I'm 20, brilliant and totally lost

I thought I knew what I wanted to do and now all I want to do is ... join the Navy or ... learn German!

Published October 21, 2009 12:21AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Up until now, I had been a model student. Usually the best or second best in high school, I graduated with honors, got a full scholarship for college and had a cracking first semester (GPA-wise, I mean; on a more personal level, it wasn't really that good). I chose computer science as my major because I wanted to create video games. When I was in high school I'd talk about my passion for creating video games with my friends and they all told me they felt I was a visionary. A friend would tell me two years later he saw me, eventually, driving a Ferrari. I was that driven; except not. When I told a teacher about my dream, he frowned and told me that it was ridiculous, and that I was better off doing something more serious, like "producing a vaccine or creating something that'd help humanity." He shook the very foundations of my "self"; I asked myself, "What good are video games for?" and got no answer. I just didn't, I don't know why. The dream vanished. Everything went up in flames. I wanted to change majors right before entering college, to electrical engineering (thank God I didn't), but my father wouldn't let me.

I hated first semester: my geeky major-mates, the ambience, the pointlessness of it all. All the lame programming projects, everything. Still, I did really well. Same thing happened in second semester; I still had my brilliant-kid impulse and drive. When third semester came rolling by, I realized I just didn't have it in me anymore. I began slacking off, and not giving a damn about stuff. I was more worried about more intangible stuff: building confidence, changing the way I looked, learning to deal with girls. All necessary stuff, but academically, I just didn't care. I became lazy. It's not as extreme as you're probably thinking, because I still had (and have) a sense of responsibility. So I kept at it, my grades didn't really implode; they just faded into less-than-brilliantness.

I got a girlfriend; a real, pretty, steady girlfriend who was everything I wanted. I abandoned myself to her; of course, in doing so, I injected lethal venom into the relationship and it ended earlier this year, 18 months after it had begun. All through it, I stopped thinking about what I wanted, what were my dreams. I had a girlfriend and got addicted to her; I was in a sort of perpetual high that made me forget everything else.

But now it's over. Not nicely; it hurt, but it has helped me. I'm in eighth semester, my last. I applied to do an exchange in France, and I got it, which means I'll be there next year doing my graduation project. It's brilliant I got that, because the deal is this: I feel spent. As if my 3.5 years college had taken the fight out of me; everything that drove me is gone, and, sadly, the drive itself is, too. It didn't have anything to put itself into and it just vanished. I've become straight-up lazy. I'm always sleepy, I don't want to do a damn thing. I'm learning to play the guitar, I draw, I read, I think, but I don't feel I exist. I've built a lot of confidence -- thanks, in part, to my painful breakup -- and I've become good with the girls. But something's missing. I used to write a lot when I was a kid and I enjoyed it immensely; writing this to you, I feel good, too. I could work something out of that, but I can't bring myself to do it. I don't care about success, about working in a big company, about having a big car. I feel that I just want to take it easy, you know? As if my biggest priority in life were enjoying it, learning to live it. But I want to do something else, man. I want to have a voice. I could care less about engineering/science subjects (but I'm good enough; I have the raw talent). I've explored linguistics, literature, history and everything seems kind of pointless and not me. I can't bring myself to write, either.

I've thought of being done with college and enrolling in the U.S. Navy or Air Force (I'm not American, but for reasons I don't want to delve into, I could do this). Two years of doing something different. Or perhaps just getting a job, wrestling with the world a little, and finding motivation to write, learn to play the guitar, German ... what's the point of all this, though? I don't know what I must do. What should I do? Maybe I should reeducate myself? I don't have much money, though, and I'm tired of living where I currently am (a South American city). I couldn't bear four more years of another major here, but I can't realistically afford to study in the States. Or perhaps I could? I don't see anything on the horizon. I'm scraping by, trying to keep my mind busy, and off the tough questions.

I need some help. I feel lost and, worse, without motivation to find myself. I feel I've set me up for disappointment, having unrealistic expectations of myself. (Check this out: I'm 6-foot-3, yet I feel really short because my uncle would often tell me, back in the day, that he expected me to go over 6-foot-6. What's up with that? And I'm not exaggerating.)

I'm only 20, man. Why did it come down to this? What's the point of life? I was a visionary, man. I had it in me to write myself into history. Now I don't have much; I'm real smart, the girls dig it. Everybody tells me I am real intelligent. I know I am. But that's just genetics. It's not my merit. I want to do something out of it, but I feel I can't. What is the key to the treasure chest?

