Live Through This

The Great Unknown

How to deal with doubt.

Illustration by Leeay

Illustration by Leeay

I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions in my life, and I’ve had to live with a fair amount of doubt about them as a result. I can’t even imagine what life must be like for people who are not constantly filled with uncertainty or anxiety about the choices they’ve made or are about to make. How is that possible? I wonder. How do they go through the day without wondering whether they should have gotten the coat in black instead of turquoise, or if they should have signed up for that French class instead of taking another study period? And I know I’m not alone. We get a lot of Just Wondering questions about this very topic: Is it normal to not have any idea what I want to do in life? How do I develop interests and passions? What if I do this and it messes up my entire LIFE? Doubting Rookie readers: I hear you!

Of course, other people—like friends and especially family—love to give us their unsolicited opinions on these matters, often pressuring us to do one thing or another. When I dropped out of college after a year and moved across the country, my family completely freaked out: What was I planning to do for money? Where was I even going to live? I had no idea. It was an adventure, I told them. I would be fine! And I was—eventually—but there were just as many scary, am-I-going-to-be-able-to-afford-food parts as there were awesome fun parts, and I found myself wondering if I made the right decision a lot.

But doubt can be a good thing. It means you’re thinking seriously about what you want, and thinking about it is one of the first steps toward figuring it out. Also, it’s totally normal to try and avoid regret. Sometimes you need to consider how things might shake out in order to decide whether or not you can live with every possible outcome. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re agonizing over your list of pros and cons, worrying about worst-case scenarios, or just generally confused about what to do.

There is no such thing as the right decision.

When you’re trying to make up your mind, one thing that can totally paralyze you is this idea that there is a foolproof choice—a clear-cut path to happiness—and that if you choose wrong you’ll end up miserable, and possibly living in your car and eating beans out of a can. In reality, every decision you make can (and probably will) have some positive and negative consequences: you picked a great college, but your awful roommate made your first year hell. You took the job you always wanted, but you are getting paid a lot less than you asked for. The objectively right decision is a myth. You can only consider what’s best for you right now. And decisions are what you make of them. Did you quit the school soccer team because you wanted more free time and now you’re bored? See if there’s a local league, or use the time to try something totally new, like volunteering or taking acting classes.

You do not need permission to live the life you want to live.

A lot of you probably want to make your parents happy, and that’s great, because they surely want to do the same for you. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to please everyone. I don’t want to be a downer here, but it’s your life, and your parents aren’t going to be around forever—I know, I’m sorry, but sometimes you need to think about that and ask yourself: do you want to become a 50-year-old doctor who wonders what her life could have been like if she had pursued marine biology or mixed-media art?

We hear from readers all the time who are worried about what to do after graduating from high school or college. Most of the time, your parents encourage you to take a pragmatic route because they want you to have some security, and they also want to know how much longer they have to pay your phone bill, put gas in your car, and give you money to go to the movies (your parents are so nice, go hug them). A lot our decisions come down to risk versus reward: stay in school and get on the career track as soon as possible, or take two years off to be educated by the School of Life. Either option can end up working out or leaving you feeling like you made a huge mistake, and that’s scary enough as it is—the last thing you need is someone else’s vision of what’s right for you complicating the matter even more.

It’s never too late to change (your mind or anything else).

Remember this! This is what us doubters always have to fall back on! Uncertainty often stems from the belief that you can do something that so catastrophically messes up your life that you will never recover from it. Even if things do take a turn for the worse, life is full of second acts! People reinvent themselves all the time. Remember when Martha Stewart WENT TO JAIL for insider trading?! Yeah, I barely do either, because now she’s back and stronger than ever. Regret doesn’t have to be a major factor if you don’t wallow in it, and a bad decision only feels permanent if you let it. Chalk up your mistakes to life lessons, and transfer schools, move cities, change majors, start over, whatever.

Just because things don’t work out the way you thought doesn’t mean you’ve made a mistake.

