There are a few things in life that nobody tells you. Big things. Difficult things. Inconvenient things.
That parents never stop feeling like they are making it up as they go along.
That happiness and contentment come from within. They cannot be given, purchased, or stored.
That few people ever feel “rich”, whatever their net worth. Not really. Much like being “middle-aged”, rich is a mirage on the horizon, perpetually a little further down the road than where the observer stands today.
There are a few things in life that nobody can tell you. Big things. Difficult things. Inconvenient things.
How much is enough?
What career to pursue?
How long does your money needs to last?
How do you know when the time is right? To change jobs. Settle down. Have kids. End a relationship.
Sometimes decisions are made for us. Bankruptcy. Contraceptive failure. Foreclosure. Illness. Redundancy.
Other times, events suddenly come to a head. Being passed over for promotion. Discovering the secret Tinder account on a spouse’s work phone. Getting doxed as the face behind a pseudonymous blog. Undergoing a near-death experience.
Events that prompt a reassessment of choices. Priorities. Life goals.
These decisions are simple, if not easy. Immediate reactions. “IF this THEN that”.
Things that turning a blind eye to would test the boundaries of wilful ignorance.
The harder decisions are those for which there is no dramatic external trigger. Where nothing forces us to confront them.
Instead, there might be a building feeling of disquiet. A sense of impending doom.
Cumulative anger. Angst. Boredom. Disgust. Disillusionment. Dissatisfaction. Frustration. Impatience. Lack of opportunity. Unrealised potential.
Pressure inexorably building beneath the surface.
Feelings that simply won’t go away.
A dawning realisation that things are not as they should be.
That we are unable to dismiss those awkward questions posed by our inner saboteur during unguarded moments.
“Is this all there is?”
“Is this as good as it gets?”
“When was the last time you felt happy?”
When you grudgingly concede that chimping voice in your head has raised a valid point.
These types of decisions involve tough choices. Major consequences. A blast radius with potential collateral damage.
Changing professions. Retraining. Reduced income and security. Lost status. Dropping down the pecking order, from big fish in a comfortably small pond, to feeling like a minnow in a shark tank.
Deciding to give up a destructive habit. Drinking. Drugs. Gang membership. Toxic relationships. Choices that in practice mean giving up a peer group. A sense of identity. Potentially a whole way of life.
Hitting eject on an all-consuming career. One that confers identity, status, and controls how almost every waking moment is invested. Investment banking. Military service. Politics. Professional sports.
Calling time on a relationship long dead but won’t fall over. Fragmented social groups as friends and family choose sides out of tribal loyalties. Halving (or worse) time spent with the children. New living arrangements. Upended financial and life plans.
Daunting prospects all. The path of least resistance is to just suck it up. “Keep calm and carry on”. Maintain the status quo. Soldier on.
Ignore those disquieting thoughts. Suppress the fight or flight instinct. Our brains can produce a million excuses, though few good reasons, not to make changes.
“Not now. Not yet. Compromise. Hold on for a little bit longer. Until the project is delivered. Until the bonuses are paid. Until the options vest. Until the kids are older. Until the mortgage is paid off.”
And yet the internal discord remains. The questions our inner saboteur posed weren’t wrong.
We can seek help to equip us with coping skills. Provide an empathetic ear. An outlet to vent.
By definition, coping involves figuring out how to deal with or better manage a suboptimal situation.
Which might represent the least worst choice. Particularly if there are no viable alternative options.
However, not every fucked up situation can be unfucked. No matter how much we wish otherwise.
Consider the logical next question from our chimping inner saboteur: “what if making the hard choice incurs short-term pain now for long-term gain? Future contentment? Happiness? Health? Longevity? Wealth?”
Requiring an act of faith. A leap into the unknown. The taking of a risk.
The important things in life don’t come with guarantees, saved games, or undo buttons.
It is worth remembering that few things are unsurvivable. From which we cannot recover. Perhaps battered and bruised. Maybe poorer for the experience. Always the wiser.
Despite how self-important we perceive ourselves to be, and how dramatically we build up our problems, our decisions rarely involve playing for life or death stakes. More typically they represent a mere choice of preference. Which doesn’t make them any easier to make, but does provide a sense of perspective about the potential risk and the size of the consequences.
Long ago I went on a date with a pretty girl, who dragged me along to an international film festival. The date was a bust, but I remember watching a fascinating Polish film called “Przypadek“.
The protagonist was running for a train when a random passerby got in his way. Three separate alternative realities then played out, one where he boards the train and two others where he missed it.
From such a seemingly innocuous event, a cascade of consequences then unfolded, spiralling out in a Butterfly Effect. Each alternative reality experienced hugely different outcomes in terms of life, love, career, and karma.
Years later they made a Hollywood remake of the movie, “Sliding Doors” starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
The movie provided an interesting device for exploring how a given decision might play out. Not just the immediate “IF this THEN that”, but also the subsequent second and third-order effects of the decision.
