The Untraveled Road: How Killing My Dream Made Me Much Happier

Lately, I’ve been coming to terms with one of my major professional decisions. For years, I went back and forth between my desire to pursue a PhD and my apathy. On the one hand, I really wanted to show the world how much of an expert I was, to, perhaps, create a new treatment model or discover a basic link between mental illness and physiology. And, on the other, the part that was pulling me away, begging me to stop, told me that I’d waste my life.

Most of us have big dreams as kids, and want to reshape the world in some idiosyncratic, but important, way; we want to matter. In academia, the area most significant to me, mattering means discovering, utilizing your high-powered intellect to further some specific field of knowledge. If I were going to pursue a doctorate in clinical or counseling psychology, I was going to have to learn to love research and its various methods. But, I didn’t. Fundamentally, I didn’t have what it took to make it because my apathy trounced my ambition. And for the longest time, I told myself that I was too depressed to make it work, that my emotional constitution was simply too weak. So, as you can imagine, I spent a great deal of the time in this cycle: searching for programs to apply to, considering studying for the GRE (which is the graduate school version of the SAT), beginning to, and then discounting the process. I couldn’t resolve whether I wanted to become a psychologist or should but didn’t.

What was the point? Did I truly want to lock myself away for the next six years to cover the same treatment models I already learned in my master’s program and work on research that would be painstaking and, ultimately, minor. I knew that I wasn’t going to create a new treatment model or discover an important facet of mental illness, but I couldn’t grasp why I continued to put so much pressure on myself to want something I so obviously couldn’t.

Throughout this period, I delved into social psychology’s major findings, learning of the field’s replication crisis. Then, it finally hit me. All of us were trapped in the same system. Fueled by the lust for recognition and a modicum of fame, some of these folks created absurd theories, based on even worse data. Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, Angela Duckworth’s Grit, and Amy Cuddy’s Power Posing all come to mind. I had an epiphany! I wanted to want these things because they seem attainable and worthy of sacrifice. While my mind was attempting to convince me that it wasn’t worth it, I was watching these glamorized TED talks and reading pop psychology at the same time. Yet, all of it was bullshit.

It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t going to make a grand discovery, but that nobody was, at least not in psychology, not anymore. And pursuing a doctorate meant years of creating a dissertation that few would ever read. I didn’t realize then that I was personalizing, believing that I couldn’t be better and wanting to prove myself wrong. I didn’t know that better, at least in the way I considered it, didn’t and doesn’t exist. Finally, and I’m still not sure how, I placed my focal point outside of myself, to observe the lives of the others, the ones who embarked on a journey that terrified me.

Countless individuals who’ve been “there,” whether the focus is fame or just success, warned us about the vacuity of it all, and the ones who didn’t remain in denial (you can observe this in each psychologist who refuses to back down from his/her initial claims). If I were stuck in some lab, attempting to find some obscure correlation, I would have missed out on my public writing, making our podcast, and working with clients, the stories of whom most will never know. And, compared to the alternative, that’s a good life, at least to me. In essence, I’ve finally laid to rest my dream of completing a PhD program: I guess you can say it’s a wonderful life.

7 Comments

  1. Even if you had completed that Ph.D., you with your curious mind, would still pursue a similar path as you are doing right now.
    You have contributed a lot to the field already (and more to come I am sure). That is what it is all about.
    I often contemplated that I could have done more interesting stuff with the opportunity to do research…but I am still reading about what works and by sharing my findings, my peers and clients benefit too.
    Elisabeth

    Like

      1. You can still do that!
        But, as you know all the “old therapies” are still relevant. The new ones are just a mix of the insights from traditional therapies and a “not-really-helpful” addition that is giving people the idea that it is all new.

        Liked by 1 person

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