I’ve had opportunities. I’ve tried my hand at many jobs. I did the corporate thing and worked in the academic sphere. I organized parties and I worked in fashion. I poured drinks, pushed charities and baked apple pies. I’ve written books, scripts, and I even directed a short film once with somebody from the BBC. I was part of a startup and worked flat out before that eventually went under. I’ve lived in a dozen countries and traveled through three dozen more. I tried my hand at a half a hundred lives and left them all behind.
Today I spend my days alone, in my room, rattling away on a keyboard, spilling out words for other people to put their name on and claim as theirs. I’m not young anymore. A lot of life has passed me by. I’m not rich, I don’t have a career, I don’t own a house, I don’t have stocks, I don’t have much security. I’m living in a country where I barely speak the language and, as I’ve been living here for only a few months, I don’t really know many people.
I don’t even have many pictures as I never carried a camera. I only have the memories between my ears. And sometimes when I recount them people think I’m making it up instead.
So have I failed at life?
The time I tried to change it all
Some time ago, after spending many years drifting around the world doing different jobs in different places, I decided it was time to change it all. I’d been teaching English as a second language for two years and though I’d learned a lot there was nowhere to go. So it was time to accept I’d had my fun and get serious.
It was time to go back, finish my education and get a career. I returned home, talked my way into a good university and – while holding down a job managing a café – got myself a master degree with honors. I did well enough that I was offered a paid PhD position under the head of the faculty. Not that it paid well, mind you. That kind of stuff never does. But I had a future. My research was generating results. I had a direction. All I had to do was follow the yellow brick road.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as unhappy as I was then.
I remember once walking home at the end of the second year in the program. It was late at night. I had a microwavable meal under one arm and a stack of papers that I still needed to read through for the morning under the other. And I remember asking myself the question, what if this is all there is?
I stopped dead, right there in the middle of the street and I nearly cried. I realized that I wasn’t enjoying my life. And the little joy I did have came through nostalgia alone. Where was the sunshine? Where was the laughter? Where was the friendship? And most importantly, where was the hope? I realized I was deeply depressed.
I realized I’d made a mistake.
Through a quirk in the university bureaucracy where I’d had too many contracts for them to offer me another one I was forced to take a sabbatical for several months. During that period I decided not to return, even though it meant I wouldn’t get my degree.
As I was sitting there, mulling over what had happened, my sister asked me two questions. The first one was: “What was the worst thing that happened to you this year?”
I answered, “Not being able to continue my PhD and get my degree.”
“And what,” she asked, “Was the best thing that happened to you?”
“Not being able to continue my PhD and get my degree,” I answered. She laughed, I smiled for the first time in several weeks and we went out to get drunk.
What I learned
A lot of people counseled me against quitting. Not least the head of the department who was desperate for me to come back and finish the research I was doing. I could understand. It held promise. The thing was, for me academia didn’t.
As an abstract concept I’ve got a great deal of respect for science. Nothing matches its power. After all, no religion, belief system or mysticism allows planes to fly, people to talk to others half a world away through small metal boxes, or feeds seven billion people.
And yes, perhaps I was good for the scientific method. That’s what my colleagues kept telling me. But what was vital, what everybody kept overlooking, what nobody could answer was: Is the scientific method good for me? And it wasn’t, I decided. It made me negative. It made me cynical. It made me dismiss the magic in the world. And I didn’t want to lose the magic in the world, for without magic what’s the point?
Now it wasn’t the scientific method alone that was the problem of course. Through the prism of time I’ve come to realize that. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who manage to be perfectly happy while working with the scientific method every day. It wasn’t the theory’s fault. Instead, it was just a symbol for what was really going on. And that was that in the process of trying to make myself grow up I was burying my inner child.
I was rejecting who I was in order to become who I thought I should be.
And so I moved on. Without a degree and without any idea of where I was going and no idea if I’d know when I got there, I again started to travel. I decided to start writing. Do you know it took me nearly a year to rebalance myself after university? It took that long largely because I wanted to dig up the child without smothering the adult.
After all, this wasn’t just meant to be a swing of the pendulum. I wasn’t just going back to who I’d been before university. First of all, that was impossible. Secondly, that wouldn’t be the same as admitting that was a mistake. That would be suggesting that those years had been a waste of time. And they were hardly that. After all, sometimes you need to take the time to find out what doesn’t fit you and what doesn’t make you happy. You can’t always make the right choice and sometimes you just need time to figure out you made the wrong one.
In order to grow up I’d tried to kill my inner child. That’s not how growing up is supposed to work. Growing up means embracing the inner child. Growing up means finding inner equilibrium.
And as you almost inevitably do in such cases, I did. And as I did so, I wrote about it. I journaled, I blogged and I even wrote books about the inner pain I was feeling. And as I did that, I realized I had a knack for it. What’s more, so did other people. So much so that today I can live off of it. In that way I found my new path – a path I could never have walked before I went to get my master degree, as then I didn’t have the discipline to bend myself to such a focused and time-consuming craft.
I failed but I grew
For that reason, I do not regret those years I spent at the university. Not one minute of one day. I do not regret not finishing that degree either. Not one minute of one day. Failing is useful but only if you’ve got the strength to admit that you’ve failed and that you’ve got to start again. If you don’t, then failing can be soul destroying and life leeching.
And I definitely needed that little push. If it wouldn’t have been for that bureaucratic mess up that forced me to take some time away I might still be there at that university, living through my nostalgia as I desperately struggled to keep my inner child under the surface and hidden away.
But then we all need a bit of help occasionally.
And yes, now I don’t have a house, I do live in a country where nobody knows me and I spend almost all my time hidden away in a room writing words for other people who get to claim credit for my work, but that doesn’t matter, because at least I’m doing what I love. And every single failure, every single misstep, every single time that life bloodied my nose was a necessary lesson to get me here and is a vital ingredient in the cocktail of my own personality.
And that personality, in turn, is what forms what you’re reading. For these words that I write, these thoughts that I have, these emotions that I share don’t spring forth from my successes, they just as much originate among my failures. And so, I could never be a success in my writing if my life hadn’t been dotted with the occasional failure After all, have you ever read anything that was truly moving and truly deep in which there wasn’t at least an element of pain?