So no, I won’t look back and say I knew nothing, I’ll look back and say ‘thank you’.
- You don’t need to stick to your plan. This is very different to saying ‘you don’t need a pan’ (I can see English teachers rolling over in their graves), have a plan, know where you want to go, the things you want to do. Just be prepared to ditch that plan and start a new one. Or to start that plan and change it a thousand times. It’s a lesson that works for traveling, but also for life. I plan to work again come June, but I might volunteer in paradise (AKA Indonesia), or move to Canada, or who knows what! A plan is a rough idea, I’m never as unhappy as I am when I’m forcing myself to follow my plan. I think my first one in Africa lasted 2 days, after I changed it 4 times in 2 days, I went a bit more free form.
- Most things don’t matter. I used to stress out about a lot of things, I’m beginning to realize that most of those things are not important. Where we go for dinner doesn’t matter as long as there is food. If a flight is delayed it’s not an issue, it’s a chance to explore the airport, or read my book, or talk to someone new. If someone is annoying me, being too loud, or being rude, I think ‘does it really matter?’ they’re not really affecting me are they? It’s my choice to internalize their negativity or to leave it where it belongs: with them. I also learnt there are a lot of things I don’t need. There’s nothing like living out of a backpack for a year to make you realise just how little you need. The newest phone, a big TV, a wardrobe full of clothes, the newest gadget to fix a problem you didn’t even know you had. None of it really matters. You need a roof, warmth, food, water and good people. That’s what matters. Now this may be controversial, especially to teachers because it’s a very grey area; but I’ve learnt to work to live, not live to work. Those books can probably wait to be marked, you don’t need to spend 6 hours marking one set (yes I know someone who does), do you really want that promotion? Or has society told you that you should want the promotion? When did it become not ok to be happy where you are, why do we always need to strive for more? It doesn’t matter. Not nearly as much as you matter. As much as your happiness matters.
- Happiness is all you can hope for. If you make every decision in life based on ‘will this truly make me happy?’ then you can’t end up far from it. A new phone won’t truly make you happy, cake won’t even truly make you happy (though it might for 5 minutes), but once you know what really, truly makes you happy, you have to follow it. Do you know who the happiest people are? Those who accept what they have and appreciate it. If you always want more, then you never have enough. If you accept what you have, then you always have plenty.
- It really doesn’t matter what other people think. We tell this to our students, to ourselves, to our friends. But I think you really have to learn it yourself. You have to know it deep down or else you’re just pretending. And if or when you get there, it is liberating. When you stop caring what other people think, you learn what’s important to you and more importantly what’s not. I don’t know why I didn’t tell my parents about my sexuality sooner, I knew they wouldn’t care, but I didn’t want to label myself. Why can’t I just love whoever I want and that be enough? Why do I have to be gay or straight or bisexual? But when you don’t care what other people think, it doesn’t matter what they call you. If no one cared what other people thought, bullies would have no power. I talked about my childhood with a friend last night, honestly I could write a book and not tell you all that we discussed, but I was bullied because I was overweight. And because I hated that about myself and I cared about being popular, they held all the power. If I had owned it and loved myself, I don’t think it would have been quite so traumatizing. Own who you are and never apologise for it!
- Never, ever, ever stop learning. If you stop wanting to learn then you’ve given up on living. If you don’t want to learn new things or have new experiences then you’ve given up on life. We tell our students that you will be learning your entire life, you will never been finished with it so you need to learn to love learning. Jeez! What a horrible thing to tell them! I think you just need to find the things you love to learn. Or the way you love to learn. I hated languages in school, I was awful, at least that’s how I felt, and yet I got an A* in Russian GCSE, so I can’t have been that bad. Now I’m learning Indonesian via podcasts, Russian via Duolingo and I’m going to spend a month in Mexico diving and learning Spanish. I’ve learnt more about the British Empire from books I’ve read this year than I ever learnt in history. I know more about where countries are now than my geography teachers ever taught me. I learnt more about stars, sitting in a hot spring by Lake Tekapo, than I ever learnt in physics. Why does all the learning have to happen in a classroom with 30 other people. Learning should be something everyone wants to do, not something anyone is forced to do.
These are just a handful of the many things I’ve learnt, I truly wish by telling you this I could save you the pain of learning the lessons, but like the person who touches the hot plate, I know you’ll have to learn them yourselves. They wouldn’t be worth learning otherwise.
I used to hate it when people said I’m older than my years, but I understand it now. When you pack a lifetime of experiences into what is now nearly 26 years, you become wise beyond your years. And when you pack them into a year, you become a different person.
So this New Years Eve I won’t be joining the throngs of people posting ‘new year, new me’, because it already is a new me and it wasn’t a decision I made one night, it happened slowly; one lesson at a time, one innocuous meeting at a time, one day at a time.
So this New Year I hope you find what truly makes you happy, and I hope you don’t have to hurt too much to find it; but if you do, know that the pain is worth it.