One thing I miss about school is stress.
Quick stress. The kind that comes from five deadlines in four hours. Quick stress that keeps you worried at night—Do I know game theory? Should I revise again? Will she curve the test? Quick stress that keeps you too busy to eat or talk or go to the bathroom; quick stress that depends on grades and brains; quick stress that determines job prospects and resume material and an entire sixty-year future, as long as the quick stress doesn’t kill you first.
I miss that.
I miss that a lot.
Quick stress, in college, is the kind that everyone has and everyone hates—the kind that everyone talks about in the half hour between “screw it” and sleep, when you realize at 4 a.m. that you can’t remember anything from the page of notes you’ve already stared at for far too long and the best option is surrender. You grab a beer and flop on the downstairs couch, and your roommate has reached that same point, too, so you talk about life after. Life after tests, essays, and profs.
“The best years of our lives,” you mock. “This is hell.”
Three hour later, you wake up, hand in the essay—a few typos can’t hurt too much—and take the test. Caffeine v. short-answer questions. You start to double-check your answers, then give up, add your green book to the pile, and stumble out the door.
That’s when I love quick stress. It’s not gone—there’s another test, and another essay, and an entire three more semesters—but part of it’s gone. And you realize that you actually learned something, and you’re actually good at something, and that you can handle even more.
* * *
Slow stress is different.
It’s not a post-college thing, because people work in hospitals and schools and other places that demand action and improvement right now. It’s an office job thing, and a business owner thing, and especially a self-employed thing. At its worst, I think, it’s an artist or author thing.
You might get a raise or a warning in those positions—maybe a few comments and suggestions—but no boss will rate all your customer interactions or read all your emails, especially when you are your own boss. And no one will tell you, After this year, do X, and then learn about Y, so later, you can work on Z. You finally have the freedom to pick your own projects and chase your own ambitions. You’ve reached that fabled “life after,” the dreamland of unbridled creativity, where you can pick your own goals and shape art in your own image.
And that dreamland looks… like nothing.
No reason at all for quick stress. And without quick stress forcing you to stay busy and focused, slow stress emerges.
No one punishes you if you skip a day of writing. No one shakes his head in disappointment if you use a sloppy analogy. No professor takes care of choosing topics, and no grades reassure you that you do, in fact, sometimes have good ideas. There are no assignments that you can finish, hand in, and walk away from. These projects—this life—is long-term, and much of it happens alone and unguided.
Add to that all the big-picture questions that you suddenly have far too much time to think about. You’re in the middle of that once-distant sixty-year future, wondering, Is this project worth my time? Should I find a job with benefits? Can I ever get married? Self-doubt and hypothetical questions abound.
“Life after tests,” you mock. “Life with freedom.”
I hate that freedom.
I hate not getting the satisfaction of staying up all night and finishing a paper.
I hate that when I push myself past my own expectations, I do not get enough feedback to know if I succeeded.
I hate not knowing how I compare to everyone else, because everyone else is doing different things.
I hate seeing what everyone else is doing and wishing that I was doing that—jumping out of planes and stopping wildfires, making $45.50 per hour as a nuclear engineer, showing love to kids from broken homes.
I hate slow stress.
I hate it until I stumble into an idea that excites me—something like the one that’s keeping me up tonight, writing and editing and planning, not caring whether this new idea is a productive use of my time, or if it will get me paid, or if it will impress anyone. It’s all about the idea.
Then I remember: I chose slow stress for a reason. I dreamed about this lifestyle for a reason.
Slow stress destroys my emotions, and it ruins my confidence, and it makes everything confusing and depressed and anxious—until that sudden, unpredictable burst. Clarity arrives, and passion with it. And then the freedom of slow stress matters more than anything else, because I can chase that new project and turn it into something beautiful. The dreaming done on a downstairs couch at 4 a.m. is actually happening.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.