In their first years at school, each of my daughters had a friendship book, in which their friends could stick a photo and answer questions about themselves. I loved the answers to the question, ‘What do you want to be when you are older?’. They varied from the hilariously mundane, ‘4, and after that 5’, to the reasonable, ‘swimming teacher’, to the ambitious, ‘astronaut’, to the totally fantastic, ‘Elsa from Frozen’. But all the responses were united in how they came completely from the heart, with no consideration of anything other than their own desire to be something.
A key piece of advice from both my coaches was to search for my passion, that thing that I wanted to do above all else. Finding that would give my life a far stronger impetus than the fears and concerns that were currently my driver. I could believe that, having at an early age absorbed the wisdom of the Mary Higgins Clark quote: ‘If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. If you want to be happy for life, love what you do’.
The trouble is, unlike all those small children, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be! I hadn’t done for years. There were plenty of things I was interested in, so much so that when it came time to choose a degree, my list of possible subjects was both long and wide, including subjects as diverse as psychology and aeronautical engineering. My career path had gently meandered, taking me into all sorts of unexpected directions and experiences, most enjoyable, some not – but always, I was led more by circumstances than by any inner drive.
Now, with a mid-life crisis rumbling round my head, I finally wanted more. But what? I dutifully followed the exercises given by my coach, selecting the qualities in a job that most appealed to me, choosing five dream jobs, listing my own strengths and weaknesses. It didn’t help much. I really wanted to do something with my life, to achieve something big, to have a positive effect on the world around me, but I couldn’t see a way to do it that would fit with who I was.
While ranking the factors that gave meaning to my life, I started to realise that the trouble lay with the fact that I was not really thinking about what I wanted. Instead, my choices were being directed by my fears and insecurities. My desire to achieve something big didn’t come through a longing for scientific discovery or an entrepreneurial drive. It was my need to prove myself to my family, to my colleagues, to my friends. My sense that I was an outsider and that I could only earn my place by being something special. That no one would want me around unless I were useful to them.
I began to see that this attitude was wrong. On the one hand, I was being arrogant. Who was I to think I should be someone special? At the same time, I was being too harsh on myself. Why did I have to be special in order to be permitted to exist? Every day, I came into contact with many different people. Bus drivers, supermarket workers, day care supervisors, HR colleagues. Were any of them changing the world? No. Was I really, really, really glad and grateful for the things they did for me? Yes. My life couldn’t function without these people.
My own job, however, didn’t seem anywhere near so useful. I considered other work, where I would be more involved in helping people, but, being a shy, introverted person, it didn’t seem very realistic. Then, I started to notice that people around me did seem grateful for what I did. At a recent workshop, we were discussing a summer school we had given the previous year. Reminiscing enthusiastically about how good the event had been, one of the participants then referred to me as having been ‘their saving angel’. It’s a good job that I ‘m introverted – as if I’d been an extrovert I might have spat out my tea over the table in demonstration of my utter shock. But it got me thinking – perhaps my work means more to others than I think.
My list of what gave meaning to my life started to change. Achievements and having a big impact turned into simply ‘helping others’. Once I started truly thinking in terms of what I wanted rather than what others would applaud, the factors ‘creativity’ and ‘fun’ made their appearance and rapidly climbed towards the top. But the question still remained, where was my passion?
Digging deep into the past, the only thing I could ever remember truly wanting to be was a writer. But I’d classed that one as fantasy a long time ago. So many people want to be a writer, so few succeed. Plus, I clearly couldn’t be passionate about it, as I would have otherwise done it a long time ago. As the famous Rainer Maria Rilke quote goes, “If, when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing . . . then you are a writer.” Clearly, I was not a writer.
It was, however, all I could come up with, so I began to write. Hesitantly, shamefacedly. Frequently I would start but then stop again, overwhelmed in embarrassment at how stupid I was being. There was no chance I could be successful at this.
Then, it finally hit me. I was still thinking about achievements and being good enough to be accepted by others. This wasn’t about being successful, it was about doing something that I wanted to do. ‘Love what you do’ doesn’t say anywhere that it has to be ‘what you do for a living’. I had a good job already – I could write for fun.
Once I really got going, once I worked through the embarrassment and the guilty feeling of ‘wasting my time when I could be doing something useful’, the passion took hold and ran away with me. Now, I do get up in the morning and think of writing. When I write, it fills me with energy, so much so that when I can snatch an evening to write, I can stay up long past my usual bedtime – me, who needs so much sleep – and wake up feeling happy and energetic the next morning. I will never change the world with it, I will never get paid for it, perhaps no one else will ever even read it. I am not, and never will be, ‘a writer’. But I write, and it makes me happy, and that is all I need. By suspending my doubts and attempting the impossible feat of turning base metal into gold, I have instead found my glorious, glowing phosphorus.
I have not given up on the rest of my life. I am still searching for ways to bring more meaning into everything I do. But the passion of writing gives me the strength and hope to fuel this search. With this blog, I hope that pursuing my passion may also have the side-effect of helping someone. That would be truly wonderful.