I know, it’s probably a good deal too personal a topic for LW. Don’t hesitate to downvote it into oblivion.

In high school, I had to choose what to study at uni. I was, then, a bright enough student, autistic but just enough to be a little nerdy and dorky. I had been getting interested in social psychology, science, cognitive biases, and eventually rationality. I considered various options: architecture, medicine, engineering, biology, etc. But none of those suited me perfectly, and for most of them, I was held back by my lack of self-confidence. And by what I now know is a probable ADHD that made me shy away from the idea of working 15+ hours a day in engineering school, even if it seemed fun. 

The only reasonable option left was the mistake. I really liked the sort of political, social, and economic topics that were being discussed on SSC and similar places. Improving the world sounded like a fun thing to do. So, I went for what was basically a PPE, confident that it was sold as being really great, famous, and very intellectually engaging. Quite promising, right? I did, however, suspect a less than perfect culture fit, and I was a little worried.

And rightly so. I arrived full of ideas about rationality in politics, before being quickly and firmly told that "we" didn’t care about science here. Another issue was the lack of depth, we barely skimmed over things. Now, being a 18 years old lonely nerd, learning stuff was most of my life, and I had expected a lot more —likely too much— out of that uni. So I got depressed. In fact, on a Friday in March 2020, I was pondering the practicalities of a suicide attempt for the following Monday, when it was announced that said Monday would be the start of lockdown. (In retrospect, if I hadn’t been prone to depression, I’d have read this and noticed that there wasn’t yet much to be depressed about. But that’s not how it happened, and instead, I did basically all the wrong things. Probably because using college to hang out with smart and interesting people when we didn’t have much in common —and during a pandemic— was particularly hard).

Anyway, will you be surprised if I tell you that the start of lockdown wasn’t a very good time to be depressed? Teenagers often do stupid things, and the stupid thing my depressed self did was to decide to stay in that university. Seemed safer and less risky, you see. So I carried on. I slowly started losing contact with my goals and my interests. But not completely, as I spent the whole time wishing I was somewhere else. I kept getting good grades, but a big part of me just refused to accept this was my life. And so, a psychologist would probably find that I remained at least sub-clinically depressed for the next four years. Sounds fun, right? My career plans, as unclear as most people’s when I was 18, only became less clear as time went on, especially as my degree was touted as "allowing us to do pretty much anything", which is university lingo for "gives neither specific skills nor a sense of direction". Career planning also became some kind of ugh field, and I mostly stopped thinking about it.

I am now 22, in what is nominally a good business master’s degree, still at the same uni, but I’m mostly drifting around aimlessly, and only chose that degree because it seemed to my still-somewhat-depressed self like the most sensible option I had left after a social sciences undergrad I saw as worthless in anything but signalling value.

Ok, now, I’m done with the sob story, if anyone’s still reading this far. With the help of a great therapist, and other sources of good advice, my mental health has improved no end. 

But I’m still in a pretty difficult situation, right? I know that I’m better than in 2020, but in 2019 I was a smart and promising student interested in what I was doing, and I see no way of going back to something like that? That’s my main worry, but even if I did find something, I’d have to deal with the massive shame of having, almost deliberately, chosen to obstinately screw things up for four years. And if I could get that depressed in the past, surely I have a ‘major depression’ sword of Damocles hanging over my future as well? 
And again, my current degree basically won’t get me anywhere, even though I’m not sure whether it’s because I genuinely dislike working in business management (likely) or just because I’ve associated that uni to too many bad memories to take advantage of anything they provide (also likely). There are things I’d like better —though I’m not fully sure what exactly they are —, but today, at 22, I may not have a way to pursue these things. And even if I had, my confidence in myself’s been too completely shattered for me to feel fully comfortable exploring those possibilities.

So: to an extent, I’m writing this just for venting. But I won’t reject an opportunity to tap into LW’s collective wisdom: anyone got advice on how to solve these issues?

