The Please Disease and Finding Out What I Want
I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody. - Bill Cosby
I’ve been having a lot of anxiety lately about what subject do for a research masters. And more generally what to do with my life. Every few days for the last month or so I’ve been switching back and forth between a whole host of options. But just before I was about to fall asleep last night I had a big realisation about why this decision is proving so difficult.
The issue is that somewhere within me I have a strong desire to please others. I want to avoid causing any upset or trauma. I want everything to be “okay” in my relationships with other people. I’m scared out of my mind of rocking the boat. But also like every human being I want to be liked. I want people to think “wow, he’s got it all together”. He has an identity. Julyan the philosopher, artist, scientist etc. When I’m trying to make a decision like this I don’t end up thinking about how that decision would affect me but what my friends or family would think of it. In the case of my masters: Is it radical enough for some of my lefty friends? Is it technical enough for my sciencey brother and the people I know in the startup world? Is focused enough on the growing ecological crisis for my mum? Will it get me the rewarding job in academia I think my Dad hopes for me? Is it creative enough for my arty friends? Spiritual enough for my meditation buddies? I even think about distant family friends and can’t help but think: what would they make of this choice? Most of these ideas about what people want are my own projections. Most people don’t actually care. And my close friends and family just want me to do what’s best for me. But because I care so much what they think I blow up their minute preferences to extreme proportions.
This is an awful way to make decisions. You can’t incorporate all of these options and aspects into a masters program. Or into a fulfilling career or life. You can’t live a life where you try to appease everyone. At some point you have to choose a path and that involves leaving some and maybe a lot of people thinking: “Why the hell is he doing THAT!”. In fact if you take the “please to appease” path through life you probably won’t do anything remarkable. Most people who do new things do it despite the fact that most of society thinks they’re crazy. Just look at the suffragette movement or someone like Elon Musk building reusable rockets even though everyone thought it was impossible. Big and important things happen when people back themselves to do what they think is right.
The thing that I’m still struggling with is figuring out in all the noise what I actually want. Here are a few ideas I’ve had already:
1. What do I keep coming back to?
I’ve been inspired by Emily Wapnick’s idea of Multipotentialites. Which says that some people weren’t born to have one true calling. They are best when they can naturally dot around through their many varied interests. I love this approach because it turns around the perspective from feeling like a flawed human being for not have a “one true passion” into feeling proud to have so many interests and do many things. But at some points I still think we have to pigeon hole ourselves to some extent. Really important projects are probably going to take longer periods of time than our attention spans will hold. Studying my masters in one subject for example. A whole year doing one thing. That’s absolutely terrifying. But without it I’m missing out on something that is maybe important. Being able to do academic work that contributes to the knowledge base of humanity.
So to find out what I actually want maybe the question is what topics and areas do I keep coming back to. We might spend some time apart but then something draws me back. The curiosity that draws me back is deeply personal. It’s because one day I thought: “That sounds cool why don’t I look into it”. Rather than me thinking: “What will everyone think if I start doing that”.
2. What obsessed me in my childhood?
I don’t believe the idea that we are born with a destiny to do one thing for the world. People are way more complicated than that. We have the option to do many things and make many choices. But maybe thinking back to our childhoods can help us to decide. If we think about the time before social pressures really kicked in. What did we care about? What intrigued us? Humans love stories so we’re more likely to find purpose and commit to something if we can create a narrative around why we’re doing it. If we can say “even when I was 5 I was thinking about the stars”. Or I started working as a psychologist because of my own intense battles with depression. It might sound like I’m saying we should create a fictional story for ourselves. Maybe. But definitely inklings from our childhood can help guide the way.
3. Does it excite me?
The most important question for me is whether when I sit down and through an option it makes excited. If I imagine myself living out the decision in a years time do I think “Wow that’s fucking cool!”. Is it something that would make me want to get up in the morning? I only have one life. 80 or so years to live on the planet so If I’m not spending that time doing things that give me energy and joy then I’m definitely doing something wrong.
My late night realisation about my “Please Disease” has helped me to understand why these decisions cause me so much stress. I’m still figuring out how I can find out what I truly deep down want in the noise of my need to please. But one thing is for sure: to live a fulfilling life you’re going to have to make some people unhappy.