Despite my felt sense that the world is slowly recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, the hangover effects are seemingly incalculable. One interesting phenomenon of note, is how the emerging adults I see seem to be overly optimizing to quell their anxiety.
The generational makeup of most of my clients is “Gen Z”, those born between 1995 and 2010. This generation has been subject to a great deal of destabilization in their lives, which is only compounded by the hyper competitive and comparative landscapes of today’s social media platforms. In general, these clients are struggling to cultivate what I have termed as, “anchors” in their lives. For many, anchors like building a sense of purpose, finding meaning in one’s life, knowing what one stands for, or aiming at a direction to move towards are all difficult. Without these anchors, the weight of just living life itself is deeply unsettling and anxiety provoking to many. Visions that they, or their parents, once held for their futures have been forced to be re-evaluated due to the pandemic too. The once believed, “sure things”, like college, work, safety, health, and a decent social life are all no longer being taken for granted.
So how does one psychologically handle life when the path forward is so unclear, the future is so uncertain, and what was once believed to be true, is no longer?
Well, from what I can see from my clients, it’s a bit like being down by ten runs in the 8th inning of a baseball game. The only chance you have to win the game is to hit home runs, right? So what do you do? You really, really have to dial in your focus, assess for each pitch, make sure it’s perfect, and only swing when you know it will leave the park. You have to make it back into the game, and you have to make it back quickly, otherwise you lose.
That's the overly optimized metaphorical strategy that most of my client’s take and it is not helpful.
When they overly optimize, they never swing the bat, they never make a move, they become hesitant, overly evaluative and hypervigilant. They look for the perfect pitch, and the perfect pitch never quite comes around. If the job qualifications don’t perfectly match their prior work experience, it’s not worth applying. If the college courses aren’t immediately interesting, perhaps it’s time to transfer. They say things like, “If I don’t know what I want to do for work, why even apply?”
So I advise that my clients take a different approach, because going nowhere isn’t getting them anywhere. How about we work backwards from an idea of perfection.
One visualization exercise that I use to generate this idea is to have my clients think about how they want the end of their life to feel. Life will always be uncertain. And yes, that’s a challenging burden to bear for all of us, some more than others, and at times, a heavier burden than at other times too. But I ask them to imagine reflecting back on their life towards the end of their life. I pose questions like, “What does having a good life look like?”, “What did you care about?”, “What did you enjoy?”, “Did you live your life the way you wanted to?”, “How come?”, “What did you do?”, and “What didn’t you do?”. By thinking in this way, the attention turns to an internal sense of self versus an external concern for what was, or what wasn’t, happening. Objectively, we have little to no control over the external circumstances of our lives. If the pandemic taught us nothing else, it certainly brought that truth to the forefront. Working with my clients to work backwards from what it means to them to have lived an ideal life gives them some anchors to direct action this month, this day, or this hour.
General Stanley McChrystal talks about changing decision making to aim at a moment where risk is tolerable. In his interview on The Knowledge Project, McChrystal asserts that, “certainty is an impossible goal.” One can never get all the information, and one can never bring the risk factor down to zero. The destabilizing factors that have plagued my clientele's lives are concerning, and are enough to make anyone uncertain about the future. But certainty isn’t happening anytime soon, so I advise that my clients start metaphorically swinging for singles rather than for homeruns. Get on base, at least they’ll feel like they are playing the game. At least they’ll be moving in a direction forward, hopefully with an end in mind.
Onwards and upwards!