My new goal is no more goals

I wrote the other day about how I’m giving up my seven-year-old habit of setting a word of the year. The tl;dr version is that I realised all of the words I’d ever set amounted to one thing: trusting myself to keep trying to be a better person.

Of course since writing it, a lot of other thoughts about the whole goal-setting culture have been jostling for attention. I have literally no research at my fingertips to prove any of my hunches so maybe I’m pulling this out of my arse or my cloistered social media bubble. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like everyone I know is labouring under a persistent gas cloud of fatigue. I think there is starting to be a steady push back against the idea that every January or autumn back-to-school season or big birthday should come with the necessity to ‘reflect’ and plan and set intentions.

Let’s start with what I don’t think. I don’t think people should bin all their aspirations, dreams, ideas, practical work plans or any of that forward-thinking stuff. I don’t think they should stop enjoying the view behind them of how far they’ve come. I do think the only obligation to the future anyone has to is to consider saving some money for old age and getting a pension if that’s an option that is open to them. The rest is all a matter of access, primarily, and then choices.

I’m focussing on the choice bit because I live a really very comfortable life with a number of options open to me. I think I’m largely speaking to people in a similar situation. But I really don’t want to go the route of “real people have bigger problems to worry about”. Firstly because I think that’s immensely patronising and inaccurate (you can have a lack of privileges and want to plan, for heaven’s sake, maybe even more so if you feel very little control). But also cos, look, we know the parameters of this conversation. We know what we’re talking about. You know where I’m coming from, even if you don’t know me. This is not new. But I still get to unpick it some more.

Like most people, I’m neither fully determinist nor entirely the opposite. I recognise choices are not made in a vacuum, which means some are unavailable and others are immoral or at least not very nice. We never make any logical decisions, as far as I can work out, because people aren’t very logical. That’s fine. We might do some vaguely sensible things, or necessary things, like train to be a teacher if that’s the job we want or go on a course to learn something that makes us better at things we need to do to make money or enjoy our private time. We save money to do specific things: move out, go on a holiday, replace the kitchen. We attend the gym to stop huffing up the stairs, and we promise ourselves to file our tax returns earlier so we don’t get a nasty shock.

Are those goals? I don’t feel like they’re what people talk about when they talk about goal-setting. I think they consider them steps on the way to their fully realised life which is their real goal – but which, they’re dimly aware, is actually constantly moving further and further away. The problem is, I suspect thinking of these small things as steps towards a bigger goal actually reduces both the motivation to complete them and the satisfaction we’re supposed to get from achieving them.

It feels to me like we’ve devalued the process in favour of the result. I understand why. Why do anything if it’s not going to get you from A to B? I’ve said before that the only two states that feel rewarding are the ‘planning to’ and the ‘having done’, because the bit in the middle is laborious and so, so hard. But I think the reason for that is the constant pull of the done, ticked, completed, achieved. Remove that, and the middle bit doesn’t seem so boggy anymore.

Perhaps the secret to greater contentment – maybe even greater success, whatever that means – isn’t scanning the skies to spot the rainbow that’ll lead us to the pot of gold. We think we’ve got to mark a point on the map, and travel like hobbits to Mordor, sweating and trailing spiders’ webs until we can save the Shire. But then we get there, and it turns out there’s another great leap and another and another and we’re always going to want to keep going. And that’s exactly it: we’re going to feel dissatisfied no matter what. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t believe we need to motivate ourselves at all.

We’re going to keep going, because what else is there? And why not? Yes, on a daily basis you might need a structure and a plan to manage, for a whole variety of reasons, which is absolutely fair enough. But for the bigger picture? You’ll probably keep plodding along regardless. And I can’t help thinking that the plod will be so much more pleasant if we stop taking a pause to whip ourselves. Sure, not every goal has to feel punitive, but somehow they always seem to take on the language of tradition, honour, discipline, excellence.

Meh.

