I’m fortunate to be in the middle of assisting with internship selection this season, as I read through applications and help to evaluate candidates for our training site. It is always an exciting time, as one reads enthusiastically written applications and personal statements. There is also a vicarious energy in remembering the anxiety of the time, but also realizing that things worked out in the end.
As I was reading one particular essay recently, I found myself unexpectedly moved. In it, the applicant referenced the very book that inspired and solidified my decision to become a clinical psychologist. Granted, the book was a national bestseller, so many have come across it. But what I was most struck by was how I’d managed to forget all about it. In the process of graduating college, entering a graduate program, then going onward to internship and fellowship, I’d somehow neglected a voice that had so deeply impacted my aspirations.
How does this happen? How do we come to forget about how we got here, and what our original purpose and passions were? In mindfulness practices, we often encourage sitting in silence—noticing and just being without doing anything at all. But it is rare that we do this, and so it becomes easy to slip into a habitual mode of constant doing. When there are no extended periods of time devoted to being in touch with ourselves, we can quickly lose sight of the things that matter most to us.
I know that in my educational journey I’ve jumped through every hoop required, recommended, and optional. I’ve published the extra papers, done the additional clinical trainings, did the extra professional committees for which I had no time left to allot, and received the grants and scholarships I was told I wanted. I listened when I was told how exactly how to decorate my office, how not to dress, what to say, do, how to behave, who to befriend, what clinical question to ask, what variable to account for in my study design, and that’s only the beginning of the list. It also explains how I wound up at work last year with cheetah print nails and a Twilight shirt expertly hidden beneath my blazer. Those are stories for a later time, but it can suffice to say they were "rogue" moments nearly a decade in the making.
Many question why graduate students are often so miserable. They ask why undergraduates are so taxed and burnt out. Ostensible locus of control issues aside, there is more to the story. I recall reading an article about the state of clinical psychology back when I was an undergraduate student volunteering as a research assistant. Using mythical analogies, the paper referenced “slaying the dragon” as the task of graduate students hoping to enter the academy. It was what scholars before them had done, and no matter how senseless the exercise, each generation wanted the next to bear the same burdens.
It would be one thing if these dragons to be slain were close cousins to their predecessors. The problem is that with increasing levels of competiveness, a society that moves with blinding speed, and an attitude that if you’re not miserable enough you must not be doing it right, the dragons morph into something far more daunting (think Harry Potter Goblet of Fire Triwizard Tournament style). It is understandable then why students may drop out, come to resent their fields and their areas of focus. In essence, the focus blurs out and leaves little else but a hazy impression.
How does one come to regain that focus, or to remember their original drive? Many psychologists recommend novel activities can be a means of getting out of a rut, rediscovering old passions, and finding new ones. This doesn’t mean you need to sign up for sky-diving lessons or need to step completely outside of your comfort zone. A little piece of my own passion struck me in the middle of reading an essay. It doesn’t have to change your entire life drastically, but can simply set the wheels in motion. It can allow you to think about the important life decisions you make which have a significant bearing on your overall life satisfaction. We can become so accustomed in our achievement-oriented worlds to desire the acceptance and accolades bestowed upon us by others that we neglect our own deeper callings. So go ahead and step outside of the box. Or better yet, step out like there is no box at all. You might just find something indispensible you lost a little while back.