By Mandy X. Hu

During your PhD – and life – there are an infinite number of choices to make. These choices could vary from ‘Should I talk to my supervisors about this?’ to ‘What are the best next steps for my career?’ or even ‘Should I quit my PhD?’. Very valid questions and it’s perfectly fine to take your time to explore the options. However, what I often see when coaching PhD candidates, is that choices are chaperoned by stress and insecurities to the point that they become paralyzing. When does choice-making become a problem? In my experience, it’s when they are veiled by the following highly believed myths.

Myth 1: a single road

What do you see when you envision your life and career path? Do you imagine a straight and clear road that leads to white, sandy beaches and golden sunsets? Are you carefully planning your itinerary and terrified of getting lost or detoured? Perhaps you’re stuck with your plan or you’re dawdling endlessly at the crossroads. When we think that life is a single one-way road, we put a lot of pressure on the choices we make. Here I would like to unveil the first myth: there is no straight and clear road. Instead there are many junctions, roundabouts, winding paths, sand trails, tunnels, bridges… I could continue, but you get where I’m going ;). There are many roads leading to the same destination, a great number of other destinations, or even back to the point where you came from. It’s impossible to know exactly which road leads to where. Even if you think you know the way, you may find that particular road blocked and inaccessible. And taking one road doesn’t mean that previous or other roads are forever closed. So use your itinerary as a guideline, but remember to appreciate the beauty and mystery of the journey.

Myth 2: the right destination

Okay, perhaps you can accept not always knowing the way and sometimes getting lost. But what if the destination you’re heading towards is just wrong? You should at least avoid that, right? It’s part of human nature to think in black and white. It makes the world a simpler place if we can stick an unambiguous label on it: this is right and this is wrong. From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense. Back in the time of hunters and gatherers we had to make harsh calls to survive. We couldn’t afford to stumble upon an angry-looking different group or species and be like: ‘Well, they are probably not that bad if we get to know them’. Rather, the brain goes: ‘Different and angry-looking = bad = we should bash their heads in’. Making choices in modern society is often treated the same way: a choice leads to something right or wrong, good or bad, happiness or misery. No wonder we find it difficult to take the plunge: we are terrified to make the ‘wrong’ choice leading to a destination of endless misery and regret. I’ll let our wise friend Shakespeare unveil the second myth: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Thus, the world is not absolute. Similarly, it’s not quantifiable. One choice is not measurably or objectively better than another. It’s a matter of experimenting with the wide palette of colors to discover what we like and who we are. So what if we take it easy with the black and white and start painting our lives with raging red, peaceful purple, mellow yellow, and omnivarious shades and hues? What a splendid image would unfold.

The truth is here

If a single road to the right destination is a myth, how then, do we set out to become happy? I learned the hard way that happiness isn’t ‘out there’. When the grand plan I set out to achieve in life failed (read: being jobless, lonely, and depressed), I realized how little control I had over life. Our choices rarely lead to the destination we have in mind, and the destination never satisfies us the way we think it will. Deep down you know it’s true. Did finishing your Master’s, getting this PhD, or reaching some other goal you set for yourself make you truly and still happy? Perhaps briefly, but now you’re chasing after the next thing, right? Finishing your PhD or getting that fabulous job? If you believe that happiness is down the road, you will forever chase it and never have it. Instead, what if you choose to arrive here? Seriously, take a deep breath right now and experience all the honest sensations, human emotions, and humming aliveness of this very moment. That’s the truth. This is happiness.

‘In this choiceless never-ending flow of life, there is an infinite array of choices. One alone brings happiness: to love what is.’ – Dorothy Hunt

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