At around midnight on a random weekday in 2007, I wandered downstairs from my bedroom to the kitchen. I found my father with a pencil, a quarter, and a piece of paper covered in hundreds of letters: “H T H T T” on one line, then “T T H T H” on the next, and dozens more lines like this with combinations of “T” and “H.” I was in seventh grade and should have been asleep, but like most middle schoolers, I had been procrastinating my homework.
“Hey dad. What are you doing?”
“Oh, you know, just wasting time, procrastinating doing taxes.” He explained that he was thinking about probability (his work had to do vaguely with statistics, so this made sense), and decided to flip a coin five times to see what combination of heads-tails-heads-tails he got. Then, he did that 5-flip-series again several more times to see what proportion of different combinations resulted.
This particular behavior was wholly unsurprising and on-brand. Maybe it was a little odd, but obviously, this kind of thing is not idiosyncratic to my dad: even at 13, I knew adulthood meant tasks that felt so painfully dull you’d rather spend hours flipping coins. At the time, I had no idea what “doing taxes” entailed, but it sounded like medieval torture. Maybe middle school isn’t that bad.
We were taught how to write in cursive in third grade. I remember the day clearly because it was the same day Ryan said he’d give me a dollar if I ate ants off a log on the playground. I did it–he did not give me a dollar.
To my teacher’s delight (I’m sure), I tried to learn cursive in class with my left hand, despite knowing I was right-handed. I desperately wanted to be ambidextrous.
Of course, my left-handed handwriting was terrible. It was boxy, slow, and illegible, and practicing with my left hand instead of my right meant I wasn’t learning to write correctly with my dominant hand. I was therefore constantly reprimanded. (It was all moot anyway; I don’t think I’ve written in cursive since third grade). But I was determined. I was eight years old. My brain was at peak malleability, so I better learn a real impressive skill, lest grow up to be boring—or worse, have to learn a skill as an adult, god forbid. This was my one shot at being ambidextrous (an objectively interesting trait, obviously), and I wasn’t going to let some arbitrary pedagogical structure ruin it for me.
Ultimately, I gave up. I realized I couldn’t pay attention to developing both hands’ writing skills—it was impossible. I hated failing at something, even something as dumb as forced ambidexterity.
My time was running out to develop a cool skill. By seventh grade, the anxiety of choosing something—any niche, anything!—was becoming overwhelming. I gave things up almost as soon as I started them: guitar (fingers hurt), violin (neck hurt), soccer (the girls were mean), learning to code (the boys were mean). I needed a fix, something to soothe my budding identity crisis.
Figure skating was really popular in my hometown. We were situated near a big rink, the one where the Jersey Devils practiced. I decided to give skating a shot. I loved it instantly. At the rink, I could finally breathe. On the ice, I was lighter than the pressure of fixing my future, faster than my fears of stagnancy, on a different plane than the graveyard of failed hobbies littered all over my bedroom. Biting cold air, reddened cheeks, a few inches off the ground, floating.
I was okay at it—good enough for local competitions, then Sectionals, and eventually Nationals. I dedicated so much time to the ice, waking up at 5 AM on weekends for practice and zigzagging across the country and internationally for competitions. Naturally, there were thousands of people who were way better than me, but I genuinely didn’t care.
My skating obsession wasn’t at all unique or special, but my perspective had softened. Really, nothing felt important in those moments except whether my outside edge was deep enough or whether I landed my Salchow without breaking my neck. I was able to pay attention to something ultimately meaningless—who cares if some run-of-the-mill skater like myself has an under-rotated Axel?—and the rest was all details. I was good enough to feel at home on the ice; the other stuff just melted away.
Being in your twenties in 2022 often feels like a frantic battle to keep up. Frenetically splitting your attention between apps, scrolling endlessly until the space behind your eyes feels like jelly. It’s a fair trade: I feed the apps my most sensitive personal data and in return it lobotomizes me for a blissful couple of hours. Most of it nowadays is ads. I scroll scroll scroll past an ad for a mail-order pill to “heal your gut.” Scroll scroll scroll. An ad for a virtual therapy service. Scroll scroll scroll. An ad for an article about how you’re wearing clothes wrong and aging wrong and using sunscreen wrong and eating wrong and are missing out on your “best life” because of all these horrid wrongs. Scroll scroll scroll. An ad taunts: “Are you procrastinating right now? Download this app to heal your attention span naturally!”
