"So what's your next challenge?" I was walking along my favourite cliff-top route, contemplating the squall ahead and wondering which direction it was headed. My friend, however, was thinking beyond the next couple of hours. I was celebrating the freedom of having submitted my dissertation, which either will or will not be 'good enough'. Either way it is done and in a sense so am I. Done with exams and tests and studying in order to achieve something, maybe to prove something, if only to myself.
Not done with learning, never that, but done with having to prove I've learned, done with learning as a competitive sport.
The universal response to this has been a knowing smile and variations on a theme "Oh yeah?"
"Cats come to mind" is what my partner said. This generated blank looks until he explained that whenever he talked about what he might do were it not for the cats, my normal response is "but there'll always be cats". Of course there will.
Several people have commented "You said that last time" which is true, I did. But last time I was lying. Last time, I already knew that I wasn't finished, I still had something to prove even if I didn't know what it was. That was in 2012 or thereabouts. I was building a career that I'd always claimed not to want, I was becoming 'successful'…moving up…getting the cash and the kudos and the challenge…and with it, after a while, came the opportunity to do what I'd always lamented not having done: to study law. I'm superstitious about opportunity. I took it.
I'm glad because, had I not, then, I would not now – and that would be a regret continuing. I would not, now, because in the two years since I started so much has happened and I have stepped off the ladder. I have worked hard at my studies, and I have enjoyed them, but I am also relieved to have finished them. All bar the waiting and wondering.
And so my walking friend was wondering what I am going to do next. "What's your next challenge going to be?" Decorating a recently repaired room, reclaiming my garden, getting fit were all dismissed as "chores not challenges" and I can see her point. So thinking for only a minute, I responded "Not having a challenge."
"Yes. You are going to find that hard. I've never known you not to be working on one." Given that we've just worked out our connection goes back 11 years – and she's right I have always been focussed on trying to achieve something – the next promotion, the next grade, qualification, fellowship, the next assignment, the next… you get the drift.
And now…my plan is to shift focus, soften the focus, move more slowly, more gently, without an end in mind. Begging Covey's forgiveness, we don't always have to start with the end in mind, sometimes we can set out and follow our instincts to see where they lead. When I was little we would sometimes go "for a ride out". We'd pile into the car with a picnic and no plan. We'd end up on the moors or in the woods or at the beach or down by the river. We'd go visiting, or not. I have no idea how or at what point Dad decided which road to take, but I do know that the 'not knowing' was part of the fun.
The theory is that if you don't know where you're headed, how will you know when you've arrived? I have two answers to that: one of which is that it seemed to work for the pioneer homesteaders, who knew when to put down their packs and start building their cabins; the other is that maybe "arriving" isn't part of the plan.
Am I serious that I will never set goals again, never devise a grand plan, never focus on a concrete achievement? I have no idea. I do know that I'm not about to do so any time soon. For now, I am going to wander through my life for a while. There is still a day job and a commitment to the profession and to the sector, but there is also a lot of freed-up time in which to play.
It's nearly a year since I moved from (effectively) seven-day-weeks to three-day-weeks. Except it isn't, because I didn't, because large chunks of the time released from the day-job was immediately re-assigned to study. The commitment was different, but the same. Only now, a year on, do I get to really relish the extra time I have bought in exchange for some of the cash and some of the kudos, only now do I get to understand that I don't actually need the 'challenge' either.
Now I am going to indulge my curiosity purely for its own sake, not in pursuit of anything other than the pleasure of those end of day conversations we have that begin "I did not know…" as we share something we have just discovered, to no purpose other than the knowing of it, which is also part of the fun.
Now I am going to stop worrying about the big picture and consider some of the details.
A single fruit, instead of the crop
One fallen leaf for the season whole
Pause and swap the meadow sweet
For a single cup of gold
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