Episode 19: Living by design, not by coincidence

In which our protagonist tries to get her head around her future, and her future-self

Back when I used to go for job interviews - y’know, before I gave up on corporate life to live the, ahem, freelance dream - there was one question I dreaded. It wasn’t the weaknesses one (“I’m a perfectionist, I guess?”), and it wasn’t the “why do you want to work here?” one (“I really believe in the mission?”). No, it was the one that’s designed to trap the ego and instill fear into the heart of the less-confident and less-driven.

It was, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I mean, I understand why it gets asked. It’s a way of sussing out whether this candidate is in it for the long haul, whether they want to make a career or are just looking for a job. But it always stumped me, because I never really had a career trajectory. I never had a goal I was moving towards. My entire life has been jumping from one thing to the next based on whether it looked good for now; I assessed based on whether it would help me gain new skills and perspective, and sometimes whether it would pay the bills, rather than any arbitrary climb up a ladder. So I never had an answer to that question, and I rarely got the jobs where that was a criteria.

And it wasn’t just a lack of a career plan; I’ve never really had a life plan, no tick-list of married by 30, kids by 35, big house in the suburbs and a zippy sports car. Even my university degree was as vague as you can get (shout-out to my fellow Bachelor of Arts graduates!). The lurching from thing to thing spilled out into the non-working world. When things started to get difficult, I either doubled down and ignored the troubles, or I bailed, got depressed for a while, then gradually built myself back up. I fled to the other side of the world and repeated the pattern. Where was I headed? Who knew. Did it matter? Not to me, not really. Though it would’ve been nice to have a roadmap.

Dear reader, let me tell you right now there is nothing wrong with not having a roadmap. Nothing at all. The critics will tell you that everything needs to be planned out to the nth degree, but for me that always felt like overkill. It felt like I’d be sucking all the fun out of things, assessing experiences only on what they would give me rather than the joy itself.

“You’ve left that a bit late, haven’t you?”

No, there is nothing wrong with not having a roadmap. There is, however, a snag you’ll come up against. The same snag, likely - though in your own individually-shaped way - that I’ve come up against in recent years. The same snag that led me towards this journey to self(ish).

For me, my no-roadmap snag led to years being gobbled up, and my inner critic having a field day. “You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” and, “Well you’ve left that a bit late, haven’t you?” One day I woke up, in my early 40s, driven only by depression and anxiety and stress and self-hatred. I woke up to realise half my life had gone and my lack of goal-setting, my laissez-faire approach to life choices, my lurching and coasting, had taken a whole heap of choices away from me forever. I realised there was a stack of things I would never be now, and that thought paralysed me. It became the only record my inner stereo would play, round and round, on repeat: this chance has gone, and this one, and this one. And that thing? You can forget about that; the door is closed.

This record, it’s painful. And it keeps us looking backwards, back into the things you could’ve done differently, the way things might have worked out if only you’d done X or Y. But while we’re looking backwards, we’re stuck in the past. We’re focusing on the old instead of thinking about the new. That sounds obvious, but when it comes to being self(ish), it’s everything. 

I’ve been reading Benjamin Hardy’s Personality Isn’t Permanent in a bid to think hard about that old dreaded interview question. Hardy posits that we shouldn’t live in the past nor the present; that only by living as the person we want to become can we truly achieve what we want to. Crucially, he says there is no such thing as a fixed personality trait; that we are many different versions of ourselves depending on the time in our life, the environment we’re in, the people we’re with. Throw out your Myers Briggs type; it’s not who you are nor is it who you’re stuck being.

“When you become the architect of your own identity, you put less stock into how you view your current self,” writes Hardy. “Your current self is important, but also limited. Your future self will be different. They’ll see things differently. They’ll have different freedoms. They’ll have different relationships, daily activities, and experiences. What seems totally mind-blowing or exciting to you now is ‘normal life’ for your future self.”

Hardy then asks: “Who do you want to be, if you were totally honest with yourself?”

Next step: figure out who I am

This, dear reader, is where I get stuck, just like in those old job interviews. Truth be told, I have no idea who I want to be. There are the superficial things, of course - I want to write, I want to be healthy and happy, I want to support my community - but beyond that, I’m stumped. There is too much choice. There is too much I might miss out on if I go this way or that - and yes, I am the worst for FOMO. I am always looking over my shoulder, always questioning the decisions I’ve made. As a result, I freeze in the moment and the moment passes me by, and I beat myself up even more. 

So who am I? Who am I now, and who do I want to be? Who can I be? Well, I can be anyone and do anything. I just need to figure out what that looks like. 

This is the next phase in my journey to self(ish), and I invite you to come with me. Who do you want to be? What does that person do on a daily basis? What direction is that person traveling in? Let’s start living by intent and design, rather than by coincidence and reaction. It will take a while, and it will take a lot of introspection and thinking, but let’s be self(ish), together. 