Let’s be honest: most of us are not destined to be world-renowned (and most of those who are world-renowned did it through a series of small manoeuvres to achieve an idea of a goal, rather than the actual thing they got, and which tended to involve a dose of luck, privilege and being in the right place at the right time which is simply not always calculable). And feeling like we need to give ourselves a performance appraisal every January to get through the next cycle around the sun might appear to help, but I think at best it’s… nothing. At worst, it feels harmful – like picking a scab until it bleeds over and over again and thinking that the scar is proof that it’s working.

This is hardly a new thought, but somehow we collectively keep forgetting it’s already there. Through Anne Lamott, I came to this quote from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” When it comes to life, we could push that car analogy all the way up a hill and back. And you’ll have noticed it doesn’t even begin to mention having a planned destination. Or any need to go off-road.

Chatting about this on Twitter, Cathy Wallace – who’s really great and outrageously sensible – commented: “we’ve come full circle from a starting position of considering ourselves ordinary and therefore ‘less than’, to attempting to stand out, only to realise we’re *all* basically very ordinary in our way and that’s ABSOLUTELY fine” and honestly I think she’s spot on.

I’ve loved the brilliant Jo Middleton’s posts about her “midlife unravelling”, too which have resonated to an almost physically painful extent. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a) we’re all women and b) we’re circling around 40. I think we’re all coming to the same conclusion, which is that we cannot plan bloody anything, because life will do what it wants, and we can only do what seems like a good idea at the time and try to enjoy it as best we can. Why does that hit women harder, in my opinion? Because while I think goal-setting in a work context has been a very masculine preserve in the past, the idea of annual reinvention and self-actualisation is peddled to the feminine much, much harder. And getting half-way through the average life expectancy (for women, heralding the end of your sexual and breeding capital under our current social system) tends to hone your acuity when it comes to anyone trying to sell you the perfect life.

Also, I’m tired. And the world feels tired with me. Again this might be my political bubble speaking, but a long, painful run of unexpected election results and turbulent international relations seem to me to be confronting even the most self-possessed among us with a bowel-melting lack of control. In that environment it’s hardly surprising that ‘new year, new you’ lives on under different guises every year. If we set goals and work hard and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps we can weather any storm, right? Uh-huh.

But beyond ageing, politics, exhaustion and just not seeing the point, the past five years have delivered to me personally an occasionally brutal, sometimes ecstatic lesson in how little we can truly shape. Goals? Are you kidding? I don’t even know what my kid will decide she likes eating tomorrow. I’ve dealt with two major family health crises, one of which is in stasis and the other very much ongoing. There have been employment ups and downs, which had nothing to do with competence or failure to network or really anything much within my or my loved ones’ grip. In the last year in particular, I’ve felt very much like I’ve been on a sort of amber alert – to the point that I ended up seeing my doctor for stress-related symptoms that were physically taking me down (I’m fine, kids; don’t worry). Set goals? Why? So life can laugh in my face?

Which is why in the last few months, I’ve had a breakthrough of sorts. Right around the time I stopped thinking of every decision as a way to get to the next rung, and the next, and the next, I realised I’d never even been standing on a ladder. And the minute I stopped being ambitious for things or berated myself for not knowing exactly what I wanted to do / want / be, the complete terror of being untethered felt far more manageable.

I’m not going to pretend for a single second I’m not still anxious about all sorts of things. Not having enough money to live on in my old age scares me. Ageing out of my industry scares me. Putting my daughter in a decent secondary school scares me. Doing work projects I haven’t done before scares me. Not finishing my novel scares me, as does finishing it. My extended family’s health and wellness woes rip my guts out and dance around wearing them as garlands. Can I set goals to win back that feeling of purpose? I can try. And you now what will happen? I’ll add achieving those goals to my list of worries and feel even more lost.

