No alarms and no surprises

A few years ago I was having a conversation with a friend at work about the gulf that exists between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

This woman, (I’ll call her Katrina although that is not her real name) is about 7 years younger than me, and at that time was probably in her early thirties. I would have described Katrina then, and now, as an attractive, petite, single woman with a vibrant personality and sharp wits, who is competent and capable at event management and directing casual staff.  Katrina doesn’t see herself that way, however. Unlike me, she is not a shy person, however she was, and is still, full of self-doubt, and anxieties, particularly, I think, because she is single, a fact that every second television show, movie and advertisement tells us that being single is a lesser state of being. At that time, too, she was also full of doubts and anxieties about her lack of any formal training or certifications in the field she was working in and her prospects with moving on in her career.

After berating her for not acknowledging her strengths in her professional role, I laughingly commented that it just shows how we look at other people and think that they are full of confidence in themselves. I said, We think they know who they are, what they are doing, where they are going, and what they plan to do with their lives. To my surprise, given that we were friends and I was frequently honest about my own flaws and shortcomings, Katrina responded by saying that I looked like I knew who I was, what I was doing, where I was going, and what I was trying to do with my life!

I was both amused and surprised when my friend said this, and wondered if it was just because I was a few years older than her that she saw me this way. Surely I’d had enough conversations with her where I expressed my own lack of confidence in certain aspects of my job and myself in general? Surely she was aware of my many unsuccessful attempts to apply for other jobs, with no particular career path in mind! Yet still her comment seemed to indicate that she thought I was on top of everything and heading contentedly along a pre-planned path towards achieving all my personal goals.

Nowadays I’m working somewhere new, and sometimes I recall her comment and wonder if I’m managing to fool my new colleagues. Do they think I know who I am, what I’m doing, where I’m going and where this new job fits into my long-term career plans?

The reality is this.

Do I know who I am?

Actually, to this question I’d answer a tentative yes. I feel as if I do know myself, and who I am – or at least, I’m far better aquainted with myself than I was 10 years ago. Dear younger readers, it IS true what you hear about being in your 40s – if there is no other consolation, at least I’m comfortable with who I am, and not concerned any longer with trying to be something that I’m not.

10 years ago, when I was in my early thirties with a young baby, I would shop for clothes, needing my clothes to make some kind of statement about myself. I guess I was trying to tell myself, and the rest of the world, that being in my thirties, and a parent, and having moved to the suburbs in order to take out a mortgage, all amounted to a very small transition from being a childless twenty-something, not the huge leap into a foreign country and middle-aged lifestyle choice that it sometimes felt like. I chose clothes on the basis of wanting to still seem young and “cool”, and as a result, I feel sure that at least in some cases, the statement my clothes were making was “I’m still grasping onto my twenties for dear life.”

Feeling comfortable with who you are does not mean being totally satisfied with who you are, of course. In terms of trying to project an image to the rest of the world, when I shop for clothes now my goal is to find clothes I like, that are flattering. As simple as that. Like most women, I don’t always like the body I see in the change-room mirror. But these days, my perception of myself is in tune with the clothes I select to try on, so I don’t experience too much angst in the change rooms, because I’m not trying to match an abstract ideal.

Feeling comfortable with yourself also does not exclude you from wanting to improve. In a professional sense, there are areas where I feel competent and capable, and areas where I feel as if I am bluffing my way through (hopefully). In my personal life, I’m aware of many flaws – impatience, sarcasm, unkindness – that I need to continue to work on. I suppose I hope that some of my good qualities – sense of humor, loyalty, recognition of others’ hard work, sense of fairness – balance out the flaws. I think I know myself, but I’d also like to think that self can continue to improve.

Do I know what I’m doing?

On a day-to-day level, in this new job, I find myself doing all sorts of things I’ve never had any training or experience in previously. I’m frequently doing things that are outside of my PD and therefore also outside of my skill set and comfort zone. Consequently, a lot of the time I have the nagging sense that someone else would do the same work with far more confidence and competence than I’m doing. If it looks to my colleagues or clients as though I know exactly what I’m doing, then there is at least one thing I’m doing right, and that is bluffing my way through.

Do I know where I’m going and what I want to do with my life?

When we are feeling vulnerable to self-doubt, tired of our jobs, upset by a recent argument, anxious about monetary worries, or in any other way shaken from a sense that all is well with our world, it’s possible to look at a stranger walking down the street, and imagine that this person is experiencing just one of a continual series of contented, self-assured, confident moments in their life. It’s possible to convince ourselves that each moment of this total stranger’s neatly unfolding life follows the next in the order that they more or less planned and expected it to and that their life is simple and easy, with no surprises, upsets or huge disappointments. Even though we know that no-one’s life unfolds that way.

Is that really how my friend Katrina thought my life was panning out? Neatly and according to plan?

It’s ironic if she did. It would be impossible for my life to match any plans I had made for it when I left high school, or at any other time, since one of the deep flaws in my personality is an inability to formulate any long-term plan for work, life or anything else.

When I left high school I had no career plan at all, and therefore began an arts degree, which I hoped would fill 3 years and give me time to come up with something. I soon dropped out because with no end goal, I found it very hard to be motivated to keep going. I didn’t have the ability to envision what I might be doing in 5 years time as many kids my age could do. Next, I enrolled in a Fine Art course, with the goal of becoming an artist. I graduated with a degree in Visual Art, which was a lot of fun, but a freelance career in a field where paid job opportunities barely existed was the wrong choice for me, as someone who really needed some structure to follow. I could eagerly envision being an artist and painting all day in my studio, but there were no entry-level jobs being advertised.

Perhaps luckily for me, there is some sense of a purpose, I guess, afforded by having a child, so in that sense I’ve had some underlying structure to my life since my daughter was born 14 years ago. It is foreseeable that at least until she is 18 and finished school, I will probably not make any sudden changes in my life that would involve quitting my job, moving across the country or living overseas. But in terms of the other things going on – my career, for example – I have no plans.

I wouldn’t even use the word career to describe my working life, because surely career means following a somewhat logical path through related fields of work. I feel as though I fell into the work I’m doing by chance. After spending all of my twenties working part-time in lowly customer service roles while I concentrated on trying to be an artist, and the first part of my thirties working part-time in lowly customer service roles while I tried to be a “stay-at-home (part time) mum,” I sometimes feel surprised that I’ve even made it into a lowly administrative role in an arts organisation. If a career means taking a job with some real responsibility and then moving from that job into related roles, I’m actually only about 7 years into my “career” at the ripe old age of 40-something. I’m not particularly ambitious, but I like to get some fulfilment out of my work, which is why I work in the arts.

So Katrina was wrong. I know who I am, but not what I’m doing, where I’m going, or what I plan to do with my life.

Maybe I’ll work those next parts out in my fifties.

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