Becoming the Conductor of My Life - What Do You Really Want? (Part 1)
By Ethan Ferris
I had just finished my first semester at college. Grades weren’t in yet, but I knew what was coming.
Given that I hadn’t turned in a single major assignment, I was about to fail every class I was taking.
So why wasn’t I turning in assignments?
Because I HATED school with every fiber of my being. I found the environment toxic, classes drop-dead-boring, and the work pointless. I was living in a dorm that smelled like sewage, the food was inedible, and all the professors seemed like they couldn’t care less about actually helping me learn. I felt like I was being held back by an institution that I didn’t need. But, I had been told my whole life that a degree was a requirement for success.
And most hair-pullingly frustrating of all, I was going into massive debt for the privilege of falling asleep in a lecture hall.
And none of these emotions were new - I had felt them all through high school. I wanted to just drop out and ‘start my life’ constantly during those years, but that wasn’t an option to my parents. When it came time to apply to colleges, I seriously didn’t want to, but my parents strictly insisted that I go. They believed that if I didn’t graduate from a real college, and get a degree, that I would surely end up working as a gas station clerk. (Gas Station Ethan was a true nightmare for them. While I was frustrated at the time, I will always appreciate their genuine concern for my future.)
So, I made something of an informal deal with fate.
I said, “Alright, I’ll apply to one college. If I get in, I’ll go. But if they decline me, I’m not going to college at all.” So, I searched for the college with the most ‘alternative’ teaching methods I could find, and sent in my application expecting a prompt notice of my rejection.
Much to my surprise, I was so nervous when a letter arrived that I didn’t open it for a week. Part of me wanted it to be a rejection so I would never have to deal with school ever again, but another part of me wanted to be accepted.
Eventually, I couldn’t take not knowing anymore, so I opened it.
Inside was an acceptance letter.
Seemingly out of nowhere, I got a burst of motivation. Suddenly, I felt a flash of hope. Maybe this would be awesome! All the signs pointed to yes. I danced around my room with an unexplainable excitement. This could be the beginning of my real life - the one I had been waiting for!
My first few weeks in college were a magical frenzy of productivity.
I even found an ocean of passion for life within myself! I developed a strong social circle, kindled a steamy romance, and started to study philosophy in my free time.
Then I was hit by another shock — the structure of this ‘alternative’ school wasn’t actually any different from what I would’ve gotten at a normal college.
While there weren’t any actual grades, this was a false difference. Everything was still the same — uninteractive lectures filled with seemingly useless information, arbitrary assignments, and more bland brick hallways with square windows.
I stopped engaging. I fell asleep, both literally and figuratively. I went through the motions to keep my parents and teachers off my back, but nothing got done. No papers were turned in, no notes were taken, and no classes were attended (even if I was physically there, rest assured (haha) that I was asleep for the whole thing).
Which landed me in a state of anticipatory dread over Christmas break.
Here’s the thing though, I couldn’t have told you any of this if you had asked me then. Back then, I thought I really wanted to succeed at college. I thought I loved it. I thought I was being challenged — and beaten! I thought I was giving it my all because I thought that if I didn’t I would never achieve my dream.
The truth was hiding not in my words, but in my actions. If I had actually wanted to stay at college and graduate, I would have turned in assignments, stayed awake, and passed my classes. But I didn’t. Some deeper part of me, whether you want to call it my subconscious, my soul, or something else, had decided that it — that I — didn’t want to be there anymore.
This part of me had decided that if I wasn’t going to accept my unhappiness consciously, it was still going to get me out, no matter what it took. If I wouldn’t leave, it was going to get me kicked out, and it didn’t care about the collateral damage. It hated school so much that it was willing to genuinely risk my future.
It — I — hated school that much, and I didn’t even know it.
This is the danger of not knowing what you want.
There is no middle ground here, no true neutral, because the truth is that you want something, whether you know and accept it or not. Why else would you be reading this? You clicked on this hoping to get something out of it — you thought that it might, somehow, further one of your goals. You want something, and you want it bad, and given enough time, you will get impatient enough to sacrifice everything else to get it.
Imagine you are on a runaway train — nobody in the conductor’s chair.
The train is going to follow the tracks to get where it is going, and at a frightening speed. You can refuse to take control, feign ignorance, and let it crash in a ball of fire. Or you can put your hands on the controls and try to guide it properly into station. You might not succeed, but you can at least try, and by trying give yourself some semblance of control over your fate.
