I leaned over to claim the five pence from the kerb, examining both sides respectively to check it was real. It was rare to find money at school, a shiny piece of treasure that had been overlooked, quite remarkably, by a pilgrimage of eagle eyed teenagers; on their way out of the school gates for lunch. We weren’t strictly permitted to leave the premises, but now we were year nines, the teachers seemed to turn a blind eye to the few groups of 14-somethings playing truant every day.
I bought an ice cream from the local café, I had always been good with money, but this purchase was afforded only by my recent lucky find. I devoured it completely on route to my next class: Home Economics. It was one of my favourite subjects, partly because the class timetable sported a variety of engaging and hands-on disciplines, but mostly because I got a sadistic enjoyment out of the misfortunes of some of the less creative students.
During a recent woodwork class, John Mishap, a straight-A student in Maths, English and Science, inserted a metal rod into the industrial wood sander, which started a small fire and had the entire school standing out on the playground for 90 minutes. Several weeks earlier Emily Awkward sewed her jumper sleeve to her note book during the textiles class, earning her the nickname ‘book murderer’. Someone was always a bit of a disaster and I expected today to be no different.
I sat next to Jenny Friendly, my bestie of three years, I liked her a lot. I wasn’t popular and she always stuck up for me. She didn’t mind saying what she thought and as someone who was especially shy I found this to be a quality that I really admired in her. She also never borrowed my Crayolas without asking, now this was a real deal breaker in any friendship.
As we circulated several A4 worksheets around the class our teacher explained that there would be two parts to todays lesson on ‘Careers and Lifestyles’, with part two undisclosed until later. I spread out the worksheets over my desk for a birds eye view. Every page contained a different series of images: cars, houses, holidays and hobbies. There was a ten bedroom mansion, a dilapidated caravan and every type of accommodation in between. A Ferrari, a push bike and every method of transport in between.
Under each picture had ‘Outright Purchase Cost’ and ‘ Monthly Loan Repayment Cost’, I could see where this was going. The intent was to manage our expectations of what kind of lifestyle we could afford based upon our choice of career. I smiled with glee and wondered if anyone else had clocked the trap, or if I was the only person who was going to look very smart at the end of this exercise.
I considered my options tactfully, I had already decided in myself that I had the potential, tenacity and commitment to be a millionaire when I was older; I wanted a big beautiful detached house in a nice part of town, exotic holidays and to buy my clothes from Ralph Lauren. But for the purposes of the exercise I would select modest options, the very least that I expected from my life; what my parents had. My dads Volvo was a second hand four by four, our four bed Victorian terrace most closely matched by a three bed semi.
I populated my blue poster board with a couple of hobbies, pets and holidays. I even drew one of my own: a ‘perfect man’ deciding the monthly cost for this should be free of charge. I was intentionally neat with my presentation, envisaging that the teacher might call me to the front of the class to show me off as an exemplar to the other students.
As I looked around the room I caught a number of my peers cutting out the ten bed mansion. Dream on, I thought snipingly in the direction of Emily Awkward. David Mishap was sat in the corner sticking his mansion down with a quarter of an inch of glue and intermittently picking his nose, saving the finds in his shirt pocket for later. Oh David.
In part two the teacher handed out jobs at random. We were unemployed, cleaners, doctors, analysts, civil servants and anything else you could think of. I was an Entrepreneur earning £3000 per month with £4000 in savings. I sort of knew what kind of job that was, people who start up businesses from nothing. Sounded risky, definitely not something that suited me, too hard I thought. But I didn’t mind getting this job when a minute or two later the teacher announced that whoever had ‘entrepreneur’ had the highest paid job in the class!
Now it was crunch time, as I expected our teacher asked us to add up our expenses and compare them against our assigned career. All of my ‘Delivery Driver’ peers who had picked out the five bed detached with a pool were very much about get their expectations managed. There was always a disaster, I felt excited at the prospect of watching it unfold.
I tallied my repayments verses my wages and savings which when first calculated had me coming up short by at least one third. Convinced I had messed up the maths I tallied it again, coming to the same baffling total. Surely it wasn’t possible that I couldn’t afford this? I had the best paid job in the class, my selections were far less than I wanted, were less than I expected. I felt my face flush and my fingers tingle as a mix of anger and panic flooded through my body.
”Jenny, I have the highest paid job in the class and it’s telling me I can’t even afford the basic things on this sheet!?” The bell started to ring, a rumble of voices and screeching chairs descended over the classroom as Jenny raised her voice in reply; ”Yeah, Emma you’re never actually going to have any of these things, that’s why you need a husband, you cant just buy a house by yourself. I think you need to manage your expectations and set your sights a little lower”.
I sat, struck by her words, my mouth agog. She wasn’t the sort of person to be unkind, she said it because she absolutely believed it to be true. She looked away almost immediately, distracted by the sudden mass exodus of students. She said something briefly about what time we would catch up tomorrow before walking out into the chaos, the door closing behind her, as my world fell slowly apart in the remaining silence.
We all have a choice about how we respond to what others tell us. We can decide if we believe what they say is true for us; or not.
I could have decided that what Jenny said was true for me, accepted this advice as fact and behaved accordingly. My actual decision at the age of only 14 was to say the following two things to my parents when I got home that day: ”I’m going to get a mortgage” followed by: ”How do I do that?”.
”…you’re never actually going to have any of these things.”
