Where have I gone wrong?

A bit of a vent…

If judging oneself or anyone else to have “gone wrong”, what is the yardstick being used and who set the standards being measured against? After all, one person’s “wrong” is another’s “not bad”, much like political opinion. Some would have us do something in a particular way that others regard (either in method or outcome) as anathema to them. A quote from the film “Twelve Monkeys”, often used, adjusted and (incorrectly) attributed to a variety of people is “There is no right or wrong, there is only popular opinion”.  Contentious maybe, but I think there is something to it. This is not about judgement of others however, but more about judgement of oneself. Therefore some discussion of the standards being measured against and how they were acquired, when coming to the conclusion of  having “gone wrong”, is merited.

I have a home. Humble in comparison to many, but a home nonetheless in a village that I love. I have a wonderful wife who is quite probably the world’s most selfLESS person and who undoubtedly deserves far more than I have ever given her in a number of ways. She has given me four wonderful kids, each very different but (despite many a fraught moment – parents out there know what I’m talking about) none of whom I could ever be without. After a few years and several attempts / false starts, I have a job I really enjoy. Being closer would be great, but a sub-20 minute commute on the train with a short walk either side I can live with! My extended family are close by, rather than the 2hr+ motorway journey from Kent / London that it used to be. I have a variety of friends, some nearby and others not so near but with whom I’m still in touch. My fitness and health isn’t what it should be perhaps, but I am in my later 40s  (at time of writing, 46) after all. Why then, am I judging myself to have gone wrong?

Our developing adolescent minds are forged significantly during secondary education, and I went to a “good school” (QEH Bristol). I benefited from an old government scheme to assist those more academically able (but from low-income families) to attend independent fee-paying schools. I was thrust into such an environment after two years at a local comprehensive, the catchment area for which encompassed two down-at-heel council estates, in the knowledge that a scheme was assisting with my fees. With my mother’s single-parent status also in the forefront of my mind, it is obvious in retrospect where my inferiority complex has a significant portion of its roots. What I am referring to, is the fact that whilst schools like QEH were aimed at the more academically able, the fees involved meant that a majority of my schoolmates were from more financially privileged backgrounds than myself. Bigger houses in “nicer” neighbourhoods, smart cars, parents with lucrative jobs etc*. As opposed to me,  a lad from a council house who’s mother was a social worker that drove clapped-out old bangers, and who saw his dad once a month.

* One could argue that such backgrounds demonstrate what can be achieved through academic excellence – success breeds further success etc – but that’s another subject entirely.  

One of those wealthy parents from well-to-do neighbourhoods, who’s son was a rugby teammate of mine, kindly gave me a lift home after a rugby game one day. Arriving at the red brick council house off Filton Avenue in Horfield that was home at the time, he said “Lovely to see people from places like this getting to go to good schools ” as I shook his hand and thanked him for the lift. People from “..places like this…” eh? Hmmm.

I do perhaps paint too bleak a picture, given that I had many happy years at that school with fine friendships. I often smile when recalling my mum dropping me off at a friends house, as she used to refer to it as “Lawson Towers” (said friend being Simon Lawson, who’s family home was a pleasant large house in Backwell, near Bristol). My point is, however, that so-called standards and measures of success were established early in my subconscious.

Fast forward through a number of years, through possibly poor post-school academic choices, some dubious decision making, a lack of application and effort regarding career choices and a number of things that could certainly have been done better, and one arrives at an adult with potential, but unrealised potential. Many of my peer group were at similar levels to me in their careers, or thanks to more focused and vocationally-orientated further education choices, were further ahead. In the case of the latter example, good luck to them. I didn’t really have a clear “what I want to do” plan when I left school (beyond a plan about joining the army that didn’t go too well), and I’ve never been hugely ambitious. For the majority of my early / mid twenties I had a variety of jobs and didn’t have a career as such. When I eventually did find a career / job I enjoyed, working in a niche of financial admin and client reporting in The City of London,  I was content to enjoy it, whereas many erstwhile colleagues used such roles as a stepping stone to go onwards and upwards. The trouble with such “coasting” (that many would deride as laziness…I simply ignore such derision as I enjoyed my job), is that working in London I was in an environment that paid such jobs reasonably well. When one started to hear the call of home however, it was down to earth with a big paycut bump, to do the same sort of work in Bristol.

