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'"
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.