Friday, 19 October 2018

Birthday Blues: Navigating the Perception of a Successful Life

"What horrifies me the most is the idea of being useless; well-educated, brilliantly promising, and fading out into an indifferent middle age." 
- Sylvia Plath


The clock struck midnight and time slipped forward. I am now 24-years-old and feel drastically different. Of course, this is not a physical change but rather a state of emotional turmoil. 24-years-old just seems so darn old. I know people older than me will laugh at that statement - in fact, just today my parents said to me “What I wouldn’t give to be 24 again”. 
The problem, however, is when my dad progressed to tell me that by the age of 24 he had completed his first career (a five-year stint as a soldier in the British Army), gotten married, and had a child. I mean, shhhh Dad, shhhhh. My mum had followed the same path and had several years in the army under her belt too as well as experience travelling. Adding to that, my sister Charlotte lives in Canada, is married, and has 3 beautiful children while my sister Grace lives in Australia and has just bought a house at only 22-years-old. Finally, there is my sister Vikki who loves beyond measure and also has a beautiful son to shine a light and laughter on all of our days. 

And this is part of my silly fear. At 24-years-old I feel more pressure to have done something with my life, made something of myself. I have to remind myself how totally moronic that sentence is. Of course, I have done stuff with my life, just maybe not in the traditional sense.
So excuse me for what is about to be sound like the most bragging you have ever heard - it is not intended as such but rather a reminder to myself. A reminder that I have achieved a lot by 24 and that a full-time job, a marriage, and having kids aren’t the only way to measure your life. 
I may be 24-years-old but after gaining good grades from Colchester Royal Grammar School, I went on to graduate from the University of Warwick with an undergraduate degree in History and then completed a master’s at the University of Oxford. During this time, I received three research scholarships and travelled all-expenses-paid around the US three times as a result. I presented at two major conferences and shared ground-breaking findings on the history of drug criminalisation in the US. 
I may be 24 but I have been to 47 countries since turning 18 - Greece, Canada, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, Mayalasia, the USA (18 states), Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Wales, Germany, Belgium, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Barbados, Italy, Luxembourg, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Mongolia, Latvia, and Lithuania. 
I may be 24 but I have driven 16,500 miles from London to Mongolia and back in a car that everyone told me would never make it. I have stayed and shared experiences with over 50 strangers by blindly trusting them and sleeping on their couch/ in their spare room on Couchsurfing. 
I am 24 and I have worked doing the most random jobs ever: from serving shots in skimpy outfits in clubs or promoting RBS internships to sampling Rustler burgers, working in corporate law firms, researching for the Canadian history channel or writing powerpoints for Iraq’s largest credit card company. I really have done everything possible to enable me to travel for longer and get a taste for what I’d like to do. 
Despite all this though, I guess the people I have surrounded myself with make me nervous. It’s funny because we all want what someone else has. I often get friends messaging me saying “I wish I could do what you do; working full-time sucks” - and a lot of the time I totally agree, I love my life as a freelance writer, editor and researcher - but sometimes, on days like today, I envy these people with their stability, solid career progression, nice flats, and London party lifestyle. 
I also have friends from my time at Oxford that seem to be literally changing the world every day - whether that be working in high-level government roles, working for NGOs or conducting ground-breaking academic research on the effectiveness of malaria medication - everyone seems to be killing it. While I am naturally happy for my friend's success, I fear I am not doing enough.

However, I have come to realise that whatever I do, it will never feel like enough because of the way I perceive success. I am currently juggling so much as it is - I am going to California next week for three weeks and I am writing exam revision guides, editing guidebooks for two different people, conducting tons of marketing for my dad's company, writing and researching my own book that will be a travel guide to the Russian Revolution, making a scrapbook of my trip earlier this year, cross-stitching several portraits, trying to launch an online craft business, sending out magazine pitches frequently, trying to find the perfect 'real' job, battling the idea of launching my own travel-based  tech start-up, working on a family history, and binge-watching 7 seasons of Sons of Anarchy... Talk about a lot on my plate!
I just have to remind myself - everyone has different perceptions of success and things happen for people at different times. A friend of mine recommended the book ‘Thrive’ by Arianna Huffington, and on day’s like today, I need to read it to remind myself of this. 
As an example of this different perception of success, I was asked this week if I could give a speech at my high school awards evening next month about what I have done and then hand out the awards to students on the stage. Part of this is most likely a right-place-right-time scenario as I was giving a talk to some gifted-and-able students about 21st-century careers options but I also like to think it was recognition of how far I have come. 
I have to admit, in high school, I focused academically (I was also a librarian, a prefect, and in the senior choir) but outside of school I was a bit of a troublemaker (shock-horror). The funny thing is, I don’t think the teacher that asked me to present at this talk remembers the only interaction we had in high school - that was, when he pulled me into his office to tell me he learned that I was using drugs and that, as head of safeguarding, it was his responsibility to put a stop to this. Let's say that made for an interesting few months at both school and at home. Things changed though - and I made it to CRGS and got on with my A-Levels and went on to do everything listed above.

So I guess what I am trying to get at is do not worry, things happen at different times for different people and there is no uniform definition of success. Ironic given I don't take my own advice - but who does? 

To end things, I just want to share a small part of my favourite poem - it has been on my wall for years now. It is called 'Desiderata' written by Max Erhnam:

"If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself./ Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.../ Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceived Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy."

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