If you haven’t checked out the MAKERS website yet, get ready to find a ton of inspirational women telling you about their own struggle to figure out life (including our own fearless leader). Miranda July is a perfect example of someone who knew what she wanted to do when she was 16, dropped out of college, kept making art, and eventually found a way to make great movies, books, and all kinds of art. Pay close attention to the part where she says she submitted to the Sundance lab THREE TIMES before they let her in. And sure, Miranda July is someone who found success in a very visible way, but the takeaway here is that she never stopped making art. Some people might define success by the number of degrees they have or the size of their bank account, but a lot of us feel like we’re successful when we do things that make us happy. Beverly Guy-Sheftall didn’t know that she was going to revolutionize women’s studies by teaching African American women at Spelman in the 1960s, when the canon was largely white and male—she just did something she felt was necessary. If you feel like you want to do something that other people tell you is useless, keep in mind that what is useless to them might be highly valuable to YOU. And if your screenplay or your band doesn’t “pay off” right away, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a try, or that it isn’t fun (a big payoff), or that it isn’t worth it to keep on trying. The worst that can happen is that you eventually decide to do something else, and at least then you are free to do so without wondering what might’ve been.

You might not ever really know what you want to do, and that is perfectly fine.

Sometimes not knowing what to do is a matter of not knowing what you want to do. But you know what? It’s OK. You don’t have to have a passion for any one thing, or be working on a spectacular project every minute of the day. Plenty of people go through their whole lives not knowing what they want to do, or they figure it out much later. (Julia Child didn’t get her cooking career started until she was almost 50.) On the flipside, I knew for a fact that I wanted to be a fashion designer in middle school, and I followed that dream all the way to college despite the fact that many people thought it was impractical, because I loved it! Then I went to school to study fashion—and it turned out I didn’t actually love it. I just wanted to make clothes for myself. And now I’m a writer, and everything worked out OK. You learn as you go along, and even people who appear to have it all figured out often don’t. You’re still young, your interests can change, and you may never be the type of person whose passion dovetails with a career, which is why we have hobbies.

There are people you can talk to about all of this.

Doubt can lead to anxiety, and anxiety can cause you to suffer from paralyzing indecision—it’s a vicious cycle. If thinking about this stuff makes you physically sick or want to hide in your bed forever, it’s probably time to bring in a pro. I have sought out therapists and doctors a lot in life, most recently when some major life decisions were keeping me awake at night. My doctor said that it’s totally normal, but she wanted to do a physical anyway, and the tests showed several non-serious things that might have been contributing to my emotional state. Your brain is part of your body (duh), so if you feel like something is off, don’t hesitate to see someone.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a doctor—it’s also nice to just talk to friends or anyone you trust about your feelings. Maybe your school has a guidance or career counselor. Or, if what you’re freaking out about is What You Will Do When You Grow Up, find someone who’s doing what you’re considering doing and ask them how they decided on their career and what challenges they face. It’s easy to worry yourself into a corner and feel trapped by indecision, so don’t keep all of your concerns to yourself.

Doubt is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to dictate your life. I’ve had major doubts about decisions that turned out to be great: I wasn’t sure that it would be a good idea to turn my blog into a book, since people tend to get sick of memes really fast, but it has absolutely changed my life. I hear from amazing feminist readers on the regular and have generally had a lot of great opportunities to connect with fantastic people because of it. I’ve also made some terrible decisions, like leaving my amazing, well-paid job at the United Nations to drive to Anchorage, Alaska, because I was a little freaked out after September 11th; I completely panicked and left my favorite city because I saw an Army dude carrying an assault weapon in Grand Central Station on my way to work. But Alaska—which I chose because it was as far away from New York as I could get without a passport—gave me great stories and allowed me to try new things, like camping and mountain climbing. The worst-case scenario is rarely as terrible as you think it will be, and in some ways, realizing that I had the strength to adapt and be spontaneous has been far more useful to me.

Remember that as much as you think and plan and scheme, there is no one way to make sure your life works out exactly how you want it to. And if you need a little push to help you with a hard choice, think of it this way: not making a decision is a decision in itself. It’s a decision to keep things exactly the same, just out of fear of the unknown. And that would be the only real mistake you could make. ♦


  • Flower March 11th, 2013 3:12 PM

    ugh this is so timely as lately i’ve gotten into such a rut of overthinking everything and freaking out over everything ever

  • jenaimarley March 11th, 2013 3:19 PM

    So so wise.

  • EdieSedgwick March 11th, 2013 3:25 PM


  • moonchild March 11th, 2013 3:50 PM

    This is so useful. Especially as I’ve been feeling a lot of self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence lately :/


  • eliselbv March 11th, 2013 4:07 PM

    This article is really welcome today!
    I don’t know if it’s the same in USA but in France we have a website were we have to make a list of the schools we want to go to after 12th grade.
    I made this list this afternoon and at the end when they asked me if I was sure, if there was anything I wanted to change before log out I was like “oh my god what do I do?” and I suddenly had 100000 doubts!

