Existential angst is part of life. It is particularly noticeable around major life events or just after major career milestones. It seems to particularly affect smart, ambitious people. I think one of the reasons some people work so hard is so they don’t have to spend too much time thinking about this. Nothing is wrong with you for feeling this way; you are not alone.
I come back to this quote every so often. I first read it two years ago. It was the first time someone had put to words exactly how I felt. And it was the first time I didn’t feel alone in how I felt.
Today’s post has no life lessons. No challenges. No kumbaya resolution. Nah. Today I write about my personal story. My thoughts. My feelings. My many struggles. My small triumphs. And it’s in the hopes to 1) let me air some of my dirty laundry but more importantly 2) if you’ve experienced what I’m about to write about, you’re not alone.
The Early Days
So…ever since I was in 5th grade, I wanted to be a billionaire haha. Talk about lack of ambition right? It wasn’t so much the number. I could settle for $999,999,999.99. It was more about this “club” that very few women, and even fewer women of color had entered.
“It’s up to you to make something of yourself because there’s nothing for you to come back to.”
These are the words that would ring through my head almost everyday. It served as my daily motivation to get of the bubble that is Dhaka, Bangladesh. I didn’t have a family business to come back to like many of my classmates. All I had was my brain and the drive to do something with it.
So I did what most overachievers find themselves doing. Taking on too many clubs. Making varsity teams. Becoming captain of the varsity teams. Giving up a study hall to become editor-in-chief of yearbook. And I mean, topping my class with a 4.0 is basically a given (did get a few A-s at the end though. Senior spring got me bad).
I committed to a pursuit of excellence. But at the expense of my mental health.
My First Introduction to Depression
I remember coming to this point where I had climbed to the top of the mountain. This was around 10th grade. My grades were going for me. I had managed to become leader of a few of my clubs. Made varsity after a tough season of injuries. I had amazing friends. I had a wonderful boyfriend. And everything just felt awful.
There was this feeling of overwhelming sadness that I couldn’t explain. I believe in finding the root of a problem and solving it. Except there was no root here. It was a black hole.
I thought I was being ungrateful for all the great things happening in my life. So I took what I can now call depression, bottled it up, and stored it in the back of my mind. And I did what I did best: let the ambition drown me.
Depression Doesn’t Disappear When You Want It To
I quickly learned though that there wasn’t much hiding away from depression’s ugly head. I remember suddenly closing myself off from everyone except my boyfriend. I had alienated my three best friends. And really anyone that was remotely important to me. The ambition was able to work on auto-pilot so none of my activities or grades suffered. But anything that involved me being human did.
Slowly, I’d go days of crying myself to sleep. I had no-one to talk to. You don’t really talk about depression in Bangladesh. And again, what did I have to be depressed about? As I was constantly reminded, anyone would kill to be in my position. I was so lucky. So smart. So talented. So full of potential.
What do you do when the world is your oyster but you fell trapped in the shell?
The Damage Had Already Been Done
By the time I was able to get out of my first bouts of depression, I had already severely damaged my friendships with my three best friends. It had come to a point where I had to let it go. I wasn’t there for them when they needed me. And they couldn’t be there for me because I never told them.
Fortunately, I found two crazy girls in high school that are still my best friends to this day. And now, I do tell them when my days are bad. And they’re able to help me through it.
The depression though was never acknowledged throughout my time in high school. I’d suck up days of being sad, of crying myself to sleep, of not feeling like getting out of bed. Because I thought,
As long as I get out of Dhaka, everything will get better.
Arriving to Brown
I remember the juvenile excitement that filled me when I first stepped on to the Main Green. All the hard work had gotten me to the most amazing college in the world. Within 24 hours, I had met some of the smartest, kindest, funniest, and driven people in my life. And I really am lucky to be able to call so many people at Brown a friend.
But…it’s hard not to look at
- the guy who had a successful app on the app store
- the girl who was doing cancer research at Stanford during the summer
- the guy who flipped houses for 100% profit
- the girl who built drones for fun
and think, “Jeez. All I did was be yearbook editor for a few years and eat a lot of mangoes during the summer.”
I could somewhat rationalize to myself that my peers had access to resources and a way of thinking that wasn’t available to me. I wasn’t expected to do more than excel in school. But you can’t help but compare yourself and wonder why the heck were you admitted into this college.
Playing the compare game can land you in a bad depressive spiral.
Eventually, I was able to change my hardwiring (through probably reading too many self-help blogs haha). Instead of feeling like I wasn’t enough, I began to use my peers as a source of inspiration to do more. I thought,
“If they can do these amazing things, why can’t I?”
So I did what I did best again: I let the ambition take over the depressive thoughts.
This worked for a little while. I partook in probably too many clubs. Excelled academically. Found a love for history. Had a group of kind, smart, ambitious friends. And achieved the pinnacle of what most college students would view as making it: landing a Wall Street internship my sophomore summer at a top 3 bank.
Except…something didn’t feel right.
