You Can't Choose What You Love
When I was a small boy I fell in love with the dream of being a Fighter Pilot. It didn’t happen for me. For a long time after I thought I’d never get over it, that it would dog my self confidence forever. Decades on, I’m finally over it, am able to view things differently, and have come to see the gift in failure.
Staying out of boxes
We all like to paint pictures of ourselves’. We do this for a multitude of reasons, and for the most part these pictures are helpful. They help us find social groups we want to interact with, short cut the dating process or simply allow us to feel happy with the way we see ourselves.
Boxes serve us well on one condition, that we are happy to remain inside them. If we are happy to obey it’s rules, agree with it’s values and sign off on it’s estimation of our potential, a box can be a cosy place to hang out.
Despite it being much colder on the outside, more scary and exponentionally more unknown, life outside of boxes, for me at least- is much less stressful.
For many years I clung to boxes, they helped me define myself and they gave me what I thought was a clear representation of what I was after in life. My aspiration as a young boy was tantamout to that fact. More recently though, I’ve discovered this sense of needing to be defined was a contributing factor to why fufillment eluded me for a long time.
My dream of being a Fighter Pilot was with me since I can remember. I worked for it throughout my childhood. At the first pass I just didn’t make the grade, at the second I got a foot in the door. I managed to get a place on a Helicopter to Fast Jet crossover scheme, maybe I’d just pull it off. Sadly, defence budgets got in the way and the crossover scheme, the only card I had left, closed. Right then, the singular goal I’d set myself in life died.
So what did I do? Well, I didn’t do what I should have done. Instead of dusting myself off, accepting that sometimes life doesn’t deal you the cards you’d like, I wallowed. I allowed it to affect the very core of me. I allowed it to define me. From then on, for a long time, I viewed myself not as someone who’d achived all the positive things I had achieved, but as someone who simply hadn’t achieved one particular thing. To the rest of the world no one gave a hoot, but to me it was everything, and it left a big hole.
Filling a hole
When the road to a big goal comes to an end, it forces you to assess things. The things you thought were going to happen after achieving that goal, now won’t, and the decisions you took up until that road hit a dead end, suddenly lost their relevance.
What was clear to me was how much I’d committed to this version of me, how much I’d made the image of who I thought I was, visible in everything that I did. I’d put myself firmly in the box of the aspiring Fast Jet Pilot, and it was hard to get out.
I wore this version of myself like a favourite coat. But now, instead of keeping me warm, it was weighing me down. I needed to take it off. Doing so made me feel naked. Despite having a highly rewarding career, living on a beach and being surrounded by some great people, I found it hard to recognise myself. A lot of things were unclear, but one thing certainly was clear. I knew I never wanted to feel like this again.
Immediately I started trying to redefine myself, trying to fill the hole of uncertainty that sat square in the pit of my stomach. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. At the time, I passed it off as just keeping busy. What I didn’t see, was that for some reason I was so scared to let my real self show, too nervous to listen to what my inner self was saying, that I ignored it. Instead of embracing the new direction that deep down I knew I wanted to go in, I buried it. “That isn’t me” I told myself, and so set about defining what was. I got busy, desperately working to re-program myself, trying to find a new coat to keep me warm, a new box to keep me safe.
Failure is a gift
When I was young, failure terrified me. Quite simply, I gave too much creedance as to what other people thought. I let myself get trapped by the idea that if you go after something, and it doesn’t happen, it’s somehow a reflection of your value in the world, your standing, or your worth.
Now I’m a bit older, I understand this is complete rubbish. I’ve understood this for a while, but it’s only been recently that I’ve truly appreciated the weight of it’s importance. We can read a thousand stories of ultra successful individuals and how they’ve failed a thousand times, but at the time of our personal failures things hurt. We are beaten down, upset and a bright future can be hard to picture.
So how do you move forward? See things for what they are, and ultimately see the value in failure? The answer, like so many things, lies inward. Rather than scouring the world for what else is on offer, and set about scripting another version of ourselves, we need to learn how to compartmentalise the experiences we see as failures, and attempt to see them as chapters in our story. Chapters that will add colour, texture and depth that will ultimately be full of fufillment.
Introspective questioning is a valuable thing. When we have the courage to ask ourselves probing questions, we often find revealing answers. I didn’t achieve my goal for a number of reasons, many were down to me. On reflection I’m ok with that and now, looking at the job, family and interests I have in life, there’s no way I’d change it. You never know where you are going to end up, and that is a big part of what makes life worth living.
What do you actually want? — don’t ask, listen.
In a world where we are taught to dream big, have a relentless work ethic and go big or go home, it can be hard to ask the questions that really need asking.
Are we actually passionate about the things we seek?
Do we really want what we thing we think we want?
Will we be happier once we have them?
Every day we are bombarded with images. Images of things, or places, or experiences. We see it on TV, the Internet and Social Media. The message of marketing burrows deep, it nestles within us, persuading us to like and want certain things, a certain life.
After a while, it’s hard to know the difference between the things we truly hold dear, and the things we’ve come to think we do. We lose ourselves in a game of progression and accumulation. Everyone is free to aspire to whatever they want, this is a wonder of being human, but after years of being confused about the things I valued, the opinions I had and the life I sought, I decided to stop asking myself “what do I want”, and instead listen to what had always been there, singing out.
In the years since “failing” at my boyhood dream I’ve failed at many other things. The difference now is how I see those failures. Importantly, I have been fortunate enough to learn that outcomes are not binary. I no longer believe failure to be finate. There is always something we can take away, a lesson learned, a place discovered or knowledge retained. Of course, the opposite is also true. Success is never all emompasing, free of either time, effort or relationships.
In either case, I’m fortunate to be able to enjoy the ride. I work hard for the things I value, and because the things I seek are things I truly want, the ups and downs of the road to fufillment are much more easily tread.
Dreams v Life
Dreams are a great thing, I will teach my children to dream. I will emplore them to go after all and everything they want in life. That said, those dreams are not what makes us who we are. Those dreams, achieved or missed, do not define us. A dream achieved does not make a life fulfilled, and a dream unrealised does not make a life diminished.
I’ve come to believe that fulfilment cannot be won, it cannot be certified on completion of a course, or paid on promotion. It is not achieved on the arbitrary realisation of a goal. Instead, it is the perpetual and glacial effect of listening to who you are, and having the courage to walk your own path.
Dream big, seek great things, but most of all — enjoy the journey, be wary of boxes and don’t be defined.