The Agony of Navigating Caves
December 31, 2019
Education is like a mountain, and from childhood to adolescence, it’s a mountain that we’re told to climb, usually at our parents’ or other guiding figure’s discretion.
The paths start off easy, but get progressively longer and convoluted the older we get.
What’s great about mountains is that before starting the path, you get to know roughly how many people before you have finished it judging by the amount of footprints on the ground, and you have a general idea of what the journey looks like. While each path has its share of difficult stretches along the path, successfully making it through is ultimately a matter of how bad you want to.
Most importantly, there’s certainty in the mountains. If all else fails, we’re told that if we just keep climbing those mountains, good things will happen.
So you keep finishing these paths—getting a little something as proof that you’ve finished the climb (trophies, medals, scores, diplomas, etc) each time—until you finally reach the end of the mountain.
And then…there’s another mountain to climb. After a while, some of us start noticing something else about these mountains and the other people climbing them with us.
Climbing mountains all the time can start feeling monotonous. Sure, the new trails are more challenging and feel more rewarding after finishing them, but fundamentally, you’re still doing the same thing: you’re climbing a mountain, and you’ve done it thousands of times before. More discouragingly, it seems like no matter what we do, there’s always people that are straight up just better at it than we are.
So some of us start looking around to see if there’s something else we could do.
And lo and behold, there are the caves.
As you start venturing into the caves, the first thing that you notice is just how damn dark they are. You can barely see a few feet ahead of you, and the longer you go on, the more inclined you feel to leave and go back to the familiar groove of the mountains. Perhaps most terrifyingly, though, is that there is no laid out path ahead of you.
You’re completely on your own.
But, it being your first time exploring a cave, you feel that extra drive to make it work. So you keep working at it, and after a while, you finally emerge from the cave. It wasn’t necessarily a life altering experience, but the change was refreshing. It felt good doing something different and succeeding.
So good, in fact, that it doesn’t bother you too much when someone comes up to you and tells you that while you were busy wandering through that one cave, everyone else had already climbed four more mountains.
Oh, well. Life goes on. You still climb the mountains that are expected of you, because you don’t want to fall too far behind everyone else, but after that one cave experience, you start going back more and more often.
After a few more explorations, though, you slowly arrive at an unpleasant reality: these cave journeys are risky. Sometimes the path you thought was correct leads to a dead end. Sometimes, without warning, there’s a cave in, and you’re forced to leave. And most frustratingly, when the journey drags on for too long and there’s no evident end in sight, your self doubt kicks in. There are the voices, both internal and external, planting the seeds of doubt in your mind, telling you that this is all just a waste of your time, pleading you to turn back, to cut your losses and settle for the mountains instead.
Very quickly, you come to realize that when you back out of the caves after spending a fair bit of time trying to navigate it, hearing that everyone else has climbed 5 more mountains feels a lot worse than it did when you first succeeded. Everyone else has something they can point to as a justification of their time, and you…you have nothing concrete to show for your dabbling in the caves.
So every time you think about entering one of those caves, you face a dilemma: it feels really good and fulfilling when you make it out of the caves, but at any point in time before then, there’s only cruel, isolating, bitter uncertainty.
What’s going to happen next? Am I going to make it?
This is a post about that uncertainty and what we can do about it.
Worrying is okay, regret is not In hindsight, it’s really easy to think back on difficult times and, after knowing what happened, wonder why you even worried about them in the first place.
Mountains and caves share a similarity in the fact that after getting a tangible result, you can look back on the process and easily identify your lowest points. You probably realized that what you thought was this:
Was actually this:
But when you’re experiencing those difficult times, it’s tough to not feel hopeless and unsure. It’s very difficult to imagine a future where everything is fine because the future is always uncertain; in fact, it doesn’t even exist until the moment passes—at which point it just becomes your new present.
For all you know, that deep dark hole of despair and depression might be a turning point of the graph:
But it could also be any of these parts of the process:
You just don’t know.
