! In that sense, I could agree with your peers, confirm that “you’re going to be okay,” but I remember how viscerally unhelpful I found those words. It felt like my arm was broken and someone was patting my head saying I’d be fine. It drove me up the wall.

Having confidence in the journey takes a lot of practice. It actually takes years. It’s not something you just hear once and accept. In fact, if you think about it, most of us know all of life’s “biggest lessons” already, including that one. We’ve heard them from wiser people since we were kids. But knowing truisms is very different from believing them in your bones and letting them seep into how you think and feel. The only way to learn life’s lessons, really, is to live. Until we stumble across them ourselves, they’re mostly just words.

I guess what I’m saying is, try to accept that you may not be able to think your way out of this anxiety by reframing it. You can’t get through this time by plugging in whatever wisdom I’ve gained from my experience. No matter what I say right now – and whether or not it makes you feel temporarily better — you’re going to have to ride this out. That’s precisely how you’ll get smarter, more interesting, more you. Uncertainty will always be a part of your life. That’s the whole game. Certain people are boring. What matters is how quickly you learn to roll with life’s punches, cliché as that sounds.

So let’s say you’ve accepted you’ll be fine. That this, too, shall pass, blah blah blah. That doesn’t really help with the issue at hand, which is that you don’t know what to do. You’re frozen, scared, you’re not sure what problems you should tackle first, which of your problems you’re even supposed to tackle and what your role is in figuring that out. It’s a lot. No wonder you’re freaking out! “Finding yourself” looks much tidier in the movies, huh? Your journey will seem tidy one day too, but only with years and years of hindsight. Kind of a bummer, I know, but after years of reminding myself of that, I find the idea oddly comforting. It will all make sense one day.

I think your challenge right now isn’t to come to a decision about your future, it’s to not let your indecision about your future cripple you. Believe me when I say that caring about personal growth, trying different things and letting yourself dream (EVEN AMBITIOUSLY) will guide you towards new ideas, new opportunities and new twists and turns you didn’t anticipate. Those are the parts of myself I’d honor right now, if I were you. The ones that believe you can do big things. Not “big things” according to some superficial standard, and not “the best things” – it’s not a competition – but big things for you. The things that feel a little out of your reach, that excite and scare you. I’m not even urging you to pursue them because I think they’ll come true if you do. I can’t know that and neither can you, but for me, allowing myself to try things without judgment changed my life. I just think dreams are worth pursuing, outcome notwithstanding. (Unless they require a shit ton of debt, then pause and tread carefully, please.)

There are a lot of paths you could take from where you are – a beautiful notion, by the way, and one you should try to relish when the sky looks pretty – and none of them are right or wrong. They’re just different. If I split your life off, right now, into 50 parallel directions, and we sat on a cloud and watched the stories play out, I’m sure each one would possess its own unique blend of joy, sorrow and novelty. At the end of those lives, I bet most versions of “you” would say: I’m so glad that everything happened the way it did, even the bad parts, because it led me here. It’s a supremely optimistic take, but you know why I think that? Because you’re lucky enough to concern yourself with personal fulfillment, for one, and thoughtful enough to care deeply about finding it.

I’ll warn you right now that, after all of this, you may get to an urgent crossroads and still not know what to do. That’s when you’re going to have to guess. We all have to guess, all the time. In my opinion, people who are dead sure of anything aren’t thinking critically enough. Guessing is scary, but remember that your estimation of the paths that lie ahead are more than likely wrong anyway. Nothing ever looks like you’d expect it to. You just can’t know.

