anxiety, awareness

Take Courage

Take Courage

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.


Take Courage

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,
and disaster
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.

23 Comments on “Take Courage

  1. I can relate when I finished my dissertation I realized that I had accidentally sent my committee a slightly older version. In fact, it was just as I was on a whirldwind tour of interviews at 4 campuses in two weeks and I really didn’t have time to look it over. In fact, when I realized it I was actually interviewing at the job I have now. I just had to send everyone a new version and explain my mistake. Luckily, it didn’t delay my defense date and it was pretty smooth after that. No worries. I am sure you will be great. Just remember your adviser would never let you go into a defense if s/he didn’t think you were ready. That is how I approach my students. I am sure you will do great.

    1. Oh wow, Jason, I can’t believe this happened to you too! (Or at least something similar.) I figured I was probably the only one, or close to it, but apparently not. 🙂 That’s great that it didn’t end up being a big deal. And you’re right: I’m sure my advisor wouldn’t let me go into the defense if she thought I wasn’t ready. I’m still nervous about it, but I’m trying to stay positive and just do the best I can. Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. I love your poem–that nameless anxiety that haunts us and then the release as we face it and realize it is not as bad as we thought!

    1. Thanks, Isabella. I’m glad you liked it. 🙂 Anxiety really is a mindset, isn’t it? It’s amazing how it’s possible to be really anxious about a particular situation, but then look at the same situation later with a different mindset and find that it’s much less scary. In most cases, as you say, it’s not as bad as we think!

  3. Thank you for sharing! I used to have incredible, terrible anxiety about the very things you highlight in your chart. Anxiety paralyzed me and kept me from moving forward from a major failure I had encountered years before. It wasn’t until I went to grad school, learned to recognize and manage anxiety, that I was able to change my life.

    1. Wow, Claudia, it sounds like you and I have had some similar experiences. It really is a paralyzing mindset to be in, isn’t it? That’s wonderful that you’ve found ways to recognize and manage anxiety. I don’t know if you’ve encountered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (aka Cognitive Therapy), but that approach has been helpful for me, as have Pema Chodron’s books. Having tools to deal with anxiety definitely makes a huge difference.
      Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  4. Hey, good for you. I think one of the most important things that takes you from grad student to professional is getting into a habit of acknowledging mistakes and correcting them — it’s the mature, grownup behavior and nobody will think less of you for doing it. Beginner students hide from mistakes and feedback that might illuminate mistakes, because they’re afraid of being wrong or imperfect; professionals welcome others’ pointing out their mistakes, because now they have a chance to make the work better.

    Also, about that defense — by this time, trust me, nobody wants to fail you. They never ever want to have to look at another version of your dissertation again. They’re dying to get you out of there and off their plates. 🙂 Congratulations on getting to this point, it’s a BFD.

    1. Thanks. 🙂 Yeah, the whole mistake issue is so complicated, especially in the context of education: we’re trained from grade school onward to try to get all the test questions correct, to try not to spell anything wrong, etc. — and if we do make these mistakes, they can have pretty negative consequences. And the perfectionism that results from this does have its benefits, but it can also drive you crazy. So yeah, I agree that finding a way to accept mistakes is an important part of adult development. But it’s still tough.

      You’re probably right about my committee…but I can’t help being nervous. I had a dream the other night where I showed up to the defense totally unprepared, with no powerpoint, and tried to explain my project off the cuff, flipping through my manuscript for reference. Yikes! :O

    1. Thanks, Vic. 🙂 I’m glad to hear that other people can relate to this — it’s definitely easy enough to make a mistake, even if you spent a lot of time on something and it is 99% perfect. Indeed, all is not lost!

  5. Love the poem! And while I didn’t do a dissertation, I felt a similar anxiety toward my Masters thesis. Actually, at my defense, one of my “judges” said a lot of it needed to be edited to sound less like a blog post. I thought, “hmmm. Maybe I should be writing blog posts instead of this stuffy stuff.” Good luck at your defense! And thanks for the thoughts on decision anxiety. I hate that pit-of-your stomach feeling in the middle of the night!

    1. Thanks, Maggie. 🙂 That’s such a funny story about your master’s thesis — I’m curious to know if you were already blogging at that point or if you started later. I’d say their comment that it sounded like a blog post was kind of a nice (inadvertent) compliment, since you and I both know that blog writing is awesome! 🙂

      1. Oh my gosh, can I just chime in that my least favourite part of academia was the stiff, formal writing tone that’s mandated to sound like a Real Intellectual? I just hated it so much, but I can basically sit down and write in that style on command, just because of the sheer volume of practice we got.

        One of my career goals – I kid you not, I actually wrote this down – was to work in a role that let me write like a human, not like a business / academic robot. So I have to agree with Sarah that it’s a compliment, even if an inadvertent one! If anything, they were probably just jealous that writing that “sounds like a blog post” is what gets academic findings actually read (basically, ever creative non-fiction book that includes psychology and social science findings, ever.)

