Dear Fuck-Up: How do I make myself productive?

I’m worried that I am ruining my future.

Dear Fuck-Up: How do I make myself productive?

I’m worried that I am ruining my future.

Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s social media editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.

Dear Fuck-Up,

I'm a 22-year-old woman who’s about to enter her last year of college (hopefully). I was a ‘gifted’ student all through K-12 and in the top of my class at a competitive high school, but upon entering college I flamed out in the first semester and haven’t been able to recover since. I was supposed to graduate in two and a half years; instead I’ll be graduating in five. My GPA is somewhere below a 2.5 (I don’t dare check what it actually is).

I used to blame this on my circumstances — uncaring and sometimes outright cruel professors, not being able to relate to people in my major and thus having no social support system, less experience in the field than most of my peers. But then the circumstances starting changing. I got caring, engaged professors. I landed two internships through sheer luck, and got wonderful mentors and managers. But I’ve found myself fucking up every one of these chances — still failing classes; still drastically underperforming on the job.

I’ll sit down in front of a computer, having sternly told myself that I should do the task I’m supposed to be doing, and then... not do it. Despite not wanting to disappoint the teacher or manager who went out of their way to help me, despite not wanting to disappoint my parents, despite knowing that at some point I’ll run out of second chances, despite knowing that when the deadline passes I will feel like the worst person in the world, despite already feeling like the worst person in the world as I sit in front of the computer.

I’m reasonably confident I don’t have any mental illnesses. I have seen four therapists and tried medication. I sleep and eat regularly. I have tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in both therapist and book form.

I just don't think it’s possible for me to not be a fuck-up. I think I’m literally incapable of doing the work I’m supposed to be doing. It seems like the world is trying to tell me that I’m just not cut out for it.

I guess in the end my main question is: When I’m facing that computer screen and confronting the task that I’m supposed to be doing, how do I convince myself that I can do it? How do I silence that voice that says, “four years have proven otherwise” ? That says, “your peers in high school who did way worse than you are going to prestigious grad schools now, and you'll probably never be able to go at all” ? How do I prevent my past from continuing to fuck up my future?

Thank you,
Still a Fuck-Up

Dear Still a Fuck-Up,

I will try to say this in a way that doesn’t make me sound like either a wizened crone or a condescending jerk, but you have been an adult for a mere four years. FOUR. Please take a deep breath and trust me when I tell you that basically none of the decisions you are making at 22 years old have the sort of apocalyptic consequences you are imagining. Short of committing a major felony, there’s not much you can do at this age to irreparably fuck up your life. It will be fine.

Which is not to say your predicament is trivial. It is clearly causing you a great deal of distress and I certainly understand the waves of panic and shame that come with not being good at the thing you were supposed to be good at. But here’s the thing: I can’t help but notice that you don’t once mention what it is you are studying or why, besides that pesky “supposed to.”

I think you might be making a mistake that is very common among ostensibly smart people — missing the obvious. You’ve considered that your lack of motivation might be a function of outside forces like your professors or social situation; you’ve considered it might be the result of a mental illness or something you could work out in therapy; you seem to have considered many options besides the one that springs immediately to mind, for me: maybe you don’t feel like working very hard because what you’re doing fucking sucks and you hate it?

One of the more terrible lies we tell young people — particularly the sort of young people who think being ‘gifted’ is an identity — is that you are supposed to find a job you love, and that work will bring your life meaning. It’s easy to figure out whose interests this serves and it’s not yours or mine! Convincing a generation of workers to yoke their own sense of self to a job is a neat trick and a great way to make you blame yourself for any failure to produce.

I would encourage you to stop seeing your lack of motivation as a moral shortcoming, and start thinking about ways to find validation outside of grades or praise from an authority figure. Finish your degree (I wish I could tell you one weird trick for writing a paper on time but I have never in my life written a paper on time, so I think you mainly just have to suck it up and do it) and then maybe take a year and find a crap job you have no emotional attachment to that pays the bills. This will probably disappoint your parents and make you feel like you are an embarrassment compared to your peers. It’s fine. You will eventually come to realize this is a good and healthy feeling to sit with and survive. Hopefully you can find a way to make a living that doesn’t feel like an insurmountable burden, but do keep in mind that we are meant to love each other not our jobs.

Increasingly, as you spend more time in the world (which is larger than you can even imagine at 22) and grow to understand the forces that move it, it is eminently rational to be Bartleby. When faced with a task I’m doing because I’m “supposed to” I very often prefer not to.

A Fuck-Up

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