Dear 23-year old Jesse,
One of the benefits of being future you is that I know exactly what you’re thinking right now.
So to clear a few things up—no, the Knicks won’t win this year, and yes, it is time to get a haircut. Instead of fumbling and deferring to the barber when they ask what you want, say you want a two on the sides and to keep it long on top. It really is that easy. You’re welcome.
Look, let’s get down to the real purpose of this letter: we both know you’re struggling.
Right now you exist in an extended fear-state. You have deep-seated assumptions about yourself, how that contrasts with who you should be, and frequently mourn that gap with leftover pizza with third-rate TV. Your frustration frequently leads to shame, withdrawal, and isolation, as if being invisible and sequestered on an island of self-loathing and instant gratification is the only viable solution you have left.
Of course, this isn’t true. The feelings are valid, in that they are being felt and experienced, but they’re not objectively true. Not even close.
The thing you don’t yet understand on an intuitive, emotional level, is that your strongest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose, does not come from asserting your individuality and so-called ‘specialness’. It does not come from writing a masterpiece or any external accomplishment. You’ll spend the next few years trying to prove this wrong—and end up eating a lot of pizza and watching a lot of Shark Tank as you try to achieve your way out of feeling inadequate—only to end up feeling worse than you’ve ever felt in your life.
Because if you’re actually able to step back for a second, outside of the vortex of fear that controls so much of your behavior—you’ll realize you’re not truly looking for achievement, you’re looking for validation. Much of your frustration right now is based on the assumption that you can’t feel good about yourself until you’ve achieved a laundry list of accolades and recognition, so you’re constantly looking to prove your worthiness to both yourself and the world, like a dog sniffing at dinnertime for proof that you matter.
In other words, you’re terrified that you’re objectively worthless and think you can use achievement and recognition as a plug to stop the bleeding and doubt. But this achievement-for-well-being strategy doesn’t work. It’s a black hole. I know it’s tantalizing, because the story in your head insists you’re almost there: on the cusp of achievement, recognition, and everything turning around.
But that’s wrong. Worth can’t be measured in achievement, worth is inherent. You’re human—this is and will always be enough. The more you try and fill your internal void with achievement, the bigger the void gets—you’ll either never achieve what you’re seeking and hate yourself for it, or you will achieve your target and realize, after an initial bout of high-fives and euphoria, that even that won’t make you happy forever.
Look, before you end up feeling bad about yourself, it’s important to understand that much of this behavior actually stems from pain. You’ll learn in therapy that your reflexive response to overwhelming feelings of inadequacy has been to try and overcompensate with creative work, to set your target on writing that masterpiece and leaving a trail of genius so that you can point to a list of proven talent as evidence that you belong, that you matter, that you’re worth something. So that no one will ever doubt you. So that you will never doubt you. So that no one can ever hurt you again.
The truth is that right now much of your moment-to-moment experience is largely self-centered. It’s not a malignant self-centeredness, stemming from any form of malice or perceived superiority—it’s more a fear-driven self-centeredness, the kind that keeps you so focused on keeping the house from collapsing that you forget about the neighbors on both sides. Your pain and fear has drawn you further and further inward, and you’re scrambling to correct the deficiencies you think brought on that pain in the first place. But here’s the thing: the abuse you endured wasn’t warranted, and the deficiencies you’re scrambling to fix don’t actually exist.
I can see you now, recoiling as you read this, writing me off as Deepak Chopra-lite or some minimizing name so you can ignore the value of what I’m telling you and not have to consider for one second that it might be true. But trust me, I know exactly what you need to hear.
ARE YOU ALONE IN YOUR SUFFERING?
Maybe the most frustrating aspect of all of this is that you don’t know how much of your suffering can be attributed to your own inadequacy, or if other people actually go through something similar. Is this just you, or is this just what it means to be human? And do other people feel the same frustrations, confusion, and hopelessness?