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to fuck up, there’s no stopping that. Maybe you’ll pursue a career you end up hating and have to pivot. Or fall in love and get distracted for a whole year. Or waste a bunch of time on something that turns out to kind of suck. Doing all that stuff is really important. Bonus points for doing it early. It’s helpful to see the other side of good decisions, so try not to be so afraid of making the wrong one. As Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

Mistakes, in that sense, are incredibly subjective. I spent a lot of years regretting what I studied in school (business administration) and regretting the jobs I did after college (office management, human resources) because they weren’t what I really wanted to be doing. But once I made it to a place that felt really fulfilling (it took work and it sucked and I spiraled a lot because I wasn’t sure!), having a different background actually helped a lot. It even helped to be a little older, coming into myself slightly later than is celebrated in pop culture. All of it rounded out my perspective and experience — maybe it was part of the reason I even got to where I did. This anecdote is not meant to be a lesson on career changes, it’s meant to be a lesson on life being a weird crapshoot. Sometimes the thing you deemed a mistake will end up seeming like the best thing five years later.

I understand your anguish, but don’t think it’s the wrong thing to feel. And don’t be fooled into thinking there is some combination of words I or anyone else can string together that will help you escape it. Uncertainty is an emotion worth really feeling. It’s worth noticing, tipping your hat at, checking in on. It’s especially an interesting catalyst for thought. Lately when I feel uncertain, I’ve been practicing thinking about how it will lead me somewhere interesting rather than wasting energy fighting it. It helps. Maybe let it stew for a while on the back-burner. That’s not the same as giving up. Honestly, sometimes your subconscious and everyday life will do more for untangling it than your panicked wondering ever will. Of course, you’re entitled to both.

Sometimes navigating all of this will feel like running in place. Sometimes it will feel like going backwards. Other times like you’re really getting somewhere. That flip-flop will feel frustrating, but it’s not something you can avoid. That’s life. And by the way — you’re allowed to chill out sometimes, too. Constantly living in pursuit of some bigger and better life will rob you of enjoying the present. Practice holding both the future and the present in your mind at once. Be okay with putting one aside in order to invest in the other every once in a while. Try to strike a balance between the two, if you can. It will give you the space to breathe and grow organically.

You’re not “going to be okay” because you already are. There is no end point where life will no longer present you with big, scary questions. Uncertainty is an emotional space you’re going to want to become comfortable occupying. I’ll meet you there.

Have a question? Email write [at] manrepeller [dot] com with the subject line “Ask MR.”

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  • Alex Lucke

    This is such an important piece to keep tucked away so major major thank you for that. I recently graduated college and felt lucky to be offered a job less than a month after graduation, especially after getting turned down from a seemingly dream job. My current job is far from that dream, but being here a month has taught me so much. I’ve learned about what I want and what I don’t — the things I don’t want might even be teaching me more than the things I do.

    Thanks again for this piece of mind and beautifully, albeit bluntly, emphasizing the importance of making friends with the looming unknown (it’s probably not nearly as scary as we hype it up to be).

    Cheers to the mistakes! And the reminder that they’re just as crucial to the journey as the highlights.

  • Charlotte

    I really enjoyed reading this because I too am going through an intense life crisis right now.

    One thing that is helping me is forcing myself to remember that I am a teeny tiny 22 year old, and whatever I decide now will probably have very little to do with what I end up doing, so it actually is totally okay to try a bunch of stuff and fail at a bunch of stuff. Like, you have literally your entire life left. And all the awful things that you try will someday be a really funny story that you can cackle about with your mature adult friends over some wine that cost more than a fiver a bottle.

    Thank you Haley for writing such a brilliant response to this! And thank you Freaking Out for being another person who is also Freaking Out x

    • Heather Chambers

      YES! Also, job “failures” are excellent lessons in what you don’t want to do. I’ve learned so much from every job I’ve left–what I do and do not like in a work environment, how to deal with different kinds of coworkers, how different divisions of duties effect my mental health, etc.

      Also the stories I tell about stuff I did when I was 22 make much better stories than I remember them being at the time!

      • Charlotte

        Ah thank you – this is what I’m hoping! x

    • Failing is everything. It hurts, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s so important to try new things and pick yourself up if they don’t work out. Failure teaches you SO much about who you are, your strengths and weaknesses, and it’s more valuable than easy success. You are awesome for trying!

      http://www.shessobright.com

  • Krusty the Kat

    Really well said! Thanks Haley!