I was reminded of those Sliding Doors style events when I was talking to a former colleague earlier this week.
She had led a comfortable life on the other side of the world. Satisfying job. Great boss. Friendly and sociable coworkers. Life was good.
For whatever reason, she began to notice the distance from home. Ageing parents. Nieces and nephews rapidly growing between video calls. Feeling it was time that she grew up and settled down.
She packed up her life and relocated back to England. Bought a flat. Pursued big freelancer money.
One year later, things had gone spectacularly wrong.
The freelancing experience had gone awry. A failed project for an unsympathetic client with a relentless blame culture saw her chewed up, spat out, and unemployed after suffering a nervous breakdown. Learning the hard way that when a freelancer doesn’t work, they don’t get paid.
Her “forever home” had proved to be a financial disaster. The building was covered in the same highly flammable cladding as Grenfell Tower. After receiving a five-figure maintenance bill that she couldn’t afford to pay, she discovered that flats in such buildings were unsaleable. To add insult to injury, the cladding issue made remortgaging impossible once the initial loan honeymoon period expired, more than doubling her monthly mortgage payments. She attempted to rent the flat out, but few tenants were willing to pay to live inside a potential candle.
The pandemic had been cruel on several fronts.
Like many freelancers and self-employed people, she was ineligible for the various government assistance packages. No furlough or low-cost business continuity loans for her. Just universal credit.
After months of convalescence, she finally felt ready to return to freelancing. The unholy trinity of Brexit, COVID, and the IR35 “disguised employment” tax changes meant few prospective clients were buying the services she was selling. Despite steadily lowering her day rate expectations, she was unable to secure a single interview. Her luck proved no better once she sought out a permanent job, finding a thin job market flooded with desperate applicants just like her.
Lockdown restrictions meant she was no closer to the family she had moved home to be near. They remained out of reach, on the other end of a video chat. Meanwhile, the stressful animosity fuelled client site had meant she had no workplace social life to replace the one she had left behind.
Trapped alone in a “forever home” she had come to loath, with only her worries and rapidly diminishing bank balance for company, she began to question her life choices.
What if she’d remained in her comfortable life on the other side of the world?
Her former neighbours and work colleagues had survived the pandemic largely unaffected. 10 months passed without a single locally transmitted COVID case. Fewer than 1,000 people had been infected in total, resulting in just 9 deaths. Each a tragedy, but one repeated far less often than in many parts of the world.
When she discovered that she couldn’t go back, even if she wanted to, she could only cry.
Closed borders. Compulsory hotel quarantine. Scarce flights. Travel restrictions. All conspiring to turn international travel into a gold plated luxury item that she simply could no longer afford.
My former colleague had kept in touch with another guy we had worked with, the obese business analyst.
The last time I had seen him, he had been going through a nasty divorce. Lawyers serving as footsoldiers in a war of mutually assured destruction. Attritional. Exhausting. Financially ruinous.
She had bumped into him in the local park. He looked calm, happy, at peace, and much healthier.
It turned out getting divorced had been the best thing that ever happened to him.
Each week he and his ex-wife handed off their children under their joint custody arrangement. In the beginning, this had been like a Cold War-era prisoner exchange. Tense. Risky. Fraught with peril.
But then things started to thaw. Animosity eased. Past hurts scarred over. A friendship bloomed.
Removing the day to day frustrations of living together had defused much of the tension.
No more buttons being pushed by his farting, gambling, snoring, or leaving the toilet seat up.
Her endless compliment seeking, preening, vanity, and chronic lateness ceased to be his problem.
Neither had to feign an interest in the other’s day. Play nice with the in-laws. Fake their way through bad sex, just because it had been a while.
Instead, they rediscovered what they had first liked about each other. Both relieved to no longer be married, and pleased to have made a new (old) friend who knew them better than anyone else.
The future is unwritten
There are many things in life that nobody can predict. Big things. Difficult things. Inconvenient things.
No instruction manual. No script to follow. No smart kid to copy the answers from.
All our decisions have consequences, both those intended and those unforeseen.
Taking “massive action” is a sales pitch, a decision encouraged by those who profit from change.
The default option is always doing nothing. Also a choice, though seldom recognised as such.
Dithering, or deciding not to decide, is a choice too. Made far too often. Letting the fates decide for us.
I was genuinely pleased for the obese business analyst, but then I am a sucker for happily ever after.
My former colleague worried me. She had aged a decade over the latest lockdown. What she really needed was a job. Unfortunately, having witnessed her unravelling during the last one, she was ill-suited to her chosen profession. Especially when playing at the level demanded by her salary expectations.
However, as my lady wife has bludgeoned into me many times, much of the time people just want someone to listen to their problems, not to help solve them. For some, having a problem is as much a defining part of their identity as their profession or lifestyle choices.
I don’t understand the behaviour, but have observed it often enough to accept the truth of it. A choice they have made.