Pardon my language, fellow travellers, but fuck that.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t even know what all the questions are. But I do know that every time the fear rears up and whispers but what do you want to do with your days in my ear and I answer whatever feels right at the time, I feel better about… well, everything. And thus far, rather than presenting an obstacle, it’s made me feel confident to apply for a job I wasn’t sure I could get (I did), write stuff about films I wasn’t sure people would like (they tell me they do) and occasionally throw bits of writing into the wild without a third thought (I always have a second). These things don’t have to get me anywhere, cos I have no idea where I’m going.

Imagine it: no hurdles, just challenges. No failure, just learning. Getting on the best you can, and having that be enough. I’m willing to try that for a while, because frankly it sounds really peaceful, and peace seems like a spectacular gift to give myself.

I’ll let you know how it all works out.

My 2018 Word of the Year

2017 has been… a good year for comedy. Politically, whatever point on the spectrum of opinion you occupy, you’ve probably felt aggrieved. Being in a country that doesn’t know where it’s going or why it’s going there but by God it’ll go there with conviction isn’t necessarily the most inspiring context to live in, but I recognise it takes a massive level of luck to even be concerned with any sort of personal growth. But, you know, you’re on a blog not a news channel, on a post entirely about self-actualisation, so you kind of asked for some self-centered pontificating. Continue reading →

2017 is going to need a stronger word of the year.

If you’ve read my blog before, you might know that each year I assign a word of the year to give myself direction and purpose. It gives me not so much a resolution, but more a thematic approach to the areas of my life where I feel some development is in order. Back in 2013, I needed to get myself in the mindset of Decisiveness. The following year I embraced my Creativity. I had a year of Asking in 2015, and followed it up this year with recognising and respecting Value – mine and everyone else’s.

With that kind of track record, this year’s going to need a really, really good one. Also – and I feel it’s now reached the point of being self-explanatory shorthand – 2016, you guys. 2016.

This year’s theme can be tricksy. It will need some definition. What is it?

Chance.

Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about ‘leaving things up to chance’. I think that’s the opposite of what a person like me needs; perhaps my worst self-development trait is sometimes being  nervous of making things happen and so waiting for others to offer. Which, realistically (cynically?), they won’t. That path leads only to entitlement, I think  – or at the very least a belief that everyone is able to SEE into your SOUL and magically KNOW WHAT YOU WANT. Don’t go there kids. And stay in school.

No, this Chance is chance in the sense of:

Give yourself a…

Give this new situation a…

Take a…

This chance is learning to live with uncertainty. Learning to accept the ripples in my stomach not as harbingers of a maelstrom but as currents leading to a wildly exciting white water ride. I have one or two things up my sleeve for 2017 that are massively out of my comfort zone, and for once I’m making this a reason to do them rather than an excuse not to. It’s the greatest testament I can think of to truly having recognised my own value – and with it embraced the possibility of failure. Because if you truly think you’re offering something positive to the world, then failure is a disappointment but not a devastation.

I’m proud of my accomplishments and achievements, but I recognise I could challenge myself more. By committing myself to the possibility of failure, I also give myself the best opportunity to succeed. There are dreams that are tired of being dreamed, and simply want to be lived.

And in the year ahead, I fully intend to give those dreams a chance.

 

10 New Year wishes for my 5-year-old

Eight out of ten ain’t half bad. As wishes go, failing to watch Ratatouille I can give a pass to (especially since you’ve seen more films in the cinema in one year than ever before) and not letting me brush your hair, well… there are worse things.

So given that the other eight wishes – all of them endless, forever wishes apart from WDW and we had a ROLLICKING time – are going as strong as I could hope for, what else is there left to hope for?

When it comes to you there is always  more.

1. I wish for you to keep surprising me. I mean, it was no surprise to me that you had a spectacular time at Walt Disney World, but every day you managed to do something unexpected – liking a ride I didn’t think you would, bravely agreeing to do something that scared you, playing brilliantly with your cousins. And really it was the trip to Stockholm that was full of little joys; it was great to know that you could get as much pleasure out of a city trip as we could, that you enjoyed exploring and tea shops and the unusual (that, in fact, you’re more like me than I thought, at times).

