A few months ago, on a Monday night while in bed finishing my pint of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey, I had a panic attack. I could feel all the confused thoughts in my brain cutting across each other like the Tokyo subway map. My heart started pounding very quickly; I was shaking; cold flashes invaded my body.
I have always thought about New York City as an intimidating teacher with perfectly shined shoes who only teaches the cream of the crop. I am the student who wants to be good enough to be in her class.
So I work hard, all the time.
This panic attack was both inevitable and also predictable. I was breathlessly working without taking the time to deal with the issues I'd been subconsciously ignoring.
Socrates wrote that an "unexamined life is not worth living." I hadn't been listening to his advice.
For a while, I had been feeling particularly anxious about the future of my career. Anything that reminded me of my professional trajectory (or lack thereof) would give me a knot in my stomach. So my natural reaction was to frantically start thinking of something else. But changing the subject, whether in internal discussions or interpersonal ones, doesn't resolve much.
The day after my panic attack, during my commute home on the 4 train, I decided that it was time to face my fears. My panic attack was the turning point and I had to do something, anything, so it wouldn't happen again. I sought to define and dissect my problem.
A venture capitalist once told me that individuals create the most successful startup companies before the age of 26. I am in the second half of my twenties. If I want to do something crazy, I have just a few years left or it's already too late.
I could have prayed for my career, scheduled a psychic reading or just continue to aimlessly speculate. But none of those options seemed to offer anything close to an answer to my all-important question: would I be as successful as I wanted or envisioned myself to be?
The question was too big to deal with.
So instead, I began asking what specific and small actions I could take immediately to ensure success. Once I considered the large, unmanageable question as a network of interconnected, smaller questions that taken individually were very manageable, concrete answers began to materialize. I thought about getting more books about my field, attending more workshops, going to more conferences, scheduling more coffee meetings with professionals, and so on. By the time my train reached my stop, I had a list of specific, small steps I could commit to. Thinking small reduced my uncertainties!
The best part? Successful execution depended entirely on me. I've discovered over the years that a big part of success depends on external factors like timing and luck and honestly, that's not very reassuring. But in this case, it was all up to me. By developing an appetite for more knowledge, I would also increase my net worth as a current and future employee. There was a causal link between my present actions and success on my goals.
Asking the right questions, in the right frame of mind, is just as important as asking questions at all. Throughout this process, because it is indeed a process, stay positive and give yourself time.
I already know what you're thinking: how do you find time to think when your phone calendar reminds you every hour that the next meeting will be starting in 10 minutes? When you never have time to go to that new yoga center in Soho that everybody is talking about? When you hardly walk your dog let alone have time to wash your greasy hair? Then, when are you supposed to schedule that important meeting with yourself?
Do it in the subway.
There is something special about being in a train -- the underground lights rapidly moving through darkness, the coffee smell, the moving flow of the wagons that brings you back to your grandmother's backyard rocking chair -- that makes me more meditative. It is also the only moment when you are not obliged to do anything and when you will not be interrupted. Make the most of the fact that your Internet connection is not working and just let your deepest thoughts shock, delight, inspire, astonish and impress you.
As soon as you realize that you are not involved in any activity but being in the moment, your mind will start calming down and that is when your thought symphonies can start. Mine can be melodic, dramatic, silly, heavy and emotional, and I am really starting to enjoy them.
Maybe I won't succeed in convincing you to think more, but the fact that you have read this far suggests I can't fail completely.