i spent almost all of my time at uni grinding out work, as i alluded to briefly in my previous blog post, and that got me into quite the state once i left uni. if you’re wanting to know more about that then it’s probably better to read that post, but i’ll summarise it with this: i burnt out hard and had no real means to recover, which left me scrambling to find my balance in life.
that’s not really something i want to talk about right now though, rather i’d like to reflect on how i came to find myself in that spot and why i navigated my way out of it.
the lies we’re sold
this sounds a bit doom and gloom, but i can’t see it any other way given my experience working my way through to adulthood. as you reach the end of your years in high school you’re encouraged to think quick about what it is you want to do when you go to uni, so you can then make a career for yourself and live your life–something which puts a lot of frankly undue pressure on 16-18 year olds who often barely know the world around them.
then you reach uni, and you work through a 3-4 year degree with the hopes that it’ll lead to something in the end. you go through a seemingly endless barrage of lectures, tutorials, exams, reports, and stress, all to come out the end with a huge debt and a piece of paper that says you can survive the onslaught of uni.
now you’re graduated, and you’re hunting for work. if you happen to find a job, and you enjoy the work, then congratulations! you’re one of the lucky ones. many people don’t find themselves on such a clear cut path though, and many will find themselves losing passion for their degree, dropping out, hating their work, maybe not even finding work. it can be a truly dire and depressing time for young people, especially in the socio-economic landscape we find ourselves in.
one thing i’ve seen be a consistent through-line for all these people though, lucky or otherwise, is that we’re always told the same thing over and over: find a job, work that job, live that job, and you’ll be happy.
but so many of us aren’t happy.
the midlife crisis
this is somewhat of a cultural meme at this point: you hit the age of 40 and are suddenly hit with a pang of existential dread.
“what have i done with my life? i’m at the midway point, and what have i achieved? what have i done?”
i think there’s a lot of factors that feed into this phenomenon that many people within modern western culture experience. i personally believe that one of the largest ones though is that mindset we’re sold from childhood that i mentioned before. while you’re still young and at your most capable, instead of living your life and exploring what the world has to offer you’re encouraged to invest yourself into working and building up enough capital to buy a house or whatever.
how true this is or not i don’t know, but it makes enough sense to me watching the older people in my life as they hit their 40s going through these motions. many of them have previously done nothing but work themselves to the bone before realising where their life has gone and where it will continue to go if they don’t change now.
where i found myself in my journey
now to be clear, i’m quite a ways away from hitting the checkpoint where i might have a midlife crisis. right now i am 24 years old, but i did experience some pretty gnarly burnout.
i worked my ass off with the promise that if i did, then i would find myself in a position where i would have a desirable job and earn a fair wack of money–i would be happy. and look, in all fairness i feel very lucky to work where i do right now. i enjoy the work a lot and the challenges it brings my way are ones that constantly keep me on my toes, never let me stagnate. it is, in a lot of ways, the ideal job for me.
but i was not happy, and a big part of that came down to the burnout i had, but also this existential dread that set in from the thought of “this is how things will be until the day i die”. i wasn’t happy with this, i didn’t want to live in a constant state of exhaustion with no means to invest back into myself and just have fun.
i saw my dad go through his midlife crisis and how he picked up all manner of hobbies that he enjoys to this day. while this was happening though, i could see the desperation. he was picking up and dropping hobbies constantly: coin collecting, model painting, cycling, and ultimately four wheel driving which to this day i think is the only thing he’s consistently stuck to. seeing him go through this, and feeling strange parallels between what he was going through and where i was in that moment, drove me to think the way i think right now about the midlife crisis, and encouraged me to live my life in a way that wouldn’t let me be that way too.
i want to live my life now.
leading a fulfilling life
so this is all well and good, but i do want to wind it back a bit. i forget who said this first, i think i heard it from john green? and i’m probably paraphrasing here, but i fully believe that “what is the meaning of life” is a bad question. it suggests that we need to live in a way with purpose, with meaning, that we need to find how we fit into the greater picture, but i don’t think that’s necessarily the right or even particularly healthy approach to life. instead i subscribe to the philosophy that life itself is meaning. the people you meet, the connections you make, the experiences you have, everything you do with your life is meaning. and so because of that, you should aim to do as much as you can that leaves you feeling fulfilled.
notice though that fulfilment is a fairly open ended… thing, and that’s because everyone finds fulfilment in different ways and that’s okay. i personally want to do and see as many things and people as possible, to learn more about the world around me, and that makes me feel fulfilled as a person. others may find fulfilment through creating lots of art, expressing themselves and sharing it with the world. others still may even find fulfilment through working their 9 to 5 and starting a family. everything is valid, because everyone’s sense of fulfilment is different, and it’s something that i think we’d all do well to mull over.
why i’m writing this
so as i’m sitting here tapping away at my laptop, i’m a couple days away from finishing up my holiday in london with my family. we’ve been staying two weeks in richmond, in a house that my second cousin has recently bought and graciously furnished for us to stay in during our time here.
this holiday has been a truly lovely one. i’ve had time away from the real world, been able to disconnect for a while and just enjoy life for what it is and learn an immense amount about the culture and the people of london (and also a bit about sheffield when i visited for a day).
but this has also been a tough holiday for me.