Existential angst is part of life. It is particularly noticeable around major life events or just after major career milestones (my job at Morgan Stanley). It seems to particularly affect smart, ambitious people (I think I’m somewhat smart and ambitious) . I think one of the reasons some people work so hard is so they don’t have to spend too much time thinking about this (Yup MEEE). Nothing is wrong with you for feeling this way; you are not alone.
The weirdest thing happened the month after I accepted my offer. I had quit all these clubs I did (majority of which were to pad my resume if I’m being honest). And for the first time, I actually had time to think. Really think. I had so much self-reflection time that I thought myself into an ambressive spiral.
The Start of the Ambression Spiral
The inspiration I was drawing from to push myself had started what I call an ambressive spiral.
See, when I looked at my Morgan Stanley internship, I thought it was the bottom of the barrel of what I could achieve (which wow, really makes me wonder what sort of state of mind I was in. And how privileged this view was).
I thought that I could achieve more. Do more. Accomplish more. More. More. More. After all, my best friends were starting companies around me. Or pursuing some sort of passion. And I had sold out to finance. I felt like I had settled.
So this is how the spiral began.
- I was ambitious and wanted to do more than I currently was.
- But, I wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t just “start a company” and see it become an overnight success. Additionally, I still had a lot of fear around the idea of failure. I had never failed in my life. And to try something where the chances of failure are 99% scared the crap out of me.
- Due to my own inability to actually take a risk and do something closer to what I wanted to do, I started developing anxiety. I became anxious about the fact that I wasn’t doing.
- The anxiety of not doing slowly became depression. I was so sad that I wasn’t anywhere close to where I wanted to be.
- However, I was the one keeping myself from that point. I knew I had the power to get myself to a point where I was satisfied and happy. But, I was so crippled by my own self-doubt that I couldn’t take any concrete movement forward.
- Then I became really mad and upset at myself for being such a wuss. I got depressed about my own inaction. It was the weirdest spiral of emotions.
In summary: ambition →realization I wasn’t where I wanted to be+fear and doubt of not being able to take the first step →anxiety →depression+anger of my own inability to do something →more depression.
And I remind you, this was only what I was doing to myself. This wasn’t even adding on the expectations I felt from my family, my professors, my peers, and even strangers.
Constantly hearing how much potential you had was not a source of comfort.
All I felt was the pressure of my own potential eating me up because I didn’t think I could ever live up to it.
The Adage of Doubt
I started becoming scared of my own ambition because I didn’t think I could set out to do any of the things my ambition wanted me to do. I’d go through days where I’d convinced myself I didn’t want half the things I really did. I was teaching myself to dream smaller because I thought I was delusional (or was told I was living in a fantasy land). I began accepting the status quo and that I could not challenge it.
Honestly, I really didn’t think I was capable of being anything more than a workhorse who got good grades and got a job at a big company and could probably work her way up. But nothing about that felt remotely fulfilling or exciting to me.
I found a million excuses to not pursue something a little more unconventional.
- My age
- My lack of experience
- My very untechnical skill-set (don’t know how to sell “I’m really good with people” that well)
- The high probability of failure
- Not wanting to be in a tricky financial situation
- Most of the adults in my life telling me that I couldn’t do it, living in the clouds, that I was delusional, that that’s not how the world works
- Not wanting to disappoint myself
- Not living up to the potential
Overcoming each of these doubts is hard. I thought most of my gap year would be about work experience and some fun travel. It turns out it was a lot of working on myself in the moments where I wasn’t at work.
Am I completely over all of these? Of course not! I’m still human duh. But it’s a work in progress. Baby steps. And putting myself a little out there. Plus, it’s been great to get the support of so many of my friends and peers.
Letting the Voices Speak
While coming to Brown has definitely spurred on a lot of my depression and ambition, it was also an environment that gave me the vocabulary I needed to talk about it. It felt less stigmatized there than at home. But I do want to make the push of opening the conversation even more.
Just because we’re the happiest college in the world doesn’t mean we’re all happy all the time.
I know some of the most driven and ambition people have struggled with really bad days. And I wish it was more okay to talk about it and not feel pressured to keep up the facade.
I didn’t battle through my depression alone. I battled it with a lot of help. But I could only do that because I let it be known to people who cared about me that I had a problem. Yet, admitting that problem was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Admission of a problem should not be hard.
Accepting My Truth
I struggle with depression. Probably at least once a month, I have some sort of episode. And I’m getting help for it.
I also am a ridiculously ambitious person. I don’t want to build someone else’s dream. I want to build my own. And I’m probably too stubborn and hard-headed to do anything remotely conventional because I believe I can figure a way out of it.
These are two of the many sides of me that seem to be more connected than I realized. And while I know it’s not always going to be smooth sailing, I hope that my own admission helps me harness both of these feelings together.
Finally, I hope that if you’ve managed to read all of this and have found at least something you can relate to, you’re not alone. And my door is always open to talk :)
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