Part of you might want to tear up this letter and scream from the rooftops that no one can ever understand what you’re going through, that you’re the only person whose ever experienced your unique brand of struggle. While that conviction might seem validating, even considering it is hurting you. Here’s why:
When it comes to internal experience, you are your only reference point. Yours is the only consciousness you’ve ever experienced, but it’s only a tiny filter of reality. While this sounds obvious, it needs to be pointed out, because like any human being encased in a 1×1 bag of bone—the self-centered nature of your consciousness leaves you with a lot of blind spots into the nature of what’s real and true.
Yes, you obviously know, more than anyone, the experience of being in your mind—the wallpaper, the decorations, the dungeons, the visitors, the storms, the daybreak, the frightened inner child that seems hopelessly gullible to the same cast of overwhelming emotions.
You have the data, you know the scars those traumas left. You know the rhythm of your mind, the restless thumping it summons in silence; its weekly tendency to lose all hope, gain it back, question why you ever lost hope in the first place, and then completely lose it all again.
So in a sense, yes, you are alone. You will always be the only person on Earth experiencing consciousness through the lens of your body, experiencing thoughts and emotions at its source as they arise, simmer, thrash, and settle.
But thankfully, that’s not the whole story. You’re alone in your body, but not in the world.
WHAT IS MOST PERSONAL IS MOST UNIVERSAL
For years you’ve been trying to answer the question How do I feel whole? with larger-than-life achievement, desperately hoping that external accomplishments and recognition would be The Answer.
But you’ve actually been trying to answer the wrong question.
Instead of trying to figure out how to make yourself whole, you’ll soon realize that your deepest sense of meaning, fulfillment, and purpose comes from answering another question entirely: How do I feel connected to others?
You can literally trade in some of your self-investment in exchange for connection, and this will be infinitely more fulfilling for everyone involved. Humans aren’t meant to be alone, they’re supposed to be part of a tribe. This is literally how you’re hardwired.
You might retort that you’re meant to be alone, but here’s something that might make you reconsider: I guarantee you that others think and feel and struggle in some of the exact same ways as you.
How do I know? Because over the next few years you’ll actually become more comfortable connecting with others, being vulnerable and sharing the exact fears and struggles that you wanted to keep hidden in the broom closet for so long, and these experiences will emphatically underscore that so much of what you considered a private burden much more closely resembles what it means to be human instead of what you assumed was your own tragic set of problems.
You’ll eventually experience that sensation hundreds of times, thanks to the company of some amazing people, and most of those moments will underline this quote from Carl Rogers: “What is most personal is most universal.”
As arbitrary as everything in life ultimately is, thankfully you do exist in a physical world that allows you to connect with others, in spite of the absurdity of everything, in spite of being called into creation against your will, in spite of your tirades of confusion and hopelessness, in spite of the likelihood that any of this would ever happen.
Over one hundred billion people have been here, and many of them have felt exactly how you feel and thought exactly how you think. They’ve struggled, they’ve panicked, jumped in joy, been anxious, and cried. They’ve felt alone, connected, worried, over the moon, and everything in-between. And while we all have our private windows of internal experience, we’re all looking out onto the same field.
Your life will slowly start to expand once you internalize that there’s more to life than personal achievement and feeling whole on an individual level. You’ll start to see yourself as less of a tragedy and more as a member of a tribe, connected in time and space to everyone who has ever been here, smiled, mourned, leaped in joy, panicked, and suffered. You’ll start to hear these commonalities in songs, see them in paintings. Instead of warding yourself off from the world, you’ll start to feel like a part of it.
Right now you’re so uncomfortable with yourself and your story and your life and your past and your future, and that preoccupation has blinded you from the fact that one of the most beautiful things in life are meaningful relationships with other people, not outperforming or hiding from them.
Before I forget: the parts of you that you think are wrong, are bad, that make you different from anybody else… those are some of the strongest indicators of your humanity. They’re also some of the most powerful bridges to connection.
It’ll take you a while to understand this, but your target should be connecting with others—not achievement, becoming superhuman, or finally feeling good about yourself. Connection isn’t be a magic pill or the end to all your problems, but it is the foundation of your most fulfilling life. What you’ve tried so far hasn’t worked, so you’ve got nothing to lose by shifting gears.
You’re not as alone as you think. If you can stop letting your pain draw you further and further inward, I promise that great things—and people—are waiting.
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