New Answer
New Comment

4 Answers sorted by

Consider this proposal:

Arrange for a light course load in your topic for a semester, and take a course or two, appropriate for your age and knowledge level, in the most appealing or least terrifying STEM field available. Frame it to your advisor as exploring the prospect of building on your undergrad with grad work in more concrete disciplines, and consider their perspectives on which classes would suit. Aim to dabble in the social side of the disciplines that you'd previously ruled out as being too hard. Aim to surround with people who have an affinity for those disciplines but are beginning in them at your age or older, and feeling positively about them.

You will probably hate many things about that "obvious" proposal, and consider it a poor fit for your life for many reasons. Examine the reasons, and the things you hate about it. Those reasons contain the most actionable and personalized advice on your situation that's available to you.

Well: the only obvious drawback I see is that my uni just doesn’t offer anything more STEM-related that a course in high-school statistics taught by someone who’s never studied math in her life. And since it’s not an option in my curriculum for this semester, I can’t take it anyway. But it definitely sounds like a great plan, similar to what I’ve already rejected as very good but impossible in practice. I should find a way to make it work.

Oh, your brain is making you struggle in different places than mine would, if doing things the "obvious" way doesn't seem initially loathsome! That's nifty! The question to ask an advisor might look like, "what would a transition to a stem field look like for someone in my situation?". That is, at least, if you have good open-minded advisors. Not all programs do. If your uni doesn't have anything in STEM, a different approach might suit: In your situation I'd prioritize opportunities with a social component, like study groups or meetups or single classes at another local academic institution, over those without, like isolated self-study of online courses. This raises the question: How much time is it appropriate for you to devote to exploring this transition possibility? It's obviously more than zero, but less than "all of it". I'd propose the rule of thumb that you should assume worst-case mental health next semester, examine your planned course load, and assess which courses you think you would be able to pass easily while badly depressed. Take those classes, and skip the rest. If you failed the others, you would have to retake them later anyway to continue on your current path. So you can get all the benefits of the "no change, bad mental health, fail some classes, retake them later" timeline, along with all the benefits of the "carve out some time to explore a possibility that seems exciting" timeline, and the only difference is that you don't pay the course fees to take and fail the extra classes the first time around.

Sorry to hear about those struggles. That's really awesome that you sought help and are doing much better.

But I’m still in a pretty difficult situation, right?

Please excuse any bluntness, but I don't think so!

  • It sounds like a safe bet that you'll end up with some sort of job, with some sort of at-least-approximately-average income, in a wealthy country.
  • It sounds like you have lots of interests that you enjoy exploring.
  • I'm not sure how strong your personal relationships are, but it at least sounds like you fit right in with the rationality community, and going to meetups is a very promising path towards finding strong personal relationships.
  • Given your writing, I'm confident that you're smart, introspective and determined enough to iterate and improve on any issues you face.

It sounds to me like you are doing the thing where you compare yourself to the Jones' next door. I struggle with this as well. I think a lot of people do.

But I think that it is important to distinguish between two things: 1) genuinely thinking that you're in a bad situation and 2) logically believing that you're not but emotionally feeling like you are, because look at how good the Jones' have it over there.

I'm not sure which boat you're in. If it's #1, I think there's a good path forward. If it's #2, I think it's a really difficult problem that science hasn't gotten to the point where it's found a reliable solution. It only has discovered a handful of things that sometimes work, sometimes don't.

Most likely you’re right, and I’m overestimating how bad my situation is. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say I’m in a good situation: 

• I can find an average job easily, but: being a bottom-rung corporate drone filling Excel sheets suits neither my tastes nor my (probable) ADHD, and staying motivated on the sort of things I’m on track to end up doing as a career sounds really hard.