  • Rheanonn Perez

    wow thanks so much haley, i have also been Freaking Out for the past 3 months (also maybe past 3 years lol) so i loved reading this!

    frheak.net

  • Emmie

    that letter you wrote to yourself 10 years ago, i wrote that earlier this month. and at the beginning of the year. and a few months before that, so big thanks for this. i’ll keep it, and have spare copies to hand, to pass out to other people.

  • Barbora Choi Bobályová

    Hey Haley, thanks for the great and deep article of yours. I am “much” older, 35 already, freshly married and expecting my first baby, with 10 years of accounting career (kind of;) behind me. One could have thought I have already figured it out…And yet, I am freaking out, finding myself starting a new life in a foreign country (again), feeling lonely so very often and on top of it getting practically laid off by my new employer after telling I am pregnant. I practically “swim” in uncertainity now with many sleepless nights…but your words made me feel much, much better…thanks a lot 😉

    • Congratulations on your pregnancy and I’m so sorry you’re feeling worried in a new place! I’ve been there (not pregnant) but in a new place without anyone but my boyfriend and I fell into a deep depression. Please make sure you take care of yourself and monitor your “loneliness.” Depression can really creep up on you! Stay strong and take care <3

      http://www.shessobright.com

  • ericabeckster

    Thank you so so much for writing this. I loved the idea of looking at all of your parallel lives and at the end saying they wouldn’t want it any different.
    Working on enjoying the present while I am doing a hobby I love, after years of freaking out about not knowing what I want to do being able to focus on this one thing has helped so much.
    Also, it’s always nice to remind yourself that everyone is going through it in some way.

  • lol gallimore

    I needed this so much! thanks muchly 🙂

  • Frankie Karrer

    I just graduated 2ish months ago and have yet to find a job or an apartment and am currently FREAKING out at all the decisions I have to make. And at the same time I am so unwilling to do anything because I am terrified it will be the wrong “thing” for me. I am a long time Manrepeller reader and one of the things I love most about this site is that it always seems have the perfect article for me when I am in a time of crisis. So thank you for this article Haley, it can be so hard to gain perspective on our own problems but you have helped me do just that.

    • Kirby

      i COMPLETELY agree with you! I also just graduated and am still unemployed..i’ve recently been talking to a connection about a job that is nothing i ever thought i would do, and while i’m scared i’ll just hate it i have to convince myself to try. nothing will last forever, and if i decide i don’t like it, i can get a new job! all of our decisions feel so permanent right now, but talk to anyone older and you’ll hear so many stories of changing careers! that makes me hopeful and brave to just try!

  • Vic

    I needed this so bad a few weeks ago. I needed this so bad the whole time I was in uni worrying myself and pushing myself to the point of regular breakdowns. But now I’m one of those annoying people who has found that everything will be ok, at least for some of the time. I found that other people were better at realizing what I was good at than I was so maybe ask around

  • Lisa

    I have been a Man Repeller follower since 2010 and never once commented but this post was exactly what I needed today. My boyfriend of 2.5 years who I’ve been making future plans with and has been a huge help in my career, randomly broke up with me. For a minute I found myself questioning all my/our future goals. I lost sight of what my goals were and started to only think of them as “ours.”

    Thank you for reminding me that I am okay. This uncertainty will definitely lead me to something interesting.

    • Andrea

      Good luck navigating the heart break! Look at it as an opportunity to try on a version of yourself you’ve always been curious about. You are strong and brave and can do this!

  • Meg S

    This piece would have helped me years ago. I took communications courses for a while, then switched to human resource management. I worked an HR job and decided it wasn’t for me when I transferred to another department and started doing their accounting. I went back to school to get my accounting degree, that I’m still working through.

