We try so hard
I’m not especially proud of my roots.
For a start, I received no education outside of school — which was shit, anyway — and certainly nothing that would prepare me for the anthropocentric world we now inhabit.
As for wisdom or elderhood that, similarly, was in short supply. That’s not entirely true. My paternal grandparents were very wise — in their quiet, unassuming way — but I spent so little time with them, it would have been hard to expect them to unpick my teenage angst.
But it wasn’t just the absence of wisdom (…far better than a vanilla, exam-based education), it was the constant exhortation of my parents, stamped on my very soul, to get on and make something of my life:
“Go get a job, Julian — any job will do!”
(They didn’t exactly talk like that but you get the gist.)
Thereafter, and from a very early age, this meant a despairing approach to work: I felt I had to prove myself in my naive endeavour, notwithstanding, in the process, I missed out on life. And when I say I missed out, I don’t just mean I sacrificed the ability to enjoy myself or travel (say) but my devotion to work corralled any insight to make friends, interact on a human level and, worst of all, desecrated my desire to reconnect with my inner, creative child. I’m quite sure that if I spent time now with my younger self, I’d find him arrogant, boorish and a pain in the arse.
I don’t say this to be boastful but when I was running my recruitment business (1988-1991), I would routinely work 100 hours per week. I didn’t need to but my supposed business partner had taken leave of his senses and had decided he didn’t need to contribute to the sales and/or marketing of the business but, instead, would adopt the role of bookkeeper, even though we’d engaged a very competent accountancy practice to deal with the books.
Looking back, who was I kidding? I wasn’t working smart. I was running scared, breathlessly panting; I never stopped to ask myself a more serious question than:
“How do I keep this business afloat?”
(That’s a pretty serious question but not when you place it alongside your sanity, soul and physical atrophy at the hands of 4 hours sleep, a shit diet and zero exercise.)
Even when the business finally, and inevitably went to the wall, I still didn’t pause to reflect, let alone decide my future. Instead, I plunged myself first into another dull recruitment job, and then, without so much as a nanosecond of life-affirming consideration, jumped into law, blinded by my own ignorance of self and the world I would inhabit for the next 18 years!
In hindsight, I wish I’d kept a log of the hours committed to my degree and work during the period from 1992 to 2010. What drove me on was the need, the desire, the winner-takes-all mentality to make partner. At the time, I thought it was the apogee of legal professional practice. However, like much of my decision-making up to this point, I never questioned the instinct — or was it blind panic? — to climb the corporate ladder. I took it as read that absent the label ‘partner’ I’d never amount to anything.
In the end, I failed, as I’ve done so many times in my life* but, thankfully, failing to pass through the membrane from lawyer to partner did me a huge favour. I wouldn’t have said that at the time, but I’m certain that if I’d made partner, it would have broken me and ended my marriage. Much like my desperate need to make partner, I would have sacrificed everything to be the best partner in the firm by dint of client wins, revenue and the amount of money I was paid.
But here’s the point. Call it drive, monomaniacal zeal or being batshit crazy, I still don’t understand, even with my humble beginnings and a bit of parental chagrin, why I felt the need to drive myself into the windswept ground in order to prove something. Or to put it another way, why did I work so hard for something: a) I didn’t understand, b) was outside, way outside, my social circle (I was the first person in my family to go to University and the only one to qualify as a solicitor) and c) why I endured such heartache and never asked myself one of a very limited number of questions that, perhaps, would have woken me from my narcissistic torpor — e.g. Who am I?
I didn’t know then and arguably the position is still not clear…
I appreciate that’s a desultory way to respond, but no matter how much light I try to shine on this questionable period of my life, it’s hard to reconcile why, so easily, I allowed it to be sucked dry by working long hours, (supposedly) getting on and lining the pockets of partners who couldn’t give a shit about the emotional effect on their people. I mean, if I was hellbent on changing the world by litigating against the world’s major polluters then that might have been a potentially justifiable reason to subjugate my life to work but it was never like that in acting for commercial clients who were mostly arguing over money.
And this is where it doesn’t take much for me to fall into a thick funk of despair when I think of all the time I might have otherwise spent seeing my children, my wife and building meaningful friendships.