        1. I hadn’t yet started this blog, but I did leave my defense going, “yup, I gotta get outta academia.” Turns out blogging is fun and so is researching. It works for me. I just send all the research to the writing team and they get to write the stuffy stuff and I can have a grand ole’ time on the blog! 🙂

        2. I definitely have mixed feelings about the whole academic writing thing. I have to admit that being required to write a lot of scientific papers for work has made me a better writer in some respects…but on the other hand, academic writing has such a narrow purpose and audience, and, as Des noted, it can be stiff and formal. I guess that’s why Malcolm Gladwell’s books explaining research in an entertaining and accessible way sell a lot more copies than most books or articles by actual researchers.

  6. Absolutely beautiful – take courage (this actually reminds me of one of my favorite lines in Cinderella: “Have courage and be kind.” :)). I can also relate to anxiety – and a lot stemmed from life throwing me one of it’s biggest curve balls. On one hand it allowed my perceptions to switch and leave me at ease – on the other, I started questioning constantly what could come next when I felt hopeless. Your poem truly resonates with me, so thank you for sharing it! Even the most challenging times prove to provide us the most strength. Whenever I feel the most anxiety, I remind myself that I have gotten through bigger situations before and everything has been fine – all is not lost as you mentioned above. Oftentimes, I resort back to reading all the journals I have kept that provide themes of gratitude, goals, and the like. This allows me to see all I have gained, overcome, and who was there with me along the way.

    1. Thanks, Alyssa. 🙂 I’m happy that you like the poem. Yes, I agree that when we’re experiencing something challenging, there’s an opportunity for strength as well as for anxiety, and I do think that we have some degree of control as to how we approach these situations. I definitely tend in the direction of anxiety, but there are ways to shift that response into something more positive and more empowering.
      I should see that Cinderella movie — you mean the recent one, right, with that actress from Downton Abbey? I remember seeing a preview and thinking it looked good. 🙂

  7. Ugh, I’ve definitely had that wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-in-a-panic situations about some body of work I’ve submitted that I think has an error. My best advice is to check it as soon as you get up, fix the error and send it along to the appropriate people as soon as possible. It’s probably not even a big deal, but you’ll feel so much better knowing it’s dealt with.

    I think a lot of that anxiety comes from holding yourself (myself) to a higher than reasonable standard and not being accepting of yourself as a human being who is occasionally going to make errors. It’s a self-love thing, and I definitely have an issue with that too!

    Don’t beat yourself up too much, I’m sure it’ll be fine.

    1. Thanks, Jordann, I think that’s a really good point that anxiety often comes from perfectionism, or from some kind of higher standard that we’re holding ourselves to. I feel like I’m much more forgiving of other people’s mistakes than I am of my own. Funny how that works…
      And yes, I think the only way to deal with mistakes are…to deal with them. Sigh. Definitely not fun, but it’s really the only sane option. 🙂

  8. Going into my senior year of undergrad, I was fully planning to do further schooling, and to stay in academia. But the anxiety I felt writing my senior thesis was so extreme (I had a three-month migraine, actually), that I realized academia was not for me. And this was a piddly little undergrad thesis, on literature! No data or stats or analysis or tables or anything like that. Not that aiming for a different career path spared me from that level of anxiety, but it’s different. Things are rarely “final.” And mostly now I get the paralysis which looks a lot like procrastination, which is one of the reasons I’m so excited to begin my Act 2 — so that if something is jeopardizing my sanity or health temporarily, I can leave it alone for a while until it’s not so stressful and focus on things that bring joy. Also, thank you for sharing your poem! I love it — like a mix of Poe and a limerick and something nontraditional, in the very best way. 🙂

    1. Wow, that’s so interesting about your experience with your thesis in undergrad. Honestly, I have considered quitting academia many times for precisely this sort of reason. The thing with the dissertation last week, which is continuing to evolve, was one of the worst iterations of this that I’ve had, but it’s by no means the first. If I knew of a career path that I could realistically switch to that didn’t involve this type of anxiety, I would probably be pursuing it.
      Glad you liked the poem! 🙂

  9. First of all, it’s an incredible accomplishment to complete a dissertation in an of itself. Few people do it while building a blog. You have done both. While neither may be perfect in your eyes, onlookers may often feel differently about your work. Keep that in mind.

    All too often, we are our own worst critic. At the end of the day, what you have created – both here and there – becomes your body of work. You should be proud of that.

    Enjoyed the post (and the poem)!!

    1. Thanks, Laura Beth. 🙂 I actually defended the dissertation yesterday — I can’t believe it’s over. I’m not sure what possessed me to start a blog while I was in the final stages of that project, but it ended up really being a great way for me to take sanity breaks from the research and do something totally different. And you’re right — we are definitely our own worst critic. That’s something I should try to keep more in the forefront of my mind. 🙂

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