Attention is a finite resource. The places we direct our attention–even if we didn’t mean to land on them–are constantly picked apart and pathologized. I haven’t skated in over seven years. Somehow, I stopped paying attention to this thing that was my whole being for most of pre-adulthood life. Is that wrong? Is that normal? Is that the rhythm of growing up?
I spent a lot of my late teens and early twenties obsessing over decisions, terrified I’d make the wrong ones. Ultimately, I’d make de facto choices by not picking. The uncertainty of what if I choose wrong and this is the one butterfly effect choice that ruins my life became so pathologically torturous that I’d stew and stew until my indecision made a choice for me. Usually, this choice left me feeling stagnant, regretful, and empty.
The mess of potential decisions, the opportunity to entertain every possible outcome, always felt more enticing than the present moment. I was always elsewhere, never here. Because what if elsewhere was better? The worry that I was one choice away from an entirely different life always felt far more pressing than the soft carpet under my toes, the sound of my roommates chatting in the next room, the scorch of hot tea touching my lips. Questions with no answers were ticker tape behind my eyes. What am I doing wrong?
My all-encompassing obsession with making the perfectly right choices for the optimized life and ritualizing any possible means to prevent failure, as it turns out, was a symptom of OCD. It’s a sneaky disorder for which I’ve since gotten treatment.
However, “worrying about the future” is about as broad as anxiety gets. Even after I put my most potent OCD symptoms behind me, I figured I could benefit from an additional push towards groundedness.
So, in my early twenties, I began attending a weekly mindfulness class. If this class had been graded, I would have earned a D or lower. The first couple weeks were excruciatingly, I’d-rather-sew-my-face-to-the-carpet boring. I think I would have had more fun at an actuarial exam. To my dismay, I learned around week 6 that this was the point: to become acquainted with, and ultimately befriend, boredom. To pay gentle attention to it, to reframe it as an opportunity to feel the full range of your physical experience in every moment of life “without judgment.” It was exhausting.
Around week 10, the instructor finally said something reasonable: “I want you to give 70% effort at most. Stop trying to give 100%. Stop forcing yourself to focus on everything at once. Mindfulness isn’t a destination or a goal, it’s a state of awareness of the moment you happen to be in. You can’t be aware of yourself if you’re obsessing over how best to be aware. Give it 70%. You’re not missing out by not giving 100%. Take the pressure off.”
Oh. My ability to create an elsewhere so elaborate, so much better than here, had outshined even my efforts to heal this very problem. I had become hyper-aware of how I was doing mindfulness “wrong,” immobilizing myself with these judgments, which were so constant I couldn’t tell where they started and ended. Instead of finding the “present moment” with ease, I was breathing through molasses and then questioning why I was left gasping for air.
“Drink your morning coffee with awareness. Stop putting toothpaste into it and then complaining that it tastes bad,” the mindfulness instructor then told us. But maybe I like my coffee minty and my toothpaste tube half-empty! Maybe I like things one-foot-in-one-foot-out, obsessing over little meaningless details just to stay occupied, splitting time, splitting attention, splitting hairs.
Bullshit. I know, I know. I know that enjoying the torture of indecision is not real, that the rituals to attempt to force a sense of certainty in an uncertain world are just distractions from reality. Reality is that the universe is indifferent to my little choices—or rather, they’re value-neutral. There’s no moral bent to choosing to play soccer or learn guitar, no valence to choosing ice skating over painting. Ambidexterity might be neat, sure, but it isn’t objectively “better.”
At its worst, if my indecision was ketamine I could have anesthetized an army. But if I’m going to pick soup over salad, it doesn’t matter how long I thought about it or the winding road I took to get to the restaurant—either way, I’m still eating soup. Sure, most decisions feel better when meticulously planned and ritualistically attended to. But in the end, they could just as readily be chosen by the flip of a coin.
I think of the ice. There isn’t a much more unforgiving place to be jumping around. In that environment, you’re constantly just one fall away from a life-altering concussion. Did I spend every practice considering new ways to avoid a fall? Or did I just skate?