Advice to my former self

I don’t do resolutions because I don’t really have a sense of time that’s as long as years – my understanding of the future is “forever” or “next week”, so the closing of one year and the opening of the new one seems to me as perplexing a thing to mark as the end of the week. It just passes. The past, though, is an interesting place. I’ve lived there and although my memories are rose-tinted I nonetheless have learned some things. Since in the next 12 months I’m turning 30 – a phrase that is deliberately vague – I am writing these things now because they will inevitably cause amusement for my future self.

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Christmas story time

Love at a distance

It is quite hard to love someone who gives you practical presents. Bad presents are actually slightly easier, because it means they’ve gone and thought about you. In fact, if you love them very much – or have known them a long time, which is sort of the same thing – you can see the space between their intention and the outcome. You can love that space. That space is where the hoped-for meets the real; where you are reminded that the person looking eagerly at you while you unwrap a book about stars (because you mentioned that you like to lie under them and wonder what their names are) is a person who is real and distinct from you. Their internal world is not the same as yours, and they probably don’t intersect in the same plane.

And yet they have thought hard about you, albeit at a different angle, and from that same starting place have come to this conclusion. It’s the same reason that the door that used to only have one cat flap has had two ever since you brought home a stray, because if one cat needs one catflap then two cats is simply a case of multiplying the solution to a previously solved problem.

Even a practical present isn’t terrible, although sometimes the problem you want solving is the problem underneath the problem you’re expressing. Almost nobody wants a new iron for their birthday: almost everybody wants to not have to do ironing. But maybe they do want a fancy drinking bottle, because drinking water is fantastic and keeping tea warm is universally recognised as a Good Thing. Practical, sure. But it solves a problem they have perhaps expressed.

Perhaps the gravest error, and the sentiment I’m growing out of, is that presents are not – fundamentally – for me. You can overthink a gift and imbue it with the spirit of a relationship, turning it into a Christmas tree on which you hang every bauble of emotion you wish you’d expressed throughout the year. Such an approach is surely doomed to fail. No mere object can bear the weight of all that you’ve left unsaid.

So finding the gift becomes impossible, because it stands in for all the times you wish you’d said “I love you” and “I’m sorry” and “I am grateful for you” and “I’m proud of you” and “Sometimes when I kiss you I feel sad, and I don’t know why” and “I’m upset that you ignored me”. And I hate to bring work into this but, well, I’m a one-trick pony and this is my show so this is how it goes. In my line of work, you de-risk things by doing them more often.

You can make your gift-giving less risky, less fraught, if you do it more often.

And we know that the gift isn’t really about the material thing but the sentiment it means so start there. Deploy love to production as frequently as you can. It means you can course-correct. It means you can identify where you’re going wrong and it signals that you’re willing to fail and still try again.

And having the security of frequent communication, frequent love, means that when it comes to big set pieces you have a better sense of what this person likes and, even better, you’re not balancing your whole relationship on it. You’re not spending huge amounts of cash on something you’re not sure they’ll like, which is better for you because now you’re less anxious about dropping that much cash on a guess and advice from a couple of lads from your Wednesday 5-a-side.

And when you’re secure, you can start having fun. And realising that giving gifts can be fun changes the game, my friends, because having fun by yourself isn’t nearly as good as having fun with other people.


Inspired by a friend who throws out gorgeous prose like this without thinking about it twice:

They symbolise that he tries. And that even though he gets it wrong every year and she laughs at him every year, he’s never frustrated he just tries again. and she sees where he’s coming from, so where he falls short she feels love for the space in between because she loves how he thinks.

one of my splendid friends

the talisman

for my mother

“So proud of you” it reads. It’s stamped in metal and has a note that suggests I keep it in my pocket so that I’m always aware of it. I wonder over it. It’s solid and irresistible. The metal is dirty and pitted. When I put it in my pocket it jabs me and reminds me that it’s there.

At first I hate it. When I feel proud of people I tell them. It only takes a moment, a little bit of energy, to fire off a text or give someone a call and say hey, I saw this thing you did. I’m proud of you. This is just a cold piece of metal. It doesn’t notice when I do something good. It doesn’t shine more when I’m successful. I put it in a box and I put it on my desk and I went to bed.

The next morning, when I wake up, it’s still there. It’s still proud of me.

When I struggle through half an hour of exercise – more injurious to my ego than my body, thanks to the sprightly seventy year old doing multiples of whatever number of push-ups I can do – it’s still proud of me.

I wonder about this.

I think about the friend whom I rarely see because she’s working every hour possible to achieve her dream. I think about the friend who left his toxic boss and now gets to work on something he really enjoys in a healthy environment. I think about my family: difficult and frustrating and brilliant.

I know that if someone asked me if I were proud of any one of them I’d say yes in a heartbeat.