2. I wish for you to continue fighting your fears. I know that you find the unexpected difficult sometimes; you’re already better at being brave at your age than I was. But there are some times when I know you’re keeping yourself from something you’d love because you’re nervous about what might scare you – even for a second. I was majorly impressed that you kept going on the Nemo ride despite Bruce (even more so that by the fourth ride, you kept your eyes open), but I look forward to a day when you will judge which film you want to watch, book you want to read, place you want to visit and ride you want to go on more by level of interest than by likelihood of not being scared. There’s a world of enjoyment out there for you, and I promise you that sometimes, to slightly redirect the words of the man himself, being scared out of your pants may be the best thing in the world for you.

3. I wish for you to continue being brilliant at making friends. I’m sorry it took so long to have a proper playdate with your bestie. She’s awesome, and there will be many more, I promise.

4. I wish for you to lose that sense of embarrassment! It shocked me when I realised you meant it that you were bashful and embarrassed whenever anyone talked about you. I’ve always considered my overly honed sense of personal humiliation my greatest weakness. I simply do not want you to inherit it. So please – be like your dad. Give not one flying… fart… what anyone says about you. Because you are the best.

5. I wish for you to unleash that creativity more than ever. You come up with the best, maddest, funniest most bonkers stories. I simply insist that you keep them coming. And I shall uphold our deal: when I come up with an idea, I’m free to write it, draw it and play with it any way I like. And when it’s your idea, it’s your intellectual property, no matter how frustrating I find it that you won’t let me develop it. Humph.

6. I wish for you to stop licking our hands and faces. Seriously, kid, it’s revolting. And while we’re at it, could the foot-tickling go on hold? Ta.

7. I wish for you to keep being delightfully affectionate. In line with number 4, I’m dreading the day that cuddles and kisses start to dry up and start being embarrassing. For now, I am taking full advantage of being carpeted with snuggles and I do not wish it to stop. Also, you can keep telling me you love me and you’ll stay with me forever; I mean, in the fullness of time I shall want you to be independent and want to leave me, for your own good, but in the meantime I am very happy to be clung to and generally adored. As you were.

8. I wish for you to keep growing like a weed in the sun. You shot up 10cm betweeen March and December! Your legs are just like your dad’s – long, lean and always tripping over themselves. You are so outrageously strong. I love it, I admire it, I’m a little jealous of it.

9.I wish for us to travel again this year – perhaps nearer and more cheaply, but for us to have some sort of adventure together and you to experience some more new things and discover fresh likes, dislikes and interests. I’m keeping fingers crossed for the trip we talked about in the summer – a new way of travelling for us as a family too, so let’s wait and see!

10. Finally, I wish for you to be ever more you, a simply wonderful person whom I consider myself privileged to know. You constantly make me want to do better for you, and I know you enjoy hearing how proud you make us. In keeping with my theme of finding the value in myself and others, I hope we three continue to constantly inspire each other to show the best of ourselves to each other and to the world. And that we continue to feel safe disclosing and battling the worst of ourselves, too – which might even be the more valuable bit.

Happy new year, Pickleface.

My word of the year for 2016

Every year, I read a plethora of posts that say “I don’t do New Year’s resolutions” and then go on to list New Year’s resolutions. Hell, I’ve probably written one before.

I think the problem is that the format of the resolution sounds like putting pressure on oneself – “this year I will lose arbitrary amount of weight as if each lb taken away signifies 1lb of added happiness”. There’s a negativity about it, a beating of the self with the pointy stick of “why haven’t you done this already”. It’s a checklist, rather than a spur for growth.