• Frankly, a big part of the issue is probably here: I used to be very curious, and still value curiosity a lot, but, like, it’s as if the depression I’ve been through comple... (read more)

2Adam Zerner7mo
Hm, that makes sense. Even if it was a middle or top rung sort of thing, jobs still suck pretty bad in general. I get the sense that it's a problem for many, many people. And I think for people like you who aren't very NPC, the problem is even worse. So yeah, on second thought this does seem like a very real and legitimate problem. Hm, I see. Sorry to hear that. I wish I had good advice to give but I can't do much better than guessing. The way I'd go about it would be to not force myself into anything, start off with a breadth-oriented search, and then when you have some promising candidates get more depth-oriented. As well as continuing to work on the mental health because that very well might be the blocker. Gotcha. It's tough, making friends as an adult is weirdly very hard. Hm. What comes to my mind here is the concept of Valley of Bad Rationality. One thing is that, maybe the fact that you want to grow and are smart and introspective enough to notice your failures makes you feel guilty and bad. Like, as opposed to "normies" who don't even care and don't notice in the first place. Another is just that progress isn't incremental. You could grow as a rationalist and it very well might not lead to more winning. I like to think of this as a sort of latent progress. And I think that it is quite common. There's been a lot of talk about how rationality has had disappointingly little benefit to people's lives. But still: the problem you point out of the historical lack of progress remains. I guess I'm just saying here that you're not alone. And also I'd like to admit I think I wanted to be hopeful and optimistic in my original comment when I should have been aiming for realism.

I've always looked at non-clinical depression as just negative emotion signaling something is wrong (and usually try to not call it depression), say the exact opposite of the flow state you go into when you are doing something really engaging, the feeling that something is right.

I find a good formula is "Struggle to find something worth doing -> take on a lot of projects and challenges I feel are just about within my reach -> just about manage to reach the targets I've set myself -> brief period of downtime to recover/reset" and then repeat. Now does this align with long-term goals? Kind of. As any other human, my goals are fluid and have changing priority levels, but the general target for me to feel content is by improving in areas I find meaningful. 

Short example of a time I had an existential crisis - I had a degree in maths, stats and finance, and was working a finance job whilst studying for chartership. I had already had some solid career progression but the career I was going for seemed incredibly empty, with no tangible impact on the world. Long story short, I ended up going for a Physics degree, postulating that even if it did not bring a new career of research and ambitious scientific contribution (original target), it would at least serve to make me a little bit cleverer and help understand the fabric of this peculiar universe a little bit better (knowledge is an end in itself type of thing). Currently going into my final year of that Physics degree and so far it's gone great, with the fun addition that working in Finance a few moths of the year and studying the rest of the time has actually made me job hop a lot, which believe it or not has come with significant career progression itself!

I still reassess goals, targets, and have difficulties just like anyone else, but find myself content with my efforts as I finish various research projects. The problem is, someone else's "success story" (because they're always full of nuance and not as much of a success as the sound, even the one above) may sound good, but will never really serve you until you are at least on the path of figuring out your own story. Honestly, life is kind of like a restaurant with a menu that is completely limitless, and each starter you choose unlocks and endless possibility of main courses - you really need to visit it a dozen times before finding something that suits your palette.

That may well be obvious to many, but I’m starting to think that the key problem — in addition to the usual consequences of ADHD/ASD which I’m as ready to accept as anybody here — is just a big ol’ cognitive dissonance: I want to be a smart and promising student in a vaguely rationality-adjacent, science-based field, and to have fun doing it ; but I am a disgruntled, sad student in a business school. Most normal people in my situation might have tried harder to let the "smart and happy" side of themselves win, but I quickly got used to being depressed, in a way that tilted the scales in favour of solving the dissonance by just accepting that I was a depressed idiot. It seems to explain why I just never accepted I was a student at my uni, in a way? I could have done interesting things in that context, but only ever seemed to want to get outta there. That also could explain why I gradually ‘lost interest’ in a bunch of intellectual things I still am into, deep down. Seems like I have my explanation. However, there’s no way I’ll just solve the dissonance by getting comfortable with not being as smart as I used to be. I wouldn’t accept that. And there’s also basically no way I’ll get back to being as smart as I want to be. Especially if I add that, even if I suddenly became a much better version of myself, I’d still have "the fact that I used to be depressed", conflicting with my self-image. Seems like I have either a very difficult tradeoff, or simply no options at all, if I think the tradeoff entails too many sacrifices.

