In general, I don’t really believe people are inspired to make big changes based on the casual verbal tips of others. Maybe in soap operas and cautionary tales, but not in real life. It seems much more intuitive that people should look to their experience of the world, check out what’s happening around them for clues about the likely outcomes of their decisions, and base their actions on that. People, even people who seem to be seeking and deploying the advice of a friendly counsel, ultimately have to weigh up the odds and gauge the fall-out according to what they want and what they know.
But there are occasions when the words of others do make a difference, when they fit beautifully into the space and trigger a realisation, or when they light up areas we had allowed to fall into darkness. Someone told me I didn’t have to be a performer, didn’t have to try, why would I want to do that anyway when I clearly wasn’t enjoying it? And that was how I realised I didn’t want to. Not by knowing it or intuiting it, but by the unique understanding of an external guide. I stopped trying and life became simpler and better. I had been given permission. Everyone wants to do work that sounds exciting, and if they can’t, then they want you to. I felt a pressure that no one ever meant to put on me, and the pressure accumulates.
Someone once told me, in the middle of another point, that they know I don’t like to “push myself forwards”. This was shortly before I was invited to do my first pundit spot on Sky News. I agreed to it immediately and vigorously, her words ringing in my ears. But later, no. She was right – I really don’t like the limelight. I cringe. I can’t watch myself back. I go to extraordinary lengths to avoid looking back on any of my old work at all. Try to talk to me about my books when I’m not ready, and I’ll be as mortified as a teenager having a love letter read out in class. Objective success brings a kind of relief, but pride must be stronger than that. Pride in others I think I understand; a kind of admiration. But what is this auto-pride? Does it really exist? When there are successes it feels to me like relief and it feels like a wave of gratitude for good fortune, but there is no upright, upfront peace of the sort that pride should surely bring. Who cares, actually. The relief is powerful enough.
The tsunami of hits to this blog on Reddit and Stumbleupon earlier this year almost killed me, even when much of the response was positive. To be visible is to invite a critical eye, and the uninvited judgement appalls me, because I don’t inherently know that I am right. In fact, I know for sure all the things that are wrong. On a bad day I know – not just think, know – that I’ve written maybe three good jokes in my life. A pretty low score for someone who’s supposed to be a funny writer – the day I made this, surely a fluke. And if what you say about my wrongness fits the gaps I have left, the shape I anticipated was missing from this jigsaw, then your judgment will be assimilated. Upsetting as it may be at first, I’ll work with it until something more compelling changes my mind. Sometimes you’ll be right, too.
The internet once felt like somewhere to hide while you built yourself up in relative anonymity, but now it’s an active place of worship. It has its demigods – cults of personalities built around rumours, conference talks, blogs, and a silent playground arbitrariness about who is ‘in’ – and who never will be. It also has a culture of kindness, but it’s high-profile kindness, sometimes even a sort of virtual air-kiss, available to the impossibly involved, but impenetrable to anyone simply lingering, aware. All social systems favour the confident and self-assured, and the internet is no different. It is so many, ruled by so few and it has a super-earthly splendour; those at the top seem so cool and reverable, and if we won’t worship, we must wonder why we’re here.
So: in recent years someone told me I didn’t have to perform, and someone told me I didn’t like pushing myself forward, and they were both right. I knew it; it fitted. The challenge must be to incorporate these experiences into that intuitive weighing-up process, to allow myself to realise that I don’t have to things I find stressful, that I’m not, in fact, very good at them and shouldn’t be trying to do them at all because it’s not going to get any better. But even though giving up on this cycle is all I want to do, even though I want to tie off every thought and let it die like a lamb’s tail, I’m weaned on flattery. I’m out of practice.
Finding a fresh ambition to abandon on someone’s doorstep is a joyful moment. It’s like finding a fiver in your pocket. I think I’ve always been like this. Certainly, pissing away opportunities felt wonderful when I took two A Levels and found myself at school with just four hours lesson time a week and absolutely nothing to do for the other 36 hours. I walked on the beach or stayed in bed or read strange books in the school library. I enjoyed the sunshine on my skin when everyone else was in lessons. I went a bit mad with my own company and my mum would’ve liked to have fixed me. But the wind changed and things were fixed as they were. I think this is it now – for good.
After school, with no interest in the future at all, I found liberation in two consecutive gap years (why stop at two?); dropping out of university the first time round was empowering, and only the pressure of fulfilling others’ dreams has squeezed some of the joy out of my hobby in the decade since. I was offered an all-expenses paid trip to LA. just last week; I refused it with a conscience about letting down my hopeful peers. But never for a moment did I imagine I was letting myself down. Anyone seriously believing I’m the right person to speak live on a debate show about social media has mistaken me for someone else. Sometimes it’s cheering enough just to get the invitation, to feel a little bit visible for a moment. Ah, I am still young. I have so many more things to give up!
How much of what we do is really about trying to give ourselves permission to get out of the limelight? Our society remains preposterously aspirational as, from the moment we begin nursery school, we are trained to grasp every marker of glamour and live in fear of ‘losing’ whatever we believe we’re entitled to. We worry about missing out, losing education, losing money, losing time. We concoct fears about getting behind, as though getting ahead has any relationship to happiness and auto-pride is a real thing! But is worry better than loss? Is fear? Is the Pavlovian compulsion to relentlessly pump every second full of life’s level-ups? Maybe if we stop climbing, the pride and happiness stuff won’t change all that much. Maybe pride-of-oneself is always glimpsed on the next rung up, never quite where we are. Maybe that’s what we’re worried about.
Do we like our work? Or do we just think we like it because it conforms to a childhood (childish) ambition in some way, and everyone says we should keep it up? Do we ever know how much we like anything, unless we like something else more? Giving it up seems the perfect way to find out. There’s a bit in Friends that’s something like this… “I love you,” says the guy. The girl goes, “No, you just think you do” The boy is exasperated: “That’s the SAME THING.” Well, we know what they both mean, but she’s caught a glimpse of the alternative, a world after love. A world after aspiration. It does exist.
To be disappointed with someone who hasn’t followed up on a dream opportunity is the opposite of permission. Unqualified encouragement and support are paramount because words can crush souls, but be aware of the person you’re talking to. For some, the simple idea that things can be equally wonderful upon giving up is the happiest, most liberating thought in the world – the first breath in a drowning lung. Your encouragement – to others, or yourself – may be an obstruction keeping you from the much more real freedom. The freedom of giving it all up.