We’ve all been there. An array of different adults asking us as 16-year-olds what we want to do for the rest of our lives in the lead up to the university application process – and most of us say the same thing a decade later when we are the deflated, defeated shells of our former selves: “How was I supposed to know what I wanted to do when I was 16? I couldn’t even decide on my favourite Pokémon. It’s really unfair to put that kind of pressure on someone so young.”
I used to believe this too; that kids committing to a career path was a bad idea. “Of course they’re going to fuck it up, just look at the state of them. One Smirnoff Ice and they’re sucking off a stranger in a nightclub toilet. You can’t give these people any responsibilities for the love of God.”
But then something happened to me that made me realise that not only is this completely unjust, it is a hugely damaging way of thinking: In my mid-thirties, I ended up beginning a career in the exact same field that my 16-year-old self had wanted to be a part of, but was in one way or another discouraged from pursuing by the people who were employed to know best. Perhaps I should have given that scared young girl more credit.
In school I excelled in English and was pretty average at everything else. I used to write diaries and journals in my free time and my friends and I would compose vulgar poems and lengthy notes about boys during class. I couldn’t stop writing. I loved it, and my English grades reflected that. It felt natural and I didn’t have to put in a colossal amount of effort to get positive results, unlike the other subjects I studied.
When I write, I feel like my heart is on fire. Even if all I am writing is a short, crappy review of an indie video game, my pulse races and the adrenaline rushes through my veins as if I’m watching the climax of a thriller unfold in front of me. When I’m finished, I feel myself begin to calm, then that warm wave of contentment washes over me and I go and make a cup of tea. It’s fucking great.
The problem is, my brain has been extinguishing these little fires in my heart for the past two decades. It gets pissed off with isolated blazes erupting without warning and distracting it from steering the ship. The brain’s job is to gather information from its surroundings, consolidate this information, analyse it and then use it to logically make a decision that will best suit its survival agenda. You can’t have fires breaking out left, right and centre; we’ll be a laughing stock, no one will ever take us seriously.
As a result of this I blew all my chances of writing in a professional capacity from the very beginning. I was told in school that Business Studies and Economics would be the best direction for me. It covered a wide range of industries and was almost always well-paid. “Perfect!” said my brain as my damp heart smouldered in the corner of my chest for what wouldn’t be the last time.
No one stopped to think about how shit I was at maths, but I thought they knew best so I applied for the degree, got accepted and followed the rules that would ensure my happiness. Predictably I failed to last more than a year due to the fact that I was embarrassingly terrible at it. My natural abilities were not required in most areas of the subject, so it was an uphill struggle that I was too young to deal with, and one which knocked the confidence in my academic ability right out of me for a long time.
Looking back at it all, I think that in some cases the problem with having kids make such a huge decision is not that they don’t know what they want to do (they know exactly what they want to do), it’s that they don’t know what they are supposed to want to do.
A child’s need for approval from adults and peers is overwhelming. It’s how we learn what is right and what is wrong, what is kind and what is hurtful, what is selfless and what is selfish. It’s a natural and necessary stage in our development, but when it comes to career choices, it means that we are making massive decisions during a time in our lives when what other people tell us to do seems more important than what we actually want to do, or are naturally gifted at.
I spent the next 20 years of my life following the rules that the grown-ups were giving me and repeatedly extinguishing the little fires inside.
“Don’t study English, there are no jobs. You’ll end up ‘just’ being a teacher.”
“Why be a starving artist when you can work in the booming local oil industry? Look at my Audi.”
Again, I took the seemingly logical advice on board, followed the rules, went back to uni and became a petroleum geologist. Yet still I found myself coming up against brick walls, again and again, unfulfilled, bereft of excitement, wondering why my life was so fucking terrible when I all I had done was what I was led to believe were all the right things.
Then, at the grand old age of 35, after the breakdown of a long-term relationship, I decided enough was enough. Money was never high on my list of priorities when it came to happiness, so why on earth was I sacrificing what I loved just so I could buy things I didn’t need? I realised what now seems obvious: the rules I had been following were not mine, that’s why I wasn’t getting back what I was putting in.
And so I quit my career in the oil industry, left the country and was fortunate enough to get a job as a junior copywriter in the gaming industry. Not a big deal to many, I’m so far down the ladder that if I even exist to them at all, I’m pretty sure my colleagues think I’m someone from a different department who got lost on their way to the watercooler, but they have no idea that I have never been so deliriously happy.
It all makes sense now. Of course this is what I was meant to do. The feeling I get from having just one article published is a thousand times more rewarding than the millions of dollars’ worth of oil I’ve helped take out the ground. Twenty years gone because my 16-year-old heart was apparently too young and stupid to know what she was talking about. What a huge mistake it was not to trust her.
I’ve now learned that by believing kids to be somehow incapable of planning their own future, I am essentially handing them the fire extinguisher. Everyone’s heart burns for something. The day that I stopped putting out the flames was the day that I got everything that I had ever wanted and more. Turns out my 16-year-old self knew what was up the whole time: your heart is a beacon, it’s supposed to be on fire.
Written by Jillian Dingwall