No, It’s Not Depression, It’s Languishing

You’re not depressed; you still have hope. You’re not burned out; you still have energy. But, you feel a little bit aimless and a little bit joyless. It’s that sense of emptiness and stagnation—like you’re in a void or you’re looking at the world through a foggy windshield.

Adam Grant

Recently, a wise colleague directed me to organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, and his work on motivation and meaning. More specifically, I have been consuming as much as possible on his framework focused on the flourishing, languishing, depression spectrum. In a recent interview, Grant outlines the power of ‘mental time travel’–the act of rewinding or fast-forwarding in order to imagine either the past or the future–in an attempt to conjure up an emotional state that you want to feel in the future. The ability to progress past what he calls the “foggy windshield” is important in order to move away from languishing.

Earlier this fall, I adopted the mental time travel visualization method in hopes of gaining, in Grant’s words “little moments of progress”; definitive movement from a state of ‘languishing’ to one of ‘flourishing’. Professionally-speaking, the autonomy, variety, and flexibility of a previously held position in education really brought feelings of accomplishment, learning, and thriving (or in Grant’s jargon, flourishing). There were always moments of progress (small but perceptible). Essentially, it is the future that I want to create for myself; a future where I continue to thrive.

In his TED-Ed Talk, Grant is even more persuasive and propositions tremendous reassurances that to the battle against languishing is to enter a ‘peak flow‘ or optimal experience. (Note to self: Dust off my copy of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.) Grant shares that through the 3Ms of mastery, mindfulness, and mattering we can develop the motivation (through “small wins”) and chart our way out of languishing professionally and begin progress towards professional prosperity.

The time-travel visualization method has helped me to rewind to the earlier moments of my professional career to those moments of flow, of optimal experiences; to periods when I was thriving. We all have them. We just need to locate them and then soak in the feelings and emotions that they bring forth. These are the feelings we want to recreate for ourselves in our work, Grant argues.

Feeling ‘Off’ (for a while)

In a sense, I sort of had predicted that I would reach this point in my professional life about seven years ago. Watching fellow teachers in the later half of their career talk about their magic ‘retirement number’, how many ‘sick days’ they had remaining, and looking forward to (what I thought were sacred) professional leaning days to “get caught up on marking”. Those were the ‘dark’ places that I did not wish to venture. I swore then that I would turn my ship around well before it ran aground on the banks of resignation and professional despair.

And even as early as mid-August last year, I turned to my spouse, on my way out the door to begin prepping for classes the following week, and offhanded remarked, “I don’t think I can do this much longer. I don’t know how much I have left in the tank. It’s not sustainable.” ‘This’ was a stygian reference to my current teaching responsibilities, a role I held for only three years. I should also be clear in that do not believe that the COVID pandemic is the root cause of my professional malaise, but it has amplified the professional stagnation and greatly influence both my mental health and professional outlook.

There are two ways of being creative. One can sing and dance. Or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers flourish.

Warren Bennis

Reflecting on this past fall, the term ‘languishing’ was/is apropos and adroitly sums up both the feelings and emotions that I felt and the stories I regularly told myself about where my professional career was heading. While not completely rudderless I did plants seeds with frequent self-reflection questions:

“What else can I do with my vast skill set and experiences in public education?”

“Do I see myself in this job is six months from now? Six years from now?”

“What else is out there?”

“How can I indulge my curiosity?”

‘Where can I challenge and push the limits of my skills set?”

“What would I do if I could try anything?”

I recently purchased Grant’s latest book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (sounds about right) which will be a small part of a commitment to my journey from languishing back towards flourishing as a lifelong public educator and lover of all things learning and teaching.

The journey back to thriving continues.


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