Ten years ago, I was at University in York. It was my first year at University studying Sociology at York: the world seemed new and scary – exciting yet nerve-racking. I was living in halls at James College on campus, with a group of girls I still remember the names of.
I didn’t have a clear idea of what the future would hold – I still didn’t know what it was that I wanted to do. Like many 19 going on 20-years-olds, I had a sense of purpose but had no idea what that purpose was.
This December, I’ll be 30. It’s one of those round numbers that seem weighty yet hopeful. Another decade will be entered. I’ve stopped looking at life as a series of ‘achievements’ and more as a lifelong learning process, a lifelong series of experiences and lessons. 10 years ago, my life was more about achievement. I had been taught that if I did my A-Levels, if I went to University and achieved certain things, I would have purpose and meaning in my life.
Yet these past ten years have taught me something more valuable – that purpose and meaning come not from conventional markers of achievement like degrees and graduate jobs – but from listening to your own intuition, passion, and always learning from the tough lessons that life throws at you. I always wanted to make a difference to people. That purpose has stayed with me through these ten years even as my focus has changed – at one point I wanted to be a social worker, another point a disability advisor.
At University, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be in the position I am now. I feel both free and constrained, but I’m still at a point where I’m building my own life, hopes and dreams. Life changes all the time.
From my 20s, I’ve learnt that, in a roundabout way, we end up following our dreams – even if they are not clear to us at the beginning. Even now, the way doesn’t seem that clear – but I’ve learnt to accept that. My natural focus is on the future, but I am learning to be in the present. Do things now. Write, create and make decisions. Take the small steps and don’t feel as if a day has failed because there is a giant t0-do list.
The to-do lists will never fully get done. I make it harder on myself by not recognising that to-do lists are not the measure of success – they are just a tool. When I look back in another ten years, will those things on my to-do list matter all that much?
The month before I turn 30, I will be doing a lot of reflecting. A lot of writing. A lot of reading and laughing with friends and family. I’ve struggled a lot in my 20s, and grown – I hope – into someone who recognises her own strengths and weaknesses yet realises that I need to stop measuring myself with such a tough yardstick of success. Be less hard on myself but still work towards my goals each day. Imagine what success looks and feels like to me – not the conventional measures of success that feel impossibly lofty and unfulfilling and will always make me feel inadequate.
What other people tell you to do might not always be right for you. For example, some people swear by morning pages, others might find that doesn’t work for them. Other people will say – write every day, do this amount of words – but if that doesn’t work for you, there’s no need to feel like you’re not measuring up. If these ten years have taught me anything, it’s that you have to learn what works and what doesn’t – not everyone is the same. I don’t know what these next ten years will hold, but I do know that when I look back, I will remember those hard-won lessons and recognise that every little step I’ve taken has led me here.
You make your own markers of success. That is the kind of possibility and hope that I had when I was turning 20 – now that I’m turning 30, I may be older and wiser and a little worse for wear – but I’m feeling a return to that hope and possibility.
What can I do with the next ten years that will have me looking back at 40 and feeling I’ve learnt more than I could have imagined about the world and myself? I’m already looking forward to the next chapter of my life.
‘The past beats inside me like a second heart.’ – John Banville, The Sea.