Ever felt like a failure because of student debt?

Nov 8, 2013

Do you feel like a failure because you’ve got student debt?

Student debt is like an invisible force. We can feel the pressure of it all the time, it can infiltrate our every thought, and it can play a role in every professional and personal decision we make when it hovers over our life like a thick fog.

Student debt can feel like a plague. To escape, we dream, Without student debt, I’d have the freedom to:

    • Get married,
    • Quit my job and find one that I love,
    • Stop worrying about money,
    • Live my life the way I want to live it,

  • Buy a new car,
  • Pay my bills every month,
  • Relax and take better care of myself, or
  • Take a breath without feeling like there’s a rock band playing on my chest.*


But the more we dream about what our life would be like without student debt, the worse the life we actually have with student debt starts to feel. Before we know it, we’re feeling anger and regret we scarcely knew we were capable of. Questions start to fly:

  • Why did I even go to college/grad/professional school?
  • Why didn’t someone tell me this could happen?
  • Why did everyone tell me that a college education was the only way to make something of myself in the world?
  • Why didn’t my parents plan better for me?
  • Why didn’t I plan better for myself?
  • Why didn’t my college financial aid office tell me I was getting into some serious stuff?
  • Is my education worth anything?


About me

Photographer: Lydia Jane

Fast forward down this road a bit and pause. This is the moment we hit a major crossroads. Forgive this gross generalization, but for the sake of clarity, we basically have one of three options at this point:

(1)   Wallow in anger and regret, which eventually gives way to self-pity and is the most direct route to living a life feeling trapped, bitter, and like a victim of our student debt.

(2)   Deal with our anger and regret, doing the difficult work of understanding where we are financially and emotionally because of the choice we made (however ill-informed) to take out student debt, and then begin the hard work of figuring out how we are going to live a meaningful life while we unload our student loan debt.

(3)   Put life off until we’ve repaid our student loan debt, stuff the reasons we invested in an education to begin with, and embrace the misery of working only with the vision of paying off student debt in mind. (This option can only be sustained (in relatively good mental and physical health) for a very brief period of time and for the select few who are fortunate enough to possess high-paying jobs with low living expenses. The professional wisdom of taking this route is questionable unless your high-paying job is taking you in the direction you want to go. Chris Dixon wrote a great piece showing that, it’s not the best idea to dedicate your valuable time, effort and energy to “Climbing the wrong hill.” Read it.)

All of the dreams in your heart matter, and student loan debt does nothing to change that.

Do you think you’ll be satisfied with your life (professional and personal) over the long run if you treat student debt like it deserves to be the center of your universe, and the core of your every thought?

Let me be the first to say, I think that the best and most difficult option is #2. I avoided it for a long time. I tried #1 (which was turning me into a person I didn’t want to become) and then I aimed for #3 (but my struggle with unemployment and finding clear professional direction made this a non-starter). Taking personal responsibility for my life with student debt has been extremely challenging at every level, and it’s an ongoing work in progress.

On the upside, once I decided to retrieve my life from the monster of student debt I’d let into my head and heart, I had more energy to deal with issues. Like figuring out how to pay my bills, communicating with my student debt lenders, tracking down information about my student loans, exploring new professional opportunities (like this Conquer. blog), working on my marriage, and learning how to take care of myself and pursue my dreams while dealing with student loan debt at the same time.

It’s not that I’ve arrived at some new higher place. It’s that I learnt that I could choose to take small steps to learn how to live my life in ways I respect instead of letting (what can feel like) crippling student debt rule my every decision. Is it difficult? Yes. Are there days when I wish I never had to deal with student debt to begin with? Yes. Is it better than living my life cowering in fear because I have student debt? Yes. Am I becoming a stronger person because I’ve decided to take small steps in a better direction? Yes.

Student loan debt sucks, and I’d rather that none of us had to deal with it at all. But since we do, we might as well use this opportunity to become stronger, smarter, more compassionate people with the courage to face the difficult questions, find innovative solutions (individually, as a group, and as a society) and utterly reject the thought that we’re failures because we struggle with student loan debt.

Because it’s easier to think about changing than it is to figure out how to change, we’re kicking off a series of posts that tackle some of the difficult questions we ask ourselves while battling student loan debt. We want to hear from you! Comment below, and tweet or FB your questions during our first Hard Stuff About Student Debt series, and we’ll dive into the tough stuff together.

*Listen to this song to get inspired about responding differently to student debt. Kudos Imagine Dragons.


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