It recently occurred to me that this month, I will be turning thirty. The time when the slow and inevitable decline towards decrepitude quietly takes hold; when we really, no really this time, have to grow up and become adults. It’s rather odd that we attach such significance to these events when in reality they are an entirely arbitrary measurement of time relating to the number of times the earth has circumnavigated the sun. In spite of my indifference to this milestone, I thought it a good opportunity to reflect on the last thirty years; the stark realisations, the inconvenient truths, the bungles made and the lessons learnt. Thus follows a somewhat scattered missive of stuff I realised before I was 30.
1/ I’m incredibly lucky: It is only in the last couple of years that I’ve really started to appreciate everything that has been provided for me. I was brought up in a typical nuclear family by loving parents and lived in a nice town close to the beach and countryside. I went to a grammar school where I was challenged academically and personally, and made friends with similarly fortunate children. Without me really having to do too much aside from the odd bout of revision, I was able to go to a good university and graduate with an engineering degree. The foundation of my future was set with relatively little effort on my part. It’s a tremendous privilege, and means that I’m able to choose almost any course of action I please. Not only that, but as a white male, I never experience the discrimination that women, ethnic minorities or people with special needs or mental health problems are subjected to on a regular basis; the status quo extends no limitations to my personal freedom.
2/ Avoid ‘too easy’: On the flip side, I am frequently heard muttering ‘too easy!’ – often in jest but with an underlying conviction that things should somehow be more difficult. How easy it is to slip into a respectable career, furnish oneself with all the modern comforts one desires and ‘plough one’s furrow’ (as a retired civil servant memorably put it) until retirement. I realised pretty early on that challenge and strife were required such that things could really be appreciated, and I am fortunate to have to go out of my way to find it when most others are trying to do the opposite.
3/ I’m not special: I thought that when I left university everything would fall into place and that I’d be in high demand thanks to my academic credentials and ‘well-rounded’ CV (to use a favoured careers advisor term). I romantically envisaged all sorts of wonderful opportunities springing forth and discerningly selecting one that suited my taste. I had a sense of entitlement that stemmed from my privilege; that I was somehow owed a stimulating and meaningful job by society. Five months after graduating I was coming to terms with living at home again and the realisation slowly dawned on me that I first actually had to work out what I wanted to do. And even after that, I had a lot of work to do to demonstrate my commitment to it and why somebody should give me a job doing it.
4/ Have a plan: When I graduated, most of my friends had already lined up graduate jobs. I hadn’t, but had a fairly strong conviction that adventure beckoned and a life of excitement and fulfilment would unfurl before me. The mistake I made leaving university was thus repeated in much the same way when I left my graduate job, and I travelled to Canada under the misguided assumption that ‘everything would all work out’. Heading off into the blue yonder with no plan for the next day never mind the next month was certainly an exciting prospect, but when the time finally comes and you’re sitting in a park in Vancouver not quite knowing where to go next, it’s a scary moment. I decided to visit a friend in Whistler and ended up staying for the winter season, but the situation would have been far less stressful had I decided to do that a month earlier!
5/ Make a decision: My aversion to plan-making appears to reside in the desire to avoid making a mistake – I frequently avoid making decisions because it’s easier not to. I hope that either something will happen such that the decision will be made for me, or that the choice will disappear completely. The opportunity cost of choosing something is so great that I could surely never make the correct decision? Perhaps I just haven’t had enough practice making significant decisions, or maybe I’m just not willing to consider the repercussions of a ‘wrong’ decision. I err towards inaction with the subconscious sense that to do nothing is better than to try and be wrong. Of course, life is not a maths exam but a series of subjective, difficult and messy choices, few of which can be defined as such . Making mistakes is an inevitable part of life, and is necessary to learn and grow. As Leo Buscaglia poignantly noted, “the greatest risk is to risk nothing at all”.
6/ Confidence and self-esteem: This is one I’m only now starting to come to terms with. I’ve had low confidence for a long time without really realising it, because I’d accepted it as a part of myself. I’m quick to defer to somebody else if a problem arises, and am rarely assertive or forthright in my opinions, whether planning a trip or debating the state of politics. I’m often more worried about upsetting somebody than putting my head above the parapet, and this has manifested in many ways. Conversely, and probably arising from the sense of privilege previously discussed, I’ve generally thought of myself as ‘better’ than others, and sometimes notice myself being quietly disdainful of the actions of others. It’s subtle to the point of almost being subconscious, and rather at odds with the lack of confidence.