I wouldn’t know what they were doing at that moment in time, but nonetheless I’m proud of my friends and my family. So – so then maybe being proud of someone includes highs and lows, except the lows are always pretty high. Maybe the lowest level of pride is so sure, so steadfast, that the only way to express it is to do so continuously.

And perhaps, so that we don’t spend every waking minute talking to each other, a shorthand for this truth – that you are always proud of me – is to stamp it on metal with points so that I feel it whenever I move.

Love is the emotion that gets all the attention, and we’ve got gorgeous symbols for its everlasting nature. But pride is rightfully spiky; it tickles the throat and prickles the eyes and stings the feet so they dance.

And still it’s there, whenever you need it.

Weeknotes S04E12: An anthology of who I am right now

What got you here won’t get you there.

I sit down in front of a piano and for a frustrating hour try to translate what my eyes are seeing and where my fingers are. I write code for a living, I think, as my fingers pick out Cs and Fs at a snail’s pace. I can touch type. My fingers are good fingers. But suddenly I am a child again, and there is a gulf of space and understanding between my brain and my body.

I’m watching my mentee’s eyes light up as she talks about the code she’s written. It’s sloppy and rough, but it works. It works and she’s excitedly walking me through the challenges she had and how she conquered them. I’m so proud of the work she’s done and yet I feel the need to walk her through how to neaten up the work; explain that part of why it works now is that she has a bunch of knowledge in her head that’s required to decrypt what she’s written. I feel like a misstep here will crush her interest, and I wonder how important it is that it fits my definition of ‘good’ right now. I remember with guilt the code I wrote when I started writing code. It was worse than this. If someone had taught me then how to write good code, I might be a better coder today.

If someone had destroyed my enthusiasm for code then, I wouldn’t be any kind of coder today.

I’m resting my fingers on the keys and being told to make a grip like I’m holding an apple. I’ve got to read the notes out loud. I feel stupid and frustrated and embarrassed and angry, because my self-worth is at least partly tied up with being good at things. I get to the end of the lesson and decide that if I’m going to do this, I’ll need to wait until I can buy my own piano so I can practice every night. It might be rationalisation. I think my teacher thinks it is.

I picked up code because it was a joyful exercise in solving problems. I still write code today. I’m getting better now, but it means unlearning bad habits. Those bad habits were picked up because I rushed to do it because I enjoyed it. The slow process of breaking down and rebuilding a skill, refining it, is easier because I love it.

What got me here, to reflective self-improvement, was love of the thing. It was bloody-mindedness and failing a thousand times and tearing out my hair. What will get me to the next level will be focus, concentration, and teaching. Bloody-mindedness is not enough any more.

I decide not to instruct my mentee more than is necessary. One day she’ll have a mentee to whom she can show this code and explain that what gets you here won’t get you there – but what gets you there might not get you here.

l’appel du vide

For me the feeling takes root in my calves. As I edge close to a precipice a sensation snakes up my legs and nestles, dry and smooth, in my stomach. It is simultaneously revulsion and appeal: it beckons me over the edge even as it mocks me for imagining it. It gets worse the longer I stand there. My fingers clutch at the railing, twitching in sympathetic resonance with the me in another universe who has vaulted cleanly over and even now forms a perfect arrow that points to certain doom.

Apparently my experience isn’t universal. A friend of mine refuses even to step onto my balcony. His knees shiver when he approaches the door, and even after my coaxing and entreating he’ll do no more than rest a foot on the wood. His whole body is whip-tense, ready to pull back from the edge if it collapses. Not a meter ahead is another friend, who’s sitting on the railing and smoking a cigarette. His posture is perfect. His head is balanced on his spine which traces a curve to his buttocks, and he sits still and composed with one hand resting on his thigh and his bare brown feet glowing in the morning’s light. Smoke curls from his lips; a louche Buddha. He’s completely beautiful. I admire the way he doesn’t hear the call. I wonder if my other friend, white-knuckled and clinging to the frame, hears it too.

I’m still being interviewed by people for new roles. At the same time I’m being asked to take on more responsibility in my day-to-day role. The extra responsibility will help me enormously when I come to apply for more senior roles in my organisation. It’s a secure position from which I could apply anywhere else in the wider organisation. From where I am I get first dibs on a number of roles. I won’t get that from the outside. I’ll lose the contacts and the network: as much as I hope we’ll stay in touch, there’ll be soft little bits of friction that wear away the relationships like tissue on stone. But the more I talk to my friends and colleagues, the more I realise I’ll need to have been out for a little while before I can come back. I need to do a reverse tour of duty: live a life of high pay and international travel before I come back to do the hard, necessary work I love.

I realise suddenly that my friend hears the call just as strongly as I do. The difference between us is that he’s come to peace with the balance, with the in-between-ness of being halfway between the two. I’m almost there now. I’m going to take the role, if it’s offered, and try to improve my skills before coming back to public service in two or three years. I think I can do it.

Only one way to find out.