From our earliest childhood, we learn that results matter. Few parents clap while their child is trying over and over to stand up and walk, they applaud when he succeeds. Later, not many inquire to find out how interesting a pupil thought a course was, they want to hear what grades he got at the test. When trying to get into the university of your choice, your hobbies and experiences may matter, but your grades matter more. And when you start your professional career, no one is interested in your ongoing quest to find the job that is right for you, they only want to know about the job you got. You hear congratulations when you get married, not every time you start dating someone. You receive cheers when your child is born, not while you are trying to get pregnant. This applies to all areas of our lives. And yet, we are told that it is the journey that matters, not the destination.
So far, I have lived what can most certainly be qualified as a rich, full, diverse life. In so many films, novels and self-help books, we are told that it is always better to dare making mistakes, rather than shying away from a challenge. Over the years, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous quote “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” has come up in so many conversations I’ve had. And yet, whether it’s in my professional or my personal life, life has taught me that living by this rule does not necessarily make you happier, nor is it generally encouraged. It might just makes for a better story to tell at parties.
Of course, if you are one of few who follow untrodden paths leading to great financial success, you get to share your inspirational journey to fulfilment on Ted Talks. But otherwise, a varied experience is still perceived as a symptom of instability, a lack of commitment. At best, it will be seen as a sign of spontaneity, which is a quality rarely sought by employers or investors. The contradictory messages we receive lead to a general dissatisfaction, whether you follow “the safe path” or go on “the adventurous journey”. I have tried both. I have experienced the nine to five lifestyle, working in a cubicle, going for drinks during happy hour with my colleagues on Thursdays, blending into the crowd and elbowing my way through the rush hour stampede. I have also gone the other way, that of the freelancer, the artist, the entrepreneur. I know what it’s like to completely believe in what you are trying to sell, to be obsessed with it day and night, to be truly proud when it succeeds or to feel like an utter failure when it doesn’t because it is an extension of yourself.
When I talk to friends who have chosen the safe path, the job they neither love nor hate, the house, the reliable and predictable partner, the dog, the expensive holidays with their family, they do seem generally satisfied. But every so often, the subject of their unfulfilled ambitions and their evasive creativity surfaces. They tell me they wish they had dared to do what I’ve done: moving to a new country when the time seemed right, quitting their job when it lacked meaning, ending a relationship when it just wasn’t working anymore, diving into new and uncertain projects when they felt too good to pass up. Everywhere, they receive the same contradictory messages as I do. “Be daring, be creative, live life to the fullest, BUT also be stable, provide for your family, stay on your path, don’t take risks.” And so, while their lives are pleasant enough, they are made to believe that they should be extraordinary, thrilling, out of this world. Which they usually are not.
I wonder: Do we really choose which path to follow in life or does our innate character define which path chooses us? Over the years and decades, I have often started a new job thinking that since the salary was good, the colleagues nice enough and the work conditions very acceptable, this time I’d stay on course and forget about my creative endeavours. I thought dedicating my evenings and weekends to my passions would be sufficient. But it wasn’t. Even when I tried really hard to keep my initial enthusiasm for an office job going, my body would inevitably give up on me. I would end up sick and quit to literally save my skin. And I would return to theatre, film or cultural events, none of which ever allowed me to have the stability I thought I should have.
Whether we travel through life on the straight highway or the uneven winding road, I get the feeling that we neither really choose our path, nor are we ever completely satisfied with the one we’re on. Regardless of what we are being told, the destination does matter to us as individuals and as a society. How much we earn, whether or not we achieved public recognition, how long our marriage lasts, how many kids we have, whether we own a piece of land, all those things matter. We see them as a reflection of our success in life. But how much we enjoy our work matters too, and what we have seen of the world, whether we have truly good friends, how close we are with our kids, whether we still dance spontaneously past childhood. We do not wear these as badges of honour, but they fill our hearts every day and they give us a sense of pride as human beings.
I don’t think there is an ideal path. And I don’t believe people who tell me they are generally sublimely happy in life. Catching moments or even periods of joy, contentment, pride, wellbeing does exist. But I do not believe it can really last without phases of sadness, regret, bitterness, exhaustion. As a friend recently told me, “we must rejoice in the good times and use them to recharge our energy to last us through the difficult times that follow – but neither the easier nor the harder times are endless”. And trying to find a balance between enjoying the present moment and being focused on your goal is an elusive state of being that I keep trying to catch. Now you see it, now you don’t.
(Title: Book title of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography of the years 1939-69)