Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Empty Next: How to Use Your Newfound Freedom

Building on your inspiration and strengths will not be enough.

At 16 I inherited more money than I could spend. It was a vocational derailment for me. My peers were gearing up for necessary careers, well aware that if they didn’t come up with one fast, they’d be in serious trouble.

I tried to inspire myself into that same kind of imperative but inspiration only goes so far. I wasn’t going to starve. I could take my time figuring out what to do. The world was my oyster, and a big oyster at that. Career-wise, I was a kid in a candy mega-shop. 

Paralysis set in. I could do anything, but I’d have to decide. Doing anything and is not nearly as effective as doing something specific. But no matter what specific I chose, all of those alternative, candied options were still available.

Like chewing gum, doing something specific starts sweetly inspiring but eventually degenerates into a lot of dull work. With fresher candy ever-beckoning why stick with the specific I’d chosen? 

Eventually I stumbled into a perfect fit, a labor-intensive commune, a hippy boot camp where I worked my ass off for seven years. It pulled me into focused work. We had a policy that whenever anyone asks for help, the answer was automatically “yes” and once committed, the demand, and fear of falling short pulled me through. 

Being pulled into work is always easier than pushing oneself into it no matter how inspired a self-starter you are. Inspiration only goes so far.

Since the commune, I’ve mostly had the luxury of being under external pulls to get things done. I’ve also experienced occasional doldrums, nothing to pull me into threaded focus, empty next syndrome. 

These days, I meet plenty of people experiencing empty next syndrome. Some, like me have enough wealth that it won’t be the pull—late retires with 20 years left, early retirees with 40 years left, inheritors, partners provided for by their partners, capable workers making enough money in what they’ve decided are dead end jobs.  Disoriented kids in candy mega-shops.

For the past 20 years my luxuriant pulls have been writing and teaching about the natural history and everyday experience of decision-making.  I faked my way into my current pulls. I was inspired to start reading and writing about these topics, but knew the inspiration wouldn’t be enough to pull me through, and so I bought myself into a Ph.D. program an imperative to pull me through lots more reading and writing.  That’s one use we make of educational programs. We hire them to be external pulls that will thread us through a lot of focused work. 

When I graduated, I wrote as if I had a publisher, which I didn’t. Eventually I started writing blogs as though I had audience, which I didn’t. I cultivated my capacity for “strategic gullibility,” pretending someone was pulling on me for my work when they weren’t.  Fake pull ‘til you’ve made pull. I eventually found research colleagues and cultivate my “impostor syndrome” fear that I wasn’t keeping up, a very motivating pull. 

In studying the natural history of decision making, my focus turned to a very big question that I could frame as how does economics and love emerge from chemistry?  Economics and love have more in common than we notice.  They’re both about supply and demand, doing what it takes to get what we want.  People get distracted by “to get what we want” as though what we want is necessarily selfish, greedy and short-sighted.  It isn’t.

What we want is anything the absence of which would leave us feeling incomplete. What I want includes plenty of indulgences but also, and overwhelmingly it includes being useful to others, something without which I’d feel incomplete, swept up into shame for being a leech. 

In love what I want includes plenty of self-serving indulgences, but also and overwhelmingly, I want to be good for my partner. Whenever I haven’t been, my shame and sense of incompleteness has consumed me for months bordering on years. 

We think of love as chemistry or connection but it’s more active and dynamic than that, an ongoing labor, doing dedicated work to maintain access to that which one depends upon. What one depends upon is the pull that maintains the dedicated work. 

My dedicated work: Of all the things I could do, I do particular narrowed things, not kid-in-a-candy shop things.

Things I depend upon:  The pulls without which one feels incomplete.

If you’re in empty next syndrome, people will ask you to identify your strengths and preferences, implying that if you do what you love you’ll have sufficient motivation to do it.  That’s a push strategy—find the work you’re inspired to do and just do it. But inspiration only goes so far without a pull to sustain it.

Sooner or later, and probably sooner, you’ll need a hearty pull to thread you through the long hard work, the inspired days and the doldrum days—real (or temporarily faked) demand for what you do, an imperative, something that you come to depend upon, something that will make you have to work. 

Sure, you’ve got to inventory your strengths and inspirations, but to make it sustainable, get good at exploiting your weaknesses. To fall all the way into supplying and loving your new work, you’ll need a demand for it, an external imperative, something to which you’ll be forced to supply or do without. 

For most people it’s income but it can be other things too, a need you fill in others that fills your need for a pull to thread you through. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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