The thing is,  the changing of the calendar is as good a time as any to get your thoughts in order. No, you don’t have to do a damn thing just because it’s January 1st. Neither does it make it any less of a resolution if you make it on June 17th. But emotionally, I think it is easier to allow yourself to be carried on the tide of hope that inevitably wells up at this time of year. The days begin to lengthen again, we spend weeks correcting ourselves every time we write down the date, and it just seems to be a serendipitous moment to do a bit more brain training.

This is why I like to set myself a theme, rather than specific goals. For one, some goals can be forced but some depend on the right opportunity presenting itself, and the resolution is more about the groundwork – being ready to seize that moment – than about the moment itself. For the last few years I’ve sought to develop mindsets, rather than attain specific rungs on my mental ladder. So for each year, I’ve assigned a word, and let that word be the theme that guides me, and that I can come back to when I feel stuck.

In 2013, I was feeling a little scared and set in my ways. So I chose Decisiveness, and I changed jobs and took a new career path which has helped me learn a lot. In 2014, Creativity ruled the roost; I started to share more of my writing and drawing online, and I found that each time you do it the walls do come down a little more and it becomes easier. In 2015, the year of Asking, I applied for and received funding for an art course, negotiated some things at work I would usually find difficult and, crucially, learned when I could ask, but also when I didn’t need to anymore.

And these things are cumulative. I shared more stories, and more art and came up with better creative ideas in the year after I made Creativity my guiding principle, because I’d exercised the muscle and it was working more smoothly. My decision-making has been better this year than the last two; it will continue to improve, I’m sure. I speak up more now than I did at the beginning of the year. So, the time has come to choose the word that I think will pick up these three strands and continue to pull them along, while giving me new challenges.

That word?

Value.

I frequently underestimate mine and, frankly, I’m not sure I always see it in other people as much as I could or should. It could be my own financial value, or it could be the emotional or practical value provided by another, but more than that I think it’s understanding that – even if you can’t itemise it – everyone has value, just by virtue of being here. It’s really seeing that, and living it, and getting it. I feel like the best thing I could teach my daughter is to be kind, and at the root of kindness is appreciation. I’ll find it a lot easier to teach her that if I truly have a grip on it myself. As things are in the world now, compassion is desperately needed and not always easy to come by. But it has to start with recognising the value of each person, and really, truly, knowing one’s own.

And hey, it sounds pretty Agent Carter, right?

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

OTWAG: Resolution

Once there was a girl who had a really quite terrible day.

The toaster blew out. The train was slow. Her chair was squeaky. The tea went cold before she had a chance to drink it. Her boss was unhappy with her work. Her favourite shoe sprang a leak. In a puddle. And when she got home, her cat had vomited in the middle of the sofa.

As she cleaned, wretched, and cleaned, she knew how the story was supposed to go. She was supposed to count her blessings, because it could all have been so much worse. This much was true. The toaster could have exploded. The train could have derailed. The chair could have broken under her. The tea spilled on her lap. The puddle tripped her up. The cat could have been dead.

All of this was true, and she knew it to be true. But it didn’t exactly make her feel any better. In fact, she felt just a little worse. Because now she’d had a bad day and she was ungrateful.

She stared at the cat, who glared back with a look that told her that he, personally, had all day if she wanted to waste it. “I wish I could be a cat,” she said to him, ruffling his head only slightly maliciously in a way she knew he didn’t really like. “If this were a great story we’d swap lives for a day. I’d learn that being a cat is quite boring, and be grateful for my life, and you’d go and… I don’t know. Shit in my in-tray or something.”

There was a moment where, if she was totally honest with herself, she almost expected it to happen. Or for the cat to speak like one from her childhood books. And she became unreasonably irritated when nothing at all happened except for the cat getting fed up and running away. Because she once again had to trample on the little part of herself that believed in something way more exciting and interesting than bloody fairies. Her magic would never come; would stay trapped in paper and pictures, in mirrors and movies.