Until next time, do the thing.

Show Up For Your Story: applications close this weekend!

Since you’re reading this, you know how much I struggle with the inner critic in just about every part of my life. One thing that really helped me early in my journey to self(ish) was working with Joanne Bell of Write to Thrive, and I was super excited when she asked me to partner with her on a new six-month writing programme to help beat the inner critic and to feel great writing (again). 

We launched Show Up For Your Story a couple of weeks ago, but applications will close shortly - so if you’ve been thinking about joining us, be quick! 

Designed to support you to overcome imposter syndrome and get the work done, we’ll journal, troubleshoot, create, critique, and hold each other accountable to beat the inner critic and get our writing projects looking healthy. You don’t have to be working on the next great literary novel, either - non-fiction writers, academics, essayists, journalists, poets, scriptwriters, bloggers, business-builders, all are welcome. You get 28 hours of live content, 24/7 access to a supportive Slack community, weekly email prompts and inspiration, and more - six months of valuable support at a very reasonable price. 

We start on 31 May, and spaces are limited. Discover more on the website, or reply to this email with any questions. I can send you a link to the taster session we did on the weekend, too!

The week ahead 🗓

How many times have I said “no more excuses”? Can I say it again this week?

  • Writing: Right, seriously now. This is the week to get stuck into the novel. I’m aiming for 5000 words by the time I send next week’s newsletter. Totally doable, right? Right?!

  • Work: Focus is on Show Up For Your Story as we reach the closing date for applications. Find out more: showupforyourstory.com

  • Health: Hey, guess what? I went to the actual frickin’ gym this morning. Go me!

  • Community: Did you know I’m a volunteer board member for Arts Network Sutton? They’ve got me doing some training on the “Duties of a Trustee” tomorrow. Serious stuff!

  • Routine: And of course, I aim to continue my daily practice as I’m able: morning pages, 15 minutes of meditation, 10 minutes of stretches. Plus, join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every week day: 8am London, New York, California and NZ. Side note: I’m now hosting Kiwi hour several times a week!

On the stereo 🎧

Typhoons, by Royal Blood

True story: once upon a time I bought myself a ticket to see Royal Blood at Ally Pally, but stupidly also got myself a ticket to see Queens of the Stone Age at the O2 on the same day. Tough decision time. I opted for QOTSA thinking they were less likely to tour again soon because they was forrin and stuff. Cue Royal Blood show being the stuff of legend (apparently; I wasn’t there), and QOTSA announcing the next day that they would play in Finsbury Park in a mini-festival with an awesome lineup later that summer. You win some, etc etc, I guess.  

Anyways, new Royal Blood album! This has a bit more of a hip-sway than previous efforts, but it still rocks hard and I cannot wait to see it live. Which should, fingers crossed, happen at Victorious on the August bank holiday weekend. Maybe. Plague-willing.

Off the shelf 📚

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

I know, I can’t believe I hadn’t read this yet either, but I was searching for examples of literary horror and this kept on coming up. It’s a literal monster of a book - and at 500 pages, plus the after effects of vaccine-brain, it took me all week to get through it. It gently unfolds, slowly slowly - but reader, when it gets going this gets SCARY AF. I just love the idea of all those luvvie literary reviewers picking up a Sarah Waters book, post-Tipping the Velvet/Fingersmith/The Night Watch, and getting halfway through when the haunted house tropes start up. It’s very absorbing, very stylish, incredibly gothic and makes me wonder why I’m even trying with my own. 

“A moment of silence; then the footsteps returned. And after that the quick dark figure passed and repassed the door, again and again: she could see the blur of it as it ran; it moves like a shadow, without face or feature. All she could think, with growing horror, was that the figure must be Betty’s after all, but that the girl had somehow lost her wits and was racing up and down the nursery passage like a lunatic. But then, the next time it came, the pattering figure seemed to draw closer to the door, seemed to brush against it with an elbow or a hand; and the times after that, the pattering footsteps were accompanied by a light sort of grating sound… Mrs Ayres understood suddenly that, as it ran, the figure was catching at the panels of wood with its fingernails. She had a distinct impression of a small, sharp-fingered hand - a child’s hand, she realised it was; and the thought was such a startling one, she scrambled back from the door in sudden panic, tearing her stockings at the knee. She got to her feet in the centre of the room, chilled and shaking…”

Visual confirmation 📷

I’m almost six months into this journey to self(ish), and was feeling pretty OK actually on Saturday so I wanted to mark the occasion. I “braved” a bare-faced selfie on Instagram  (filtered, of course; I’m not that crazy) to celebrate my increasing self-compassion and quieting inner critic, and you were all so lovely… I really, really wasn’t fishing for compliments, but it was nice to get them anyway!

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