    • Danielle March 12th, 2013 12:58 AM

      Woah, really?! That is intense! I would have doubts, too.

    • Hélène FUCHS March 14th, 2013 10:56 AM

      Helloooooooo, fellow French girl who had to deal with the stress of Admission Post-Bac ^^ I used it last year (I’m in prépa now and lovin’ it, yay!) and I remember sitting in front of my computer, hands clammy, staring at my screen with the “Are you sure?” box open and just asking myself: “Is that what I want? Is that what I want my future life to look like? Do I REALLY want to spend 2 years in prépa and then perhaps have nothing at the end and what if I don’t like it and ezifgazidghaigt I’m going to die!” So you’re not alone in that, if it can comfort you ^^ Here, have some good waves or a cyber-hug or whatever you’d like.

      Warning: the most stressful part is logging in to get the admission results. Just so you know. Cos it sneaks up on you. Plus they are always, always late in publishing the results so you just refresh frenetically every two seconds while everyone in your League of Legends team insults you because you’re feeding. (and no, this has nothing to do with personal experience, what the hell are you talking about?)

  • rosiesayrelax March 11th, 2013 4:08 PM

    This is full of sense. For ages I freaked out about choosing what I want to do in college and what if I decide I hate it all and cry myself to sleep every night. But I realise now that even if I do screw it up, I’ve still got another 50ish years ahead of me to do what I like.

  • Becka Louise March 11th, 2013 4:28 PM

    Amazing. Just… amazing. So helpful, thank you! :)

  • Mary the freak March 11th, 2013 4:29 PM

    Amen. I will print this out.

  • maggiemadge March 11th, 2013 4:57 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have had so much self doubt about my future. I bookmarked this so when I feel this again it will bring me comfort.

  • Mayabett March 11th, 2013 5:05 PM

    It is good to have an article about self-doubt right before I hear back from all my top-choice colleges!

    I try to keep telling myself that whatever happens, it was meant to happen and will have something to teach me.

    I’d love if Rookie posted some articles in the coming weeks geared towards high school seniors like me. It’s a super super nerve-wracking time right now!

  • MaggietheCat March 11th, 2013 5:13 PM

    I’m starting to learn that the doubt will never go away, and to just keep going, and when it gets hard, go harder.

    This reminds me of an @feministhulk tweet from two years ago that has totally stuck with me: “FEELING OVERWHELMED NOT A SIGN OF FAILURE. FEELING OVERWHELMED A SIGN OF HOW IMPORTANT THE FIGHT IS. KEEP ON SMASHING!”

    • rhymeswithorange March 11th, 2013 9:45 PM

      omg that is perfect, thank you! definitely writing that on my wall

  • afod142 March 11th, 2013 5:13 PM

    This is honestly life changing for me right now.

  • itsaoifedahling March 11th, 2013 5:17 PM

    Someone at rookie is listening to my brain talk to itself, perfect timing thank you!
    Aoife xx

  • jessie77 March 11th, 2013 5:48 PM

    oh god i needed this article!! i feel like ive been stuck in a rut for the past year coming out of my awkward teenage stage, and not knowing what to do with myself now that i don’t feel like being miserable 24/7- i think imma just try doing things that make me happy and try to worry less about doing the ‘right’ thing :b but anyway thanks a million for this article- this will be one to go back to <3

  • Alienor March 11th, 2013 5:51 PM

    thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you

  • AnaRuiz March 11th, 2013 6:16 PM

    I wish I were more decisive too! My biggest trouble came when I decided to change schools, especially because I had no concrete reason to do so, and, honestly, two years down into my new school, and I’m still not sure it was the best decision. But, oh, well, now I have to make the best of the present situation!

    • Danielle March 12th, 2013 1:00 AM

      That happens sometimes, the feeling like you made a bad decision. I’ve been there. In hindsight, though, it wasn’t a bad decision, it just took time away from other stuff I wanted to do. Even if you don’t like your new school, is there a bright side, like a degree or the fact that it will be over soon?

  • spudzine March 11th, 2013 6:37 PM

    This is a really wise article, because I have been thinking lately that EVERYTHING we do is a descision. So if we don’t want to do something and we don’t, then that in itself is a descion. And how we really can be ourselves, because if we aren’t, people are going to fault in our fake-selves anyway. There is always going to be “something wrong” with someone, so might as well be and do whatever you want.

    • Violet March 11th, 2013 8:03 PM

      I loooove how you formulated all this!!!
      was having the exact same train of thought lately, and now here it is summarized perfectly with words.

