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How Can You Being ‘Drifting’ if You’re Working So Hard?

Should I go to graduate school?Drifting is the decision you make by not deciding, or by making a decision that unleashes consequences for which you don’t take responsibility.

If you want to dodge a fight with the people around you, or you want to please them, or you want to avoid a struggle with self-doubt or uncertainty — you drift. In my case, I drifted into law school.

Because I think drift is so important, I made a vow to myself that I’d raise the issue anytime I spoke to students — high school, undergraduate, or graduate. And it always strikes a chord.

For instance, each year I speak to a group of first-year medical students, and it turns out that medical students can be subject to drift. Initially, this surprised me, because I thought, “Medical school is so hard, and so specific, and takes so much time and money. No one would drift into med school.”

But no! It happens. People think, “My mother and father are both doctors, so I should be a doctor.” Or “I’m good at math and science, people keep telling me I should become a doctor.”

They can do it, and they don’t know what else to do, so they move forward. That’s drift.

So I was very interested, but not surprised, to see this piece by Tatiana Schlossberg in the New York Times, about the Sauermann and Roach study “Why Pursue the Postdoc Path?” Schlossberg writes:

“Doctoral students in the sciences are more like the rest of us than previously thought: They don’t know what they want to do with their lives, either… The authors [of the study found] evidence that many students pursued postdocs as a default option after graduate school, or as part of a ‘holding pattern’ until the job they wanted was available. The authors… conclusively demonstrated the need for more career planning among graduate students, and that graduate students should consider their career paths before they even begin a Ph.D. program.”

In other words, these students drifted into graduate work without a clear plan for why they were there.

The word “drift” has overtones of laziness or ease. Not true! Drift is often disguised by a huge amount of effort and perseverance. Just because you’re working hard — I’m sure those graduate students are working hard — is no guarantee that you’re not drifting.

Here’s another complication. I drifted into law school, and in the end, I’m happy I did go to law school. Sometimes drift does make you happy. But don’t count on it.

One of my drift-related Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.”

And here’s another one: “Approval from the people we admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.”

If you want to hear me talk about drift, and tell my law-school story, you can watch it here on YouTube.

You can also take the popular quiz, Are You Drifting?

Have you ever found yourself drifting? How did you start, how did you end it — or not?

How Can You Being ‘Drifting’ if You’re Working So Hard?


Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the award-winning author of The Happiness Project, a #1 New York Times bestseller. You can also watch the one-minute book video. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central.


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APA Reference
Rubin, G. (2018). How Can You Being ‘Drifting’ if You’re Working So Hard?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-can-you-being-drifting-if-youre-working-so-hard/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.