Let's Swim

When I was a little girl everybody - my parents, my teachers, people I met in the street - told me that when I grew up, I could do whatever I liked. They didn’t tell me this because I was special or because I displayed any particular talent. They told me this because it was simply what you told children. But nobody really thought it through, and now there’s a whole generation and a half of 20 - 30 somethings who are deeply, profoundly disappointed. Because nothing’s that simple.

You know what they didn’t tell me? They didn’t tell me: you’re going to get bills every month. You’re going to have to pay rent. You’re going to have to spend more money than seems decent at the dentist because you’re going to become very vain and not want all your teeth to fall out prematurely. You’re going to lust after expensive shoes. You’re going to buy expensive shoes, and you’re going to buy them knowing full well that a pair of boots is not a responsible investment. You’re going to discover cocktails. You’re going to discover debt.

Also they didn’t tell me other things, like, you’re going to get rejected. A lot. By people, by publications. And even worse, you’re going to be ignored! You’re going to be ignored by every major newspaper in the English-speaking world! You’re going to have job interviews that go really badly. You’re not going to get an “A” in every class and when you graduate from college you’re probably not going to have a clue what to do with yourself, even though you have a degree, so you’ll move across the ocean just to make things more interesting (and consequently more difficult). And then you’ll get another degree and guess what? You still won’t know what to do with yourself. You’ll never know what to do with yourself. They didn’t tell me that you can’t control who you fall in love with, or where he happens to be from.

Not that I’d have wanted them to. The entrance to adulthood is the first time we make these discoveries, and that’s part of the fun (the first time I paid a bill with my own money, I felt a shiver of pride. It was quickly replaced by a shiver of fear and horror, because responsibility feels like that, but there was a blissful moment whereby I accepted my responsibility for myself and enjoyed it).

The reality is somewhere between what we were set up to expect and what we’ve subsequently discovered. It’s not all shit, but it is all difficult. In a way this is good. Challenge is good. And I’m glad we were set up to be idealists. This is a beautiful thing. But the problem is, we have not prepared ourselves well for this challenge. We have dreams and an undeserved sense of entitlement that actually prevents us from properly pursuing those dreams.

Oh, it’s not quite as dramatic as all that. We’re not all slaving away in drunken ruins, falling asleep every night to the cold sound of our hopes dying (at least, not all of us). But many of us do seem to have gotten stuck. I know all these talented people, and there are some days I wake up and say, ha! 20 years from now we are going to be the creative royalty. We’ll be on Desert Island Discs remembering “our strange distorted youths”, publishing our memoirs, laughing over all the times we ran out of money or steam.

And then I remember that the one thing I’ve learned is that we can never assume this. Assumption does not equal actuality. The problem is that we assumed for too long that someday (next year, next decade) we would wake up with it all. We neglected to consider how we would get there. It’s like dreaming of crossing an ocean and forgetting that you need a boat, or a plane, or a really good pair of flippers. And money for the boat or the plane or the flippers. And the strength to undertake the journey.

So this post is for all the idealists who went to school thinking they owned the world and left thinking the world owned them. Everyone out there who is, in spite of the masters in astrophysics (or creative writing, or obscure African languages, or marine biology, or whatever), still doing things they didn’t expect to do after the degree.

Ladies and gentleman, put your flippers on.