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Bring Back the Excitement
Some forward thinking
You know that feeling when you’re so excited about something that you feel like you might actually explode from anticipation? You think about whatever the thing is and imagine it in great detail—the sights and sounds and smells, the people, the accompanying feelings of pure bliss—and it becomes more and more difficult to sit still. It almost feels like a punishment to have to remain where you are and wait for the event to arrive rather than being able to push a button and leap through spacetime and into that moment.
I used to get this way about summer camp. Quillian was technically a Methodist camp, but fortunately for a Jew there wasn’t much that was religious about it. The camp seemed to be architected exclusively around fun. And for an eight year-old, the creation was a masterpiece.
Each day started with an activity that you were able to choose from a remarkably diverse menu: anything from sports to arts and crafts to Eastern European film1. I was obsessed with sports, so you weren’t going to catch me making macaroni stick figures or whatever. Basketball, baseball, football, soccer, hockey: it was heaven.
After the breakout activities, we were grouped by age and had various activities scheduled throughout the day. We’d hang out in the game room, watch a movie, then maybe play dodgeball or four square. At the end of the day, if you had written permission from your parents and had passed the swim test, you got to change into your swimsuit and go to the big pool at the back of the grounds. There was a concession stand by the pool with a selection a sugar-crazed kid could only dream of: Sno-cones, Air Heads, Ring Pops, Fun Dip. Fucking Fun Dip!
I remember that as May rolled around and the school year drew toward a close, I would inevitably start getting that itchy feeling of excitement. It wasn’t easy to sit through Ms. Parker’s social studies class when I knew that in a matter of weeks I’d be sprinting up and down a basketball court, occasionally stopping to look over and see if Emma, the cute, shy girl with the brunette hair, was watching. Which sessions had Michael signed up for? I needed to call him to coordinate when we would do baseball together. Was Max going to be there this year? Maybe the counselors would let us stay late in the gym some days to play knockout…
My mind raced endlessly with the electric energy of anticipation.
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Apart from any possible extraterrestrial beings who can also comprehend the concept of time, this feeling of excitement about what’s to come is uniquely human and central to who we are. We’ve all heard about the importance of being present in our lives, and we’d certainly be wise to cultivate more of that. But it’s also critical to our wellbeing that we have something to look forward to. Much of our happiness with the present moment, along with our senses of identity and continuity, are reflected back to us by the lens through which we view the future.
As we age, though, these episodes of excitement tend to become less frequent and more diluted. Novelty becomes more scarce, and we fall into predictable routines. We might look forward to our morning coffee or dinner with a friend—wonderful things, no doubt, and very meaningful in their own way—but there are less of those monumental events that keep us up at night with eager anticipation. And when we do have something significant to look forward to, the excitement is often tempered or even overshadowed by fear, doubt, or self-consciousness. Worse still, we sometimes find ourselves in such a rut that we can’t even remember what it feels like to be excited about anything.
For me, as they say, this happened gradually and then all at once.
Adolescence had plenty of novelty and sources of excitement, but they were often clouded by hormone-fueled emotional interference. An example: I had always loved basketball, and I would get fired up about any chance I had to play. Once I got to middle school, however, that excitement was replaced with an all-consuming dread on the nights before games. I was terrified of what would inevitably go wrong and how embarrassed I’d be when it did. A similar story played out with other big events like parties, holidays, or weekend trips. The anticipation that had once been exclusively positive was darkened by the torrent of emotion that came with being a teenager. The adolescent mind is uniquely fragile, it turns out.
College was a bit of a different story. Like many, I came into my own when I went off to school. As an ex once remarked: college is an incubator. The ability to try on new identities without lasting repercussions brings about a certain existential freedom. That feeling of freedom paired with the steady stream of novelty that college provides unlocked those old feelings of unbridled excitement for me, and I looked forward to all kinds of things, from lacrosse games to research projects to fraternity parties. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this correlated with some of the better years of my life.
Then I graduated.
Something that usually goes unnoticed in the well-documented transition from college to independent adulthood is the fact that our lifestyle and career choices determine the prevalence and texture of excitement in our lives. When we find ourselves in a life defined by routine and predictability, especially a routine that we’re not particularly fond of, any form of ‘excitement’ we have is actually more likely to be escapism. We have created a life that we don’t like, so we look forward to any opportunity to escape it: drunken nights, vacations, and so on. This flavor of anticipation is very different from the childhood variety because it’s not so much about the activity we’re looking forward to as it is about finding a way to avoid daily life.
I learned all this through experience. And in spite of my body and mind’s best efforts to sound the alarm, it took me a long time to figure it out.
This was mostly a function of career choices I made for all the wrong reasons. I took a boring job out of college because it sounded prestigious and would eventually pay well. Then I got fired from that job, not for poor performance but because I overslept half the time—an interestingly primal and involuntary form of escapism. Instead of listening to the message my body was trying to send, I decided I just needed another fancy-sounding job with more money. Any enjoyment of existence evaporated as I reached for cheap salves like material things and grand experiences that were aimed at treating the symptoms rather than the causes.
By the time I was in my third job, one I chose for equally terrible reasons, I had forgotten what it felt like to be genuinely excited about anything. Each morning I had to give myself a Tony Robbins-esque speech just to get out of bed. All of my bandwidth was consumed with using what few energy reserves I had for getting through each day without driving my car off a bridge.2 This may sound like melodramatic exaggeration; it’s not. A lack of any palpable excitement for the future can wreak havoc on your psyche.
I was in a dark place.