    My mom did the same thing, when she figured out she hated classroom teaching after getting a degree in education. She went back to school to be a reading teacher, and then took administration courses when that program was eliminated. She encouraged me to change my course of study to what would make me happy, and that it didn’t matter if it took a little longer to get through school.

    While everything may not be perfect, it will be okay until you find yourself exactly where you want to be.

  • Adrianna

    I’m 28, and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t occasionally lay in bed and freak out. However, it all doesn’t feel so life and death like it did when I was younger. I no longer feel as defined by my job, promotions, and raises.

    I was super overachieving in high school and college, and I had a bit of a breakdown when I was 23. I was overworked, underpaid, burnt out, and bad at my first job. I truly had no idea “what I wanted to do,” where to start, and how to get there. I felt ashamed that I was consumed by privileged existential crisis while my immigrant mother worked as a housekeeper with zero benefits.

    I quit without a real plan. It took me 1.5 years to find steady work again. Even Whole Foods rejected my job application.

    I managed to start a new career, and more importantly I learned not to place so much emotional weight on my day job. I think the reason so many people in their late 20s and early 30s run marathons is because that is a personal accomplishment that has nothing to do with school or work.

    • Lizlemon

      Oh I needed to hear the part on not putting emotional weigt on work and school. I’m unemployed right now and it’s taking a toll on my self esteem.

      • spicyearlgrey

        ummm love ur screen name @disqus_A6WZEjSPr0:disqus

        • Lizlemon

          Thanks! I miss 30 Rock.

      • Adrianna

        Unemployment was a really difficult period for me. It’s trite to say that “it’ll work out” because every day was discouraging. It felt like “everyone” was building these great careers whereas I struggled to get a job interview. I dreaded parties because inevitably every one in NYC first asks “so what do you do.” People quickly forgot that we were at the end of a recession.

        My #1 piece of advice is to create personal projects for the kind of work you want to be paid for. Track what you did every hour in a spreadsheet. Luckily, I was interested in positions that required a portfolio and software skill set. I didn’t really know what to do, so I drew images of animals and learned how to paint them in photoshop. I also had a really old, entry-level camera that required a lot of post-production to look professional. I use those photoshop skills in my current job as a photo retoucher for an e-commerce company. (www.grezakstudio.com, http://www.adriannagrezak.com)

        Also, completing a 40 mile bike tour was life-changing. I think that was really the point in my life where I stopped channeling all my sense of self-worth in one area, work.

        • Lizlemon

          I’m in Toronto and “What do you do?” is the city motto.Two great pieces of advice. I’m going to start a ballet class and am thinking about learning photoshop.

  • Natalia

    That’s a really good and wise text. Thank you. I moved to another country and just graduated from master’s course. My life is all about uncertainty now so I really needed to read smh like this.

    • Rae

      We are in the exact situation! You are not alone my dear stranger! Loves

  • Marianne R

    “I think your challenge right now isn’t to come to a decision about your future, it’s to not let your indecision about your future cripple you.”
    I found this quote – and the text overall – really inspiring. I’ve been wondering so much about my future, making it difficult for me to fall asleep over the course of last year, and prompting me to make decisions based on fear. Dealing with uncertainty instilled the fear of time passing by too quickly and leaving me empty-handed. Maybe I should just hurry and find myself a guy, keep the steady job I have, etc… because if I don’t, I might end up with nothing. But fear is not a wise council, and there is absolutely no guarantee that desperately seeking out some form of safety and fleeing any uncertainty will bring happiness. I have to face uncertainty head on and rely on myself. And trust that I’ll be able to deal with it.

  • rita_arevalo

    This was such a comoforting reading for sure. Thank you so much Haley for it!

  • Emily

    “Lately when I feel uncertain, I’ve been practicing thinking about how it will lead me somewhere interesting rather than wasting energy fighting it.” AMAZING QUOTE

  • tmm16

    “Constantly living in pursuit of some bigger and better life will rob you of enjoying the present” really shook me to the core. I needed to not only read this piece, but this specific line!

