Zachary Tatlock / Anxiety, Carts, Horses

At some point or other, many students thrash under anxiety. They are miserable and cannot make good progress, which makes them more miserable and leads to less progress. It is a real bummer.

From experience, such “anxiety traps” generally fall into one of two categories:

Will this project ever be done? Will it even work?

No. At least not in the way we hope, and that is OK.

Occasionally someone will want an upfront guarantee that a project idea will definitely succeed. Anyone who promises guaranteed success is either pitching unambitious ideas or lying.

More often, doubt and worry cause trouble after the initial excitement about a project has given way to the endless challenges of proof engineering and system building. Solving big problems is difficult and can gradually exhaust our energy.

Ambitious projects just come with tremendous uncertainty and require a staggering amount of effort. This means the team will continually be working through setbacks, grinding through engineering tasks, and adjusting goals in ways that make our earlier efforts “useless”. Of course, none of the early work is actually useless. We often couldn’t have figured out the best approach without first observing what went wrong with the alternatives!

We mitigate risk by following Lex Lyubomiricus, building the simplest thing first, and striving to fail fast. However, even after investing significant time and energy, failure is always an option. If a project does fail, we will take some time to reflect and recharge, remind ourselves that mistakes are the only way we learn, write up the lessons learned as a technical report or blog post, and then start on the next project armed with valuable, hard-won experience.

Truth is, we have a very low failure rate. While every project “fails” in the sense that we significantly modify the initial vision and goals, we almost always eventually pivot into success by persistently following the problem and learning along the way. So have faith and keep pushing. We will get there!

Am I “good enough”?

Yes. You are more than good enough.

Avoid the terrible trap of comparing yourself to others. It is always toxic and counterproductive. You and everyone else have different strengths and challenges.

Long-term success is built on diligence and persistence. Once you develop a good, healthy routine, you can be diligent and persistent by showing up to the lab or classroom every day and putting in good, mindful effort. So you are good enough.

Good work often follows from unconditionally assuming a confident, optimistic attitude. This assumption may feel backward: shouldn’t we only get to feel confident after delivering successful results? No.

First, you are good and should feel good, period. Second, confidence is more responsible for causing success than the other way around.

If you need help rationalizing unconditional confidence, game it out: even if you were not “good enough” (though you are!), assuming you belong and can deliver great results will be more fun and significantly increase the chance of success, so go for it!

The common element to both these strategies: assume you will succeed, even before you do.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. Paying attention to your thoughts and feelings often helps. Notice how anxiety can become a habit. Establish routines to pull yourself out of the vicious cycle. For example:

  1. Take a deep breath and begin again.
  2. Remember, we can only do one small thing at a time.
  3. Pick one small thing and chip away at it.
  4. Don’t worry about anything else for now.
  5. If worrying starts to bog you down, goto 1.

If you feel real stuck, take a break to nap, exercise, cook, etc. Or message me to chat and grab a beverage. Most situations will seem less dire after stepping away for a bit. Over time, things get easier because you will increasingly be able to redirect energy away from worrying and toward what you love.

Some may dismiss the perspectives above, noting the influence of survivorship bias, etc. They may even be partly correct: the world is indeed enormously random and monstrously unfair. However, such macro observations are not very helpful for an individual.

Truth is, you can’t win if you don’t play. Folks who discourage you from even trying are not your friends. You have an invitation to the big leagues, so play your heart out. I am rooting for you.