So then, to the present day.

I work for a company where I truly feel valued, both for myself and my skill set. Employed as a Software Tester / QA, my broad IT experience in addition to my main role has come to the fore, as many IT related functions of my company have been relocated to Manchester (despite Bristol being the biggest office with lots of required support).  The salary is ok too. It’s been a bit of a journey getting here though. After a turbulent time, career-wise and financially speaking, following moving back to the Bristol area, I took the decision to return to education and put a badge on the anecdotal evidence of being good with IT by taking a computing degree. There was some pain in having a family and a mortgage but being a student, believe me! A bit of hopping about job-wise after leaving with some unlucky redundancies,  but it was a good move on the whole. Whilst I may find myself in a good(ish) place now, its been a painful process which has given rise to pressure points and continued discomfort in some respects. This post is entitled “where have I gone wrong?” so here, finally, is what I mean:

I look at people my sort of age, married chaps with families, and they all seem to have nicer things than me. I look at them and think, why isn’t that me? I look at erstwhile schoolmates with thriving careers, former colleagues who started at the same rung (or even lower) on the ladder in the same firm as me and are now scaling lofty heights. I bet their wives aren’t nearly in tears with worry about being able to afford to give their children what many would perceive as just basics. No struggle in the last few days before payday, the ability to spontaneously say “OK, here’s £20 for [insert name of something child wants here]” or to buy something that’s needed / repair something that’s broken. I HATE HATE HATE having to say no to my kids if their mates are doing something that they want to join in with and I can’t afford it. Savings! I can’t remember the last time I had savings…probably when we were saving to get married and subsequently buy our first house. I don’t want to be rolling in it or to be extravagant, but I want to be able to do the grocery shopping each week without  worrying if I can afford it. I don’t want to see my wife stressing about being able to put a meal in front of the kids. I want a reliable car. I want to be able to afford to keep up with maintenance on my house (at time of writing, my front door hasn’t worked for two years). Other people can, and seem to be able to do the above, so what have I done wrong?

The material envy and inferiority complex I felt during my schooling, in an environment that preached the gospel of “carpe diem” and achievement, has perhaps stayed with me too long when I see people my age with successful careers, large houses, nice cars etc. My peer group appear to have achieved more and seem to worry less. I seem to try and use that as a yardstick to both measure my lack of comparative success and a stick beat myself up with as a result. So – have I gone wrong? Perhaps I’m looking at the wrong criteria, and only seeing what’s on the surface of other people’s lives. OTHER peoples lives. At the age of 18 I had no solid “life plan” beyond a vague idea about joining the army that didn’t last long. So perhaps its no wonder I made half-hearted and (in some cases) poor choices both academically and vocationally as a young man. There wasn’t a drive and ambition to achieve a particular goal…merely a desire to experience life and what it threw at me, and to “do ok”. Others may have always had a plan, had ambition, made more vocationally orientated choices and so achieved more in their chosen fields, whilst I was still trying to find a bit of direction. Whilst meeting the wonderful woman who became my wife was the catalyst for a great deal of improved decision making and more direction, some poor decision making still caused a few problems, and here we are.

People say to me I have four great kids, a lovely wife, a place to call home, a job I enjoy, friends, family and interests. Poor decision making happens to everyone sometimes, so why would I say I’d gone wrong given that? Well, I may have a lot of things to be thankful for (and I am), and be “at a place” where things are starting to improve. What I see as success in others may not be all its cracked up to be either. The fact remains however, that I fail as a husband, father and provider on all too regular a basis by falling short in being able to provide what people who depend upon me need. Our problems, however rosier they may be starting to look, are largely down to selfishness and poor decision making on my part. Being a chilled relaxed individual who’s not very ambitious may be ok as a single fella, but isn’t that great when you have a family to provide for. The example of my wife, both in terms of her selflessness and how she goes out of her way for others even at the utmost inconvenience for herself, as well as how upset and hurt she is with our struggles to provide for our family and not “move forward” is key. I should be more like her. I should be prepared to do things to make others happy more than I have done.

The fact is I have strived all too often for things I wanted rather than for things my family or I needed…and that is why I have gone wrong.