  • Jeanine Valente

    Wow, have I been there and am still there. Can’t say enough how important it is for people to talk about these sorts of things. It makes people (me) feel less alone and realize that other people share very similar experiences.

    Thanks a million Freaking Out and Hayley.

  • EmUhLee

    Haley, this is great and reminded me a lot of Heather Havrilesky’s writing in her Dear Polly column at The Cut, late of the Awl. Her writing has been a great comfort to me during these tumultuous early twenties years and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t discovered her work yet.

    To the letter writer: it’s so hard to realize that there are no answers. As Rilke said, you are learning to “live the questions,” as must we all. Best of luck to you!

  • Haley I LOVE this piece!! There were so many nuggets that jumped out at me so much that I walked over to my desk multiple times to write them down on a post-it note. In particular, sometimes we get to a point where there’s just no clear answer and we gotta make a guess…was exactly what I needed to hear tonight.

    It’s so funny, because I’ve been through some of my own big life breakdowns and re-directions, and it’s beginning to feel like some of them that happened longer ago are “inevitable” (like when I shaved my head, quit my consulting job, etc.) because they led me to so many good things (meeting my fiancé, starting a business)…but I know that at the time I was totally freaking out. Like, really freaking out. Of course, now there is a whole new set of decisions to freak out about…

    Anyway, this was a really long comment but I just wanted to say that it was a great piece 🙂

  • Bella

    much needed piece of article that reassure us that everything eventually will be okay. Its amazing hearing about other peoples mistakes and seeing that everyone screws up once in a while. We live in a such a perfect world that often mistakes are not valued.
    I see people who have their whole life mapped up for them and cant help be envious.
    I still dont know what to do and the feeling of being lost is the worst
    When your a teen you think that by the time you are in your early twenties that you would at least know what you want
    ha, were just fucked up and clueless as we are in our teens. I wish mothers would educate teens the importance of being okay and content with what you have and the unknown and uncertainty shouldn’t frighten you instead it should be celebrated because that’s LIFE

    Bravo haley, this piece is beautifully written and speak to a lot of us in a different level

  • Lizlemon

    Jeez Haley this is solid advice. As I get older I get more uncertain and the more I talk to people I find they feel the same way too. Seeing life as an adventure and not an exercise in perfection is so much easier and fun.

  • Eadaoin

    This is great, thank you for the reminders !

  • Andrea

    Sooo needed to read this. I’m 23, and find myself frequently wishing that I could fast forward to ten years from now and have a husband and a senior position and a baby and be content. But I know that’s not how life works, and I also know that in ten years I’ll have a whole other set of life problems. Growing up is hard 🙁 But I like the idea of sitting on a cloud and watching all the ways my life could play out. I think looking at it as a beautiful adventure makes it a bit easier to navigate the uncertainty.

  • EmilyWilson

    This is BEAUTIFUL. A little extra lesson I learned recently: there’s pressure in nouns and freedom in verbs. Pursue long-term goals, but don’t be overly concerned with being the noun; just do the thing. In other words, stop worrying about whether or not you qualify as an Artist; just make art! Don’t be obsessed with being a Writer; just write! You may not be a Teacher yet, but you can definitely teach. Your dream may not exist in big noun-ish ways, but it can definitely happen right now in little verb-ish ways. There are always pockets of opportunity for teaching, researching, creating, crafting, and doing, and magic happens when we do the verb and the noun follows. (HT: Liz Gilbert)

    • Haley Nahman

      I love this!

      • Leandra Medine

        Ugh, I love this so much too

    • Flavia Flavinha

      o/

  • I had severe depression after college – mostly from these same questions. I didn’t know who I was outside of school and away from my family, I didn’t know what I really wanted to do, and I had bad anxiety about being out in the world. I think as you get older, many of those issues and uncertainties are still there, but you just know how to deal with them better and not let them rule over your choices. The reality is everyone has uncertainties, we just get better with dealing with them!

