Category Archives: Personal

Averageness

Sitting in the brightly lit university classroom, the statement hit like a scud missile. Coming from a man for whom I had quickly developed respect and affection, it caused considerable turmoil in my head.

“The really good marketers” – it came in the midst of a class on Entrepreneurial Marketing – “are those who move to London and learn their craft there before coming back home.”

I’m still not sure why it caused me to react the way that I did. At the time I was determined to move to London in any case. But I did not feel comfortable with this belittling of Belfast. It became a topic of conversation with my best friend, Cliona, who was also on the Masters with me. We rejected the notion. I stayed in Belfast. Cliona moved to Dublin.

Today we both know what Professor Carson – Dave – meant. It was not that London or Dublin are inherently better than Belfast. Put simply, the message was that to succeed in London or Dublin you cannot be average. They do not celebrate the average.

I have both a hatred of the average and a fear of being average. Another friend used to laugh when I would cringe and scoff at Sunday evening television for being “middle-class, Suburban blah.” It is saccharine filled drivel, full of lowest common denominator compromises. I remain uncomprehending as to why anyone would chose to sit down and watch Heartbeat. Some of the people I love most in life are huge fans, but I still cannot understand why.

Susan Jacoby delivers a fulsome critique of the evils of television in “The Age of American Unreason.” The specifics of her argument I have forgotten. But I do remember her blaming the dumbing down of America on the rise of television. Whilst I probably agree with Jacoby on the evils of television, my issue with Sunday night television is its averageness. My fear is that despite my refusal to watch Sunday night television, I am trapped by my own averageness.

Two months ago I resolved that my future would be based on my ambitions. Having drifted through my 20s on the backs of other people’s dreams and goals, I finally had a sense of what I actually wanted to achieve in life. It had a focus and specificity which the dreaming of my past lacked.

Two days ago, having failed to write anything in a month, I sat and stared at a blank screen. Becoming ever more frustrated with my inability to write, I eventually began a 900 word diatribe on my averageness.

My hatred of averageness and banality has some strange consequences. I cannot, for example, bear to listen to most presenters on local commercial radio; in particular Paul Kennedy and Pete Snodden are banned from my radio. So, when listening to music in the car, I am usually tuned to BBC Radio 1, whereupon my brain wonders, what is it about Nick Grimshaw or Sara Cox or Greg James that enabled them to become Radio 1 presenters? The simple answer is they are not average, nor did they settle for average.

Was it as simple as them moving to London? I cannot believe it so, but I can believe that by being in London or having the ambition of being in London then they were willing to go beyond average.

“The Last Empire” is a collection of essays from Gore Vidal. In one he recounts the tale of how a reviewer of his work was upset that he did not know how dumbed-down Americans were. “How dare I mention people that they had never heard of?” he quotes the reviewer as asking.

In that simple question Vidal’s reviewer showed his acceptance of the average. He showed his willingness to celebrate the mediocre, a position in which we all seem to now find ourselves. Recognising this in myself means that I have to do something about it. It means not being trapped by averageness but working to not be average. It means dedication, practice and focus. It means not being average.

To have a future that is different from the present requires us to make a change. Successful people are often filled with self-doubts. Their success comes from not allowing those self-doubts to define them. They don’t settle for average.

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Reflections, not resolutions

It was news to me that my writing is too descriptive and, in the phrase of a good friend, “solid”, until I was 29. It may have been a deeply buried yet fleeting realisation on earlier occasions, but such thoughts were dismissed as the fault of others for not appreciating my writing.

This causes a problem because I want to be a writer. More specifically, I want to be a foreign correspondent. Writing skill and style is of rather critical importance to foreign correspondents. Journalists who lack the ability to write well are rarely successful.

Some writers have undeniable natural talents. Others have learnt their craft by writing, rewriting and rewriting lots more. People who want to be writers are told to read. But it is not enough to read the words on the page. The author’s chosen words and phrases must be dissected, critiqued, understood and, ultimately, absorbed by the reader.

This is all by way of saying that I do not do resolutions. Seventeen days into a New Year is not the time to be making New Year’s Resolutions, nor do I have faith in them. Maybe I have no faith in me. In any case, I do not do resolutions. But, two months into my 30s, I am ready to look ahead to when I will be 40.

Reflection  is natural at endings and beginnings. Entering my 30s in late 2012 meant that both November and December were especially reflective. With the melancholy of knowing that I no longer have some choices that I had at 20, but the excitement of better knowing who I am and what I am good at, I am ready to make some decisions. They are not a reaction to short-term impulse, like so many New Year’s Resolutions. Rather, they are rooted in reflection, and an ambition that was always there, but that was allowed to drift.

People who are confident in their decisions often say they have no regrets. They are happy with where they are in life. While I am not filled with regrets, there are undoubtedly opportunities not pursued, places not visited, and choices I wish I had made differently. Not wishing to be someone other than who I am, I do wonder about who that other me would be, and where I would be.

So, to writing. Instead of pursuing journalism after school, I decided that the temperament required to be a journalist was different from the one that I possess. I even justified my decision when a taxi driver regaled me with tales of drunken journos and broken marriages.

Kate Adie and Allan Little have a lot to answer for. From Our Own Correspondent has prompted me to pursue, at age 30, a career as a foreign correspondent. Listening to the programme on BBC Radio 4 has renewed my ambition. It has sparked a specific goal. Call it a resolution if you must. By 40 I will have featured, from some far-flung corner of the globe, on From Our Own Correspondent with a dispatch detailing life as the BBC’s Correspondent in said far-flung corner.

As the programme name suggests, only BBC Correspondents appear on the programme. So I shall need a journalism qualification, for which I will need several thousand pounds, and I shall need someone at the BBC to give me a job. For that to happen I will need to write well.

As I currently read Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” I am constantly struck by how none of my teachers took me aside and said to me, “Short sentences. No waffling.”

But reflection brings clarity, and clarity prompts action. So to develop as a writer I will write at least 500 words a day, with at least one published article on my blog every seven days.

Having thought of the what, the where looms large. Amid the self-destructive seizures to which Belfast is submitting itself once again, I question the fact that I still live there. Richard Florida wrote “I want to make sure that every day I see someone that looks and acts different than me.”  Belfast is too limiting, too insular, too toxic to be that kind of place.

Yet it remains home. For reasons both illogical and logical, I stayed. The chances to leave passed by while my eyes looked elsewhere. Other opportunities presented themselves, most notably in having an incomparable mentor and friend as my boss. But remaining in Belfast feels like being strangled in slow-motion. The grip of despair tightens month after month.

So the goal is Istanbul or Buenos Aires or Tokyo, maybe with a stop-off in London on the a way. The real goal is to live in a place that inspires, that contains real diversity and that has a cosmopolitan vigour. It is reflected in wanting to be a foreign correspondent and the chance that no assignment will last for longer than a few years.

It is reflected in my ambition to return to languages. There is an embarrassment at having failed to master a foreign language. Some might say I have yet to master English, but that does not negate my dream of learning a language or two, or three.

Spanish and Arabic are most appealing for the former’s sensuality and the latter’s mysticism. Both would be helpful for a career as a foreign correspondent. Both would be useful for personal adventures to South America and the Levant.

Combined, they amount to my dream that, long before I am forty, I will fondly remember my decade and a half in Belfast, but will do so from the banks of the Golden Horn or the galleries of San Telmo. And I will do so as a fluent speaker of Spanish and a competent speaker of Arabic, maybe even on the way to mastering Turkish.

Istanbul holds special fondness. It is where I became engaged, and it is the place where Kevin, my partner, and I hope to return for an extended period of time. It will not happen in 2013, nor in 2014, but we will live in Istanbul.

There remains, behind all of this ambition, the question of how? Only about 20% of people who set resolutions will succeed. Goals are one thing, taking steps towards them is another. Plenty of people, including teenaged me, are fans of motivational quotes. We all know the ones that urge us to “Dream Big”; something that encourages naïve teenage optimism, but that fails to connect inspiration with action.

I am ashamed to admit that I only recently realised that inspirational quotes on their own are as empty as a student’s fridge. Believing that big dreams and big ambitions would equal big success, I was convinced that success would be natural. It was a low and only a passing consideration that success requires focused, specific  and dedicated work.

Four things fed my natural procrastination: the lack of specific and personal goals; not knowing what exactly I was really good at; a fear of failure that was fed by my need for perfection and my need to analyse; and the fact that distractions are plentiful, whether invented by Steve Jobs or Johannes Gutenburg.

But my future happiness rests upon me making some changes. It will take more than words. My ambitions are now clear and specific. They now require a plan. They require me to reflect on what I have done at the end of every day, every week and every month to help make them a reality.

The path has been set. I cannot allow myself to be derailed. I need to finish what I start, no matter how big or small. I need to take individual and specific steps to make me happier and more successful. That means individual and specific steps to learn Spanish and Arabic. It means a specific and planned timetable to move somewhere more invigorating. It means a specific plan to save the money for a qualification in journalism, and it means developing my skills as a writer.

Fulfilling my ambitions will require me to be selfish with my time. I must be more disciplined and decisive, and develop routines to help. I must accept that I need to do more and analyse less. I will need to hold up a mirror to my excuse-making and time-wasting. I need to finish what I start, and these 1400 words are the start of something new.

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Filed under Ambition, Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Personal