I was 18-years-old in the summer of 1989.
After having spent a fascinating year on a youth learning programme in Israel, I was looking forward to the freedom life would bring as it was coming to an end. So many possibilities to explore, I couldn’t wait.
As is customary on the last day of the programme, I tearfully stood alongside a group of Canadian teenagers, ready to say goodbye, when they turned to me to ask the question;
I was like a deer in the headlights, all faces turned towards me eagerly awaiting the answer.
“So what are you doing next?”
The truth is that I had no firm plans, just rough ideas of what would be fun to do, after all, I was young, unmarried, child-free and only just on the cusp of adulthood.
Sensing my discomfort with the question, they swiftly moved on and proceeded to relate their future plans. This involved returning to Canada, applying to a top college, graduating, becoming interns at a prestigious firm and finding their life partner, so they could start having kids before their biological clock started ticking at aged 30.
I applaud the ambition they showed and I felt irresponsible that I hadn’t considered a more organised set-up for myself.
Sadly, one of the girls in my group who had related her future plans went to fetch her sister from the airport barely a day later. She died in a car accident on the taxi ride back. We had celebrated her 19th birthday only a few weeks earlier.
It was a rude awakening that the future had not yet been written yet an inordinate amount of time is spent on that side of the fence.
Nevertheless, the seeds had been sown and my habit of planning the next stage of my life became my default setting.
The ‘what’s next’ became my new rule of life. Asking myself this question persistently made me feel I was in control of my future, never mind how much worry and stress this created.
As I entered my 20’s, instead of enjoying my single status by travelling, partying and letting my hair down, I found a sensible job and dated obsessively with the purpose of getting married. My path through life began to resemble the meticulously planned ones my Canadian friends had described.
After dating a selection of bland and pretty inappropriate boyfriends, I finally settled on a charismatic guy who made me laugh and ticked all the boxes (like a job interview).
During the time when I should have been enjoying having a boyfriend to go double dating, romantic dinners and planning weekends away, the bliss was consistently interrupted by the ‘Tutt tutting’ from friends (yes they were also on the ‘what’s next?’ trajectory).
“Why was he taking so long? Surely the engagement should have been on the horizon by now.”
A dream wedding ceremony swiftly followed our summer engagement barely 3 years later, this was followed by our move into a three-bedroom suburban property. The picket fence, roses round the door, a married couple’s dream.
I had barely put my wedding dress away and the first question I encountered from a friend was;
“Is the spare room going to be used as a nursery?”
It’s no wonder that by my first wedding anniversary I was already 6 months pregnant, and by the time my baby daughter had started taking her first steps, another question followed;
“When are you having your second child? A child needs a sibling, you can’t leave it too long.”
Even when I got divorced 4 years later. The first question was;
“When do you think you’ll start dating again?” this was asked by one of my unhappily married friends, I suspect she wanted to live vicariously through my experiences of dating men post-divorce.
The truth is that we spend far too long mulling over our next step rather than enjoying what we have now.
We don’t enjoy this very moment, we have too much thought about what the next moment will look like to truly enjoy this one. If you’re reading this, stop and take a breath, it’s free and something you have to do anyway as the means to stay alive. Savour the moment.
A constant preoccupation with the future is different to having an objective or a goal that we feel drawn towards. It has a different energy to it. We feel a natural drive to instigate purposeful action to something we feel connected to.
Covid 19 taught us a brutal lesson that there is no such thing as a future. Life changed forever without any of us having considered the presence of a pandemic in our 5-year plans. Our meticulous goal sheets were turned upside down and inside out.
All we have is now. Can’t we simply enjoy it without the compulsion of chasing the future?
It appears not, human beings need certainty, something to hold on to that seems tangible, it gives us the illusion that we’re in control. For most people, savouring the moment is rare simply because the habits we have cultivated were innocently taught to us (very lovingly) by our caregivers since birth.
You’re barely out of the womb and have already been registered for pre-nursery, parents excitedly planning the academic road ahead with glee. Before we even know who we are, we’re asked to pick the subjects to study more intricately at university (in the UK at least). Who on earth knew which career they wanted at 14 years old?
For the exceptional few who knew from a young age that they wanted to become an accountant/doctor/lawyer, it was a piece of cake, but most of us had no clue. We were forced to figure it out (or make it up) at an early age to prepare us for the prized university place in the future.
Our life was on fast forward before it had barely begun.
Even recently, I finished a project I had been working on for a few years. I had chosen to step out of this role as I intuitively felt I would benefit from breathing space. The staff who had worked alongside me were baffled and confused at my decision.
How could I possibly leave without having the next step meticulously planned?
Interesting that most of those asking me this question have been in the same role for an average of ten years or more. It’s a scary and disorientating question for them to ponder over.
I’m the reminder that there is more out there to be explored once we remove the blinkers of our routined life.
It’s unthinkable to anyone that you choose to create space in life.
It seems counterintuitive to what others do and becomes an act of rebellion.
We seem to jam pack our lives as if we’re packing a suitcase with all our possessions inside, leaving not an inch of space for a spontaneous item someone might want to include last minute.
There is a fear of the empty vacuum, the void that space brings and this communicates so much about our relationship to the unknown.
The ‘what’s next’ makes you feel purposeful, you have control, you’re not leaving space for any grey areas. Not only does it project you to the future, but it’s also comforting, you have a plan that you can get busy with.
It assures us a future, and once we have configured this we can rest easy and breathe.
We were taught by those around us that order is the meaning of life, not the facilitator of excess stress.
Having life methodically ordered can become a stressful and anxiety-provoking excersize. Instead of enjoying life, we are ploughing through it as if we’re jumping through hoops. Anything that gets in the way of this plan becomes a hindrance, the enemy that must be slain at all costs.
We might have the perception that living in a more intuitive way is wrong. Our imagination runs riot as we imagine ourselves as a new-age hippy, bohemian, irresponsible, scatty and flighty. It’s the exact opposite of who we’re encouraged to become.
But embodying some of these qualities has its upsides, it’s a new way of seeing the world, and so much more relaxing.
In order to live more instinctively and less driven by the future, we have to reduce the noise we live in daily. We all know what our own ‘personal noise’ looks like.
At times, we don’t need to have another human being in the room with us, for it to feel incredibly loud, our thoughts whirring through our heads is enough noise to power up a rock concert at Wembley stadium.
Silence is where it’s at.
Spend time where silence resides. Parks, forests and spending time in nature is a great facilitator for this. When there’s less noise we can breathe, reflect and find our bearings. Underneath the noise, there is the true you, the one who knows exactly what needs to come next. Not due to societal demands or pressures, but because we connect with a source that is more powerful than any rule book or 5-year plan.
Swap the ‘What’s next?’ to ‘What’s here right now?’ be present to life as it unfolds around you.
I recently spent time snorkelling in the beautiful turquoise blue waters of the Mediterranean. Swimming underwater I discovered the most incredible aquatic life. Fishes expressing the most elaborate colours and life I had no idea existed. It was mesmerising.
This is what taking a deep dive underneath the noise and snorkelling around your true self feels like. The place where there is no pressure, stress or demands to do or be any different than who you are.
It leaves space for new thought, a new perception, and a new reality that is yet to be discovered, without running to the future to find it.
If you liked this article, you can read more chapters like these in my latest book ‘Look Inside: Stop Seeking Start Living’ available now on Amazon.
If you want to connect with me to share insights from this article, send an e-mail to [email protected]