This one sentence was the main driving force behind many of my successes for over 15 years, I didn’t think about why I wanted these things, only that it felt very important to me to prove that Jenny was wrong. Funny thing was, it was never about Jenny at all. It was about proving to myself that I was in the driving seat of my own life, that I had autonomy.
I recently read a great passage in a book that talks to this: What to Say When you Talk to Yourself (affiliate link):
”As long as you and I allow others to program us…we are, without a doubt, out of control, captive to the whims of some unknown destiny, not quite recognising that what hangs in the balance is the fulfilment of our own futures.”
What Jenny said come from a place of love with an intent to protect me from disappointment and hardship. It’s the same self-fulling message that Jennys friends, parents and teachers would have told her, to protect her. The people who we trust to fulfil this role in our lives do an important job in helping ground us in the midst of complexity and chaos. This can have great utility, as long as we remember that we are still the custodian of our own lives, that the ultimate responsibility to decide our future is ours and ours alone.
The 2019 series of blogs is called ‘Getting in the Driving seat’. It is the year of
living my best life, being wholeheartedly me and gaining autonomy.
My first ever blog started with a sucker-punch realisation in October 2017 that I was quite unhappy with my life, despite having achieved everything I thought I wanted; everything on my blue poster. As it turns out there is a big difference between meeting your wants and meeting your needs. I wanted a house, my need was security. I wanted a ‘perfect man’, my need was for love and connection.
When focusing so narrowly on specific wants, its easy to completely miss the underlying needs that can be met in many ways, so that’s what I’m focusing on this year, meeting my needs.
By the end of 2019 I will.. be more in control of my life mission and purpose. I want to feel secure, purposeful, autonomous.
- Secure. Have completed the renovation of my house and the de-clutter of my physical and digital belongings. Good looks like not needing to worry about everything around the house that ‘needs to be done’ someday.
- Purposeful. Understand what brings me a sense of purpose. Good looks like testing out different avenues to either remove these avenues of inquiry at worst and at best discover something(s) that bring me a sense of purpose.
- Autonomous. Have a better understanding of my own needs and values. Good looks like being able to make more confident decisions about how to spend my time and other finite resources.
2. Financial Freedom:
By the end of 2019 I will.. be able to maintain my current lifestyle with an increased freedom of choice on how much I work in paid employment. I want to feel clear, free and secure.
- Clear. Have established a new normal for my spending post becoming minimalist. Good looks like a clear monetary figure of what I need to be financially free, rather than what I feel I ‘should’ earn.
- Free. Have set up passive income streams. Good looks like being able to choose how many hours I work in paid employment. Aspiration: part time hours.
- Secure. Have invested my equity in something that will contribute towards my pension and standard of living at retirement. Good looks like having a rough 50 year plan.
By the end of 2019 I will.. have more meaningful and rewarding connections with the people in my life, including clear boundaries. I want to feel: connected, loved, boundaried.
- Connected. Have deepened my ‘A’ relationships. Good looks like deeper feelings of connectivity with the people that are most important to me through being vulnerable and present.
- Loved. Have an intimate relationship with another person. Good looks like being courageous, despite the risk of rejection. Self-compassion and self-love in the search for this relationship.
- Boundaried. Have a better understanding of my boundaries when engaging with others. Good looks like having the confidence to say no to others if it means compromising my own needs or values.
4. Health and Wellbeing:
By the end of 2019 I will.. have made incremental improvements to my physical and mental health in a way that is sustainable. I want to feel strong, disciplined, balanced.
- Strong. Have a lean and strong body. Good looks like: being able to go for long walks with friends without feeling exhausted, being able to confidently climb a 6c route indoors and reducing my body fat percentage to circa 24%.
- Disciplined. Have routine. Good looks like not neglecting my health needs through lack of routine of sleep, exercise, stretching and physical grooming. Establishing a new normal for self-compassion and self-talk that diminishes my feelings of anxiety and low mood.
- Balanced. Have completed my counselling. Good looks like having taken out everything out of the ‘cupboard’, where all unpleasant things are kept, unpacked everything one by one, shaken it down, understood it, accepted it and packed it away.
By the end of 2019 I will.. have rebalanced where I channel my energy to include more time for recreation, learning creativity, expression and play. I want to feel cultured, wiser, joyful.
- Cultured. Be a more rounded human being. Good looks like saying yes to opportunities to learn and understand other people and cultures. Even if this means resolving conflict and having difficult conversations to get there.
- Wiser. Have continued with my learning mindset. Good looks like having at least one learning project on the go to feel that I am still working towards a greater understanding.
- Joyful. Introducing play and recreation into my routine. Good looks like taking part in creative activities that being me joy such as singing, dancing, crafting things, exploring ideas and concepts, writing short stories and poems, painting, drawing or playing a musical instrument.
I’m really happy to share my 2019 goals with you. I’ll tell you what goes well and more importantly what doesn’t.
In the what goes well bucket, i’m discovering the best kinds of activities are those that meet a number of my needs at once. This time next week I depart for Tanzania to climb mount Kilimanjaro. Doing this makes me feel strong, which feeds my health goal, in touch with another culture, meeting my growth goal, it gives me time to deepen my relationship and feel more connected with a good friend. I’m doing a Grease themed dance course in April for my growth goal because it brings be joy, spending time with friends in Devon for connection, booked a lead climbing course so I feel strong and so I can go on a climbing holiday in June and have been making great headway on my house renovation, giving me an increasing sense of security.
I feel completely in control of both my journey and my destination.
Ask yourself, who is in the driving seat of your life? Is it you?
Photo credits to Daniel Gonzalez