Why did it all have to be so slow? Why did she have to wait to feel better? A wiser woman than she had once told her that her stomach knew everything. And it was true. Right now, when everything was just a little bit terrible – not a lot, but enough – he belly ached and she felt sick and hungry.

The worst part was, it was such… mediocre… misery. I mean, there was nothing wrong enough to go on a grand destructive rampage, full of symbolism and fatal flaws (though in retrospect she found those a bit irritating; she was exactly the kind of person who could never live with a dreadful secret because her terribly pragmatic soul basically insisted that if everyone just spoke out about their problems the secret wouldn’t bother them in the first place). It was just a bit flat and nothing. A bit here and there. A bit “oh well everything’s okay really“.

The girl drank her tea – hot, this time, thanking goodness for small mercies – and gave the cat a few guilt treats. She scratched at the sore patch in then crook of her elbow, and ate noodles with chilli that was a bit stronger than she could really tolerate but seemed to burn some of the sour taste from her mouth. She eased herself into a bath that, in the tradition of the day so far, ran out of hot water before it was properly relaxing even though she didn’t even like really hot baths (how fair was that?).  In short, she waited. Waited for the lesson, or the realisation, or the epiphany, or even the real misery to show itself.

Impatiently, angrily, she went to bed and had a poor night’s sleep.

The next day should have been better. Shouldn’t it?

This is the sixth attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.

2015: My Film Year

So, 2015’s Year of Asking is already shaping up rather nicely. I’ve used it to book into catch up dates with three people I’ve been doing the “let’s do tea” dance with for far too long. I contacted a brand with a cheeky request and it paid off. Basically, we’re a week in, and it’s all looking pretty good.

So, for a more fun resolution, or goal (the word we use when it’s not a resolution, just a goal, like it’s not a diet, it’s a healthy eating plan) or just general hope for the year, I’ve realised that film – something I used to be seriously into, but which kind of fell by the wayside with time and parenthood – has muscled its way back into my sightline. Okay, it’s far more blockbusters and far fewer indies (not because I don’t like them, but just because time means I have a more superficial grasp of what’s happening – and since Ramona there’s a certain amount of misery I can no longer take). But who cares? This is my year of film, and I don’t need to justify my taste or choices to anyone other than myself, and whichever poor sap I force to come with me.

So, here is my list of things I want to see this year. It will grow, undoubtedly, and I’ll try to remember to come and tick things off as they happen, or link to reviews if I scribble them. Although they’re simply in alphabetical order (projected release date order just got too messy), the ones in bold are the ones I’m OMGSUPEREXCITED about, so are the most likely to actually get watched asap… though it also assumes that those in the latter part of the year will see their UK release before 2016.

Ant-Man – watched
Avengers: Age of Ultron – thoughts
Big Hero 6 reviewed
Birdman – watched 
Cinderella reviewed (plus Frozen Fever)
The Dreamer (now known as Walt Before Mickey)
The Fantastic Four
Far From the Madding Crowd
The Good Dinosaur
High-Rise – reviewed

Inside Out – reviewed
Into The Woods – reviewed
The Jungle Book
Jurassic World – watched
Mistress America – not reviewed but utterly marvellous
Mockingjay Part 2 – watched
Mr Holmes – watched
Pan

The Peanuts Movie – watched and loved
Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens  – watched
Suffragette – reviewed after the BFI Opening Night Gala
Testament of Youth
The Theory of Everything – thoughts (with thoughts on Only Lovers Left Alive)
Tomorrowland – reviewed after the European premiere! Also some (slightly spoilery) further thoughts
Trumbo – reviewed after the BFI LFF gala

Am I missing something really obvious you think I would like? Bear in mind that I do also like quiet, lovely or clever little films (as well as loud, explosive or clever big films) but can’t really be dealing with horror (soz Crimson Peak – Hiddleston almost won out, but no). I’d love to hear suggestions that would help broaden the list a bit or introduce me to something I might not otherwise have thought of watching.