it’s been tough because this is very likely the last family holiday we will ever have because my mum was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, but this time we know it’s terminal. she took a large sum of money out of her superannuation to ensure that we could get the 7 of us from melbourne to london so that we could all have a good time together here. she did this all because she well and truly doesn’t know how long she has to live. the best estimate she has is “maybe a year”, based on what her oncologist told her.
it’s grim, and it’s been making me feel all sorts of things throughout this trip. i remember explaining this to a friend while sitting on their couch and just crying while i felt the reality of everything sinking in.
i have the blessing of being very close to my mum though, and we talk very frankly about all manner of things to each other. earlier today we were southbound on the northern line from camden town after we had spent the late morning and early afternoon wandering camden market. it was a moment of pause for us, reflecting on all the things we had done on this trip, and how we’re glad to have been fortunate enough to be able to do it.
eventually she brought up her job. she started off as a chemical engineer, initially interning with ici as a part of her degree. she worked in the area of paper pulping, a new part of ici at the time, and eventually they offered her a job there full time. this offered her the opportunity of flying to many countries to attend conferences on behalf of ici, something that was quite a big deal for her as a 20 something malaysian chinese expat living in australia. she told me of how she moved to tasmania during her internship with paid accommodation from ici but then once she came on full time she had to quickly find somewhere to live without knowing what to do–she just had to figure out quickly how to find a rental for herself. she then moved to albury, and told me of how the place she lived in at the time was a house shared with a small family who owned the place and herself. the husband eventually grew to be abusive and was made to leave, all because he was mad that my mum who was asian was living under the same roof as him.
she lived this entire life that i hadn’t even realised was a part of her history, but it was all things that formed her into the person that she is now. and if you spoke to her now, you wouldn’t really get any of that from her because she eventually moved onto her current job as a kinder teacher, which she made the career change to… i think before i was even born. i’m frankly not sure why she left engineering to become a teacher, something i should probably ask her since i’m now invested in learning more about her past, but what i do know is that she’s incredibly fulfilled by her work.
i know she finds it to be really challenging, but i also know how proud she is to be setting children up for their future of education and i know that she does so with the best of intentions. she’s truly one of the most amazing people i know, and probably the only person i could really say has her life figured out when it comes to fulfilment–i mean, she’s not had a mid life crisis yet at 50 odd years old and even faced with her new reality of terminal cancer continues to not find herself there.
and it’s not even because she’s denying reality. on the train she told me in very plain terms that she understands that she really doesn’t know how long she has left to live. mind you, i don’t think she would agree with me about her having herself together all that well, but that’s just the kind of person she is. always strives to be better, never settles for good enough. and hey! she’s really happy with that, but part of our chat on the train today was her telling me about others bringing that into question. she’s had people tell her that she should stop working. that because she has god knows how long left to live, she should instead be free to do whatever she wants. and it did kinda take my mum by surprise, and caused her to think on it which is why she ultimately brought it up with me.
we spoke about it, as we usually do when things come up for either of us and we don’t know how to proceed, and i mean honestly i’m not sure we came to a satisfying answer. i told her that she should just do what she thinks is best for her and her own fulfilment–after all, this is her life to live, not someone else’s. she didn’t seem entirely convinced, but agreed that this is her own life and she should live it as she wishes to.
still, even with all that on her mind she continues to work her job and she seems plenty happy with it. and i trust her to make the right choices going forward, she’s one of the smartest people i know and will ultimately do what she sees as best for herself and those around her, and that alone makes her happy.
and so that’s why i sit here, writing all of this now. because she’s forced me to seriously think about what it is i want to do, how i want to lead a life that is fulfilling to myself.
some closing thoughts
i’ve been thinking for a while now, as i’ve been sitting here staring at my surroundings. what is it that i would find most fulfilling in life and how would i like to live my life. i think my trajectory now is a good one, where i aim to invest myself in all manner of hobbies and interests so that i can meet more people and learn about them. i still hold that the world is a deeply fascinating place, due in large part to the people that inhabit it. so i want to continue to explore what there is out there, find the culture and learn about it, and learn about the people within that culture.
and as for my mum, well i don’t know really. things are tough in many ways that i haven’t even hinted at in this post, and it’s likely that i’ll never talk about them in such a place like this. but know that she is doing well, and is keeping her poise incredibly well. despite knowing what her reality is, i fully believe that she is and will continue to live her best and most fulfilling life.
if you’ve reached the end of this, i do encourage you to think hard on how you want to find fulfilment in life as well, and how you might be able to achieve it. the world is a dark and cruel place in a lot of ways, being set up in a way that actively works against people seeking individuality and self fulfilment. i do hope that you can figure out a way to live your best life though, something i think everyone deserves.
and finally, make sure you let those you love know that you love them. learn about them, don’t let their memory and legacy go away. live a little with them, make memories that will last longer than the time you went to gawk at some tall tower. i keep thinking of the ridiculousness that was my mum wandering around a busy borough market in the middle of the day, just trying to get some food. the lines were staggeringly long, which lead to many people lining up while eating other food they had bought in the market just so they could get a taste of everything. she couldn’t get over how crazy that was to her, and we had a good laugh over that plus the other things she saw while out and about that day. it’s these moments i’ll remember, these moments i’ll cherish, and i think we should all do more to try and make these kinds of moments happen where we can.