Afraid of the future

In two months, I take my exams. Some institutions call them qualifying exams, others call them comprehensive exams. Here — I don’t know — we call them exams.

On a Monday, I will take a six-hour essay test during which I will demonstrate my knowledge of broad concepts in nineteenth-century American literature, drawing from my 250-text reading list. A week later, on Tuesday, I will take a four-hour essay test during which I will demonstrate that I have a semi-lucid thesis about my area of specialization within my broader field. And if my committee of professors passes those, then I take an hour-and-a-half oral exam, sitting at a table with them while they ask me questions that didn’t come up on the written portions and I extemporize about my murky dissertation ideas.

It’s fair to say that I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster that intensifies the closer to October we get. I alternate between panic and despair most of the time these days. I alternate between trying to enjoy reading in the present and fretting about this future event. I alternate between embracing my imperfect level of expertise and succumbing to the anxiety of perfectionism. I have productive days and I have days when I lie in bed for an hour alternatively imagining the exams as a great success and as a catastrophic failure.

Today’s entry is a reminder to myself and to anyone else who has any sort of high stakes rite of passage coming up. It’s a reminder to work steadily rather than sporadically, not to live solely for the future, and to try to put ego aside to do good work.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to go through this process gracefully. After all, graduate students tend to have grown up thriving on positive academic feedback, and then they face the great irony that grad school is the place where, unless you’re a superstar and sometimes even then, the feedback ranges from negative to indifferent a lot of the time, depending on how supportive your committee is. We have to learn to validate ourselves, and I have felt what it’s like to crumble under this necessity in the face of great pressure (writing three seminar papers at once–two of which you know are bad and your professors will hate; trying to pass exams; and soon, the dissertation).

I’ve been working in fits and starts all summer, so busy with other things, finding it difficult to carve out big chunks of time that this endeavor requires. Now that I’m in the two-month countdown (some might call it Threat Level Midnight), I realize I have to sacrifice most things in the service of this one goal for the next nine weeks. Once I have achieved this goal, I can begin to restore the other bits and pieces of my life. I’ve made so little progress thus far that I hardly have a choice. I won’t pass at the rate I’ve been working. I’ve been afraid and avoidant, but the time for hand-wringing has passed.

In Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, contributor Gretchen Rubin writes:

“You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.


Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.”

I know this to be true because when I’ve done real thinking and real work in my prep, I start seeing connections and relevance everywhere. In movies. In conversations with friends. I was reading an article last night before I talked to a friend on the phone, and he brought up a book he’s been reading and suddenly I saw this constellation of ideas that hadn’t been apparent to me before, emerging from the article and our conversation.

When I work sporadically, each time I come back to my work, I have to play catch-up. I have to remember all the connections and background. Flow doesn’t happen.

Yet doing the daily work of a professional, not someone who works when she’s “in the mood,” is difficult, especially when it’s slow-going and you know there’s this big evaluation of your progress looming in the future. But of course, when we obsess about the future, we are sure to face disappointment and dissatisfaction.

In The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, Alan Watts writes:

“The root of [our] frustration is that we live for the future, and the future is an abstraction… The ‘primary consciousness,’ the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., ‘everyone will die’) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.”

The more I fret over this exam, the less inclined I am to work. So how to find contentment in a process that is inherently geared toward a future event? This is my struggle. Some days I enjoy my reading. I’m in the present moment. I’m just reading for the sake of reading, for the sake of gaining that knowledge. But other days, I’m paralyzed by the weight of the future, and also the WAIT of the future. I become impatient. I want it to be over now. I want it to have arrived already and the suspense to be over.

But what everyone who has taken their exams has told me is that there’s a great letdown after. You’ve done all this work and passed and then…nothing. Just the next step on the way to the doctorate. So I must stop imagining that some magnificent transformation will happen once I take these exams.

This is also Alan Watts, from The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are:

“Unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, ‘Now, I’ve arrived!'”

I mean, that’s the whole point. One of the reasons I started this blog is that I realized there’s never going to be a time in my life when I can say, “Now I’ve arrived! Happiness will follow eternally from this accomplishment!” That’s why it’s imperative that I stop giving these exams this power that I’ve been giving them. The power to make or break me. The power to confer a sense of accomplishment that will last forever. It’s all fleeting. Yes, it will be nice to pass. But it is only one thing. I have to enjoy what I’m doing now; otherwise what is the point?

You know what also holds me back? Ego. We all wrestle with ego. That’s okay. We just need to recognize it and learn to take a step back. This list is inspired by Jen’s list here.

For me, ego has led to jealousy and comparison. I see friends who harnessed their exam fear into great productivity, and I feel envious. I see friends who enjoy their exam prep, and I feel envious. I see friends who passed with ease, and I feel envious. But we’re not in competition; we’re all running our own race. I have to figure out what works for me, instead of wasting energy comparing and feeling bad about my progress.

Sometimes my ego makes me feel entitled. It tells me I deserve to pass. It’s not fair. But unless I show up and do the work, it’s not going to happen.

Ego also makes me feel impatient. I should have it all figured out. I should have read more by now. I should know what my dissertation will be about. But if I move past ego here, I can more fully experience and be open to where I am right now, which leads to more productivity.

Moreover, my ego wants validation. I want others to think what I am doing is good. But the truth is that won’t always happen. I have to think what I am doing is good. I have to trust myself.

And of course, my ego wants perfection. But there is no perfection in this process. It’s messy, there’s probably a lot of ugly crying, and we’re all making it up as we go. It’s surprising how little useful advice on exam prep there is on the internet. No matter how many times I desperately Google different search terms related to this process, I’m not going to find the magic formula. I have to show up and do the work. Day in, day out.

Thus ends my nervous ramble. Now back to work!


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