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In my first few jobs, I felt desperate to have an impact. I was often filled with anxiety that I might not be able to. My soul ached. Fear propelled me to action. I remember sitting in a coffee shop one Saturday trying to read a book that I thought would help me learn about biosafety, an impactful career path I wanted to explore. While I found the book interesting, I had to force myself to read each page because I was worn out. Yet I kept chugging along because I thought it was my lifeline, even though I was making extremely little progress. I thought: If I don’t do this excellently, I’ll be a failure.

There were three critical factors that, taken together, formed a “desperation hamster wheel,” a cycle of desperation, inadequacy, and burn out that got me nowhere:

  • Self-worth -- I often acted and felt as if my self-worth was defined wholly by my impact, even though I would give lip service to self-worth being more than that.
  • Insecurity/inadequacy -- I constantly felt not skilled or talented enough to have an impact in the ways I thought were most valuable.
  • Black and white thinking -- I thought of things in binary. E.g. I was either good enough or not, I was smart or not, I would have an impact or not.

Together, these factors manifested as a deep, powerful, clawing desire for impact. They drove me to work as hard as possible, and fight with all I had. It backfired.

This “desperation hamster wheel” led me to think too narrowly about what opportunities were available for impact and what skills I had or could learn. For example, I only thought about having an impact via the organization I was currently working at, instead of looking more broadly. I only considered the roles most lauded in my community at the time, instead of thinking outside the box about the best fit for me.

I would have been much happier and much more impactful had I taken a more open, relaxed, and creative approach.

Instead, I kept fighting against my weaknesses -- against reality -- rather than leaning into my strengths.(1) It led me to worse work habits and worse performance, creating a vicious cycle, as negative feedback and lack of success fueled my desperation. For example, I kept trying to do research because I thought that that work was especially valuable. But, I hadn’t yet developed the skills necessary to do it well, and my desperation made the inherent vulnerability and failure involved in learning feel like a deadly threat. Every mistake felt like a severe proclamation against my ability to have an impact.

I’m doing a lot better now and don’t feel this desperation anymore. Now, I can lean into my strengths and build on my weaknesses without having my whole self-worth on the line. I can approach the questions of having an impact with my career openly and with curiosity, which has led me to a uniquely well-suited role. I can try things and make mistakes, learning from those experiences, and becoming better.

I feel unsure about what helped me change. Here are some guesses, in no particular order:

  • Taking anxiety and depression medication
  • Changing roles to find one that played more to my strengths
  • I’m sad that I’m not better or smarter than I grew up hoping I might be. It took time to grieve that and come to terms with it on both a personal and impact level (how many people could I have helped?)(2)
  • Digging into the slow living movement and trying to live more intentionally and with more reflection
  • Having a partner who loves me and who doesn’t care about the impact I have, except so far as he knows I’d like to have an impact
  • Reconnecting with my younger, child self, who felt curious and excited. In the worst moments on my desperation hamster wheel, I no longer felt those things. I found it really helpful to reconnect with that part of myself via rereading some of my childhood’s foundational books, prompting myself to play, and boggling at or feeling wondrous curiosity about nature/basic facts about the world.
  • Making grounding/centering activities part of my daily routine. For me, these are: yoga, journaling, walks, bike rides, showers, meditation, and deep breaths.
  • Learning the practice of Focusing -- learning how to be with myself without judgment and how to hear different parts of myself

I made a ton of progress using these strategies, and then two things happened, which solidified a core antidote to my desperation mindset.

The first is that my mom died and her death shined a spotlight on some similar struggles. I don’t think she would have described herself as being on a “desperation hamster wheel,” but I know she struggled a lot with self-worth and insecurities throughout her life. Cliche but true: none of that mattered in the end. If she could have had one more month, one more year, I would have wanted her to spend time with her loved ones and lean strongly into her passion (painting). That she didn’t read books much or that she didn’t get into a painting show that one time doesn’t matter at all. Her insecurities and self-worth issues were utterly unimportant in the end; they were beside the point. Mine probably were too.

The second is that I got a concussion and couldn’t work or even look at screens for a couple of months. This reduction made me understand something on an intuitive level (“system 1”) that I hadn’t before, or that I had lost sight of: that I am a person whose life has value outside of my potential impact. My life was still valuable by my own evaluation, even without work. I ate, slept, gardened, cooked, cuddled with my dogs, and called some friends. I was still a full person, a person of value, even though I wasn’t working. It sounds obvious, but it had been so long since I had been fully separated from my working self. I had forgotten that there's a core, a ME, that’s always there, and has value in and of itself.

My current hypothesis is that if you’re stuck on a desperation hamster wheel, you’ll have a lot more impact once you get off of it.(4) You’ll also have a better life, but if you’re on the desperation hamster wheel right now, you might not weigh that piece that seriously. (I think that’s a mistake, but that’s not necessary to get into at this time.) (5)

Being on the hamster wheel is indicative of being stuck in suboptimal patterns, burning yourself out, and a narrowing of thought that is counterproductive to most knowledge work. If you allow yourself to get off the wheel, you’ll be able to think and plan from a more grounded, creative place. New opportunities and ideas will emerge. You’ll have more energy. You’ll be able to see that you have strengths. This was true for me and I’ve seen it be true for others as well. Of course, I might be wrong. Everyone is different and life is complicated. But, if you care a lot about impact, it seems worth taking this hypothesis seriously and testing it out.

