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Finding our own path

It's not so hard once you understand the question

What do I want to do?

It seems like such an innocuous little question doesn’t it? What do you want to do with your life? Or the rest of your life? Or even just the next few years?

Do you have an answer? If you do, you’re in something of a relatively small minority. If you can underline that four-letter word want and in so doing delete all of the things that you feel you must or should do, and can still answer the question, then I applaud you. If you’re still standing, and can honestly say that you are actually doing it, or at least working towards it, actively, constructively, taking real-world steps to get you there, then crack open the champagne. There are very few of us.

I talk to quite a few people who are not happy with their lives. The degree of unhappiness varies, but there’s a general feeling of wishing there was more to it. Strangely when I ask people what they want to do, they don’t seem to be able to answer the question. “I don’t really know what I want” they say. I hear that way too often.

Here’s the crux. That is bullshit.

They do know what they want. We all know what we want. We might have buried it in our subconscious. We might be scared to admit it. We might think we don’t deserve it. We might not be willing to do what it takes to get it – and that’s a ‘fair enough’ choice – but we DO KNOW what it is.

If you’ve ever been anywhere near coaching exercises in an effort to unearth what you really want to do, then you will have come across questions about your values. I think a lot of us struggle with this one (me included) because we misunderstand the question.

Thanks to Suzy Walker, editor of Psychologies magazine, I now get it. In a recent video she made the point that in this context the word ‘values’ has nothing to do with moral values. It’s not about what moral values we hold to be worthwhile; it is about what do we value having in our life. What matters to us? What is it that gets us in the zone, into flow, or however we choose to express it? What excites us? Or calms us? What is it that, if you took it away from us, would leave us feeling life is not worth living?

If we look at the question in that way, not only does it become easier to answer, but it highlights the conflict we might feel if we try to answer in the context of making moral value judgements.

Let me give you an example. Most people would say that honesty is a value that they espouse. But what if your passion involves buying and selling (whether that’s fine art or second-hand cars or buying up derelict property to transform)? Then the probability is that one of the things you actually value is the ability to do a deal, to make a profit, or at least to get something at a “good” price. This invariably involves a little gamesmanship. Clearly there is tension between that and absolute honesty.

So, when we start to unearth what we really want to do, it’s helpful to set aside our moral judgements in the first stage of the process. If we have a strong moral compass, and I believe most people do, then if we’re intent on doing something truly against the grain or against the law, we will know. That’s the point to bring our moral values back into play. That is the point where we quite legitimately might not be willing to do what it would take to get what we want.

To begin with though it is helpful to defer judgement.

I also find a lot of people get hung up on the questions around the notion of ‘what am I for?’ ‘what is the point of me?’ The problem with that is that we cannot necessarily tell from our viewpoint. Defer any thoughts about whether what you do in some grand sense “gives your life value”. It isn’t really for us to determine whether our lives have value in the grand scheme of things.

That said, one thing that will certainly undermine any value we might have in said grand scheme is being perpetually miserable. And being perpetually miserable is where we end up if we’re not at least trying to do what it is we really want to do.

To do. That’s the other thing to understand about this question. It isn’t about identity. It isn’t about what we want to be or what we want to achieve. It is about activity, action, doing. It’s not about wanting to be a world-famous opera singer but about wanting to sing opera. It isn’t about wanting to win the World Cup, it’s about wanting to kick a ball about on a muddy field with a bunch of mates. It’s about the action, not the outcome.

In her Find Your Purpose video, Walker goes on to explain that once we’ve identified what we want to do, what we like to do, what we’d fight to keep being allowed to do then we look at the ‘why’ of that. Why do you want to sing opera, or play football? Is it about a need for music – or for drama? Is it about expression – or formality? Is it about competition – or teamwork? That’s the point at which you get the answer to that question about what values matter to you.

I’ve talked a lot about the question here, because no matter how many times I come back to it, my answer to it is really very short and hasn’t changed in decades. I want to travel, and to walk, and to read, and to write.

That’s it.