The silver lining for those struggling on the mountainous climb—and I’m not knocking it for being “worse” or “easier” than a cave trail—is knowing that you’re not alone. It helps knowing that others just like are you struggling with the difficult paths too, and that your goal is doable because others (just like you) have done it before and others are doing it now.
In the caves, you’re rarely with other people (and it’s not like they would know what to do any better than you) and you sometimes you don’t know what the end goal looks like—or if there even is a plausible one. Others before you have taken similar paths, but their paths differ just enough so that you can’t simply mirror the movements.
So we fear.
And that’s okay.
You know what happened when our ancestors didn’t worry about their present moment? They died to bears and dinosaurs, probably. It’s natural to worry, and frankly, it’s probably a good thing that we do; even when we aren’t feeling actively motivated to continue onward, being stressed about our current situation often makes us start working anyways, and doing something is always better than doing nothing.
Regret, on the other hand, is a severe detriment to our present situation. There is no way of knowing if one thing will yield a better outcome than another until you see what happens. Even then, events solidified in the past aren’t fungible. Ever hear of the butterfly effect? You can’t simply assume that if you had done action X instead of action D, you’d end up in a better situation, because there are so many factors at play.
Of course, rationally, you probably knew that already. And rationally speaking, we should never even feel bad about this whole process because we know that we’ll adapt to any situation we end up in (see: hedonic treadmill; I’ve mentioned it in previous posts). But emotion is irrational; we’re all going to feel worried and regret certain things—it’s inevitable. Some might disagree, but I’d argue we can only control our emotions to a certain extent before they get the best of us, so don’t feel bad about feeling bad.
What we can do is be aware of our emotions. Be aware of the pain, the regret, and the worry that you’re feeling—then ease into it. Understand that it’s to be expected, and move on with your endeavors.
Trust the future
At the heart of it all, what keeps us going through the caves is trust. Trust in ourselves that we’re doing the right thing, trust from those concerned about us that we’re going to figure it out, and trust in the universe that everything’s going to be okay.
But the more you spend in the caves, the quicker that trust wanes. If it’s not your internal voices screaming at you to figure something out, it’s some external outcry doubting you, because there’s a ticking clock for us to produce tangible results.
And when the clock hits 0, someone is expecting a result.
Either way, there’s only so many times that you can keep saying just trust me bro trust me before someone—your parents, your colleagues, yourself—refuses to take that for an answer.
And when you’ve invested that much time and energy into your work, backing out is probably one of the most soul-crushing things you could do. But making forward progress feels impossible, too. Both are exhausting options, but being caught in the middle is arguably worse.
I say push onwards. As stupid and trite as it sounds, you have to trust that the future is going to be alright. You have to trust that you’ll find the way out, and once you do, that you’ll remember this moment as a time that sucked but one you got over. Detach yourself from the present, imagine a better future, and work towards it.
Trusting yourself here isn’t a question about your willingness to continue working or your competence at the task; it’s a battle over your spirits.
Look, I get it. It’s easy to doubt yourself at times, and there’s not a whole lot you can do to control how much faith others have in you. But no matter how bad you’re feeling about yourself or how often you’re getting poked and prodded for results, you have to push through. And you will.
It’s caves all the way down, baby
At one point or another, our premade path ends. The shackles of certainty are removed, and we’re left with a lot of freedom to determine what to do for the rest of our lives.
This freedom, however, comes at the cost of complete and uncensored uncertainty. This means at some point in your life, there will be no more mountains. There won’t be any more safety handlebars for you to retreat to and rely on in times of disarray.
Your peers become useless as a comparison, because everyone will be at different points in their life, doing things that you might not have even started thinking about. Some get married and start having kids at 24. Others never have kids. Some are millionaires by age 30. Others work in a low paying job for the rest of their lives.
And suddenly, your life has just turned into one big cave.
You will, without doubt, feel overwhelmed at times with this freedom. But in times of despair, frustration, and pain, will you wallow in fear and regret, or will you take life’s blows with a grimace and keep on doing your thing?