No, judging from the other comments and the bit of common sense I still have left, I’m exaggerating my plight, and I should probably get some rest to clear my mind. Still, I’m between a rock and a hard place.

6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:37 PM

massive shame of having, almost deliberately, chosen to obstinately screw things up for four years.


I am confused, why shame? I see nothing here to be ashamed of.

can we treat this as sunk cost fallacy? The past doesn't matter except for when it shapes the current situation. Now identify the best way forward for your current goal and take it.

If that does not make you feel better, then does hearing that other people wasted even more time make you feel any better? A lot of people wasted a lot of their life.

I wasted 10 years of my life for a mildly different reason. I am curious as to how that makes you feel to hear.

if that does not make you feel better. Can we say that the you in the past must have had his/her reason illegible as it may be? I mean past you decided to stick it out so surely that revealed his/her preference for continuing? Can we say that unless you have stayed you would not have known it was a mistake, and you would be complaining about that branch of the multiverse too?

if that does not make you feel better. Does the fact that your post got upvote and replied to, implying that we listened and validated your feeling make you feel better?

Yes, you’re quite right, I’m obviously falling prey to the sunk cost fallacy here, and I wasn’t fully aware of that, for some reason. But I guess that, being a smart student at a good famous-ish uni and from a moderately well-off family, I feel more or less entitled to a good, well-paying job? And my worry now is that I may not get it, of course. And the shame would be something like "I could have had the life I want but I didn’t bother, and that was kind of a shameful thing to do, I should have acted more according to my own values". The way I feel it, it’s a mix of disappointment at how unlike myself my behaviour was, and fear that I may not be able to make up for the opportunities I’ve lost and the worsening of my situation I’ve caused. That’s why it feels more like shame, on the whole. But yeah, it probably makes more sense to phrase basically the same feeling as sunk cost fallacy.

Based on your story I am not sure what the issues that need solving are?

I know that I’m better than in 2020, but in 2019 I was a smart and promising student interested in what I was doing, and I see no way of going back to something like that?

Well, nobody is a student forever, regardless of how much they like college.

I’d have to deal with the massive shame of having, almost deliberately, chosen to obstinately screw things up for four years.

Is that massively shameful? AFAIK it's common for college students to choose their major poorly, get depressed, etc.

And if I could get that depressed in the past, surely I have a ‘major depression’ sword of Damocles hanging over my future as well?

Maybe? The circumstances seem pretty unusual.

And again, my current degree basically won’t get me anywhere

It can just get you all the normal jobs in the world that normal people can do, right?

There are things I’d like better —though I’m not fully sure what exactly they are —, but today, at 22, I may not have a way to pursue these things.

So what? You don't even know what they are. Also, probably not? Why wouldn't you be able to pursue them just as well as you could ever have?

My advice is to just chill out and focus on whatever object level things in your life you are working on, rather than dream about some hypothetically better way the last 4 years could have panned out for you.

I know many people who do professionally something completely unrelated to what they studied.

I had been getting interested in social psychology, science, cognitive biases, and eventually rationality. I considered various options: architecture, medicine, engineering, biology, etc.

I don't see much of a connection here, could you perhaps explain more specifically, what are the things that you enjoy doing or learning about?

I had a young friend in a somewhat similiair situation, and talking earnestly with me helped him. With him, he wasn't noticing anything other than the pain in his life. So I focused on what was paining him, and what else he felt: what made him excited, angry, curious. I pointed out that he cared about more than avoiding pain. I pointed out that he thought the world was broken and wished it could be fixed. I pointed out that he was a bright, capable young man, so why not him? Now he has a quest. So what's your holy grail?

If that doesn't move you, I would advise going around asking people if they could talk to you for an hour. Pay them, if you can't find anyone. Call a charity helpline if you don't have money. I'm OK with talking to you tomorrow or later. But I don't know you, and I'm unsure how helpful I could be.

Well, I don’t know what my quest is, but I’ve already noticed that this is what I should be working on, and that already involved having interesting chats with a bunch of people. I should keep doing more of that :-)