Undergraduate Making Life-Altering Choices While Sober, Please Advise

by Lumpyproletariat6 min read10th Jul 202111 comments

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I'm writing this more to regulate my emotional state than anything--when I started writing I felt like I was clinging to an overturned inflatable raft in storm-tossed seas of panic.

I

Does anyone else do this thing where one generates an Ugh Field about a friend or community that one likes, because one knows that they've wronged some other party by not responding to them with any punctuality, and now it's been so long that there's no justifiable reason to not have responded yet--not even being kidnapped by Somalian pirates--, which makes one even more prone to flinching away from responding, to the point where one's mind--in its wanderings--merely touching on the idea of logging on to a website might lead to one being unproductive for hours as one frantically casts about for something else to do?

No? Just me?

Well, it isn't like I ever claimed to be mentally competent. (Besides--perhaps--all of the times when I claimed exactly that.)

Anyway. That's why I haven't been around. But church is for the sinners, so I'm back.

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In my first post on the forum, I wrote:

To better describe my background and skills; my username is more or less accurate--I have precious little background, and precious few skills. I didn't always have internet or even clean water growing up, my family belonged to one of those churches where ignorance of the world is the only route to heaven, and my education could be charitably described as sporadic. There are holes in my knowledge of reality that one could drive a motorcade through, if one were so inclined--I've no idea how to do anything that anyone wants done, and I've only gotten that far thanks to charity and the American welfare state. I failed the tenth grade, which I found to be--in the lexicon of Edison--an opportunity wearing work clothes; I dropped out and took the GED, and thus didn't have a high school GPA to be held against my ACT score when I applied for college and loans. I've somehow found myself a nineteen year old undergraduate attending a state university, funding secured thanks to the generous taxpayer, on track to living the good life.

At this point all the problems in my life that aren't solved are at least being solved, provided I put in the time. I've no doubt in my ability to earn a four-year degree, draw an above-average American salary, live on ten thousand dollars of it a year, and then FIRE a decade after I graduate. I'm still shocked by this development--it seems unreal. I barely even had to lift a finger to make it happen--unaware at the time how important it was, I didn't even study for the ACT.

Now that my life is so serendipitously under control, I want to do what I can to help people less fortunate. That means learning more about EA, and planning my career. I would be very grateful for advice on what skills I should learn, what books I should read, and what projects I should undertake. I'm still young, and I want to make the most of my time and neuroplasticity while I still have it.

Neither one nor zero are probabilities; it's been a year since I wrote that and I've learned some measure of doubt in my ability to earn a four-year degree.

Since beginning college I have failed rather a few classes. Most of the classes existed to teach things which I already knew from prior learning--I failed those classes. Some of the classes existed to teach things which I didn't know but could learn from reading the textbook--I failed those classes. Other classes existed to teach things which I did not know, which did not come naturally to me, without good textbooks or in subjects where merely reading the textbook isn't enough--I passed those classes, naturally. 

My inadequacies are manifold:

  • Waking up before two in the afternoon takes me many more spoons than it seems to take other people
  • I sometimes have depressive episodes and I had one last semester
  • I get lost in what I'm doing and it's hard for me to change gears
  • I don't know how to navigate institutions like schools or banks, and figuring them out takes time and motivation
  • At the beginning of this year I didn't know any math which is taught after sixth grade; I'm still pretty ignorant and very slow

But by far the largest one is:

  • I have a very easy time getting into Ugh Fields and I can easily lose several days or weeks to one before I work my way through it

This summer I decided to take four classes in the hopes of repairing my GPA in time to get funding for the fall semester. Yesterday I had an A in each of them, but today I do not. Because I didn't do my midterms in the ones which I've been taking, and I didn't do the first week of assignments in the one which just started. Which thing prompted this post; I'm writing it as much to regulate my emotional state as for anything else. 

I might still be able to get the GPA I need to get funded for the fall semester; I'm certainly going to try.

