Monday, 10 January 2011

Things I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18

A few months back on the BBC website I came across an inteview with sociology professor Fred Furedi about five things he had felt he had learnt during his life (he is 63).  His five were: 1. Listen - because you can learn from anybody; 2. Question everything; 3. Rely on your intuition; 4. Always reflect on your motives when you are dealing with your children and 5. Things are never as bad as they seem.  Two things struck me about this.  First I was interested that almost all the points were completely the opposite to his (with point 4. I am only occasionally a pseudo-parent so cannot really engage with that point) and second it reminded me of a similar column I used to see in one of the Sunday newspaper magazines when I did a paper-round in the early 1980s which was entitled as I have entitled this posting.

I am not as old as Furedi, but I have experienced quite a bit of life.  I know that I came from a privileged background: my parents never divorced; we lived in the same house all through my youth; we lived in a middle class town in southern England not hit by unemployment and social problems as much of England was; I was not sexually abused (though I was physically bullied by peers and constantly humiliated by my parents who portrayed me as looking like someone mentally disabled); I had friends (though fewer than I realised); I had a room of my own to sleep in; I was well fed but not obese and when I went to bed it was not wet or cold.  I must say, however, that I have been incredibly disappointed with my life.  If I had written this posting some months or years ago, I might be more positive, but facing losing my house and having no work for months is clearly going to alter my view of things and make a lot of what I have done in recent years seem entirely wasted.

I will start with Furedi's five points and then add some of my own.  In terms of listening, I agree up to a point, but the more I have heard the more I have heard the same.  I have been struck by how small minded and bigoted the average person is.  I have lost count of how many times I have been told that the problems of the country are down to immigrants with absolutely no evidence.  Such things are repeated so often that they are no longer challenged.  The same with stuff around the Thatcherite agenda, such as deregulation and privatisation; that large numbers of people are defrauding the state and millions are getting more than their fair share.  I am sick of this stuff being repeated to me as if it is acceptable and beyond challenging.  I do not know how I would have reacted if at 18 I would have known this, I guess I would have terminated conversations with many people much sooner, simply walked away.  It would be better to be thought peculiar than to listen to hours and hours of this rubbish which I must have heard in my life, simply wasting time I could have spent reading a book.

In terms of Furedi's question everything, I think there is no point.  I thought this was the case when I was a child, but I think I was misled by the lingering radical lecturers at my university who had been students in the 1960s and had not thrown off such attitudes even with their prosperity and success (more likely because of them).  Basically, unless you are a member of the ultra-rich in our society, you are never going to be able to change anything.  There is no point questioning what happens.  Often it will be unfair and irrational, but whether it is how your company does things or how you are taught or how the country is run, you are in a position which means you can do absolutely nothing about it.  Even if you question it, the answer will usually be irrational and refer to habit or tradition and you cannot break that down.  This particularly applies in the workplace.  Most offices, factories, warehouses, shops, etc. have methods which are wasteful in terms of time and resources but never try to challenge these and suggest a better way, it will simply cause you to be complained about as a troublemaker or naive and certainly not being wortwhile employing.  An episode of the US series 'Malcolm in the Middle' (2000-06 in USA).  Teenager Malcolm gets a job working in a warehouse where his mother works.  He is charged with squashing up empty cardboard boxes and then taking them to the refuse.  The pattern is that the boxes are loaded into a lift taken down a floor, taken into the box-squashing area, squashed, loaded back into the lift, taken back up a floor and then to the refuse container.  To speed things up Malcolm squashes them on the floor they start off on and then takes them over to the refuse container, so saving time and electricity.  He receives an official report against him for not complying to procedure.  This kind of thing happens in every warehouse in the UK and in every office or shop or factory there is similar behaviour, but unless you want to lose your job do not challenge it.  In terms of wrongs in our world, complain about things, shout and protest about how wrong they are, but do not waste your effort questioning most things as you simply irritate people and generally they can give you no answer which makes any sense.  Save your effort.

Intuition is useless, you might as well toss a coin or throw a dice to decide the step to take in any situation.  Even when you have lived life it is impossible to know enough to make a judgement that will save you from harm or discomfort.  The best you can do is learn as much as you can about a situation and at least dodge some but certainly not all of the unpleasant consequences, e.g. use a condom when having sex should spare you from a pregnancy developing or getting a STI, but you are unlikely to avoid your partner's ex-boyfriend/girlfriend attacking you jealously, unless you have researched your partner's background and choose a different location or time to have sex with the person.  Intuition is far too often affected by superstition and prejudice and so often blinds you to the full range of options and in fact can channel you down fixed, bad paths and leave you with no alternatives that you might otherwise have seen.

