I hadn’t planned to post again until next week since this whole weekend is technically a holiday. However, I had an experience a few days ago that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and so I thought I’d share it with you here today. I’m curious to know if it’s something you can relate to in your journey with money—or in your journey with anything, really.
First, a little background. I’m at the tail end of a PhD program right now, finishing up my dissertation. My defense—i.e., when I have to stand up in front of a bunch of experts in my field, explain my dissertation project, and answer tough questions about it on the spot—is scheduled for early December. But an important step in this process is that a few weeks before the defense, I’m expected to send a final, pristine, error-free version of my dissertation manuscript to my committee. This is a synthesis of several years’ worth of meticulous work on my part, and it’s somewhere in the ballpark of 130 pages. The act of sending the dissertation to the committee is akin to sending the final manuscript of your new book to the printer. So at least within the context of the past couple of years of my life, it qualifies as a Big Deal.
I wanted to be sure to send the manuscript to my committee well before Thanksgiving, so I spent all day Monday making final revisions. Around 9pm that night, I decided it was complete, so I emailed it to my committee members, walked home, finished writing a blog post, and went to sleep.
Around 5am the next morning I woke up, panicking, realizing that I hadn’t double-checked Table 5.3 in the manuscript. Table 5.3 contained 200 values that I’d used in a large portion of my statistical analyses, so if it contained any errors, it was possible that a lot of other stuff contained errors too.
I worried about this in the back of my mind all day Tuesday while I taught my class, did other work, and hung out with friends in the evening. Once again, I woke up in the middle of the night, worrying. On Wednesday morning, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore, and I finally decided to check the table.
Twenty-five percent of the values in the table were wrong.
I panicked. A wave of anxiety hit, the type that washes over your entire body from top to bottom. Then another, and another. What if all my analyses were wrong? What if I had to withdraw the manuscript and redo several months’ worth of work, delaying my graduation until the spring (and with it my chance to get a more lucrative job and start paying my loans back)?
I spent a few minutes not knowing what to do. I paced around, consulted with one of my labmates, and considered my options. But it slowly became clear that there was really only one way forward, and that was to Check. Everything. Again.
And so that’s what I did. In a state of moderate, sustained panic, I sat down again at the computer and methodically went over every analysis that could possibly have been affected by these incorrect numbers. After an hour or so of checking, I surveyed the results. Fortunately, only two relatively minor sets of analyses needed to be corrected. I fixed the table, redid the two sets of analyses, and slightly adjusted my discussion of them in the text. I sent the new version off to my committee with a note apologizing for any inconvenience. And after I sent it I felt much better.
My first impulse in this situation was—and still is—to beat myself up for not checking everything more thoroughly the first time through. And yes, more checking might have helped. But here’s the thing: I’m not a research robot, or, come to think of it, any type of robot. I’m a human being. There’s no way I’m going to glide through my life making the best possible decision at every juncture and completely avoiding mistakes or regret.
The reason this experience with the dissertation struck a chord with me was because even though the particular circumstances were new, the feeling that I had when I discovered the errors—the feeling of “Oh No, I’ve Made a Huge Mistake with Potentially Grievous Consequences and it’s Too Late to Reverse it”—was incredibly familiar. In fact, it’s the same feeling that has surfaced for me many times when thinking about my student loans: How could I have borrowed this much money? What was I thinking? How can I ever pay them back? What have I done?
I’m thinking that my dissertation anxiety and my student loan anxiety are just two different manifestations of the same underlying fear—and that there are many more situations where this fear can come into play. In my line of research we’re really into making conceptual schemas to illustrate causal relationships, so I’ll make one here to explain what I mean:
The problem with getting into this mode of thinking, unfortunately, is that it turns your life into a game of Whack-a-Mole. Sure, you can try your best not to make mistakes in your dissertation, try not to make financial mistakes, try not to make social mistakes, try not to make career mistakes, etc., etc. But even if you successfully manage to avoid one, or two, or ten potential mistakes, new ones are liable to pop up anywhere, at any time, triggering the same anxiety over and over again.
And this is no way to live.
I’m still in the process of figuring all of this out, but I’m starting to suspect that the best antidote to this type of anxiety when it surfaces is to take courage, sit down, assess the situation, gather as many facts as possible, and formulate a plan for moving forward. I actually wrote a bit about the importance of fact-gathering in reducing student loan anxiety in one of my very early posts, but I think I’m now starting to understand more fully what it means. The ideal approach, I think, might be to just accept that I’m definitely going to make mistakes sometimes, learn to be okay with that, and try to find the courage to take responsibility for them and, when possible and necessary, correct them.
So this is my message to myself, and my intention going forward.
Take courage: all is not lost.
Does this particular brand of anxiety—fear of making irreparable mistakes—
resonate with you? Have you ever experienced intense regret over past
financial decisions, or any decisions? What did you do about it? Feel free to comment below.
Ok, last thing on this topic. I realize this is a bit out of character for a personal finance blog, but I occasionally go through poetry-writing phases, and while I was working on this post I happened to remember a poem that I wrote about anxiety about three years ago when I was going through a particularly dark time. I tracked the poem down on my hard drive and am including it below, just in case you happen to be interested. And funnily enough, it happens to also involve the theme of courage. However, this is not a poetry blog, and if you’re not into reading my amateurish poetry, please of course feel free to skip it—I won’t be offended, I promise.
I thought I was out of the forest for good,
that dark, twisted wood
of shouldn’t and should.
But the roots of my fears ran tangled and black,
and so deep and so strong that the sharpest axe
was too soft—though I struggled and desperately hacked,
they’re alive, they’ve crept back,
my god, they are back.
Out from the woods they are slithering and creeping,
they will wait until night when I ought to be sleeping,
to drag me away
to that place with no day,
where I used to lie blind, and wasting away,
where the sounds I could hear were of gnashing and weeping.
Down here on the ground the forest is vast;
it can smother and stifle and suck up the last
of my breath,
seems nearer than death —
But take courage: Earth’s oceans are deep, her horizons are wide,
there are plenty of spaces to hide.
Or, better—float upwards and feel the air thinning,
float onward! the planets are whirring and spinning,
and they will spin on
with their wandering song
long after these dark specks of forest are gone.