I dress it up on all sorts of ways. I talk about wanting to study, to learn another language, to get my head around T’ai Chi. I talk about the fiction I love, and poetry, and history books, nature books, travel writing. I talk about swimming in pools and wild waters, and places I want to go. I talk about people I want to work with or learn from. I talk about current projects, things I need to research, avenues to explore. But when I boil it down, the four things that really matter to me, the things that my life would be utterly miserable without are the travelling, the walking, the reading and the writing. Not necessarily in that order.

So following my own advice, I finally – trust me, it’s taken a while to get to this point – sit down to figure out my own why’s. What is it about these things that I cannot do without?

Freedom has a lot to do with it. Rule number two: cherish your freedom. So there’s one of my core values right there.

Beyond that it comes down to curiosity, creativity and connection.

Curiosity: the first one is easy. I was born a ‘why-child’ – endlessly asking questions, endlessly reading anything and everything. I think even the travelling is just about wanting to ‘know’ the reality of a place for myself, how does it feel, taste, smell. When I come across words I don’t know, I look them up – not just their meaning but their roots and evolution and links.

I get excited when I learn something new. Of all the things I miss about Clive, probably the biggest is the absence of those “I didn’t know….” conversations that would have us rambling off down the myriad by-ways of our separate knowledge stores and experiences, combining our insights and invariably winding up with something else that we needed to look up or check.

Friends and family are always bemused when I start another course. Decide to embark on yet more study. They always ask ‘why’ I would bother, at my age. For the same reason as I would have bothered at any age: an insatiable desire to know a little bit more, to learn, to check that what I think I know is right, to correct what isn’t. Curiosity.

Creativity is a more recent recognition. I disavowed any creativity for most of my life-to-date, insisted it wasn’t part of my make-up. Then, because the universe doesn’t give up and keeps beating on your head until you listen, I finally woke up to the fact that I write, I cook, I take photographs…these are all creative endeavours.

For a time longer I would follow up any mention of such activities with a “yes, but…” comment. I would limit my ‘claim to creative’ so that I wouldn’t have to prove that I was as good as anyone else. I’m now “coming out” as a creative. I cannot imagine my life without what Clive always referred to as my “concoctions” in the kitchen. I cannot imagine a day that doesn’t both start and end with me scribbling something. I am annoyed when my camera battery dies or my pen runs dry or, worse, I find I’ve left both the camera and the notebook at home and I’m left trying to hold a half-formed passage in my head without even a picture prompt to hang it on.

What made the difference was the sudden realisation that creativity is not a competition. We make things. We like the results, or we don’t. Someone else likes them or they do not. That’s about outcome. The action is in the creation. The joy and the pleasure are in the rush of a first draft and the tightening of the edit. It’s in the standing at the stove figuring out where this pot of nourishment can go now, now that I’ve discovered I’m missing a couple of ingredients from the original recipe…cooking as concoction, cooking a concoction. Concoct. Cook. I suspect those two words have the same root. I’ll have to look it up.

Finally, connection. This is the one that took me by surprise this time around. I’m an introvert, and I have always interpreted that as not being a people person. I’m still working on the possibility that being interested in people, who they are, what they think, what they believe, how they feel is not remotely related to the need to be quiet, often solitary, to have one-to-one conversations rather than round-table fight-to-be-heard debates. Could it be that introverts are much more people-persons than extroverts in that we focus in more closely on individuals in our search for connection?

I took my ‘connection’ for granted until it was ripped away. I only realised how important an aspect of my life it was until it wasn’t there anymore, and I felt adrift. I now know that I need to forge new connections and new ways of re-rooting the old ones. That’s a work in progress.

Obviously connections to individual people cannot always be re-established, especially if they happen to be dead, but there’s a deeper question about what it is I connected to, through my connection with them. My roots in my geographical location, I realise, I’d only sunk into the topsoil, they were nurtured and held firmly in place by someone born and bred here. Now I need to sink them deeper. I need to find – to create – my own connection to this place that I call home.

Somehow I can’t help but think that I will do that by walking, and reading, and writing.

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