Updated: Nov 20, 2019
In the weeks leading up to college graduation, I felt incredible optimism about my future. I was on my way to becoming a certified Yoga teacher, had interviewed at a corporate fitness and wellness company whose CEO seemed to like me and my skillset. I was helping a former professor of mine start his own podcast. I was writing a lot, making music when I could, and binge reading self-help books like they were going out of style.
All of this created some pretty lofty expectations for myself. I had no doubt that things would really take off for me once I no longer had the burden of school holding me down.
Fast forward to a month after graduation. I’m sitting poolside working for said fitness company… lifeguarding. Not teaching Yoga. Not building my skillset. Not progressing (or so I felt). It got to the point where I felt completely stagnated, and my willingness to dedicate myself to the job I had worked hard to secure was quickly approaching nil.
But I had to keep the bigger picture in mind. After all, I was destined to become a Yoga teacher/martial arts master/public speaker/writer/mindfulness coach who, yes, also does music on the side. So whenever I wasn’t working, I would immerse myself in any number of unrelated tasks: building a website, working on my next musical project, learning Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.
While it might seem obvious to you that all I was doing during this time was spreading myself hopelessly thin, I had rationalized everything in my mind. This I credit to my affinity for head-in-the-clouds-style self-help books, which did two major things for me:
1. They led me to believe that I was destined to do something really incredible and groundbreaking
2. They made me realize how much harder I needed to be working in order to get on the level of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or any number of wildly successful people.
But none of the literature I was digesting said anything about answering the most important questions, like why I wanted to be successful in the first place, or what measures I was using to quantify success. Even if they did touch on these things, I still wasn’t in a position to take any of it seriously, and likely glossed right over it.
So I worked and worked to build my vision of the future, not knowing where I was going, how I would get there, or what I hoped to gain once I was there. But it was fine. I knew that once I had the perfect plan, I’d be able to go all in and start making some real headway; the kind I thought I’d be making right out of school.
Blind spots are a real son-of-a-bitch, and if left unchecked, they’ll lead to a lifetime of trying to rationalize irrational behavior.
My particular blind spot happened to be that I was unable to connect ideas and execution. I had conjured up these grand visions of what I thought my future should be. But when it came time to put in the work, my own ambition overwhelmed me. It felt like starting a semester long project the night before it was due (not that I would know anything about that).
And so, time after time my expectations were met with the freight train of reality. Any normal person would look at this trend over time and say, “change your expectations”. But no, my ego wasn’t prepared for that just yet. I looked at all of the evidence around me and said “you’re not doing enough” and “you need to find a new job so you can make more money and then pour that money into what you actually care about”.
Absurd, isn’t it? But like I said, blind spots are a bitch. This cycle continued for several months, until I picked up a book written by the late great Alan Watts.
The book was called The Way of Zen and it was my breaking point. One specific line in the book still echoes through the halls of my consciousness:
“There is nothing to be gained or lost in this life.”
Woah. Talk about an unsettling thought. How could there be nothing to be gained from life? And if there truly was nothing to be gained, why was I working so frantically to build a future for myself? What did I expect to gain from reaching my goals anyways?
They say you have to taste success before you realize it won’t solve your problems, but I could see myself very clearly in that moment, with that book, on that page, eyes fixated on that line. I knew that if I continued on this path, I would forever be one of those people who talks a good game, but never really follows through on anything.
The reason? I was so fixated on the future that I failed to realize that the future doesn’t even exist! Do you know who else lives their lives in accordance with things that don’t exist? Insane people.
This was the start of an emotional avalanche for me. I had suddenly gained clarity about myself that was so potent and painful, I could hardly look it straight in the face
Why did I want to be a Yoga teacher? Why did I want to be a professional speaker? Why did I care so much about these external things?
The answer is simple yet hard to digest: I wanted these things because I was a selfish prick who wanted to feel special and better than everyone else around me. This, in turn, led to the real kicker. The mother of all realizations:
I’m not special.
Enter my post grad depression.
I spent the next couple of weeks doing pretty much whatever the hell I wanted. I drank a lot, a habit I wanted to be done with after college. I started eating like shit, and therefore feeling, like shit. I couldn’t bring myself to work out in the morning anymore, which had been a staple of my morning routine and a grounding practice for so long.
I went to work for my Dad again, a job I had been doing throughout college, further reinforcing the idea that I was backsliding in life. All momentum had vanished for me. I thought about suicide a few times.
Then one day, after a particularly cold and rough start to my morning, I physically felt myself hit rock bottom. I remember thinking:
“I couldn’t possibly feel worse than I do right now”.
And I smiled, because I believed it. Once I arrived at that lowest of lows, something changed in me. A transformation began. Once you realize that you can’t go any further into your self-loathing, you ask the most important question that a human being can ask after falling down:
This was my way out, only to be found once all hope for a better future was abandoned. Before, I might have been able to tell myself that things would be better once I found a new job, or finished my latest song, or got some kind of recognition for my writing. But I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe that anything could save me from this moment. So I just sat with it for a while.
In Zen, there’s a saying that’s part meaningless babble, part divine truth. The saying is tathātā, and it roughly translates to “thatness” or “suchness”.
My translation: “Look, here in front of you. This is it.”
All my time spent working was in pursuit of a better job. All my time spent writing/podcasting was in pursuit of a better reputation. All my time spent practicing Yoga was in pursuit of some sort of divine realization. But that realization was always immediately accessible in the present:
“Look, here in front of you. This is it”.
This is nothing revolutionary, and I don’t want to make it seem like I’ve stumbled upon something novel and new. But something subtle changes in the human psyche when you realize that everything in life is ultimately meaningless, and still find courage to carry on in spite of it. Even without some grand, overarching goal, I can still practice Yoga, because I like taking care of my body and mind. I can still write because I like helping others.
My best advice for those recently graduated or nearing graduation? Believe in now. Trust your heart and the path it has given you. Be disciplined in your pursuit of goals, but also understand that it’s all a game, and that the future is insignificant compared to what’s happening in front of you at this exact moment.
With that, I leave you with a simple question: