Other people don’t know you like you do

[M]y headmistress told me I was “only polytechnic material”…

I think everybody has a story like this, a story of how someone misjudged them and was proved wrong.

And that’s…fine. Even inspiring, sometimes. Remember how the Beatles were told they had “no future in showbusiness”? These stories can act as inspiration for others who have been similarly written off.

So I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about hearing these kinds of stories (always massively in evidence on the day of A’level results). And I think it’s the fact that people remember them so clearly, have made them part of their personal narrative. That means giving these misjudgements undue importance in your life.

Taking someone’s advice, or “proving them wrong” and boasting about it years later, are two sides of the same coin. The people who make assessments about us, the assessments we listen to and remember, are people with power and status in our lives. That’s why the people in these stories are so often teachers and parents.

Think back over the stream of bollocks you’ve been told about yourself by authority figures: teachers, parents, doctors, careers advisors, Scout leaders.

My school careers advisor advised me to join the Army rather than going to university, because she thought I would struggle to get three A’levels. (I got three A’levels and went to university.) I’ve been told by several different doctors that I don’t have asthma. (I fought hard for an actual test and guess what? I have asthma.)  I’ve been the recipient of countless hideous gifts that are “so you”, the recipient of endless recommendations for books that were actually quite boring. I’ve been told that I’m a “born scientist” and that it would be a crime if I didn’t have a career in science. I’ve been told I would make a great lawyer and given very detailed advice about how to go about it. (I am not a scientist or a lawyer.) I’ve been called “pathetic” many times and “a spaz” more times than I like to remember. All of this rubbish came from adults who had some form of authority in my life.

We’ve all been there, I’m sure. We’re told that the clothes we wear (because we like them and think we look good in them) are “just not you”. I’ve even been told, more than once, that my natural hair colour is “not you” and that I should dye it to a colour that suits me better.  We’re told that the stories we write are the wrong genre – we should be writing historical fiction instead of sci-fi, or sci-fi instead of chicklit. We’re told we’ll have kids, even if we say we don’t want any. We’re told we’ll have a second kid, even if we say we only want one. We’re told that the people we fall in love with are not right for us. (Obviously, it’s not just authority figures who come out with this stuff; it’s backed up by a Greek chorus of friends, colleagues, chatty strangers at the bus-stop and so on.)

And it’s all bollocks. Even when some of this bollocks happens to be accurate, it’s still bollocks.

It’s bollocks because nobody knows you like you do, and nobody has the right to second-guess your choices but you.

But this stream of rubbish does tend to influence us unduly. Why? Well, partly because it’s coming from authority figures. But also because life is open-ended, with too many damn choices, and decision-making is exhausting. So if someone comes along and seems to have a plan for you, it’s more tempting than you might think to go along with it. Study the subject they say you’re good at. Become a pharmacist. Leave school at sixteen to work for your dad. Whatever. And if you’re from a less-privileged background and there aren’t many adults in your life who give a shit about your future, you’re going to give even more weight to the advice of the ones who take an interest in you.

It takes an incredibly strong, single-minded 18-year-old to reject what people are telling them about themselves and carve out a path doing something else. At 18, you can’t be expected to behave that way. But ten years on, twenty years on, that’s exactly what you should be doing. I would also beg you: don’t worry about proving anybody wrong, either. I think about the kid at my school who actually went back to visit the teacher who’d told him he could never do Biology A’level. He was delighted to have proved her wrong. She couldn’t even remember saying it in the first place.

Don’t give up your precious energy and cognitive resources reacting to people who are wrong about you, because in those kinds of battles, the person who cares the most always loses. Sometimes people are wrong about us because they don’t care enough about us.

Also: don’t worry about proving people right either. Maybe you will give up on journalism and go into PR. Maybe you will get married after saying you hate the whole idea of marriage, or move back to your home town after saying you never want to see the place again. You are allowed to change your mind. You are also allowed to be unsure about things. Don’t get forced into a reactive position where you have to pretend to be definite just to shut the other person up. Have the strength to be unsure. And if you end up “proving” that person “right”, so fucking what? A stopped clock is right twice a day. But I’d rather lead a life with nuance and options and new insights and the right to change my mind about everything. Because it is my mind and belongs to nobody else.

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