Last night on Twitter, someone posted a wonderful question. It was this:
Twenty years ago (for that, horrifyingly, is how long ago 1997 is), I was about to leave school. I wasn’t the happiest of people, despite hindsight telling me, now, that I had far more going for me than I realised at the time. I was facing huge stress, and I was rather unhappy, and I had no real or proper idea what my life was going to be like, or how I was going to manage any of it.
In short, I was just like every other person in my school year. Each one of us faced exactly the same challenges and choices, looking down the same corridors of possibility and frozen in the terror of not knowing which was the right choice.
Now, of course, I know there is no right choice. There are just choices. Each of them bring you somewhere new, and every new place has its challenges. But if a person of the age I am now had attempted to tell school-leaving me this nugget of wisdom, I would have rolled my teenage eyes and completely ignored it, because of course I would.
The question on Twitter, however, really made me think. There are approximately ten million things I’d love to tell the ‘me’ of late April/early May 1997, not least of which is ‘you’ll get your heart broken in a few years, so badly that you think you’ll die – but you won’t,’ and ‘doing English at university is most definitely not a waste of time, no matter what anyone says.’ I plumped in the end for telling myself not to worry so much, which is a perennial piece of advice, but now I’m wondering if I’d be better off saying: ‘In twenty years, you’ll have achieved every single thing you wanted, and that’s great. But – and here’s the kicker – none of it will be as you expected.‘
None of it will be as you expected.
I wonder if I’d left school with the conviction that I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a sea-captain, how things would be different. Instead, I left school with a nebulous headful of dreams, ideas of an artist’s life without any proper plan to make any of it real, and I settled into a series of unsatisfactory jobs – not that there was anything wrong with the jobs, as such; it was me who was at fault. I struggled for so many years to find out the things which made me real, which gave me purpose, and then I struggled for many years more to find the courage to follow the plans I finally made.
I wish, twenty years ago, someone I trusted had told me: trust yourself. Those things you feel awkward about, or which you’ve been made to feel are wrong, or which you’ve been encouraged to ignore? They’re all okay. They’re more than okay – they’re you. And one day, they’ll lead to you do a doctorate in a subject you adore, and a few years after that they’ll see you get an email with the subject line ‘You WILL be a published author!!’
(Not that I’d have really known what an email was in 1997, but let’s just go with it.)
That’s not to say that life is exactly as I want it, even now. I suppose that’s humanity, isn’t it? Stasis is death, or whatever. Yes, I have achieved everything I wanted to do, and if I were to turn around right now and meet the Reaper standing behind me, at least I could fall beneath his scythe and feel like I’d done something meaningful with the time I’d been given.
But there’s always more to be done. There are always more mountains to conquer. There is always going to be that little itch around your soul, the one which makes you wonder: ‘is this it? Could there be more?’
And so, me of 1997, this is what I want you to know: there is always more. Everything you do is a step in the right direction. You will never stop trying. There are no wrong choices. And, sometimes, dreams – even when they come true – aren’t what you expected, so you’ve got to keep dreaming them anew. Striving for your own happiness is not a mortal sin. (Also, music will never be better than it is right now.)
And that heartbreak really doesn’t kill you. Trust me on that one.