As I say I cannot comment on dealing with 'my' children.  I certainly think it is worthwhile checking your motives when engaging with anyone not on any moral basis but because it will allow you to see why you are truly doing something and whether that motivation is liable to alter or more likely flag as time passes.  A clear example is joining a club or activity because you know someone you are attracted to is a member/participant.  That is a bad motive.  The likely outcome is that you will be stuck doing something you do not enjoy and they will not be interested in you anyway.  You will endure doing something you do not like and wasting time that could be spent on more enjoyable things for you.  I am not saying just be a hedonist, but that your focus should be on the central activity not ulterior motives or possible by-products of doing that thing.

Things are always far worse than they seem.  As I grow older I adhere to the phrase 'it is later than you think', as used in a religious context, i.e. you must change your life and seek salvation as soon as possible because you are going to be judged sooner than you believe.  I do not see it in that particular way, but I think it is a good attitude when thinking about your life.  Often minor things happen, such as something goes wrong with your car or your house or there is trouble in your workplace.  Too many people, myself included, think, 'it is only minor, I have time to get it sorted'.  No, not only is it already too late when the problem becomes apparent, it is going to get worse, because one problem triggers a whole series.  You will find the repair to the car costs more than you think so you have less money or you get to work late and steps begin to remove you from your job.  In the current economic climate, no job is safe, even teachers and nurses could lose their jobs very quickly.  You constantly need to be looking ahead for potential problems.  You constantly need to be saving what you can to prepare for the dire situations that come up in your life.  Even then you have to recognise you cannot foresee everything and will get caught out unexpectedly.  Unfortunately there is nothing that you can do about that, it is part of life.  I know now that when I was teenager I was not cautious enough and rather than think I could survive in the business I dreamt of going into, I should have trained as an accountant or a lawyer and right throughout my life I would have avoided things like living in an unheated room above a chipshop sharing a bathroom with seven other people and losing the house I bought now.  Always be prepared for the worst that you can imagine, because, in reality, life will be even worse than that.  Anyone who tries to follow dreams, especially in their careers, will suffer badly.  Find the most secure occupation you can and cling to it; keep retraining constantly to widen your options and even then be prepared for not getting even a fraction of what you want.

Moving on from Furedi's points there are a few others of my own.  The first is that most people quickly forget when you have said something in passing that upset them.  I often believed I had offended people by what I had said and worried about it greatly and assumed they would hold a grudge against me.  Perhaps this stemmed from childhood experiences when people in my district constantly referred to mistakes of the past.  I was once at a party and turned down a dessert saying I was not allowed by my parents to have 'packet food' (I had assumed wrongly that it was 'Angel Delight' a very popular, very sweet dessert in a packet of the time) as they were into self-sufficiency and homegrown stuff at the time, the mid-1970s.  This offended my friend's mother who had put a lot of effort into the dessert.  Running into the woman more than 12 years later she immediately challenged me on what I had said at the age of 8 and was clearly still unhappy about it.  However, as life has gone on, I have found that people generally forget faux pas and inadvertently insulting comments incredibly quickly.  Not everyone, of course, but the bulk.  I do have a concern that in the age of social networking, we are all now experiencing longer duration of anger at such faux pas. I blame this on the hyper-emotionalism being brought from the USA to the UK in which all friendships have to be the greatest ever with constant contact and all groups gather and fall apart like girls in a US high school playground with snubs seem as some heinous insult, even simply not acknowledging immediately or daily is seen in this way.  Such attitudes, spill into the workplace.  Thus, at 18, I wish I knew that most people do not take faux pas to heart and let them fester for days let alone years, but at 42, I would warn myself that perhaps my childhood experiences are more mainstream now.

People do not want the truth they want a quick answer.  Being interested in many topics it took me many years to learn that even if people ask you a complex question they want a quick, simple answer with no context.  I have to rein myself in sharply these days because somehow a lengthy answer is now taken as 'improper' especially in the workplace where it seems to be insulting to the 'time poor' staff.  You have to keep thorough answers to your diary or your blog, most people want nothing lasting more than 3 sentences, you have to stick to simple concepts, generally engaging their prejudices, whether you are emailing or speaking to them.  Challenging someone's view of something unless done very subtly is seen as an insult.  At 18 I loved the complexity of ideas and events and assumed everyone else did and wanted to discuss them: they do not and will become irritated, even insulted, if you try.

Women do not like to have sex with virgins.  I was never very successful with women, but realise that at 18 I should have been far less picky and simply have had sex with any woman who offered it.  As a man, if you have not had sex by the time you are 21 then it is unlikely you ever will have sex.  Women, no matter what their age, do not want to be a man's 'first'.  The woman who was mine was incredibly angry when she found out and ended the relationship as she weirdly thought I would somehow be obsessed with her.  Given her attitude I was clearly quite happy to be rid of her.  Women expect a man to know precisely what he is doing, not matter how young he is.  You need to read up as much as you can, get to know all the current jargon and never, ever admit to your first partner that she was the first, not even years later, because even then she will turn strange and may spurn you, even if you have had lots of sex with her by then.  After 21, women will guess that you are a virgin anyway, it seems impossible to hide.  So, whilst taking precautions, I certainly recommend all men, who want to have sex in their 20s and beyond, having sex with a woman before they turn 21 otherwise your chances of ever having it drop to almost zero.

Women are very complex anyway and the input of all the media means they are often not making decisions for themselves but making decisions selected by others.  On one hand I wish I knew at 18 that some women will be gravely offended if you even dare to ask them out and you must be ready for how cutting they will be and how indignant that you dare ask.  Conversely, I would say, it is amazing who women will be attracted to and you may feel that you are incredibly gawky and ugly but there is at least one, if not many more women you will meet who would at least like to sleep with you and perhaps have a long-term relationship.  Certainly if a woman asks you out, it is usually genuine.  I often thought I was being played with, but with hindsight, I see that whilst some women might want you simply to get them pregnant, the vast majority simply would not bother asking you if they did not feel that there was something good about being with you even short-term.  I was always chasing women who had no interest in me and never knew how to handle those who actually had asked me out, thinking it had to be some kind of trick.  In this still too heavily male-focused society, any woman who has made the effort to ask you out is worth going out with.  The vast bulk of women of your age have no interest in you, so one who expresses an interest is to be treasured.  The other thing I would say to my 18-year old self, is that the most unexpected girlfriends are often the most successful ones.  We all have an ideal, but actually real happiness is found in the least expected place, in terms of a woman's interests, appearance, nationality, background, even age.  If you really want happiness have an open mind.

Do not reveal anything much about yourself to work colleagues, it will be used against you.  Never tell anyone if you are married or single or who your parents or siblings are or where you used to work, even where you holiday or what books or movies or food you like.  All of these things will be taken and used by someone in your workplace to disadvantage you.  Do not have family pictures on your desk or talk about your wife or parents, keep all of this secret.  If you have to, fabricate a life that fits with your colleagues' prejudices about what a 'normal' person of your age and position has.  Obviously, I would advise anyone to keep details available online about them to a minimum.

One thing I am glad I did adhere to when 18 is not to disrespect anyone, even if you disagree with their views, they are worthy of respect as being humans.  Certainly if you run into a dictator or a torturer challenge them as far as you can (without endangering yourself or others), but almost all people you meet in normal life think they are doing right and are doing it for worthwhile motives.  Even if what they are doing is wrong, do not lower yourself to become like them.  You are unlikely to change them by disparaging them, but your mean-spiritedness is going to put other people who could be your allies, off you.  As far as possible avoid unpleasant people and console yourself that they will pay a price whether you believe as a result of karma, being judged in the afterlife or by being left friendless because of their behaviour.

I would tell my 18-year old to go and visit more people.  Even if it means lengthy journeys, actually visiting friends is a rare commodity which will become rarer as you get older and you will look back at missed opportunities to spend time with friends.  It is important for your wellbeing to get out and see people.  There will be ample time for sitting at home in the future.  Travelling with people is a whole much harder thing, far more difficult than you could ever imagine and only worthwhile doing with individuals who can tolerate their life while travelling to be entirely different to everything they had at home, even if going camping in the UK or to a hotel in France, and who do not get frustrated when things turn out differently to what is expected.  Do not plan too much, people jam holidays full of stuff, just absorbing the place is often enough, do not try to adhere to a rigid, packed itinerary, it will simply raise the chances for frustration and problems.  Enjoying being away from home and with friends and family should be a far greater priority than seeing or doing everything you had considered doing.  Only travel with sexual partners if married to them, no other set-up will stand a holiday.  It is better for you to have short breaks and to holiday separately with same-sex friends or family until you have effectively become family to each other.  So many good relationships are broken by holidays and I am far from being the only person to note this.