But even if I retain the option to throw good money after bad, I think it'd be wise for me to consider what I'd do if it turns out that I can't succeed in college. The last thing I want is to spend eight years and get tens of thousands of dollars into debt, and leave without a degree anyway. There's virtue in failing quickly and moving on.

But a concern I have is that my problems aren't problems with school but are rather problems with me. It isn't like I've ever held a job for more than a few months before I found it so intolerable I had to leave; granted every job I've worked has been unskilled manual labor, and I was usually working through some kind of physical injury, but still. It seems from the inside view that the reasons I can't spend a year washing dishes for eight dollars an hour is orthogonal to the reasons I can't pass the classes I spent that money buying, but still. If I can't pull myself together enough to graduate school, what does that say about my ability to usefully perform other tasks?

And I don't really know what I'd do without a college degree. It doesn't seem from where I stand that there will be that many decades before artificial general intelligence, so it's my analysis that the most good I could do in the world would be if I worked in policy--since I'm reasonably wise and reasonably eloquent, but not necessarily a numbers person. (Growth mindset! But it would be unwise for one to choose a career based on skills they don't possess.) A job in policy would require many more years of schooling--for that to work, either something about myself or something about my circumstances will have to change.

I'm hoping for advice. I'm open to doing things like change college (if I can figure out funding--I'm relying on in-state tuition) or leave college (if I can figure out what to do afterward) or other life-altering choices, just as long as they seem like they'd help me become more competent or route around my incompetence. My current circumstances seem to me unstable; I need to change something.

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11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:17 AM
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[I don't know you, so please feel free to completely ignore any of the following.]

I personally know three EAs who simply aren't constituted to put up with the fake work and weak authoritarianism of college. I expect any of them to do great things. Two other brilliant ones are Chris Olah and Kelsey Piper. (I highly recommend Piper's writing on the topic for deep practical insights and as a way of shifting the balance of responsibility partially off yourself and onto the ruinous rigid bureaucracy you are in. She had many of the same problems as you, and things changed enormously once she found a working environment that actually suited her. Actually just read the whole blog, she is one of the greats.)

80k have some notes on effective alternatives to a degree. kbog also wrote a little guide

In the UK a good number of professions have a non-college "apprenticeship" track, including software development and government! I don't know about the US.

This is not to say that you should not do college, just that there are first-class precedents and alternatives.

More immediately: I highly recommend coworking as a solution to ugh. Here's the best kind, Brauner-style, or here are nice group rooms on Focusmate or Complice.

You're a good writer and extremely self-aware. This is a really good start.

If you'd like to speak to some other EAs in this situation (including one in the US), DM me.

Thank you for linking me to Kelsey Piper--I haven't read Chris Olah's essay yet, but I'm sure I'd've thanked you for linking him too had I only. I'm going to give Focusmate a go; I've been meaning to set it up but procrastinated doing so long enough to generate an ugh field about that. Thank you for that, too.

This is not quite an answer to your question, but I thought you might get a lot out of this podcast - it at least is vivid evidence that you can have a lot of impact despite finding it hard to get out of ugh fields and suffering from depression. 

Thank you for the recommendation, I'll check it out.

This is exactly what I first thought of too - I really think this could be useful!

Prioritize dealing with your depression. It will make everything better and boost your general productivity. Does your college offer mental health services? Therapy can teach you valuable and transferable life skills, including emotional skills to deal with e.g. depression. I don't know your college but, if you happen to have this opportunity don't let it pass by unnoticed.

I've had a tab on my browser open to a page of therapists who take my parent's insurance for . . . semesters, now. Thank you for giving me the impetus to email a couple of them. I'll let you know how it goes. :)

I also think dealing with depression is the most important step in my life. I made this list of things that help me personally. Maybe you find something in there useful :-)

Hi @LumpyProletariat :-) 

I'm a student from Canada. I'm also unsure what to do with my life in the long run. And I also struggle to commit to jobs I'm not excited about / don't have formal work experience.

