By Mandy X. Hu

The first snow of this year is falling as I’m writing this blog. I love virgin snow. To me it represents a clean slate and possibility. Old tracks covered over, the first imprints yet to be made. And what imprints do you want to make this year? Most likely you will repeat the same patterns and stories of last year, and the year before, and the years before that. After all, our brain is designed to follow the road of least resistance by walking the familiar neuronal pathways. We are stuck in our narratives.

The story begins

From the moment we’re born we start writing this narrative. The first time we hear a ‘no’ from our caregiver, we start learning which parts of us are not accepted. The first time we win a competition, we begin to understand what we need to do in order to get acknowledged. Our first friend will be an example of how we want to behave socially. Our first cool teacher and first good grade will nudge us towards the direction of our future career. Our first love will set the tone for subsequent romantic relationships. The first and following books, movies, and music will form our ideals and convictions. From the moment we’re born we begin forming our identities: who we are, how we behave, and what we believe. This is okay, necessary even, because it helps us fit in society and navigate a complex and an uncertain world.

The plot twist

But in every good story there will be a plot twist: a situation that no one saw coming and that changes everything. Have you had that plot twist in your life already? Perhaps you started out as an A student, you did the homework and attended the classes and made it through high school and university with flying colors. But then your PhD started and things aren’t that simple anymore. There is no set homework or deadlines and no grades that tell you how excellent you are. You were living the story of an overachiever. Holding on to that story now means working late nights and in the weekends, and constantly stressing over being exposed as an imposter. Perhaps your narrative is different. Perhaps you are a marathon runner who suddenly loses a leg in a horrific accident. Admittedly, there are state-of-the-art prostheses nowadays, but running will never be the same again. Or you are a beauty queen and old age catches up with you, and there’s no plastic surgery in the world that can fight that off. Or you are me and you find yourself jobless, disillusioned, and depressed at the age of 23 and your story just didn’t turn out the way you had written it.

The happy ending?

So that’s it? Is the end of your story – of my story – sad and depressing? Only if we keep holding on to our old narratives. If we rigidly grasp on to our identities and ideals, I can predict with high certainty that life will disappoint us. It’s an unpopular opinion, I realize, as most of us have been told to ‘find our identity’ and ‘never waver from our ideals’. But what if we forget about all that and create and recreate ourselves every moment? What if it was great to be the overachiever at school, but during your PhD you decide that your mental health is more important? Or that you loved running marathons but that you can also be happy reading a book in the garden? Or that beauty can be found in laugh lines and frowning wrinkles? I’m not telling you to overwrite your narrative with a new story, but rather to recognize that it’s all just stories. At the age of 23 I felt I had nothing left and I didn’t see a road ahead. Strangely enough, this very situation was what set me free. I realized that I, that we don’t have to follow the familiar pathways – or even make new ones. We don’t have to define and confine ourselves. We can be free and creative. Why make footprints in the snow if we can jump, dance, and make snow angels?

Do you want to let go of your old stories? Register for our brand new course called ‘Be Yourself’! This course will help you build awareness, resilience, and compassion to face the challenges of your PhD (and life).

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