“My natural instinct in new surroundings is to put away the map and see where I end up.”
It’s always a relief to come out of the London Underground. Miles below street level, the Tube feels claustrophobic and sticky. And even though it is one of the most reliable forms of transport in the world, never veering too far off course, I’m disoriented until I surface for air.
Yesterday we took the central line into the middle of the city, Tottenham Court Road, in 30 degree heat. As we battled the crowds and finally emerged onto the street, I looked up and around to take in my new surroundings. We were on our way to the British Museum, thought to be a mere five minute walk away. Which direction? As I scan the street for signs and clues, I turn to Tom. He’s hunched over his iPhone, face screwed up with concentration. He turns to one side, then the next, never taking his eyes off the little blue dot on his screen – the infuriating yet brilliant GPS on Google Maps.
Most smartphone owners will agree – online maps are almost reason enough to fork out the asking price for the latest and greatest Samsung or Apple product. You never get lost! No matter where you are, the little blue dot will guide the way.
But I hate it! Respect though I have for team Tom and blue dot, and their ability to get us from A to B, I can’t stand the thing. It seems so counter-intuitive to walk in new places with your head hunched over a phone, following an erratic dot that’s always five paces behind you. When you’re so focused on not getting lost, you miss out on all the new sights and smells. I much prefer the old-fashioned way – to look at street signs and follow my nose.
The only problem is, I do get lost a lot when I’m on my own. I mistakenly believe that I have an excellent sense of direction, and set out with complete faith that I’m going the right way. And you can guess how the story ends – I waste half an hour meandering around back streets until I find my way back to point A and start again.
But what if it’s not a waste of time? As cliché as it is, getting lost can sometimes be the best thing. That sense of adventure and challenge. That awesome building or park or person you’d never have seen if you’d stuck to the beaten track. There are so many metaphors about how you have to get lost to find yourself and so on. I think I ditch the map and directions because, normally being quite a ‘play it safe’ kind of gal, I secretly enjoy the oh-so-cheap thrill of wandering aimlessly.
I am scared of so much in this world. I hate making big decisions, usually crippled by fear that I will take the wrong turn. Yet my natural instinct in new surroundings is to put away the map and see where I end up. How does that work?
This contradiction in my personality got me thinking. Why is it that I love to do things like navigate without a map and bake without a recipe, when in every other area of my life, I’m craving a set of instructions?
Mentally, I feel pretty lost and exhausted right now. You may have sensed a bit of discontent and general confusion if you read my recent blog post on ‘corporate clones’. If I had to pick a word that sums up state of mind over the past few months, it would be disillusionment. Somewhere over the years, my bright-eyed, fluffy-tailed idealism has been joined by an irritating new friend: realism.
I find myself worrying about things I thought I would never worry about, like house prices, taxes, retirement and my ‘biological clock’. But on the top of my worry list is this: what am I going to do for the rest of my life?
Writing this question down, I can see how ridiculous it seems. Of course no one can truly know the answer. So why does everyone keep asking me?
I don’t know what I want to spend the majority of my time doing. I used to have a fair idea, but now that I am aware of some of the realities of working life, I feel the stakes are higher. I find it very hard to be happy in my spare time when I am unhappy in my job. Some people don’t have this problem, but me – I’d rather have very little spare time and love my work, than ‘live for the weekend’. Weekends are only two days long! Working weeks, on the other hand, are FIVE days. That’s a whole lot of feeling miserable for just a two day reprieve.
But on the other hand, there are bills to pay and money to be spent. I have dreams I want to finance. Is settling for a job that meets my financial needs but doesn’t fulfil me on a personal level a cop out? And is this dilemma unique to my generation? In the past people worked to survive, so the question of what to do was pretty simple – you did what you could, period. Today, the landscape is very different.
So what does all this have to do with Google’s little blue dot?
I think one of the hardest realities of ‘growing up’ is learning to live without a road map. Think about it – all throughout school and university you are given a clear set of instructions. If you do X, you will be rewarded with Y. It’s a very simple system. Write down the correct answer in the right box, and you get to move onto the next stage.
I thrived in this system. I was very good at doing what I was told – I was often described as studious and conscientious. And I was quite addicted to the feeling of success that came with getting top marks in a test or warm praise for an essay. University only reinforced this addiction. I often look back and think I had the strongest self-confidence and sense of purpose during my university years. I was working towards a set goal – get a degree – and I was given support and positive reinforcement every step of the way.
And then I got a job, and with that came a whole new set of rules.
Now I sometimes wonder whether those who weren’t so good at following instructions at school thrive in the so-called ‘real world’ (a term I hate by the way – it reeks of resentment). While some careers provide you with road maps, in today’s economy, most of the rules have gone out of the window. There are no guarantees.
But, in a world where we rely on a little blue dot to guide us forward, how many of us are any good at charting unknown territory? Especially when it comes to our careers?
I fear we are no longer using our intuition to guide us, and are instead looking externally for answers when we should be looking inwards. As much as I have asked it, Google won’t tell me what career will make me happy. I painstakingly research idea after idea, trying to find the perfect fit that will see all needs align – personal fulfilment, financial security, opportunities for progression.
It wasn’t until a close friend gave me this advice that I regained some clarity and composure.
“Most importantly, don’t be afraid to make the wrong decision. There’s no way to know how it will turn out. Remember Steve Jobs’ speech – you can always connect the dots backwards.”
This advice spoke to my heart in a way no careers advisor ever has. Don’t be afraid to make the wrong decision.
When I look at people who inspire me on a professional level, a clear pattern emerges. They are all risk takers, and they are all doing jobs that are a little outside the box. I suppose you could call them entrepreneurs or innovators – people who have taken an idea they are passionate about and found a way to make a living from it. And for that, there really is no road map.
As always, it appears there are no shortcuts to success – in order to strike the jackpot we need to experiment, put ourselves on the line and be open to failure. And sometimes that means getting lost, messing up and being wrong about something you once strongly believed in. Social media can make charting new territory particularly terrifying, as it creates a false feeling that you are accountable to the digital persona you have unwittingly created. As a writer, I feel this anxiety even more keenly. I often write about my opinions, but you see there is a pesky thing about opinion – it often changes. Am I accountable to my own written word? Do I need to live up to my past dreams?
The answer of course, is no. The more I learn, the more I change, and the more I venture down new, unforeseen paths. The lesson I need to master now is how to be at peace with that change, as I drift further away from what ‘I thought I would be’ into ‘who I really am’.
Maybe the only way to move forward without fear is to accept the path will probably be rocky, unpredictable and a little bit wild – but to put away the road map and GPS anyway.
The little blue dot of Google Maps is a useful tool, but only if you know when to look up. It’s set on your final destination, but life is not like the straight lines of the London Underground. The more technology imposes efficiency on our lives, the more compelled I feel to get lost in the back streets, dancing to the beat of my own drum.