If you’d like to try stepping off the hamster wheel, I’m not sure what will work for you -- everyone is different. But, here are some ideas to get started. Also feel free to reach out to me. I’m happy to brainstorm with you.

  • Take time off and away from the things that feed your hamster wheel patterns
  • Examine whether you have any underlying mental health issues which could be playing into this dynamic in an unhelpful way. If yes, try out some treatments and consult an expert (e.g. a psychiatrist).
  • Practice noticing what enables you to feel grounded, in the present moment, or in your body. Try out different things to see what works for you. Then lean into things that seem to help you.
  • Spend time reflecting and emotionally reconnecting with what excited or interested you as a child.
  • Bolster your social and emotional support relationships.
  • Find a counterbalance to some of the drivers of your hamster wheel. For me, I found the slow living movement to be very helpful; it prompts intentionality and calmness, and provides a separate frame and pushes usefully against some of my hamster wheel tendencies.
  • Explore your options with creativity and openness once you’re a better emotional place.

 

Dear Nicole-from-a-few-years-ago,

The takeaway messages here that I would love for you to internalize are:

  • Get off the desperation hamster wheel. It sucks to be on it and, anyway, you’re never going to have much impact if you stay on it. In order to have a long-term, personally sustainable impact, you need to find and create a situation that promotes your thriving. Keep in mind that impact is measured over the course of your whole career, not just today. As others have said, altruism is a marathon, not a sprint. (6)
  • Don’t get distracted or emotionally tied up in what’s cool. That’s irrelevant to what you need right now to set yourself up for an impactful career.
  • You do have strengths, even if you can’t see them right now. And when you lean into your strengths, you’ll be able to grow and make progress on your weaknesses. It’s much easier to grow from a solid foundation. Relax and take care of yourself. That is the first step in order to give yourself a solid foundation.
  • Really, get off that fucking desperation hamster wheel. I promise you, it’s not helping. Your martyr tendencies are misguiding you here -- they are correctly tracking that you care deeply about doing good, but the way they are pushing you to pursue this goal is backfiring.

Thanks to Eric, Rebecca, Neel, and Duncan for helpful comments, and a bunch of others for support and encouragement.

Endnotes:

(1) My partner, Eric, notes that this reminds him about how humans learned to fly but did so by inventing airplanes, not turning themselves into birds. I don’t know how to work this in smoothly, but the comparison resonated with me a lot, so I’m putting it in this footnote. 

(2) Blog post on this topic forthcoming

(3) Here is a podcast that explores slow living, and which I’ve found helpful. 

(4) Impact, or whatever value/goal that got you on the desperation hamster wheel in the first place. 

(5) Blog post on this topic coming at some vague point (i.e., I have an idea, but not a rough draft like I do for the others) 

(6) Blog post on this topic forthcoming

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Wow, the paintings are awesome!

Statistically, our impact on the world follows the power law, and there are a few billions of people, so anyone's chance of dramatically changing the world are very small, even if they are a very smart and talented individual -- you also need to get to the top percentile in luck.

Also, impact is on a scale; how large "impact" are we talking about? I suspect for many people it is a moving target; that no matter how much you achieve, your definition of "real impact" quickly becomes "at least 10× as much". And the new definition always seems sane, because -- see the previous paragraph -- there are almost certainly people who have already achieved 10× or 100× more.

Speaking for myself, as a teenager I had a dream that I would once write and publish a fiction book, and that seemed like an awesome achievement. Then I did it. But after a while it didn't feel awesome at all, because it was a collection of short stories instead of a novel, it only sold 100 copies, and even the people who bought and read it probably don't remember it by now. Then it felt that the really awesome thing would be to write a novel, even better a trilogy, plus a few extra short stories written in the same universe. Which I didn't do. But I strongly suspect that if I did, I would find another reason to feel dissatisfied with the result: "Only one trilogy? With no cult following? No movie based on it? Heck, I can't even quit my job and focus on writing full time..."

From the perspective of reinforcement (happiness), people around you are always more important than the world at large. You can surround yourself by people who will love you even if you do nothing world-breaking. Which is very good, especially during those days when you do nothing world-breaking (spoiler: most of your days will be like that). On the other hand, no matter what you do, someone out there will hate you for it, and will make their hate publicly known. Actually, some people will hate you simply for having a greater impact than they do, so achieving more will only make this worse. If you are surrounded by loving people, this doesn't matter; if you are looking for universal acceptance, it will drive you crazy.

And I think there is nothing wrong with wanting to have an impact on the world, as long as (1) you treat it as an optional goal, and (2) you make sure it is something you want, as opposed to something you are manipulated into by others. Hint: you know it is something you want if you feel free to change your mind.

The example with the book reasonated with me. I am currently trying to get better at math and writing proofs and in the beginning I used to feel pretty good about myself and my progress while I was studying. Now I have gotten to a point where I have a harder time with the problems in my book and I feel like my progress is slowing down. I don't know if that is actually the case, but I have started to get stressed out about it.

(If this was slack, I'd post the confetti emoji.) Proofs are hard. I don't know enough to give specific advice for your situation (like 'more sleep will fix everything' or 'working with other people to understand things might make things easier') - but good luck!

This post is great. Thank you for making it.