  • Natalia March 11th, 2013 6:42 PM

    Oh, Rookie.
    How come you keep getting better and better?

  • limegreensunset March 11th, 2013 6:57 PM

    yes yes yes. i really needed this.

  • SFclaire March 11th, 2013 7:49 PM

    This was interesting for me to read, because I know exactly what I want to do in life, so I’m lucky in that aspect. However, sometimes I doubt whether or not I’ll be successful in my career. That’s scary.

  • eremiomania March 11th, 2013 8:20 PM

    I was just talked to my friend about deciding whether or not to quit a club that really stressed me out when I saw this article, what a coincidence! It came at the perfect time.

  • sarahf March 11th, 2013 8:52 PM

    thank you

  • kayliemarie March 11th, 2013 9:24 PM

    This is so so so helpful. I’m in that weird state before going to college and actually paying for college and I keep having these awful thoughts of like, why am I going to such an expensive school? Why am I moving across the US? Should I not go to a school that costs like 60,000 but is the best fit for me???? I’m going to print this and carry it around with me for the next like, three months. Thank you!

    • Danielle March 12th, 2013 1:03 AM

      If it’s a good fit and you can afford it, then it’s not a bad decision! :)

  • abby111039 March 11th, 2013 9:24 PM

    This is perfect. I’m only a freshman in high school, but I get paralyzed with fear sometimes because I have ABSOLUTELY NO CLUE what I’m gonna do with my life. I have a sister who’s two years olders than me, and she already knows what colleges she’s applying to, what she’s going to major in and basically has everything planned out. I’m expected to do the same and I get overwhelmed because I just can’t right now. So yes, I thought this article was so helpful and wise.

  • pinmq March 11th, 2013 9:32 PM

    this is basically the greatest thing ever, thank you so much for writing it, Danielle!! xx

  • Ariella95 March 11th, 2013 9:34 PM

    This is exactly what I needed to read right now! I always struggle with doubt over even the littlest things, like once I bought a pink coat, exchanged it for same coat in white, and then went back again to exchange it for the pink one! On a larger scale, I just got a rejection letter from my top choice college today, and now I really regret that I allowed my doubt to stop me from applying early decision even though I knew it was the school for me because I think it would have improved my chances. But, this article has convinced me that maybe “just because things didn’t work out the way I thought, doesn’t mean I’ve made a mistake.” Thanks Danielle and Rookie. (I think I’m also going to reread that article about getting rejected from college.)

  • Lorelei March 11th, 2013 9:40 PM

    Everyone in my family expects me to go to this four year university that is in the same town as me. Almost all of the other kids at my school will be going on to this school. A lot of the girls that I know at school talk about how they’re going to be doctors, but they only want to do that because of all the money they’d make. They say that’s what they want, to be rich. But there’s this part of me that gets stronger every year that just wants to screw my whole family’s expectations and do what I want to do for once without feeling guilty or bad for it. There’s like, this wild piece of me that just wants to run around the world and see everything and go everywhere and meet people and do things that I would never be able to do if I stayed in this silly town where I live. But people would all think I’m crazy and throwing my life away. Because, what’s the point in living if I’m not doing something I like? Why do I have to go through this checklist of what everybody else thinks I should do?

    • Danielle March 12th, 2013 1:05 AM

      “Because, what’s the point in living if I’m not doing something I like? Why do I have to go through this checklist of what everybody else thinks I should do?”

      Eternal question, homie, eternal question. But it sounds like you already know what you want to do, so that’s good. :)

    • mulberry March 14th, 2013 9:34 PM

      I think if you were to follow that
      The more you see and experience, the more you might realize that everybody’s checklists for what you “should” be doing are probably very different. In a way it comes back around to the great Rookie article “How to Not Care What Other People Think of You” in the sense that a) everybody who wants something for/from you probably wants very different, incongruent things, b) a lot of the people you THINK care a lot about what you do actually don’t, and c) ultimately, the only person’s opinion you’re indelibly stuck with is YOUR OWN, so you might as well do your very best to come to a happy, balanced, peaceful place with yourself, because fighting to make everyone else happy is like trying to climb a metal pole with butter all over your hands! Kind of…
      Whatever you decide to do, you are still going to be you. If you stick around and stay in your “silly town,” you don’t have to feel discontent or like you’re missing out on other dreams, because the magical beauty of life (or part of it) is that the happiest you can be is when you just LET GO and allow yourself to feel grateful for wherever the heck you’re at! And if your heart keeps telling you to go out and adventure, I think there’s a lot of dignity in being true to that passion (especially if the only thing holding you back is the worry that others will disapprove of your choice)! But remember (or consider, because I might be totally off-base here!) that wherever you go, while your happiness may be influenced by the situation you’re in the midst of, there are just as many discontent folks

