In praise of being ordinary

For a long time, I thought I would find my true calling some day, an ideal occupation in which I would fulfil my potential.

In the meantime, I would be a so-so journalist.

Problem was, I never knew what it was I really, really wanted to do. I still don't.

Journalism was something I fell into, more or less, sort of. I had a general degree, so I applied for work that required writing skills.

But I always felt like a bit of a fraud. My temperament did not suit reporting, and for the first six months, I went to work every day petrified I had made a mistake. Worse, I lacked ambition and drive, qualities that are ultimately more important than talent in any organisation.

Never really standing out from the crowd, I gave myself a deadline - my 40th birthday - to make a change.

By then, I thought, I must be in a position that would see me through to retirement. It could be a job, or even running my own company. So what if I had no entrepreneurial bent? Stranger things had happened. I just needed to land a brilliant idea.

I think I was hoping to test the hypothesis that one could achieve great things just by thinking about them.

The pressure was on. Around me, the friends of my youth were maturing and becoming successful - some of them truly eminent - in their chosen fields. One day, I did a double take when it occurred to me I knew many of our senior editors when we were young and green together.

I admired my successful friends, and envied them, in a benign way. They were movers and shakers, while I crept towards middle-management territory.

Well, 40 came and went and now, 50 has no choice but to be the new 40.

Same goals this time? It's no laughing matter, people.

A recent poll of my friends found most agreeing 50 to be the age by which you would have gone as far as you can in a company.

If you haven't fulfilled your "potential" by then, it's not looking good for you. In corporate-speak, the runway is short, dude.

Yes, I know. There are people who pen their first novels, become doctors or lawyers, or complete their first marathons at an advanced age. It heartens me to know the door is not entirely closed.

But if I didn't have the energy then, why would I have the energy now?

It's more likely, don't you think, that I might be moving the deadline back to, oh I don't know, 55?

Maybe there comes a time when one has to accept that it is okay to be an ordinary person who might or might not ever do great things. It is fine not to be an outlier with a hidden talent that the world needs.

And so I approach my self-imposed deadline with little more than a low-grade buzz of worry. Ah, the benefits of age.

For one, I no longer stress about being in the wrong job. Twenty-plus years in a company will do that to you. I woke up one day and realised my job no longer filled me with trepidation.

So what if it was not the profession I envisaged doing for decades? I had accumulated enough skills and experience to, gasp, enjoy it.

Second, self-doubt is not a good bedmate. It is possible to live a pretty great, contented life as an average person, employee rather than employer, audience member rather than actor, reader instead of writer.

True, we should raise our kids to believe they can be and do anything they want.

We should burden them with neither a sense of entitlement nor a constant worry of not being good enough.

I am not advocating laziness or passivity - low expectations are even worse than those out of reach - or that this works for everyone.

But this tendency of mine to fret about not fulfilling some unspecified "potential" was the wrong question, as though "potential" was a destination in itself.

If it were, then what is going to happen to those children who achieve perfect examination scores by age 18? Everything afterwards has to be an anti-climax.

Maybe "potential" shifts and moves all through life, instead, as circumstances change and present different challenges. You don't have to want the same things you did when you were 18.

So what does a 40 something woman want? Not to have self-doubt stand in the way of aspiration; and to know when to be content.

Hello, second half of my life.


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