In terms of myself at 18 in terms of travel, I would see be less afraid than your mother about me travelling to places.  I miss out a great deal in 1989 by not seeing the Berlin Wall before it fell and in 1995 in not going to Prague and Budapest, for fear that I would be robbed or not find someone to stay.  My holidays cycling in France would have been better if I had not been terrified of not finding anything to eat on a Sunday.  Whilst caution while travelling is sensible, fear actually reduces the experience and means it fails what the basic principle is of travelling, which is to have fun.  I certainly wish I had had the courage to do things at university such as 'rag hitch hike' and gone on more random trips because succeeding at them would have built up my courage to travel more.

Another personal thing which would not be broadly applicable, would be to tell my 18-year old self not to be deluded into thinking that I could learn foreign languages or learn any martial art.  I wasted a lot of time and money doing both, ultimately for absolutely no personal gain, and, a long the way a lot of stress and disappointment.  Despite what you are told by the people wanting to market their courses or their club, not everyone can achieve success in these areas.  It is certain I am an utter failure at trying to grasp foreign languages or do a martial art and yet I continued to delude myself that 'this time it will be different', it never has been.  Finally giving up on Mandarin for the second time two years ago and chucking in fencing back in 2005 were long overdue admissions that I would never be good at not only these specifics but at these things in general.  When I was younger I wondered if I should not have taken up the chance to study Japanese in Japan, but now know that was the correct decision.  I certainly should not have gone to live in West Germany in 1989 as my grasp of the language was just as bad when I came back as when I went and all the good things I experienced there I could have experienced just as well as a tourist.

I would tell my 18-year old self that I would never be published.  Though it was not as severe a situation then as now, I should have realised that there was never any chance that anyone would pay any attention to what I had written to want to publish it.  There are tens of thousands of full-length books being written in the UK now and the vast majority of these will never be published.  Before wordprocessors were common they were probably fewer in number, but certainly I wasted a lot of my life writing and editing stuff that no-one beyond myself is ever going to read and it is clear it will never be published.  It was a massive delusion on my part and I should have spent my time doing something else and saving my cash.  People do not get published because they have an ability to write good work, just look at the quantity of appalling books.  They get published either because of luck or most commonly because of who they know.

One thing that I would have told my 18-year old self to do is to attend more public appearances by people, particularly politicians, historians, scientists and authors.  I often could not stir myself to go to these things, but I severely regret that now.  Despite our television, and now internet age, there is nothing like actually being in a room with someone you admire or, conversely, strongly disagree with and I wish I had taken up far more of the opportunities that were presented to me to do this.

I would also tell my 18-year old self that whilst hard work is vital, it never guarantees anything.  Working until 9 p.m. most evenings of the week studying in the library does not get you a 1st class degree.  If I had stopped at 5 p.m., I probably would have still got a 2.1, but been able to do more of the things above.  I certainly warn my 18-year old self at 21 not to take the advice of what turned out to be a very foolish lecturer, and take time every day to read the newspaper.  Following that suggestion in my final year at university caused immense difficulties.  I lost hours of time which I should have been spending on my work, for absolutely no personal gain.  I knew more about day-to-day events of those months but they have given me no benefit then or since.

Anyway, these are the things that I wish I had known at 18.  I am a person who, when anything goes wrong, always analyses how better it might have turned out if I had made different choices.  In most cases, living in the UK in the times I have done, there is little change I could have made.  Getting some slightly different jobs would have made a huge difference, but if this recent glut of interviews has shown me, I have minimal control over which job I get, and the same applies for where I have lived, too often it has been Hobson's Choice.  However, if I had been able to get these thoughts back to my 18-year old self, I think a lot of the time between the difficult times would have been a lot happier and certainly satisfying than it turned out to be.  I think this is because unlike, perhaps Fred Furedi, there are very few parts of my life that if I had the chance to change them in some way, I would want to leave them just as I experienced them.

No comments: