On doing nothing (or feeling like you’ve done nothing)

There are many moments in everyone’s life when they get asked the question “so, what are you going to do with your life?” Or at least some kind of variant on the same theme.

I think that for most of us this question comes with an element of dread, or panic, or at least a massive degree of uncertainty. There is, I’m sure, a very small percentage of the population who can say with any degree of certainty what it is they want to be doing, or see themselves going. Here I want to share my own experiences of how (not) to do it.

For as many years as I can think about having thought about this question, I have always had roughly the same response: “I am going to stay in education for as long as possible, get a doctorate, perhaps a post doc, and then teach and spend my life doing research.” It was a response that always sounded like I knew what I was doing, or at least where I was heading, or hoped to end up. But now, with two failed PhD funding attempts under my belt I have had to reconsider this.

The problem is that I have never been in a hurry. Instead of going into a three year degree course after sixth form, I chose to do a foundation course, and then to do a year abroad as part of my BA, meaning I did not complete my first degree until the age of twenty-three. Then, with a place to commence a masters in Toulouse, I decided against it at the last minute. This meant a year of not doing an awful lot whilst working out the next move. Which proved to be a two year masters degree.

So, completing my first masters well into my mid-twenties, and making the decision that I would continue my art practice, I paid little attention to my actual paid work—which meant that I fell into pub management—definitely not where I wished to be.

After three years of working 50 hour weeks whilst attempting to maintain some kind of career as an artist, I made the decision to quit my job so that I would have more time for art, and that I would also apply for that PhD. This worked for a while, but eventually I hit a wall. Not a physical wall, a mental one: I realised that I had not only failed for the first time to secure funding for a course of study, but also that I had come to resent making artwork.

An artist who doesn’t want to make art seemed like a problem.

Noting this issue, I thought that the best plan of action was, as always, more study. So I decided to have a go at a masters in English Literary Studies. Which was (hopefully) a good decision. I have enjoyed it thoroughly, I consistently perform well in it, and would love so much to continue down this particular road.

The problem is I applied again for PhD funding this year, and once more didn’t get it. Now, I know that I can apply again next year. But there is no guarantee of being successful a third time round. Or a fourth. Or fifth.

At what point does it become time to admit that perhaps the path you always thought you would take might not happen? Might it be time to change course?

As I now approach my thirty-second birthday, I have never had a “proper job”, never had a 9-5. I have studied, and I have worked in a great many service industry jobs for meagre wages. I have turned around to find that the vast majority of people my age have followed completely different paths to my own, and that scares me. It makes me feel that maybe I have made the wrong decisions: who, at my age, with two masters under my belt, but without work experience outside hospitality, will actually give me a job that is worth having? I have decided to try to get into the realm of copywriting, because I know I can write, I love writing, I love words, and it would enable me to make use of my creativity, albeit within a corporate environment. But I worry that the path I have taken will count against me: I am no fresh faced graduate. I have life experience, but what if it is the wrong kind?

I have not given up on the PhD, but I have come to feel that it might be something for the future, and my priority at the moment is the here and now. Which means attempting to forge some kind of sustainable job for the longterm (I hate the word career, but that is basically what I am getting at). I have looked at what I want and seen that I want a steady income, a home, a life that is not spent wondering if I’ll have enough hours work this week (or too many).

But I have also been realising that even though I feel that perhaps I have sometimes made the wrong decisions, if I could go back in time I would not change them. I have loved every minute of it. I have managed to stay within higher education for nine years of my adult life, and to someone who loves to learn as much as I do that feel like an incredible achievement. I have been able to challenge myself intellectually. I have fantastic people around me. Whilst I feel that I am at a new point in my life, one that in the short term may be full of rejections and not-getting-the-job, it is also exciting.

If my sixteen year old self could look into the future at where I am now, I think she would be really surprised, perhaps a little disappointed or confused. This has not been the path that would have been expected of me, and some might see it as somewhat of a failure, or a waste of talent.

But what I try to keep in mind is that I’ve had a great time, I’ve learned so much, and there is so much more to come. But it is time for a change.


3 thoughts on “On doing nothing (or feeling like you’ve done nothing)

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