A few words, Duck, about the path to unhappiness (and how to avoid it)
To my superb son,
You never knew your great grandma, Granny Betty. She was my dad’s mum. She died when I was in my early 20s.
I remember visiting her with your mum, when we knew she wasn’t going to live much longer. Mum told her she was studying to be a social worker. Granny Betty’s eyes welled up and she reached out and held your mum’s hand. She told her how proud she was of her.
You see, it turned out Granny Betty had always wanted to work with children, to help them. But when she was young there was no such thing as a social worker. She told us that her family didn’t want her to help children; it wasn’t the done thing. Your Granny Betty was working-class: her dad a miner; her husband, Grandad Percy, a shopkeeper. People like them didn’t do things like that. There was a path that people like her followed.
Granny Betty couldn’t imagine the world you’re living in now. Machines do so much of the work that people used to. As I write, I have no idea what kind of jobs will be around by the time you start working. And I’m sure in your lifetime you’ll see even more things change.
Granny Betty never followed her dream because she let people tell her she couldn’t. If she were here, she’d tell you not to make the same mistake, Duck. She always called people duck: it’s a Yorkshire thing.
But as I said, the world’s a very different place. It moves much faster. So this isn’t just a “carve your own path son, your mum and I are always here for you no matter what” letter. That is very important, but my advice is a bit subtler and probably more important.
It’s natural for people to want to achieve things. To get a certain job, run a certain time, earn so much, own this house/car/thing. It’s entirely natural because these things are tangible, they’re easier for our brains to grab hold of.
But doing this isn’t a good idea, especially when there’s lots of change. When things are changing fast it means there are lots of things outside of your control. If you let your happiness be determined by achieving something that you don’t have much control over, the chances are you will be unhappy, whatever path you take.
Especially if you carve your own because for that there is no map. No one has gone before you and got that promotion, started a business exactly like yours or created the piece of art you’re working on. There will be people who have done similar things and you can learn from them, but there won’t be a set of guaranteed steps to follow. In fact, as change happens faster, even following someone else’s path gives only a false sense of certainty, because things will be different when you do it.
Achievements are just the outcomes of trying, learning, tweaking and trying again.
So carve your own path and don’t hang your happiness on achieving certain things. Instead, hang it on making progress. On being a tiny bit better every day. Achievements are just the outcomes of trying, learning, tweaking and trying again.
It’s like walking; taking pleasure from the act of walking gives you much more than those few minutes when you reach the destination. There’s more to see on the way, it takes longer and you meet people along the way. And when you’re enjoying the walk it feels like you often end up getting there faster in the end anyway.
With more love than you will ever know (until you have your own kids, then you’ll understand),