      • mulberry March 14th, 2013 9:41 PM

        who are living out what others might consider dreams (being rich, travelling the world, even looking a certain way). You can do a lot of things and check a lot of things off a lot of people’s lists and still not be happy…but maybe sometimes the key is to let go of all the things we think we need (to have, to do) in order to be happy and instead…just be.
        Rambly comment, sorry! I don’t mean to sound preachy because I really don’t have any of this figured out for myself, but I think sometimes reading about others’ stories that remind me of my own help me clarify some of the things that personally help me feel okay with where I’m at (even though a lot of the time I feel like a big mess!). Soooo….thank you, I guess!

  • rhymeswithorange March 11th, 2013 9:52 PM

    Great!! Waiting to hear from colleges, going to see what happens next :)

  • jfate March 11th, 2013 10:22 PM

    so glad to know I’m not alone :)

  • hiraari March 11th, 2013 10:30 PM

    thank you so much

  • Tangerine March 11th, 2013 10:43 PM

    This was really good to read right now, as I’m wading through a major quarter-life crisis. <3 u rookie, your advice is widely applicable, and your aesthetic is to kill for.

  • paige.xo March 11th, 2013 11:28 PM

    Just what i needed

  • cheesybreezy March 12th, 2013 1:26 AM

    This is so comforting to read, even for me – I have just finished a 4 year degree & yet I still don’t know if this is what I want to do! It’s a relief to know that even if this is not what I will be doing for the rest of my life, that’s ok and I have plenty of time to figure it out. I feel jealous of people only going off to uni now – you have nothing to fear! Who cares if you spend half a year doing some course that let’s you bum around and procrastinate your assignments. That’s what uni is all about. Enjoy being a student! Doubt will never go & passion is discovered not decided upon.

  • mymlen March 12th, 2013 5:30 AM

    omg, thank you so much.

  • all-art-is-quite-useless March 12th, 2013 12:41 PM

    so relevant, Itrying to decide which sixth form college (the equivalent of the last two years of amercan high school, we have it as a separate stage in birtain) to go to, the one attached to my school or a separate one… this is only two years of my life, with only two options, how will I cope for the rest of my life?

  • z33zy March 12th, 2013 1:22 PM

    Thank you.

  • Nina Kaledina March 12th, 2013 1:35 PM

    I want to say that Rookie is the best I’ve ever read in the Internet! I’m from Russia and I’ve never seen smth that was so kind and friendly and understanding! I read it a few times a week and Rookie help me to realize that everything will be ok and everything IS OK.
    Thank you SO SO SO MUCH!!! I love this place!

  • AprilC March 12th, 2013 10:40 PM

    WOW. Thanks for writing this. Help me so much. [[[:

  • Stephanie March 13th, 2013 12:25 AM

    Thank you so MUCH for this, Danielle. I’ve needed this several times in my life and I especially needed it right now since I’m making a big life-changing decision that feels right in my heart, but yanno lots of people, friends, family, etc might question my logic.

  • barbroxursox March 14th, 2013 7:40 PM

    Eeeek I’m deciding which college to go to right now and my parents want me to go to a state school because it’s cheaper but the value of my degree would be higher at another school… And the school is feminist-y and accepting and I would get an almost definite spot in a pharmacy program. Ugh, I’ve made my decision, but what if my parents make me do otherwise? :(

    • mulberry March 14th, 2013 10:08 PM

      Are there any scholarships available for the school you’ve got your sights set on? Making college work financially can be a pretty huge deal for a lot of families–I have no idea what your situation is like, but if you are passionate about going to a certain school and your parents can’t afford to send you there on their dime(s!!!), taking the initiative to find and apply for scholarships can help show them that you care enough about going there to contribute to the challenge of paying for it even though it is more expensive than a state school. Even state schools (I’m at one) can be an enormous financial explosion! If it’s something you’ve decided on, that is really exciting! It seems like the next step is figuring out what YOU can do to make it happen…scholarships, loans, and jobs are all places to start!

  • laurajane March 24th, 2013 10:29 PM


    If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice! is in my head now. Very cool.