What is Your 2021: Languishing or YOLO?

Photo by Daniel Gonzalez on Unsplash

Photo by Daniel Gonzalez on Unsplash

This past year has been taxing (understatement alert!). And although the light at the end of the Covid tunnel is starting to glimmer, it might not be enough to complete the shift to feeling better. 

In a survey from the American Psychological Association, 84% of adults report feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress, with anxiety, sadness, and anger being the most common. And as the world is opening up, 50% of people are feeling anxious about in-person interactions once things return to “normal.” That number was higher for people of color. 

This has created a couple of different trending responses that are vastly different. 

Are you Languishing or YOLOing?

Are you feeling blah on a regular basis; having a sense of stagnation and emptiness? It’s not quite burnout as you still have energy. And it’s not depression: you don’t feel hopeless. You’re just feeling somewhat joyless and aimless, as if “you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” This is called languishing. Adam Grant wrote about it here. Languishing may cause you to procrastinate, lack focus, and feel a bit numb. 

This is interesting because there is also a trend of YOLO (You Only Live Once) going on at the same time, which is a movement of people quitting their jobs for something better or different or to pursue a passion project. This YOLO-ing is about taking action, being excited by possibilities, and being focused to make them happen.

These are two dramatically different responses to this year of overwhelming stress. Much like how one person may have an automatic reaction to fight in a stressful situation, while another person freezes and yet another person may run. 

What’s your response to stress?

Are you someone that decides to try something new and unknown to see if it’s a better situation?

Or do you feel it’s better to stay in your current situation, even if you’re not happy?

It makes me wonder about what’s behind someone taking the YOLO leap versus languishing in place. And I wonder where I am in all of this. 

Thankfully I don’t have the urge to quit my job. But I admit, I do dream of buying a van to cruise the country and disappearing into the mountains for a few weeks. And it brings me back to another time in my life when I faced a similar crossroads. I had my own YOLO moment back in 2014. I was miserable but felt it was the responsible thing to stay the course, meaning stay in my then-current career and city where I had a strong network of colleagues and friends. I constructed a lot of guardrails to keep me in my lane. Guardrails are the stories you tell yourself about why you can’t make a YOLO move.

I had a job offer in New York City where I didn’t know anyone, and everything felt uneasy. There were LOTS of unknowns and it was terrifying to think about moving across the country. I anguished over this decision. But I knew deep down, something was drawing me to a new city, a new job, a new life, an opportunity to try things differently. But it felt so risky. It felt like the right thing to do was to stick with what I knew. Thankfully I had a very good friend that pointed out the guardrails I constructed, and she quickly dismantled them in a way I couldn’t argue with. 

In hindsight, I had little to lose and lots to gain (hindsight usually provides clarity like that). But at the time, it didn’t feel that way. It felt so hard, the guardrails felt so real, and now I know why. 

Unconscious Guardrails

We construct guardrails or stories unconsciously. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, describes the different systems of our brain, specifically the unconscious emotional and instinctive part (System 1) versus the deliberative and cautious part (System 2). If these different parts work together appropriately the brain can make some logical conclusions. But, generally speaking, you don’t use both parts together very well and therefore you make some pretty lousy instinctive conclusions that only feel right (good) because we believe ourselves to be logical people (when your brain is deceptively illogical). 

The brain has a desire to stick with what it knows, regardless of if what it knows serves you best or not. The unconscious brain likes familiarity. It sees familiarity as safe and when that part of the brain feels safe, there is ease and comfort. Again, even if the familiar situation is uncomfortable, your fear of the unknown convinces you it’s better to stick with the familiar.

This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s the brain’s way of saving energy by not making logical decisions about already familiar situations. If you had to make a logical decision about everything, meaning going through the process of analyzing each step instead of going with your intuition, you’d be exhausted. Thankfully you can breathe, walk, drink, survive without needing to think about it.  

The key part to remember is to not necessarily trust how you feel initially about an important or meaningful decision. Instead have a process of digging deeper and using a firm set of analytical tools; Ray Dalio would call them decision principles and perspectives.

What this means is you’re creating unconscious guardrails about why you can’t do something without going through a logical process. It doesn’t “feel” right so you don’t go any further. And if it’s new (not familiar) it won’t feel right. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t right.

What guardrails have you created that don’t serve you if you want to live your best life?

One of the most common challenges I hear from clients about living their best life is figuring out what they want. It starts with first acknowledging the guardrails (barriers) you’ve constructed. Often the guardrails are so tall, it’s not possible to see past them to what you want. In this case, the guardrails are acting more like a tall retainer wall. 

The next step is figuring out what’s a real guardrail (out of your control) and what’s not real, meaning you constructed it (in your control).

What is in your control that you’ve convinced yourself isn’t in your control?

What’s out of your control that you’re spending a lot of time trying to control?

These aren’t easy to answer initially, you may need a new perspective, talk to someone you trust, and is good at seeing different points of view to help you with this. 

You can also expand your own perspectives by doing something new or out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be super scary; you can start with a baby step and build on it. Anything creative, different, or new helps develop your ability to see new perspectives. 

And know you don’t have to find the answer to what’s next right away. But you can start today by acknowledging the guardrails you’ve created and start moving out of your lane, maybe creating a new path.

Don’t expect the answer to zap you. It will be very subtle, so listen to the quiet voice inside. For me it was that little voice that kept bringing me back to the question, “should I move?” Something was drawing me to it, not letting me say no and move on. That lingering helped me discover what I really wanted, I was just scared to make the decision. This is where reflection and slowing down is super helpful. 

Are you languishing and want to start YOLO-ing, but feel you’re in a rut? Do you need a partner to help you identify the guardrails that don’t serve you? If so, I’m here for you.