My generation has been told a story about how we should structure our adult lives, one Paul Millerd calls the Default Path. It goes something like this:
Your work is the most important part of your identity, and that work is going to suck. Those who are older than you, who have endured that suck for a long time and paid their dues, are the bosses and authority figures whose counsel and approval you should seek. If you work hard and prove to those authority figures that you are willing to go the extra mile, you will be progressively rewarded with the two most important status markers that exist: money and prestige. Status is everything. The process of going that extra mile won’t be much fun, and you may end up sacrificing some things like health and relationships and passion along the way, but if you keep at it then you’ll one day be rewarded with the freedom to pursue all the things you sacrificed to your heart’s desire. And best of all, you’ll have status.3
I had subscribed wholeheartedly to the Default Path without even realizing it. All of my career and life decisions were made in service to the almighty pursuit of Impressing Others and Getting Ahead. And it just about broke me.
The reason this path is so harmful is that it robs you of your agency. In order to follow this path, you must concede all control over your fulfillment and wellbeing to external sources. It’s part of the contract. But this relinquishing of agency does not agree with our nature. We are creatures who crave control, or at least the illusion of it. There’s a reason that a core component of the training for special operators like the Navy SEALs is about creating ways to feel in control during unpredictable situations: when we feel we’ve lost our agency, we shut down and act in erratic and often self-sabotaging ways.
This is precisely the dynamic that plays out when we opt in to the Default Path. And the only way out is to reclaim the agency that we’ve given up.
Reclaiming that lost agency is like a lot of things in life: simple and obvious in theory, quite difficult in practice. It seems to often be a process of subtraction rather than addition, one where we shed the stories, beliefs, and desires that have been superimposed onto us so that we can build a more authentic and aligned life.
I’ve written at length about the various changes I’ve made over the past year, from leaving the corporate world to writing again to quitting drinking. In hindsight, it’s clear that each of these decisions were made with the subconscious intention of reclaiming agency over my life. The job I didn’t like, the activity I loved but wasn’t doing, the indulgence that was pushing me further away from what I actually wanted: all of these were instances where I was letting something external dictate how I lived my life, and collectively they were making me suffer deeply. The only way to alleviate that suffering was to take back control.
There is no prescription or shortcut for this work; the process is deeply personal and context-dependent. Unfortunately the Guaranteed 3-Step Process for Casting Off External Control and Creating Your Perfect Life does not exist. Which is a shame, because that’s pretty catchy.
This journey is the work of a lifetime. It’s never finished. But it’s an incredibly meaningful and fulfilling process, one I’ve learned to look forward to.
At this point I should reveal that I’m writing this essay for a contest. The prompt: Write about something you are excited for.
As soon as I read that prompt, I knew exactly what I was going to write about, and the story you’ve been reading transformed from a jumbled collection of memories to a frighteningly clear narrative. I suddenly understood why the experience of life has felt so much richer as of late. And it conveniently has everything to do with that essay prompt.
I’m excited about being excited again.
In a delightfully metacognitive series of events, it was the contest itself that tipped me off to this. It occurred to me that this contest made me really excited. Like, eight year-old about to go to summer camp excited. (If I had told my adolescent self that he’d be excited about an essay contest, he would have -excitedly- punched me in the face. But here we are.)
This realization alerted me to the fact that I’ve been excited a lot lately—not because I want to escape my life but because of it. Existing has been quite pleasurable. I look forward to getting out of bed in the morning, and my anticipation of future events isn’t colored by any kind of contextual or existential dread.
Writing and reflecting on the trajectory of my life has made it clear that this is a direct result of reclaiming the agency that I had sacrificed for so long.
I’ve been writing nonstop since I read that essay prompt. Last night, after another marathon session that left me with an invigorating headache and a brain that felt completely tapped, I ended up getting out of bed twice over the course of the night to edit or add something that popped into my head. I have errands to run, a house to finish unpacking, other work to do; those things will have to wait. I am consumed with the singular focus of unrestrained excitement about a project that is unlikely to result in anything but enjoyment and personal satisfaction.
It doesn’t get much better.
Our linear construction of time makes it necessary to talk about excitement within the context of the future, but the kind of excitement I’m talking about transcends time. Excitement about the future, enthusiasm in the present, a positive interpretation of the past: it’s all the same thing, really. A vigor, a zest for life. An optimistic nature. And this state of being is impossible without agency.
My story illustrates what a life without agency looks like. It’s a hollow existence with a glaring empty space where excitement should reside, leaving only a fundamental desire to escape. The evolution I described, from a kid staying up all night thinking about summer camp to a depressed corporate automaton to a Generally Happy and Excited Guy, also shows what can happen when agency is reclaimed. Excitement, that exquisite zest for life, makes a triumphant return.
This work is never done. We’re social beings, and there’s a natural tension between moving with the herd and carving out your own path. It takes a constant rebalancing of the scales. But when you have a foundational, fundamental sense of agency, when you lead with authenticity and alignment and all the other buzzwords that start with the letter a, you are guaranteed the capacity to feel unbridled excitement about your life because it’s uniquely yours. And that’s an exciting thing.
I now look forward to things big and small: ambitious projects, walks outside with the dog, spending time with family. This excitement is pure and untarnished; it’s a more experienced evolution of the same excitement I felt decades ago on the cusp of summer, one that now knows what it’s like to live with its absence. It’s not that I’m under the illusion that life is going to be amazing all the time or that I’m excited about everything—I won’t be up all night in fervent anticipation of jury duty or an appointment with the dentist. The excitement I feel is more fundamental, more sustainable, more existential.
The best way to capture it is with the simplest and most honest answer to that essay prompt:
I’m excited about being excited again.
Ok that last one’s a joke, but they did offer some pretty esoteric shit.
Luckily we didn’t have very many bridges in Houston.
Interestingly, there seems to be a cultural shift in progress whereby status is gained by subverting this narrative.