Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Ghosts of Decisions Past

I was reading a beautiful thing the other day, which talked about how it feels to not yet know what you want to do in life, and to be unsure about the life choices you’ve made so far.

(For those of you who read this blog regularly, and who might have wondered how I got on the other day: by the way, I did not get the job. The interview wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t great, either; I’m just… not that good at research, and in interviews it shows. Applying for that job was a bit of a waste of time. I should just tattoo across my face: ‘DO NOT APPLY for academic jobs because YOU DO NOT LIKE THEM’, and every time I am tempted, I could run to the mirror and read it, over and over again. … Maybe I should just put a note on the mirror instead…)

Anyway, the thing I liked said this:

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come… We live everything as it comes, without warning.


All the while, we walk forward accompanied by the specters of versions of ourselves we failed to or chose not to become.'

The ghosts which walk beside me. A beautiful and eloquent metaphor for indecision, the kind of life-indecision which often plagues me, if ever there was one. The PhD, and several of the life choices that led me to it, sometimes feel like a total waste of time; no career, no income, no job security, no maternity leave. (While I know that material wealth isn’t the only form of ‘capital’ there is, still, it’s a bit rubbish that things are still so touch-and-go...) Sometimes I can’t help but wonder where I might be in life now, had I only been ‘braver’ and had had the guts to leap into something more interesting. It’s at those time that those spectres of what-could-have-been sidle up to me and whisper in my ear: you could have been ME…

Some of these spectres look like this:

- There’s Corporate Cloud Nine (I went to a good university, I got a good degree; occasionally I run across an old classmate on LinkedIn, with a job title like ‘Director of Cool Programmes at the BBC’, or ‘Partner in Huge Law Firm’, or just generally something big and important.) This Cloud Nine, clad in an expensive suit, says ‘You could have gotten something done in this world and made enough money by now to be able to retire soon… Wouldn’t that be nice?’ (Occasionally she reappears as Diplomat Cloud Nine, who thinks I could be having adventures in foreign countries while getting paid properly for it.)

- There’s Arty Cloud Nine. This one pops up frequently, and asks ‘You sure it is too late to get started?... In a year or two, you’ll wonder why you never did…’ (This one is still mad at me for not letting her go to drama school when we were both eighteen. She’s convinced my life would have been a breeze if I hadn’t chickened out.)

- And now, Academic Cloud Nine has joined the throng. ‘But what if you did just apply for that job that’s come up at [The Nice University] – what if you did just work your ass off for a few years, staying up til 3 a.m. writing lectures? So what if you hate it, and it leaves you tired?... Isn’t this the best-paid job you can realistically get?...’

(And there’s a bunch of others, of more transient Cloud Nines; from other jobs I’ve had and not wanted to commit to, and also from other, more trivial decisions I’ve more recently made. ‘You should have had fish and chips for dinner; why did you order that crappy salad?...’ Or: ‘You’re wasting your time sitting here writing/ daydreaming; you’re on holiday! Shouldn’t you go to a museum?’ And, if I choose the latter, ‘Why are you going to a museum? Isn’t that a waste of time and money? Go sit in a coffee shop and write!’… )

So they walk beside me, these Ghosts of (In)Decisions Past, and I can’t seem to evade their company; maybe because the present Cloud Nine doesn’t have a strong enough sense of self, a strong enough outline, to make the others fade away? – so they keep coming up to me and whispering: ‘Are you sure it’s not me?...’ Thing is, the reason I don’t just tell them to go away is because they’re right about one thing: I’m not completely happy where I am in life, and I don’t always know where to go. I need to pick a ghost.

And I have. I’ve picked the one I want to be, for now at least, and I want to give this one a proper chance. I don’t need the others coming up to me and distracting me right now. I want to become really good at one thing, and do it nicely.

 The PhD was basically an exercise in indecision. It wasn’t a sound career move as much as it was just me clinging desperately to the ‘stay in school’ option. I have thus faffed about for nearly a third of the century, too scared to commit to ‘the wrong thing’. (Read Barbara Sher’s chapter “Help! I’m Not Ready to be Born Yet” in her book I Could Do Anything […] if this sounds like you.)

So I’m liking this writer’s idea of the ‘spectres’ very comforting much now; I feel a bit better knowing that maybe I’m not the only one who goes through life terrified of making the wrong choice and unable to give up these ghosts – the ghosts of successes that could have been, but never were.

And today I came across something cool in a public library’s gift shop, which kind of tells me how to make the ghosts get lost. It’s funny how sometimes when you are mulling something over and need answers, the universe just sort of throws them your way.

I found the following advice in a book in the shop; this is advice to young creatives starting out, and it goes ‘Build best-case scenarios in your imagination’.

The writer says,

‘One of my favourite thought exercises is the projection of multiple futures. It’s about revisiting your personal past and constructing branches of five, six, or seven possible futures. What decisions have I made in my life that have led up to this moment? […] No matter what we choose, a future on the other side of the fork in the road happened. That reality exists; it is just not ours. There is no sense stewing in regret because your best hopes and wishes exist in that other world out there.

With this knowledge in mind, we can preemptively construct these plural paths. Is it possible to open an exhibition this year? Can I be friends with these people I admire? Will I move to a city of my liking, working in exactly the ways I would otherwise envy? The answer is always yes to every possible future. If you have the courage to build a best-case scenario timeline in your imagination, that reality is already as good as real.’

And he says

‘My advice is: write a few fake CVs for versions of your future selves – craft them, let your ambition run wild, project a few futures. […] I promise you, as you print them out and hold your plural futures in your hands, you will gain a deep sense of clarity about what you want to do and what you do not care to do.’

(from Don’t Get a Job, Make a Job: How to make it as a creative graduate, by Gem Barton.)

I read this and it cheered me up. And the ghosts – even the most persistent ghosts – backed off for a minute. And the contours of the real ‘me’ seem a bit stronger.

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