Where are you going?

posted 01 July 2004

First of all, pop over and say hello to Mary, yet another new member of the ever-expanding WBC, of which more in a bit.

In an excellent post (and only her third!) Mary makes the point that so many people don't seem to know what they want to do in life, where they're going, what they're doing. They are worried that they don't even know what they want out of life. The thing that struck me about that post is that it assumes that there are people for whom this isn't true: that there are some lucky, clever, sorted people who know exactly what they want out of life, and have a pretty good idea how to get it. Some comments by some friends even indicate that some people believe I'm one of those people.

Let's get this straight: I am not one of those people. And nor is anybody else.

I remember the last time I felt like I had it all together and knew where my life was going. I was 14. I lived with my parents, totally under the padded but nevertheless iron thumb of my mother. I was going to go to school, try my very best -- and it was implicit in that statement that my very best would be considerably better than most other people's bests -- and do well. I would get a good place at university, doing a "proper" subject: science or maths of some kind. At university, I would meet a lovely, well-bred English girl with good legs and good looks. After a few years I would settle down with her, start a family, and bring the kids back to Trinidad at Christmas to meet their doting grandparents.

At 15, I realized I was gay. D'oh! Life turned upside down, world wrecked. Now what? I didn't have any idea, and this act of pulling the rug out from under me precipated a massive depression (and an awful lot of mediocre poetry). My glittering little life plan had shattered. And at this point in the story, I'm supposed to say: but then I had an epiphany of some sort, a cliché occurred to me, and I fought hard and got my life back -- and so should you! But that's not what happened. At 16 I realized my looks were never going to make me an actor, at 17 I realized I wasn't nearly as good at maths as I thought I was, at 18 I failed to get the grades I wanted at A level, and so on. Life is full of failures and demotivating discoveries of things that you are bad at.

But the thing to remember is that it's absolutely, exactly 100% like this for everyone. One of the most useful realisations I've ever had -- that epiphany at last, it was hiding somewhere -- is that all people are the same. People are stupid, often frightened, panicky animals, powered by the most basic motivations: fucking, feeding and sleeping as much as possible, in that order. The best model for a group of frightened humans is panicking mice, and there's a reason for that. We are all uncertain, all scared. We are all just making it up as we go along. And what makes me laugh is that we are all absolutely convinced that everyone else is cooler, calmer, more confident and more knowledgeable about the world than we are.

Maybe you already have some intense desire to do something, be somewhere, sleep with someone. Whatever. If that's your dream, then lucky you, go run after it. Me, I wanted to fuck around with computers. I didn't know what I wanted to do with computers. Until I was 12 -- 1993, when the rest of the world was getting to grips with CD-ROM games -- I hadn't even seen one, or touched one. I didn't have a clear idea of what they even looked like -- I was still expecting room-sized boxes with big reel-to-reel things. I clearly remember the huge surprise when I was led into the uber-cool mysterious "computer room" to discover that they were tiny little beige boxes. That still doesn't mean I knew what I wanted to do with them. I tried all sorts of stuff -- I wrote stories, I drew pictures, I played games. Nothing very much I couldn't have done without a computer, in fact. I heard about modems -- those babies sounded interesting. But I couldn't get one. So I continued fucking around, and never really lost interest. Then, in 1996, the Internet showed up, and I fell deeply, madly in love. This was the thing! This was what I'd wanted! This was the world, in a convenient package, delivered to my doorstep! Oh fuck yes! I made the Internet in turns my plaything, my lifeline, my home, my field of study, and my job. I was lucky.

But I didn't know that when I plugged in the box the first time. Computers just seemed interesting. It wasn't because I was a better type of person. It wasn't because I tried harder than anybody else. I didn't know what I was doing, I was just doing stuff. I did lots of other stuff you never hear about, because it didn't work out. I was a competitive swimmer, I took tennis lessons, I tried to learn to play the piano, I tried painting, I was in a choir, I rowed, sailed, fished, went camping, tried carpentry (failure) and plumbing (disastrous) and had a huge cactus collection at one point. None of these things became my life's calling. I tried things, and one of them turned out to be my thing. (Incidentally, I have a feeling that's how boyfriends -- another seemingly unattainable goal that the cool people seem to have -- work as well. You just bump into them one day. All your best efforts couldn't make it come any faster, or arrive any slower. It just happens one day. In my continuing singleness, I take heart in this fact.)

But, I hear you cry, some people are unemployed! Some people stay single all their lives! What if I'm one of those hard-luck bastards who will never know what their true calling is, never know true love? Dear god you're depressing me! Fuck off! (I hear you say)

And it's true. The world is full of people who haven't stumbled into glory yet. But the point is, it's not worth getting upset about. It's not under your control whether you'll find these amazingly great, lucky things. The best you can possibly hope to do is try things that might work. Plug in the box. Write the first chapter. Go to the party. Get in the boat. Take the low-paying job that seems interesting, or the high-paying boring job that will fund what you really want to do. There's no right way and no wrong way and the only mistake you can make is to not make a decision. If you just hang around in limbo, doing nothing, nothing will happen. You have to try it out, you have to fuck it up. Make a mess, clean it up.

Nobody knows where they're going, but you have to start walking to find out where you'll end up.

Listening to: Cat's in the Cradle by Ugly Kid Joe. A true classic (and oddly apropos for a post about wasted opportunities).

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