I’d like to think I’m over this period but I’m not. Why should I be? It’s not that I find it hard to write about but I know I’ve got to go deeper with my self-enquiry so that: a) I don’t make the same mistakes again and b) (more importantly) I reconnect with the edge of my zeal to make something of my life. I understand that sounds contrary to the foregoing but, even allowing for the passing of years and slowing down, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to wanting to discover some of the blindfolded-passion with what I’m now doing.
Perhaps I’m getting things mixed up. It’s one thing to be passionate without questioning what I’m doing but it’s another thing entirely to find out what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life and apply anywhere like the same degree of ferocity as before.
In regaling you with the miseries of my former life, I’m not looking for sympathy less still for you to take a leaf out of my self-reflective book but it would be good if you stopped running, just once in a while, and reminded yourself of this wonderful quote from E. E. Cummings:
“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”
Better still, to live in the question.
My question might be:
What does it mean to be creative?
To live, fully.
Or in living in the question, I’d cut off all ties with social media, even this blog, and create, as if I’d been given a terminal diagnosis.
I know that sounds extreme but if I’m ever going to find out what I’m capable of then playing the dilettante won’t cut it. You see, even allowing for the fact that I nearly strangled my creative mojo, I’ve never lost touch with the feeling I get when I’m writing, drawing or messing around with glue, an old magazine and pen/ink — my first real love. One person who I follow with great admiration is Austin Kleon; I feel so much of myself in his work.
Moving forward, I’m acutely aware that I’m in the twilight of my working life — hell, it might be all I’ve got left — and it’s no wonder I can’t settle, especially when I’ve had to return to law (October 2016) against my better judgment. I know I could have tried again to develop a consulting and coaching business but not only had I run out of clients, I’d also run out of inspiration to change the world for the better.
If you’ve read any of my scribblings here or elsewhere, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Charles Bukowski. He’s my writing hero probably for all the wrong reasons; but, and it’s no excuse, you have to cut the guy a bit of slack for his lewd behaviour, profanity and being a drunk given the circumstances of his life. What inspires me most though is that through thick and thin — and there were some very lean times — he always showed up and wrote and continued to do so all his life. His motto, which was inscribed on his gravestone was:
And whilst that pithy statement may seem very surreal or outwith what you’d expect from most writers exhorting how to make it, I know exactly what he means. On the few occasions when I’ve felt most at my game, it’s been easy. Sadly, I’ve not had enough of them to convince my inner critic that I can be a writer or even move into that space. Quite what’s in the mythos to get to that place I’m still unsure. As I’ve already said, I’d like again to have the naive passion of work coursing through my creative veins but in going back into the legal space and working full-time what I’ve noticed is how difficult it is to concentrate on let alone spend time creating. Worse still, I’ve not been focused on one thing such as calligraphy. Don’t worry, this isn’t the place where I tell you that I’m going to double down and do my very best to beat Resistance but I know that changing my life in some way is the only way I’ll know if I am a writer etc. or a bullshitter of the first order. Excuse the language but I can’t keep saying things to myself let alone publically. I’m not going to say where this new line of enthusiasm might lead me but hopefully not down another meaningless rabbit hole.
If there’s a takeaway to this post it’s to question what you’re doing, particularly if it feels contrary to your inner belief of being alive in your work. If all you’re doing is going from day to day with no more compunction than paying the bills, then now is the time — yes, it really is — to question everything you hold dear, even if it’s shaded under the moral umbrella. If you don’t you might find that by the time you wake up to what’s really important in your life, it’s too late to do something about it.
*I don’t think myself a complete failure but from a work perspective, there’s not much to write home about. In truth, not ever having a locus where I felt fully alive meant that I adopted a peripatetic approach to work which saw me go from being a trainee architect, to recruitment consultant, to trainee engineer, back to sales and marketing recruitment, law, legal consultancy and then in-house practice. And not once have I been fully alive in my work! If anything, as I’ve aged, the veil has lifted so that my naivety as a young man has seriously worn off leaving my peering out through a dark landscape of lost opportunity.