I didn’t know what I was doing when, as a child, I begged my parents for a dog.
Yet I found myself, 12 years old, with a puppy. I had to get up every morning at a time I’d never before heard of to clean up its mess. I had to go out in the wind and rain and winter-chill to take it for a walk, day after day after day.
Today, I own another dog, and I still don’t exactly know what I’m doing. Sometimes she sits when I ask her to. Sometimes she gives me a look, “so you think you can tell me what to do, huh?” and wanders off to sniff the flowers.
I didn’t know what I was doing when I embarked on a career as a writer.
A naive graduate, with an earnest heart, good intentions and a healthy dose of ambition, I believed writing was all about expressing my soul. Sometimes it is, but more often it’s about fulfiling a client’s brief, good communication skills, and savvy marketing.
I didn’t know what I was doing when my Mum gave birth to me.
I was so bad at being born I made her wait in agony for 18 hours labour until I decided to show up; then I caused even more heartache by being whisked off immediately to intensive care. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I found myself born, and screaming about the injustice of it.
I didn’t know what I was doing when I proposed to my girlfriend. Five years on – many arguments and compromises and wonderful days later – I find myself married. And I’m still not sure how to do this right.
So often, we think we know what we’re doing. Or, more accurately, we pretend we know what we’re doing, like life is a math quiz and we’re stolen the answer sheet. We have clear aims and goals, dreams of how a particular change will make our lives perfect, or at least less sucky.
Then we reach our goals and find them to be far from how we imagined. Not that reaching our goals is bad, but it’s often different to how we thought it would be.
We didn’t know what we were doing when we embarked on this journey, but we find ourselves here, most of us still walking, not quite knowing the final destination. We find ourselves invited to this party called life – with its compromises, heartaches, and moments of sublime beauty – and the only thing we can’t do is say no to the invitation.
I’ll let you in on a secret.
The people you admire, who have it all together? They didn’t know what they were doing when they took the first step to where they are now. They’re probably not even sure how it all worked out. Maybe they can tell you what they did, but that’s not the same as knowing what they were doing at the time. Probably, they rolled the dice, and the gamble paid off. Definitely, if you get to know them deeply, you’ll find they have their own battle scars too.
All the self help books, magazine advice columns, YouTube videos, podcasts and TV shows can help you make a good (or a bad) guess at what you’re doing, or should be doing. But ultimately they only reveal that none of us exactly knows what we’re doing. If we knew what we were doing, why the need for all the help?
If you knew what you were doing, the world would be at your command. You’d be a god. Is that what you want, really?
Take a deep breath, and look up to the sky. That’s the universe. That’s life. Vast, mysterious, and full of darkness and light.
Life isn’t a math quiz. There’s no answer sheet.
If you’re struggling right now, give yourself a break. You couldn’t have seen all this coming. You didn’t know what you were doing when you chose the path that got you here. No matter how certain or uncertain you feel right now, you can’t really know what you’re doing, not totally.
Whatever path you choose from here will be both right and wrong. Or rather, it will be neither right nor wrong. There is no map, no answer sheet.
And that’s a beautiful, humbling and life-affirming thing to know.
Photo by Ansel Edwards Photography