The year out I took before university was transformational in terms of basic social skills, but there still lingered a sense that people would think I was boring or that I didn’t have the ‘banter’ of more vocal individuals. I missed opportunities for relationships because I convinced myself that the other person wouldn’t be interested.
In 2015 I determinedly secured a highly competitive graduate job, and memorably received two key pieces of advice when I started. One was to admit to mistakes as soon as they are made, and the other was that the more questions I asked, the better I’d do. I struggled from the start because I didn’t risk making mistakes or asking questions, because I was too worried about looking stupid. As the months went on, I wasn’t learning as quickly as I should, and the thought of asking the question I should have asked three months previous was… out of the question, and thus the vicious cycle continued. Notably, the lack of confidence in this sphere arose from a mild form of ‘imposter syndrome’ – I already knew that this lifestyle and career was not for me, and so I didn’t really believe that they were trusting me in the role.
Two years later, I decided, on my own and away from the influence of social pressures and expectations of the previous job, to start a sea kayaking business in the Outer Hebrides. The boost to my confidence and self-esteem was incredible, and for the first time I felt like I was doing something that was ‘me’ – something I had ownership and control over that I could influence with my own unique strengths. Everything felt so easy and I felt like I could do anything I wanted. Social interactions were genuinely enjoyable rather than being accompanied by a negative internal monologue. I could lead people with authority; people were trusting me with their time and money. It engendered an incredibly powerful mindset, and led to a great relationship with Mika in the most relaxed of circumstances. It is only by being true to ourselves and what we want that we can really reach that state of positivity and contentment in ourselves. Confidence seems like the easiest thing when you have it, but impossibly elusive when you don’t. The only way to gain it is to risk failure, and in doing so learn that something is actually possible, and that it is within one’s power to do it.
7/ Figuring yourself out is the best investment you can make: I was fortunate to get a well-paid graduate job, but knew even before I’d started that it wasn’t right for me. As much as I tried to fit in life around a 9 to 5 plus two hour commute, I continued resisting it until I inevitably left. Part of me wished I could have succeeded in that role, but it was right of me to listen to those mental perturbations and trust that there was something better. It was certainly not the most financially astute choice (at least in the medium term), but to put a price on knowing oneself better is limiting and short-sighted. By pursuing a lifestyle that better matches one’s values and skills, opportunities that couldn’t have been conceived of will inevitably present themselves. John Burroughs encapsulates my point superbly with one of my favourite quotes: ‘Leap, and the net will appear’.
8/ Plan for the future, but not at the expense of now: We all have different views on what’s going to happen in the future. Some are pessimistic and do whatever it takes to mitigate risk and provide security, while others live completely in the moment as if tomorrow won’t happen. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m pretty optimistic that things will, in some shape or form, work out well, and I’m generally accepting if things don’t happen as planned. However, I realise this is not an easy thing to change, and I’m lucky that this trust in the future derives from a childhood where I was valued, supported and felt a sense of belonging.
Trusting in the future means that I don’t have to work it all out just yet. I accept that there’s little point in trying to prevent things that are outside of my control, and am well prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. I’m happy sacrificing what might be considered progress (building my pension pot, buying a house), for things that I value as important now. By planning too carefully, we effectively trade in our creativity and freedom for order, safety and security. If the world, or our view of it, changes, we are less able to adjust to it and could find that our plan is no longer relevant.
9/ Freedom and Commitment are not opposites: Throughout my twenties I’ve been reluctant to commit to anything, because doing so will require me to sacrifice other things, namely activities and leisure. What if the wind’s good and I want to go kitesurfing? What about that race I want to do at the weekend? I’ve viewed commitment as a sacrifice and constraint, something to be avoided at all cost. But I’m starting to realise that by not committing to anything, one cannot achieve anything. People that I admire, who have achieved great things against unfavourable odds, have all been completely committed to what they are doing. Sacrifices have to be made, but are they really that costly? Do I always need to be outdoors when the weather is good?
Indeed, ‘with freedom comes responsibility’; we have a duty to ourselves and those around us to use our time and resources well, which, contrary to the urge of the moment will require giving up short term frivolity for longer term projects. Committing wholly to work or relationships and maintaining freedom need not be mutually exclusive, and if I choose well, my ability to do, say, and think as I please will not be controlled or limited (a paraphrased definition from the Cambridge DIctionary).
10/ ‘Travelling’ is another facet of materialism: Travel has long appealed to me as an adventurous and exciting activity, full of possibility for learning and meeting new people. This still holds to an extent, but ‘travelling’ is often marketed as another product of our materialist society; a tick-box, Instagram-centric exercise that reflects our success and status as accomplished citizens of western society. I have been lucky to go on some amazing trips to places such as Nepal, Ecuador and Canada, and reflected on why I went and what I learnt from them. I enjoyed them immensely, and gained a lot from observing different cultures, but at times it felt like an indulgence; a fleeting and somewhat hollow experience that served little more than to strike envy into users of social media and emit greenhouse gases.
That I’m able to hop straight on a plane without a second thought and end up somewhere completely different ignores so many of the responsibilities that accompany it. One can witness this almost anywhere; travellers are seen taking photos without so much as a glance at the subject, and insensitively asking local people questions without any notion of observing what goes on. I am often as guilty as others.
This ‘consumption’ of tourism is generally self-serving but can lead to beneficial social and economic exchanges. I think there is a lot to be gained from travel, both domestic and international, but we must take it upon ourselves to ask why we are there. Is this really worth the environmental cost and the touristification of precious culture?
11/ We quantify almost everything in our lives, and by doing so, miss the essence of it: Ultimately, everything in society is defined by money; Gross Domestic Product dictates our ‘standard of living’, and our income and assets are effectively equated to our quality of life. As social animals, we continuously compare ourselves to one another; there is a sense that an impressive job title or big house reflects our success. Life sometimes feels like a race in attainment. Why are we racing? Are we really going to be happier once we’ve reached some arbitrary level of success? Admittedly, It’s difficult to get away from this mindset because we are continually surrounded by it, and I often find myself comparing my life to that of others on the basis of superficial criteria.
Are we continuously passing up opportunities now for the promise of a better future? Is it more important to prove our worth to others, or to enjoy a meaningful life for ourselves? To live life according to quantifiable but wildly unrepresentative criteria is in my view, a huge mistake, and it is evident all across society.
When I think back on my favourite moments of the last few years, not one arose from a big financial outlay. I think of the moments of euphoria trotting along a Scottish ridge in the rain and wind, the fish and chips after an epic kitesurf session. I see the tired satisfaction of paddlers at the end of a successful kayak trip and the camping trips with friends – these are what give life its meaning. Why do we forget that, and why do we continue to live our lives as if money is going to make us happy?
Whilst I try to avoid defining success by quantity, I often find myself applying a similar principle to time. Even on days off I want to make sure I’m ‘productive’ and I feel a sense of guilt if I haven’t ‘achieved’ anything. Time is quantified as an opportunity for output, and a day lounging in the garden could easily be dismissed as wasteful. Only a few days ago I did a great morning of study followed by a long run. During the run I wondered if I should have continued studying, but if I had I would certainly have been berating myself for not going for a run! Thus, ‘measuring’ our quality of life generally leads to guilt, envy and anger.
12/ Me first, others second… or not: When I became self-employed, I read stories of people that started businesses and made lots of money very quickly, and this seemed to be what I should aspire to. Their apparent success was a result of their profitability and fast growth. But, did they build an organisation that delivers a quality product or service in a sustainable, environmentally-conscious and socially responsible way that empowers its employees to be creative, and makes money? Sometimes this was questionable, but surely this is the best outcome for both the individual and society? The ‘get rich quick’ method and resulting glamorous lifestyle are often glorified, when in reality it not only erodes the morality and empathy of the individual, it drives a wedge between rich and poor, exploits finite resources without regard for the long term future and makes everybody less happy. It seems so obvious, yet the selfish way is often so compelling as to be irresistible, in spite of the environmental and social damage currently seen being done.
13/ Our education should carry a moral obligation to serve society: Vast resources are poured into our education system, particularly if we go on to university. What this effectively provides is, as Schumacher called it, a ‘passport to privilege’. Rather than choosing to serve the needs of society, we are free to serve our own desires however we see fit. We may find jobs that grow the economy or help save lives, but we are generally incentivised to fend for ourselves. It comes down to the individual’s own ethics and moral stance as to whether or not they consider others or their communities in their schemes. I, by the way, have almost completely taken for granted that privilege and sought only to satisfy my own desires, but feel like it is time to change that.
I had a memorable conversation with an elderly care home resident a few months ago. She had dementia, was almost completely deaf and blind, and was a lady of few words, but given the time (which she rarely was) she had plenty to say. Unable to hear my response, she talked and I listened, and as she reflected on her situation and her experiences in life (as elderly people often do), she was resigned to repeat a number of times ‘it’s every man for himself’. It was incredibly sad and I wish I could have better understood why she had come to see things this way. It was a wistful conclusion from somebody with such depth of life experience.
14/ Technology is great, sometimes: As many of my friends will attest, I put off purchasing a smartphone until the second half of 2018, when it finally seemed necessary to help run my business on the go. Arguably, it was essential; I could deal with bookings when I wasn’t home and upload photos to social media in a minute. Inevitably, one becomes more and more attached to the stream of information until it becomes an addiction. Whilst I still use a smartphone, I have only the bare essentials on it and try to minimise usage as much as possible.
I remember when Dad sent camera films off to be developed and some days or weeks later the photos would drop through the letterbox. It was enormously exciting, and we’d all sit down together and look through them. Those were special moments, but we miss them now. We can take as many photos as we want thanks to terabytes of digital storage, and are so used to consuming vast amounts of information that even the finest photograph may only receive a cursory glance on a tiny screen. I have so many interactions with people during which they’re distracted by a phone or laptop, and in doing so miss subtle communication that may otherwise lead to insightful discussion or increased empathy for one another. The US election and Brexit referendum also demonstrate the damage that can be done with the use of our own personal data, and we need to think carefully about how this is protected and distributed. Is it worth it when it’s used against us to scaremonger and polarise our society for political ends?
15/ Being deliberate about our actions is so important: I once read an article that said our greatest characteristic in 2020 was to be ‘indistractible’. With myriad options of where we focus our attention, it is easy for it to be grabbed by the most compelling subject at the time. If we are not deliberate about where we concentrate our attention, we are in danger of having our lives dictated to us.
16/ Instant Gratification: We are living in a society where we can get anything we want, when we want it. Convenience is king – we no longer need to wait for things. The need to have it now is a distillation of the inexorable trend towards short-termism. As complexity increases exponentially, we can’t wait because by then things will have changed; fashions will have moved on and current technology will be obsolete. However, my view is that we need to slow down, for the sake of ourselves and for the environment. We need to find joy in simplicity, discipline in patience and to understand the cost of our actions far more deeply than we do currently.
17/ Relationships are the most important thing: A few years ago, I wanted to work for myself, to have total control and to not be dictated to by a ‘boss’. This broadly comes back to my desire to maintain my ‘freedom’. I have since decided that working with people, in one way or another, is far preferable. The feeling I’d get at the end of leading a successful kayak tour was incomparable; it was so deeply satisfying that I had made an impact on the lives of others, however trivial the activity was. Last winter I worked as a care assistant in a care home. The hours were long, it was poorly paid and undertaking personal care definitely took some getting used to. But, as the months went on, I slowly got to know the residents and my colleagues in all their quirks and peculiarities, and started to feel part of a community. It confirmed to me that being a part of ‘something bigger’ was so rewarding, and the complete unpredictability of people always meant that I came home with a funny story to tell. While it is not possible to quantify the value of such subjective experiences, the findings from the ‘Harvard Study for Adult Development’ attest to my convictions that human interaction really is good for us. Robert Waldinger’s brilliant TED talk strikingly states that “good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.” and is well worth a watch. Who could argue with such a stark conclusion from a study that tracked the lives of hundreds of people for over 75 years?
In conclusion, it’s been a pretty stellar thirty years. By being valued as a son, a student, a friend and a citizen, I’ve matured into a person who is content with himself, possesses at least a basic sense of morality, and broadly understands his place in the world. A first rate education has assured personal well-being and security and enabled the ponderous selection of one’s path from myriad opportunities. My take-away from life so far is thus; that by seeking and overcoming challenges, accepting the responsibility that our privilege demands of us, and being respectful of other people and cultures, we will do what is best for ourselves and our communities and live happy and peaceful lives. I’ll go and do that now, but first I’ve got to go kitesurfing…