Tired and Lost

Dear Tired and Lost,

I recognize you. I recognize where you are at. And I want to reassure you that it is OK to be lost for a time. It is necessary to be lost.

There is a simple logic to this. You cannot find yourself without first being lost. You cannot catch what you do not drop. You have to open your fist and let what you are clenching fall.

When you open your fist, you show what you are clenching there. You let the world see what you are clenching in your fist: Is it a weapon? Is it a fly, or a frog, or a jewel?

You opened your fist once and a teacher smashed what you held there. What was that about?

What he said was bullshit.

But it had an effect. It shattered your dream as certainly as if your dream had been an actual vessel that now lies shattered on the floor. You can't just put it back together. It wouldn't be the same. But you can rediscover your original interest and excitement and enter into its spirit again now. That may not mean that making video games becomes your career; but your passion for it was a living thing, a dream, a source of excitement and wonder, and you can rekindle it now.

But that is only one aspect of what you are going through. The major thing you are facing is the powerful need to wander, to explore without preconditions, to find out who you really are.

Wander. Know that you are a creation of the universe. When I say this, I fear it sounds a little proto-mystical or New Agey. To me, it is not hyperbole or mystic silliness but simple fact, whose meaning we ignore as we pursue the projects of our own will. Meditating on the fact that we do not actually control our own existence but were indeed brought into being by some other force beyond our comprehension has a certain effect; it places us, conceptually, at the mercy of this grand creative force; it places us inside the universe rather than against or on top of the universe. Walking to work this morning along the water I looked around and for a few blessed moments became the subject/object of this force located in the sea; I became the man walking along the water seen by others; I became the random creation not much different from seaweed; seeing myself thusly freed me, momentarily, from my obsessive worry about money and reputation and control of events.

That is just me. But you can start taking the pressure off yourself by realizing that you, too, are a created creature with certain needs and a certain fate. You are not just a bucket of potential. You are not just a developmental project of your parents, your schools, your government and eventually your business or career. You are a worthy person, a wanderer, a soul on a journey.

Yep, there, I said it. Sounding New Agey again. Perhaps "soul on a journey" is not the best way to put it. Let's say that because of your own psychological makeup, your age and experience, and because of your place in the human community, you must now undertake a new and unstructured phase of life in which you make certain decisions based not on empirical evidence but on the strength of intuition and the power of the emotional moment. There. That sounds more reasonable.

You have been given certain gifts and certain powers. But to what end? That is what the journey is about. You must let life bruise you into sentience and humility.

The great thing about wandering is that you do not need to make the right decisions. Aside from surviving the challenges that meet you in the dark, there are no right decisions during this period: There is only the wandering, and the accumulated strength; there is only distance and duration, after which, at a certain time, you go home.

Wouldn't it be nice if before we young men reached this point we had some instruction? We might know to expect this dizzying confusion, this feeling of exhaustion and lostness. We might know that at some period in our blazing, striving for excellence the floor is going to go out and we will find ourselves in free fall or find ourselves walking out the door not knowing where we are going but compelled to walk, to go, to leave, to run, to wander.

In an ideal world your family and culture would recognize that it's time for you to wander and you would be celebrated and brought to the gates of the city and bid farewell for a time. But it's likely that your culture is the same highly technical, scientifically and industrially organized culture that I grew up in and that most of our readers grew up in, in which such necessary mysteries of life as the wandering of youth are ignored or tamped down. 

You are setting off on a period of discovery in which you will replace the laws of empirical decision with the laws of synchronicity and organic pattern. You are looking for patterns now. You are looking for patterns in the world and also in your own makeup.

I was in my 20s and I was lost. Like you, I did not know that I was supposed to be lost. I thought I was supposed to become immediately a master of things.

My lostness was different in this way: When I was 20 I marched in the middle of a great advancing army of youth all together seeking the ineffable. We had wrangled a cultural pass. We were all lost together but were able to gather in large fields and look at each other and see how large we were as a crowd; there was sufficient leisure time and surplus capital that we could wander as long as we needed to. It is true that also we stood at the center of a cultural war, and were in many senses fodder for wars; but we had enough cultural power to create out of our lostness a sort of ethos of being lost: Rock 'n' roll, craziness, drifting, visionary experiences.

Unfortunately, we lacked a plan for the next stage. Many of us remained in adolescent lostness well into chronological adulthood. That doesn't have to happen in your case. You can find guides and mentors to help you. Keep this in mind as you wander.

Go! Things will start to make sense. You'll know when it's time to return.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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