But I'm just entering my first year of university next year + I haven't faced nearly as many challenges as you have growing up. So these are just some reflections on simple actionables that have worked for me. But feel free to let me know if they don't work for you 

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  1. I won't let myself make important decisions while depressed. Over the pandemic, I've had depressive phases more. A few months ago, it was really challenging. I'd suddenly lose motivation towards whatever goals I was pursuing during those phases. But, I realised how SO many thoughts (positive and negative) just came and go - it was so volatile! It was kind of like I was riding a train and looking out a window to see different things passing by. So I visualise that train window and lots of thoughts passing by to remind myself: "This too shall pass." It makes me less likely to deviate from long-term plans and make rash decisions while I'm depressed/anxious/in any extreme mood.
  2.  I don't like rigid, long-term plans or rigid commitments in general. For example,  I don't enjoy having rigid periods or time blocks where I have to focus on studying for one course, then move on at a specified time. (It seems like you mentioned that too, when you said you like focusing on one thing for some longer time.) That's why I like checklists. Checklists were the first tool that kind of let me focus on the simple, everyday tasks that were kind of mundane but I just NEEDED to get done. And they were the start of a lot more organisation in my life as I added other 'systems' to organise myself. Would it help you to try a checklist at THE simplest level ?Ie. just write down ONE task you have to accomplish in a day and try to get it done by the end of the day.  IF that works for you, maybe you can try two tasks a week later? And maybe three tasks a few weeks later? And so on. Maybe that might help power through boring schoolwork?
  3. I say the above because it seems like you're exploring different career paths and aren't decided on one yet. And as you said, a university degree would be useful in giving you optionality -  to try out and explore more paths than you could without a university degree. Those are just my thoughts on why it might make sense to stick to university (especially since you're already a little ways through). Does spending another year at university seem like a long time to you? I felt that way when thinking about taking a gap year - that I would spend an ENTIRE year doing who knows what??? But I guess I realised that one year is not a long time in a 80 year life. That personally helped me make that decision to do something I wasn't ready to at first.
  4. I find learning for myself fun and learning for others boring. Even while learning the exact same thing! For example, I was reviewing some physics in my textbook over the summer. I could skip over all the boring parts with as little effort as possible and then dive deeper into parts I found interesting. I like to think of it as making studying a game for myself. If I hit this milestone, I get reward X. Ex: If I finish this problem set, I get to watch a TED talk about climate change just because I find that interesting! I also enjoy people over textbooks, so I go out of my way to have conversations with teachers whenever possible. Even during the virtual pandemic, for example, a good way to get started would be to ask at least 1 question / class. It doesn't even have to be about the courses! I started a chemistry class by asking my teacher: "How do we learn to accept the things we don't want to accept?" once and he started talking about how he wanted to be a soccer player growing up :D
  5. I've also been looking for a BIG change recently :/ Just felt like the pandemic lockdowns in Canada were the same forever. One thing that's helped me is making more time for things I enjoy. Not only does this help with mental health, but it also makes me more skilled! Maybe that's uniquely my situation, though, because I really enjoy just RANDOMLY learning stuff. Ex: reading a book on negotiation, reading an article about psychological biases, whatever. Those small things help me better prepare for the big change and be more satisfied while I work towards that big change. In terms of the BIG change, I haven't yet had luck. I've been trying to get a job so I can experience something new. But I'll keep at it and hope the big change happens one day. I hope you also have that experience of looking back one day and seeing that you've found the big change you're looking for! 

Let me know if there are any other ways I can help you :-) Feel free to DM me!

Thank you for the response. I've given checklists a try in the past and found them useful then; my problem has been that I don't remember/think to draw up new ones. The obvious solution to that is obvious, so I set a repeating alarm on my phone to remind me. Whenever it goes off I'll draw up a to-do list for the day, even a short one.

If I hadn't had to explain why it was to-do lists hadn't worked for me in the past, I wouldn't have thought of the obvious solution (though, time will tell how well it works--I only just now set the alarm), so many thanks for replying to me and writing up such a long and thoughtful list of things which worked for you.

What if you made a daily checklist? :-) I like to make a checklist when I wake up every day. After a week or two, it just becomes habit! And an alarm would fit into that perfectly :D