Friday, 18 January 2013

Wiring

I have been somewhat haunted over the last few days by a section of this New Yorker piece I read which said - and I paraphrase, and more importantly, I leave out huge swathes of inadequacy distilling narrative about clubbing in Reykjavik and so on - that one's brain, and habits of working were definitively formed in the third decade of life. Your wiring was reset at this point, thus, if you weren't busy, active, challenged, stretched, in your twenties, you were fucked, basically: destined to bumble along ineffectually, without ambition or direction or the mental tool kit for success. "Survival of the busiest", the piece called it.

"Don't slow down yet! In professional life, a few lost years or lousy, aimless jobs could come to haunt you. 'Late bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier'"

Gulp.

I read this, thinking about my twenties: law school (8 hours teaching time a week, the rest of my days spent wandering dreamily around the streets of London, reading and occasionally baking a cake), trainee solicitorship (a degree of focus here, though the focus was mainly on trying to time my exit each evening so as to leave the highest possible degree of doubt among my superiors as to whether I might in fact still in the building), then about five minutes of half arsed pregnant lawyering before having a baby. Baby. Five more minutes of work (part time by now), then another baby and whoops, you've turned 30, time's up. I didn't really know what I wanted to do and I certainly didn't have the gumption or the drive or whatever it would have taken to say 'no, the law isn't for me, thank you'. Lucy Mangan did exactly that, and I occasionally look at her career and berate myself for spending all those years spent doing Herfindahl-Hirschmann analysis (I got some good shoes and some nice pictures out of it, I suppose, and I don't have the pretension to think I'm as good as she is, not at all. It's just .. what an idiot, doing a job I was dreadful at for ten long years of my short life).

By this account, then, I should probably accept that I am destined, by habit, by learned mental unfitness for purpose, by neurology never to make anything of myself.

What a grim idea this is. I'd like to think that this kind of neurological determinism is wrong, obviously, I hope it is, I believe it is. Surely it must be bollocks? People do extraordinary things later in life and I can't believe all of them spent their twenties wrestling with whiteboards full of equations or dreaming up start ups. Surely, too, there must be something to be said for a slower, more circuitous route, a more human way to finding out what you love and want to spend your life doing?

Even so, it definitely preys on my insecurities. Viewed from some angles, my last two years seem to have been a shambolic, halting, half-arsed procession of things half done and still unfinished, promising opportunities that came to nothing, connections lost. Viewed from other angles, I should stress, they have been surprisingly calm and happy and reflective, a time without life-shortening drama or sadness. Sure, there's a recession on, and times are tough, but my brain's been in a kind of slump too. It lost the ability to be funny, and swift, and sharp and brave and it its place there was just anxiety and repetitive, empty self-sabotage. I would love to be acid and irreverent and stupidly insouciant again, but I can't seem to do it. I've been strangely scared, intermittently: irrationally, uncontrollably scared like a child seeing terrible monsters in the corner of the bedroom; tiny problems looming vast and uncontrollable. Not all the time: sometimes the fear just slips away, gloriously, unpredictably, and the monsters turn back into a heap of clothes on the back of the chair. But when it's there, it paralyses me. It feels a bit like alopecia of the brain: there's nothing hideous happening externally, so my brain has turned on itself, gnawing holes in its fur, as Antonia once called it.

I don't really believe I can attribute any of this to being a feckless loser in my twenties, and even if I could, regretting my youthful aimlessness is sterile and pointless and self-indulgent, but .. I don't know. That piece did sort of chime with my feeling I have some steely core of determination and graft missing. I keep hoping that the iron will enter my soul, the sense of how terrifyingly finite time is will spur me on and win out over all that pathetic fear, but what if it doesn't?

Lord, this has to be the most pointless, introspective piece of nonsense I have written ever, I'm so sorry. It's like my brain has pinned you against the cash point in a shopping centre and is muttering incoherently at you about aliens and medication and its bus fare to Runcorn, fixing you with mad starey eyes. I'll stop now. God knows, it was probably even worse reading that if you're actually in your twenties in the midsts of the worst recession for decades being told that if you aren't gainfully occupied in challenging, difficult, satisfying work now, your brain is pretty much buggered. Thanks, neuroscience.

I think the point of this when I first started writing it, was firstly that I wanted to try and defend the aimless and the half-arsed and the confused. We'll get there! Eventually! Perhaps? And when/if we do, we'll be far more tolerant, rounded, forgiving people than the ones with the single-minded gimlet ambition. And if we don't, we'll be quite the nicest hobos you will ever meet.

Then in order to bolster my 'argument' (ha), I was wondering if you had any jolly stories about later life success to tell me. "Success" need not be defined as fame and fortune, obviously. Just, you know. Contentment. Doing something you enjoy. Tiny personal triumphs. Anything to challenge this crackpot theory. Was your wiring set in stone your twenties? Really? Say it's not so.

31 comments:

Mrs Jones said...

I think you're being too hard on yourself. It's not that long ago that you went through two major life upheavals - becoming a single mother and giving up the security of a full-time job as a lawyer to go into the unknown and perilous world of freelance writing. Either one of these is incredibly stressful but to do both in a short space of time is heroically brave.

I also do not know what I want to be when I grow up, and I'm 50 in about 4 months time. I've tried several pathways in my life - at various times I've been a secretary, a musician, an archaeologist, a university lecturer and a jeweller. I tinker with photography, textile arts and am now getting into 'proper' painting. I would love to be successful in any of these areas. But that then begs the question of what, exactly, is the definition of success? For me, I know it involves the validation of other people. Not family, not friends, but complete strangers. And that means I may never be as successful as I would like because I'm not sure how to go about obtaining that validation. Others may consider the mastery of a new skill to be enough success for them, and be content with that. Obviously there's satisfaction to be gained from learning a new piano piece or how to tile a floor but is that 'successful?'

As to wiring the brain in your 20s, part of me thinks there may be something in that as it's probably the first time most of us get to be truly independent. We've moved out from home so don't have parents telling us what to do, and if we're still in education it'll be university which encourages curiosity and research (or should do). But that doesn't mean you can't change how you are or the way you think later in life, as realisations come along and the experiences that life puts you through change your outlook.

So don't despair, Mlle Waffle, there are many of us in the same boat with you. (Sorry for the essay!)

mountainear said...

Well, firstly as Mrs Jones says, don't be too hard on yourself, too critical. There are hoards of out here who give give arms and legs to be as eloquent and witty as you are; a good and loving mother to boot (and why should that be under-rated even as a part-time career?) And if this is where you are now what's so wrong with that?

Having spent my 20's either pregnant or rearing small children I can understand the difficulty in picking up a career again - in my case discovering typography had mysteriously moved on from lumpy bits of lead to things done on a screen - and done it, damn it without ME. I do pther things, other doors open, the wolf is kept from the door, life moves on. One finds happiness. Who judges anyway?

You have years ahead. Enjoy the here and now.

Anonymous said...

Exactly what Mrs Jones said.
And frankly I don't believe that there are any universal truths about people whether it's biological determinism or neurological, bollocks! There are always other experts who will disagree with such a thesis and propose that it is only what we do in our childhood/30s/40s/50s whenever that sets the tone. Like Mrs Jones I'm an archaeologist, I'm also a historian and I can give you (if you stand still long enough!) a reasoned argument - with a bibliography, footnotes and powerpoint - that people do different things in different ways at different times and whose to say when or if they're successful.
Don't be so hard on yourself, ignore the fear such articles provoke, remember we love your writing.
Julia

soleils said...

"...my brain's been in a kind of slump too. It lost the ability to be funny, and swift, and sharp and brave".

Er, no. No it hasn't, otherwise I would not have been following your insightful, funny, tender, riotous. thought-provoking blog quite so avidly over the years (really, years? wow).

I don't buy that neuroscience BS myself. I am very wary of this sort of sweeping generalisation and, at the risk of peddling an old battered cliché, each of us develops at different speeds, via more or less meandering paths, and WTF is success anyway?

Are our brains somehow (re)wired in our twenties? Who the hell knows? Surely only one thing really matters in the end and that is being true to yourself. And I actually think you are incredibly fortunate in that you have obviously found the path that allows you to be true to yourself: writing. Lots of people, perhaps especially those who were high achievers in their 20s, never find that path. I know I'm still looking, and some would say I was a bit of a superstar in my 20s (though only on the surface).

As ever, thank you for the words.

Anonymous said...

I, too, challenge the popular notion of success. It seems to be a bit of a made-up, nebulous idea. I was as busy as a one armed paper hanger during my 20's and 30's- working, studying, being a single mother. Then a very personal disaster struck when I was 40, and suddenly all the striving and working and late nights/early mornings, all the networking and pushing, just seemed so pointless. And 7 years later I find myself still completely 'meh' about any of it.
This is what I think. If you are happy, or at least content (or maybe even not actively miserable) you are successful. If you have a roof over your head, you are successful. If your children stand a decent chance of not being completely dysfunctional, you are successful. All th rest is whipped cream on the side.

Aileen Bartels said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patience_Crabstick said...

Gah! I just lost a long comment I wrote. (I deleted the comment above because I was signed in wrong.)

So, I was pregnant, breastfeeding, or both without a single break from the age of 23 to 34. I didn't have a job and my only mental stimulation was reading. I went back to school at 39, was valedictorian of the nursing school I attended, worked for two years as a nurse, then got a job as a medical software analyst at age 44. I swear, since getting the analyst job, I feel like my brain has changed and become sharper. There's no way I believe that how you spend your twenties determines the outcome of the rest of your life.

Kim Velk said...

Gawd. I was reading that same piece at nap time today. (Yes, like my mother before me, I "lie down" now after work). I stumbled over that same bit and, as I was in pre nap mode, I thought the writer's point was that some people say this (i.e. "be busy in your 20s:) others say otherwise. Maybe I was filling in what I thought should be there? In any case, I fell asleep then (still holding the magazine vertically by some trick of my 40-something unconscious mind) as I ran through the same little inventory that you did. I did stupid things and wasted time, but I was a lot easier on myself though. Frankly, your catalog of 20s activities and achievements places you over and above about 99.9 percent of all first worlders: law school and fulfilling your reproductive mandate counts as having been busy then. Earth to Waffle! OK. You asked for uplift. Here you go. One of my favorite writers is the late, great Canadian Robertson Davies who really got going on things (novels etc.) late in life. When asked about this particular trajectory he said, "youth was not my time to flower." I hold onto that.

Mara Gaulzetti said...

Oh dear, seems that I'm doomed.

Mara Gaulzetti said...

I'd second the idea that becoming a lawyer and MAKING two fantastic children is no small feat!

Anonymous said...

Being a lawyer is crap. I should know as I am one and am not brave enough to quit. You should be proud of yourself. from @cheese_fiend

Xtreme English said...

Those thoughts of yours--that you're not funny or worth anything--that stuff. Just say "thanks for sharing, now go sit in the corner." We all get those ugly, horble thoughts, but only graduate students write papers about it for neuroscience and then publish them after they get their PHD so as to make $$. They don't especially care whether they torment anyone who reads them.

You are fantastic, Ms. Waffle. I feel bad that you pay any attention to those thoughts that tell you otherwise.

One of my favorite movies is "Ghost Town." In it, Tea Leoni's character tells Ricky Gervais's character that his stories and his life are not stupid or boring--and all he's got, anyway.

If I told you what I was doing in my 20s and what I'm doing now that I'm almost 80, you'd know that you're just getting started. Don't give up on yourself, and yeah, write out these posts and then file them away.

Your blog is not only entertaining and hysterically funny, it's inspiring! Good job!!

DES said...

This is nonsense on stilts. There's a considerably larger body of evidence attesting to the marvelous plasticity of the brain, even in advanced old age. Even if this were not the case, doesn't writing itself, if it's done at all well, make tremendous demands on one's intellect, imagination, and sense of humor?
And you do it quite well, so I daresay your brain is as nimble as any over-achieving swot (am I using that correctly, I wonder?) one might care to name.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted second everyone's opinions and say that not only are you not doomed, I think you're quite successful - anyone who can get out of the lawyering grind has won a huge prize. All my friends who are lawyers work 400 hrs a week and seem only to be wealthy, not happy.
Also, I'd like to say that I am also an archaeologist and that your readership seems oddly full of archaeologists - which is by no means a bad thing, just interesting since there aren't all that many of us (relative to lawyers at any rate).

The Reluctant Launderer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Reluctant Launderer said...

(god. I misspell a word and all hell breaks loose. just as well I saved my comment - so here goes again...)

Oh Ms Waffle. Firstly, I agree with EVERYTHING everyone above has written (esp the bit about being a lawyer being shit)
Your writing is sublime, and, I think, much much better than Lucy Mangan's (although I do rate her highly - I just rate you more so).
For success story: my dad - who gave his life to being a typical sub-urban dad (home at 6, dinner at 615, snooze in front of the tv etc) while building up his professional practice, found himself bored when he retired ten years ago. So he did a diploma in archeology (got a First). Then a masters (another First) and is now on his PhD. He'll be 80 this year. He also writes short stories and plays, and is very very content. Much more so, I think, than when he was in his 30s, 40s, 50s etc. Let's hope we don't all have to wait that long to be content with ourselves. Another success story: Julia Donaldson. She'd had an artistically varied life - song-writing etc - but she didn't write first children's book until she was 45. We all come into ourselves at different times. So STOP FRETTING. You are magnificent, and will only become more so with age.

Bytowner said...

Dear Ms Waffle I will add my voice to the above commenters that your brain as we know it through your writing, seems brilliant, able, creative and generally awesome, except for its ability to cause you grief and insecurity from time to time. I followed your link and read the article which i quite enjoyed. I'm not sure I believe (or that the author of the article does either) the neurobiology gets hard wired in your 20s thing, but if it is true, you exposed yourself to law school, doing that H-H analysis whatever it is, which surely caused some neural pathway to form, and you moved around and had children which I think causes all kinds of important shifts in thinking and feeling which are not valued or recognized in the same way as working in a startup in Silicon valley. The idea that one may never catch up financially for time spent not earning money in the 20s is often true but that is just the old lecture about 'the power of compound interest' formerly delivered by bankers, dressed up with our current need to have every thing explained to us through the lens of psychiatry, neurology, and the related sciences. Therefore you are in no way doomed intellectually. As to the financial side, I have no business giving anybody advice or reassurance!
I spent chunks of my 20s in various small towns in Eastern Ontario, and in Manitoba where I had a job at a historic site pretending to be a scullery maid. This had less cachet then than it does now, what with Daisy of Downton Abbey making it all famous. These periods of my life were actually fun and i made lots of friends etc, but i'm not sure of the overall positive effect on my neurobiology.
I now have a Responsible Job, a steady salary, lovely children etc. I am almost 50. In my forties i completed a graduate degree which really affected how I think in my professional life.
In my experience many wonderful things remain possible after the 20s, both internal shifts and external changes, and i wish them for you.

Bytowner said...

PS I will send some photos. My inability to complete this task has NOTHING TO DO with the rye whiskey consumed and periods of unemployment and laziness of my 20s.

Margaret said...

I'm with Xtreme English: sex sells. And in this quasi-scientific journalism-y area, the sex is agita-inducing theories about Why You Probably Suck and Will End Up with a Refrigerator as Your Home. I look forward to your new posts with such anticipation. Isn't that success? And those boys of yours? Success.

frau antje said...

I sent this to someone about to enter their twenties (a decade I personally spent doing the hard stuff, and wracking my brain for a way out of a profession).

http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/11/writers-and-artists-at-harvard#article-images

The best things in my life have come from doing the ill-advised. The worst are by and large accidental, ask Sarah Lund.

Helen said...

I completely agree with everything above, you are an amazing writer, and your 20s sound pretty productive to me, so if you were rewired I think you're alright!

I am in my 20s, writing my PhD amid bouts of horrible capital-D-Depression and general malaise (my wiring could actually do with a refit, please), and take great comfort in the fact that no, actually, these are not the best years of my life, they're just some of them. I have so much that I want to do, and which I couldn't have done before now - and I think that must also be true for you?

(As an aside, hope you're ok in the snow. The Dutchman has sent me some very lovely photos of gardens and such but I'm not sure what the main streets are like.)

Helen said...

Also - re: stories of later-life success - I've just been to my older brother's MRes graduation (a step towards his PhD after a good few years of illness and aimlessness), and was struck by the number of 'mature student' graduands - plenty of men and women in their 50s, 60s, and up, who were taking postgraduate degrees in a wide range of subjects.

Pat (in Belgium) said...

My wiring was steeped in sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock&roll in my twenties.
I QUIT university (going for a degree in fine arts) in my fourth and FINAL year to get married & move to a foreign country. I left the marriage & stayed abroad to start a "career" for which I had absolutely no "proper" training. I figured I had always aced essays so writing film reviews & features for a local daily would be a fun way to make decent money (it beat waiting tables!). That led to a full-blown journalist job at a larger, more established daily...where I met AND married second husband AND moved again to another foreign country, one where I,this time, did NOT speak the language(s).
I waited until I was 39 to try and get pregnant, and almost missed that boat. I consider having & raising our daughter one of the best "things" I have ever done in my life. (She is now mid-twenties & sounds nothing like the "kids" mentioned in The New Yorker...)

What I learned in my twenties was I could take care of myself, emotionally as well as physically; that if I really wanted something I would most likely have to do the "work"; and that people and the relationships I have with them are always more important than things.
There has always been "enough" money. I have never gone hungry or lived "rough". I have been lucky to have had really good health (sometimes in spite of myself).
And, as phlegmatic as I am and can be, I also believe that change is always possible. I won't be a neurosurgeon (but I didn't fantasize about that until I was well into my 40s!) or a veterinarian (topic of my careers' paper at age 15).

What's that (sappy) quote? Life is what happens to you when you're busy making plans.
(You can take the woman out of the Sixties; you apparently can't take the Sixties out of the woman...)

Natalie said...

Oh gawd, I sort of wished I'd never clicked on the article.
I am not long turned 26, in my final year of art college, with half of a science degree as well. I've done every job from working in train station, a prison to a nursery teacher. Engaging in too much internet activity leaves me overwhelmed at the sheer amount of wonderful and creative things people my age seem to be doing, this constant inadequacy leaves me feeling like I can barely leave the house half the time.
I hate living in London even though it's supposed to be the epicentre for all things creative, I'm sick of being poor yet I know that I will never make much money in life. I'm in over 40 grand worth of debt from being on my 2nd degree and for the life of me I'm filled with such apathy and crippling fear, I feel like I may never achieve anything. After uni I'm expected to work for free full time but I can't rely on anyone but me to pay the rent and I can't move home as my parents live overseas. I've been let go from one internship because I couldn't be there full time and had to work as well.
But the good things are, I've travelled well. am interested in any kind of literature and art, always pay my bills on time and have long been able to cook well. I feel like a really rubbish polymath, turning my hand to most things but never fully competent in one.
That mother and daughter duo who wrote one of the books sound like and overachieving pair of twats!

I've been reading your blog for years and I think you're hilarious and most importantly honest because life is about the good and the bad. You need one to appreciate the other. I feel slightly better after unloading my 20's neuroses they look quite silly written down.

Léonie said...

"I've been strangely scared, intermittently: irrationally, uncontrollably scared like a child seeing terrible monsters in the corner of the bedroom; tiny problems looming vast and uncontrollable."

This passage really resonated with me. You have been so brave, you have taken bold and courageous decisions in life without the certainty of a safety net. Maybe it just catches up with you at weird times, and you want to stop being brave and have the universe stroke your face and tell you it'll all be OK.

I'm not sure, but I do know that the article is a big pile of crap. We're always being told that we can re-forge our neural pathways to change our behaviour - is this not a similar thing?

Product Pixie said...

This scares me. I am 29 and, having done basically the same job (few promotions along the way but still) since graduating, I have come to the conclusion that a) I don't like it and b) I'm not very good at it.

Of course, the two are intertwined. I have no idea what to do about it, though. I can't afford to change careers as that would mean starting in a junior role and probably taking an enormous pay cut, but the thought of this being 'what I do' just depresses me beyond belief.

And now, having read this, I see that I am set up for a life of mediocre work and not a lot of fun with it. So thank you. But mainly thank you for writing a post on such a bleak subject in such a warm and funny way. That is why I keep coming back here. x

bbonthebrink said...

Dearest Waffle, I'm coming to this late...
I agree with above commenters, you're being very hard on yourself. It seems to me as though you've done all sorts of brave in the past few years. Consciously taking things that were not quite right in your life and changing them for the better is immensely brave in my view. Building paths for the future an' all that.
I am skeptical of this notion that your brain is wired in your 20s. If it's true, however, I'm delighted. I was incredibly brave (insouciant?) and adventurous in my 20s. Now I look back at myself then and feel like I'm looking back at another person. My courage seems to have been replaced with caution, and a reluctance and fear to make big leaps. Maybe I'll get it back one day.
I think we can only do the best we can do, and take life a step at a time. What we did in our 20s is what we did in our 20s. Now is now. Gulp.
BB

Jeannette said...

Dear Waffle,

As an inveterate lurker on your blog, I've enjoyed you immensely without feeling the need to comment. Until now.

Here is my comment: what a load of steaming bollocks. I too read that article, and like most things, it says more about the writer than the rest of the population. I am in my fifth decade and on my fourth "career," a British expat living in the US who worked like a bastard in her 20s, obtained 2 advanced degrees, bought a house, set up a pension plan, then woke one morning unable to get out of bed.

That depression propelled me to a new country and a series of casual, stress-free, random jobs that allowed time for a life. I had no plan, other than to be open to whatever came along; I had no ambition beyond experiencing what I could. To others I guess I was drifting, but I was happy, fulfilled and surrounded by friends.

Ten years ago I was offered a job I never planned for, studied for, or worked for. I only found out how much I loved it after I began doing it.

My point is, this whole notion of busy work - planning your work, working your plan - is a construct of a world that sees value only in work. What I believe you know already is the value of the things you do that don't feel at all like work. Yes, it's financially scary, but even the super wealthy end up in the gutter sometimes (watch "The Queen of Versailles"). There is no way to plan for a happy life; all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, say "yes" to things that sound interesting, and hope that the universe is kind.

It was kind to me, and I can't say I deserved it. Have faith.

Jeannette

Jo said...

It is indeed a crackpot theory based on the premise that we should all be busy and efficient doing brilliant, difficult jobs all our lives. In other words that we should all be the same as (presumably) the writers of the report. No idlers and dreamers and non-working full-time parents allowed in THIS particular theory. Also, those busy, efficient people often look good on the outside but are miserable and messed up inside. And just as many of them end up divorced, redundant, sick and unhappy as the amblers and shamblers amongst us. Human beings are all different. Surprise, surprise. I've always intended to be a late developer, and so it has turned out. I've skipped the nervous breakdown and the mid-life crisis (and the bankrupting effects of a sudden redundancy) by just doing jobs I like without wishing I were CEO of something important. So up yours Mr & Ms neuroscience, go research something to make us feel less anxious, not more.

Anonymous said...

At some point I'm going to write to you properly to express the profound appreciation I have for your work here. Until then, know that I found you via The Gravel Farm last night, have a nasty deadline, yet have been intermittently reading you on my BlackBerry since stupid o'clock waiting for the painkillers to shift the migraine. Self-help, that is not.

Anyway, the thing I'm writing is at least partially on neuroscience (music and emotional response) and I feel completely qualified to declare that arbitrarily limiting sack of nonsense for the bullshit it is. Firstly, it's pretty evident (if you're not on an introspective self-destruct vibe) and secondly, I'm a year older than you, spent my twenties horribly ill, mostly in bed and am now bumbling my way through a medical degree. End of third year and they still haven't sussed the right-brained alien in their midst. So, a defiant chorus of "bollocks to that" shall resound in our cubicles of debatable productivity.

I'll get back to my research for the humanities module now..it's quite nice to be able to say: "Freud was an obsessive, narrow-minded wanker" in intellectualese. It is blessed respite from relentless biochem.

I really love what you do; I doubt you have ANY idea how good you are. That makes me smile, but a little bit sad too. You're sure testing my dedication to task!

Anonymous said...

Oh and I really like your regular followers too.

Didn't mean to be anonymous, I'm Sal. Wouldn't let me comment otherwise. Peace out...x