When I got back to college in the new year, and grades rolled in, I was face to face with the disintegration between my stated goals and my actions. I couldn’t ignore it any longer — I wasn’t acting in my own best interest.
After coming to terms with the horror of this realization, I got to the inevitable question — why?
And the answer is pretty simple — I didn’t want what I thought I wanted.
So then came the next question — how do I salvage this situation?
How do I want what I want to want?
Well it turns out you can’t really stop a runaway train by jumping in front of it and trying to hold it back like Spiderman or Mr. Incredible. Willpower can do a lot, but it can’t magically change what you want at your deepest and most fundamental level.
I gave it a good month to try and stop this train before it went off the tracks. I kept those failing grades away from my parents and peers for as long as I could, and it tore me up. I started avoiding everyone I loved because every interaction put my big secret at risk. I started to resent people for wanting to spend time with me, and I got pissed off whenever someone asked me a question.
And I drove myself insane thinking, “I just need to get rid of all these distractions — and that means no friends or family.”
Now if this was a movie, the camera would be zoomed in on my stoic face during that line. Then, it would pan back and around to reveal that I was sitting in front of a bright screen at midnight, playing video games.
The irony of that wasn’t lost on me even then. It was a horrifying vicious cycle, because I would start playing a game to avoid the work, but then turning away from the game let the guilt in, so I couldn’t stop. I would play until I fell asleep at my desk for fear of being left alone with my guilt by getting into bed.
You can probably guess that this didn’t work.
One month later, I hadn’t written a single word for any of the projects assigned to me, new or old.
It seemed hopeless, until my amazing girlfriend showed me a Plan B — damage control. “If your not able to graduate college, you might as well not burn your life to the ground trying.” There was no need to take on a ton of extra debt, and I might as well keep some dignity by walking out of my own accord.
If I couldn’t make my goals adhere to me, then at least I could adhere to my goals.
So I left.
It was the best decision I ever made.
The moment I made the choice, I felt lighter than I ever had before. I was in the basement beneath the campus library at the time, and I found myself bounding through the cramped underground halls in long, elated strides. I was bouncing off the walls like a kid on Christmas, hooting and hollering with wild joy. All because I had, for the first time, consciously aligned my actions with my goals. I felt a level of certainty and hope for the future that I had never felt before, and has only since faded during the brief periods that I again didn’t know what I wanted.
The following years were a journey of discovery. Instead of holding an image of what I should want based on the desires of those around me, I learned what I wanted by watching myself — not by listening, by watching. I watched very closely what I chose to do, all with a clear question in mind — what is this all building towards? What do all my actions point to?
At first, I wanted money. I watched how my attention was grabbed by job postings, particularly the pay rate section. I watched how disappointed I was that I couldn’t afford a bag of chips, and how much I hated asking my parents for money. And I COULDN’T let myself become an example of that horrible stereotype of a millennial.
So, I got a job, and I got a taste of that glorious sensation of integration again.
But it was just a taste.
So I kept watching. I became frustrated with my job as a line cook, and got rude with my co-workers. ‘Hm, it seems I don’t like this job.’ So I jumped at the first opportunity to pick up something else. And so on, until here I sit writing about it having discovered, to my surprise, that I’m actually an extremely ambitious person.
Perhaps we all are.
Instead of trying to stop the train, I tried to work with it. I played with the controls, learned how they work, and guided it into station. I gave structure to it’s wanton momentum, and at some point the line between the train and myself blurred.
Then I became the conductor.
After a while, I became comfortable enough in my life-situation that no deeper part of me was acting against my conscious decisions. I felt integrated and excited about my life, so much so that my desire for escapism faded and I walked away from a decade long addiction to video games in one morning.
It’s been said that humans need something larger than themselves to be in service to, else they simply become agents of chaos and evil. That they must lash their petty personal desires to some higher goal or they will run wild as hedonistic beasts and perhaps cease to be human.
I think this is only the beginning of the truth. Humans don’t need a higher goal — we each always have one (or more), else none of us would even bother to hold ourselves upright. Our responsibility is not to choose and adhere to a higher goal, but to discover which higher goal pulls us inexorably towards it.
Then, we must love both that goal and ourselves enough to act consciously to achieve that goal.
We must be humble enough to accept what we want, and prideful enough to love ourselves for wanting it.
We must be courageous enough to act upon a faith in ourselves that what we want is also what is best for us.
We must be curious enough to discover our desires, and we must be disciplined enough to undertake action that is integrated with our goals, each and every day.
For your profit and fulfillment,
- Ethan Ferris -