Tucked away at the back of my high school is a little brown door. I didn’t go through it until I was 16, and when I did I came out more puzzled than ever. Behind the door sat Mrs Ferguson, careers counsellor. I’m not exactly sure what we talked about now, Mrs Ferguson, but I’ve been thinking for a good 15 years since. I think you failed to mention a few things.
I wish you’d told me that I’d complete around 20 years of education and at the end of it, rather than being giddy with knowledge, I’d feel highly unqualified. This would make me feel sheepish. What, after all, were those 20 years for?
And so, when I did end up getting a job at a publishing house it would feel like a miracle and I’d spend years trying not to be caught out as the unknowledgeable person I thought myself to be. To be fair, I did know less than everyone else. But I did know something.
Speaking of knowing things, you also failed to mention that there is a difference between being able to do something, and doing it well. So when I was thinking holy crap I can’t do this, what I actually should have told myself was that I can do this. I just can’t do it well. Yet.
At first, I'd turn up to work and despite the voice that was telling me that everyone could tell I didn’t know what I was doing, work would get, well, done. Then, bits of it would become familiar. I'd see the patterns in it and after a while, years actually, I'd get to a point where I thought, yep, I’ve got this. Finally. This is different to arrogance, and strangely it is not enough to do away with Imposter Syndrome, but it does feel darned good.
And it turns out the mastery I thought I wanted—that I’ve got this feeling—isn’t the point of it at all. It’s just a throughway into something else. I know this because the comfort I feel when I can finally do something well is always short-lived. I then get restless. My mind wants a new challenge and I have to pay attention to this. I have to follow the tugs and the pulls and use what I’ve learnt to begin something else.
In fact, if things go well, I’ll spend my whole life doing this. Jump in. Freak out. Begin. Do. Do better. Breathe. I’ve got this. Shit. Time to up the stakes again. I have no idea where I’m headed. I just know I need to go now. Actually, beware the person who says they know exactly where they’re going. I think the universe saves banana peels for them.
Maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t tell me this, Mrs Ferguson. I would have stayed home in bed.
You also totally forgot to tell me that roles don’t really matter, hearts do. I feel like I’ve spent a long time looking for a job title that describes me. I still haven’t found one. I just found some that get me hired. It’s true, I need a job title for LinkedIn but let’s be honest, no one actually understands what it is that everybody else does. And why would I want to limit myself to a couple of words to describe how I want to contribute to the world? Two words are not big enough.
Job titles are made for search boxes. They’re not shaped like human beings so they make me think that I don’t have things in common with someone when I actually do. I just spent a few days with a group of about 80 people whom I had never met before. At the end of it I didn’t really know what their business cards said, but I knew what they cared about: helping kids become inventors, how to pay more attention and the art of cartwheeling off a mountain top. I had no idea if I was speaking to a CEO or a graduate. It didn’t matter. But in the real world somehow it does. I think this is our loss.
This whole ‘what shall I do with myself’ business is also pretty inward looking, don’t you think? I’ve spent all this time trying to figure out what it is that I’m going to do with my life (I still kinda am), and in the process I completely forgot to lean back and admire just what everyone else can do. In a couple of weeks I am going to work on a farm in Italy. I wrote to the owner and when I got to the area where I needed to list my skills I went blank.
What is it exactly that I can do that a farmer might want to make use of too? As it turns out, nothing really. So I lied. I said I could garden. I can’t. I can’t even keep a cactus alive. I plan to do some Googling before I arrive. So for the record, I think it’s marvellous if you can feed people by keeping a plant alive.
You’re a practical woman, Mrs Ferguson, so you didn’t tell me to do what I love. That’s something I’ve just picked up along the way. And have done away with. And then picked up again. I now think that doing what you love is not the whole answer, you need a business model and a lot of tenacity too.
There’s a sweet spot between being good at something, feeling energised by it and being able to pay the rent with it too. You don’t always get the trifecta and there is no shame in this. But I do think that if your heart ain’t in it, the fairies of the universe won’t sit up and see you're there.
Don’t worry, Mrs Ferguson, I didn’t expect you to have all the answers. We only met for 30 minutes, after all. But I do think I’ve been asking the wrong questions for a long time. I’ve been wondering what my job title should be, when I should have just paid attention to what it is that makes me feel most alive.
I now see that I have skills, and they’re getting better, but it's best not to get too ahead of yourself. There is so much I cannot do—thank goodness someone else is in charge of growing crops. I’m also not super keen on being a beginner over and over again, but if it leads to somewhere good I guess I’m down with it.
Thanks, Mrs Ferguson. Where do I find the feedback box?