    Please, please, please, don’t wish your life forward. I’ve been there, and wanted nothing more than to snap my fingers and be a year ahead, but this time is precious and important to work through. Just make sure you’re taking care of yourself, leaning on friends and family, and monitoring your mental health. It gets easier and you’ll learn to trust yourself and your instincts more and more.

    http://www.shessobright.com

  • Cheryl

    Hi Haley. Been following your writing for a couple years now, so it’s really heartening to see how far you’ve come with this piece. It seems like an emotional exhale to the existential confusions that so resonated with me on your old blog. Thanks for always sharing your thoughts in such an honest, compassionate way. I’ll be turning to these words again and again as I’m clinging to my final year of college!

  • meme

    This is just so good.

  • curly215

    @adriannagrak:disqus and @disqus_A6WZEjSPr0:disqus not sure if you’ll see this since you were looking at this article 5 days ago, but I so needed to hear what both of you had to say, along with the words in this article. I felt like the words in this article were my words, and while it may not be an original feeling, it is entirely new to me. I just graduated and haven’t gotten a job, and needless to say, I’ve been freaking out. But Adrianna, you are so right, what you do is not who you are, and like Lizlemon, I’m gonna start doing more things that interest me and figure out who I am. Three hours before reading this, I seriously wrote about all of this. Talk about timing. Also, thank you Haley Nahman! I needed to hear your words too. I have been trying to find a journalism job and I honestly didn’t think it would be this difficult. It’s been so discouraging that I’ve even considered looking into another career path. But, after reading this article, I’ve accepted that I would just be letting fear control me and fear should never be that powerful. So, here’s to exploring who you are and letting life happen. Thanks guys!

  • Catarina Oliveira

    Thank you Haley, one of the most important things I’ve read so far on manrepeller. Even though this wont change my currently life situation, it helps me reminde myself that I am not alone. It’s ok not to be rush because everything happens in it’s own time!

  • Flavia Flavinha

    Thanks Haley, for sharing it! Your words are so right “that’s life” and ‘uncertainty’ will follow us along life. My experience was a little flipped from that, since I started to ‘freaking out’ about the future in the late 30s. Before, I was so sure of my decisions but along the way I’ve lost that Super Self-confidence. I am hoping to find it back. But, recently I figure that I just need to loosen up to make my days easier and maybe get back on track. In other words ‘all is ok’.

  • “The only way to learn life’s lessons, really, is to live. Until we stumble across them ourselves, they’re mostly just words.”

    This is the most important thing I’ve learned over the past year. And I think I needed to be here, in the job I was supposed to love and am now leaving because I hate (and fully freaked out about because it was supposed to be the 5-year plan), in order to learn it – to learn most of what the past year has taught me. I find myself screaming these new lessons from the rooftops, at my friends, at my little sister, thinking I can spare them all the anguish I’ve just gone through, only to remember that someone shouted it before me, to me, and I went through it anyway, because you have to.

    Today I freaked out about resigning from this job. I spiralled. I thought about how all the things ‘wrong’ with it might be industry wide problems. I feared I may never find my people, people who actually ‘see’ me and welcome my input and celebrate me the way I celebrate and welcome and ‘see’ as many people as I possibly can, professionally and personally. So thank you @haley_nahman:disqus because this is exactly what I needed to read, right when I needed to read it.

  • Julie

    Seriously, thanks for not saying that I’m going to be okay!!! Just the kind of brain massage I needed

  • Holly

    I am 49 and these questions are all still relevant. Yes I have a solid base of various types of success in my life but for me the future seems scarier now only because I feel less bold than when I was in my 20s when I didn’t seem to worry half as much! I am off to ease my anxieties by looking at menocore fashion on Pinterest 😄

  • Jackie

    I love this ❤️❤️❤️❤️