Introspection and Depression: Thoughts from the Edge

Two years ago this day, I stood at the third-floor railing overlooking the atrium of Armstrong Hall (yes, that Armstrong), and debated with myself whether I wanted to die. It was a warm Friday afternoon, the last day of classes in the spring semester before finals began, and I was on my way to office hours in the vain hope of getting enough points back on my latest aeromechanics exam that I wouldn’t flunk it. I had stopped briefly to look over the balcony when the thought of jumping occurred to me, and I nearly dismissed it, but in an unexpected show of honesty decided to stay and think it through, all the way.

Looking over the edge that day, I realized my problem was worse than I’d thought. The semester and indeed my entire time at Purdue University had not been very good for me, and I knew there was a very real danger I would stay on academic probation for a second semester, which was tantamount to being expelled. My spirits were low, my comprehension was worse, and my grades were something I actively didn’t think about. I was afraid of being expelled, unfit for anything beyond the sort of retail job I’d taken the previous summer (making dimes above minimum wage), and loaded with a pile of debt I was completely incapable of paying off. It seemed that my life was completely hopeless, still a month away from my twentieth birthday. Maybe I should just “get it over with,” I thought to myself.

It wasn’t hopeless, but we’ll get to that later. I felt terrible because for the past six years my self-worth had been almost entirely based on perceptions of my own intelligence, largely measured through school. I’d been an honors student in high school, done reasonably well on my standardized tests, very well on my advanced placement tests, and so on. I had every reason to believe in my own ability to succeed at the fourth-best aerospace engineering school in America.

But the results just didn’t add up. I was struggling from the first semester, completely disappointed with the first-year curriculum, still frustrated once I got into my major, and overall not having a good time. Going from high school, where I was a middle-to-low honors student, to a population comprised almost entirely of honors students, wasn’t exactly stroking my ego. My entire self-worth and vision of the future was rapidly crashing down around me, and there was basically nothing I could do about it.

I flunked that exam, and I flunked the class, and I flunked two other classes. That itself wouldn’t have been an entirely unworkable problem, but the long string of Cs and Ds stretching back to Calc II were enough for Purdue to kick me out. And to them I said “good riddance, a whole lot of good you ever did me.”

The obvious message here is about measuring self-worth, in that any attempt to measure yourself against an outside metric is explicitly opposed to the philosophy I held at the time. In the worlds of Nathaniel Branden, “If my aim is to prove I am ‘enough,’ the project goes on to infinity–because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable.” Though no longer much of an Objectivist, this much I still believe today.

The more abstract lesson, however, is about the importance of introspection. While perfect self-awareness may be impossible, a certain degree is necessary for ensuring one lives a happy and fulfilling life. It is certainly possible that someone will accidentally manage to live satisfactorily, even probable given certain circumstances and preferences, but that is far from a guarantee. At this point it’s quite evident that that is not the case for me.

Knowing what I want is the first step in this process, but even that is a challenge to ascertain. In the weeks before my first semester at Purdue began, I was slightly regretting not making an effort to get into more prestigious schools like MIT or Caltech. (The only school I applied to more selective than Purdue was the University of Southern California, which rejected me no doubt in part due to my hasty and unimpressive application.) At that point in my life, it wasn’t an entirely unreasonable thought. Having spent four years now at various sorts of schools, I can say very strongly that a maximally-difficult curriculum is not what I want.

Furthermore, one needs to know how to get what they want. A significant factor in choosing Purdue was its record of producing astronauts, which has been my dream job since elementary school. Of course, the odds are stacked against me, which was pretty clear by middle school: I’m unathletic, not terribly motivated, haven’t the best health, and don’t particularly like to study. This isn’t a winning combination, and for a sample as small and selective as the astronaut core focusing on work ethic and executive function would have been (and still is–I haven’t given up, but adjusted my expectations) a far more sensible approach than applying to a difficult school that I didn’t know I could handle.

And one has to realize the limits of possibility. I didn’t push my limits very far in high school, taking only a moderate slate of classes that were ultimately well within my abilities (I graduated with an unweighted GPA around 3.8). I didn’t apply to a large number of colleges, which would have given me a better idea of where I stood in the 2012 class of incoming engineering students. I never asked myself if there was a significant change of failure. The notion never occurred to me.

Sometimes I wonder if I had pushed myself, or if my parents had pushed me harder, then would I have been able to handle Purdue? In retrospect, none of it seems all that difficult, though the workload was a little high–and even that could have been dealt with provided sufficient executive function and time management. After this summer, I’ll have retaken every class I failed at Purdue, and even covered some material I didn’t get to. I’m still worrying about my grades, but I’m worried about getting multiple Cs instead of multiple Fs. Despite regular complaints, my comprehension is orders of magnitude better. Was it the change in environment? Just practice? Something else?

We’ll never find out. My life is an experiment I can only run once. But as I continue my climb out of depression and failure, I’ll know just what I’m dealing with.