Why Did I Take So Long to Figure Out This Stuff?

With the typical arrogance of youth, in my teens, I assumed most of life’s lessons would be learned by the time a person finished university. From then on, you had it all sorted out. The long days of studying and exams were behind you, and all the “fab fun” stuff of adulthood lay ahead. 

Now, as I look back, I know how very wrong I was. Here are four things that took me decades to figure out.

Being an adult doesn’t make you wiser, nor does it mean you have your act together.  

My first job was in the Promotions Department of the biggest daily newspaper in the Cape Province. Fresh from my post-grad studies, I was eager and nervous to start. I wasn’t intimidated by the work (we organized some of the most famous events held in Cape Town), but I was sure that working alongside adults would highlight my youth and inexperience in the business world. 

Was I ever wrong! Although I was fortunate to work with some charming mentors, I was continually surprised to see they were as fallible as us youngsters. My parents were highly responsible, capable people who mostly seemed to have their acts together. I assumed these were automatic qualities that came with age. You stepped your way through the years and gained wisdom and gravitas along the way.

At the age of 25, to find that I was markedly better in some areas than my boss genuinely came as a surprise. How could that be when he’d been running the department for decades? 

Naturally, as I matured, married, had children, and started my own business, I learned firsthand that age doesn’t confer wisdom. I felt duped! But, it soon dawned on that we were all just trying to do our best in an often complicated world.  

There is no perfect time for anything.

I spent a lot of my 30’s putting off things, waiting until “the time was perfect.” Host a dinner party? Nope, not until I have the dining-room décor finished. Take a cooking class? Not until I was sure I had the time to practice what I learned. Go away for the weekend? No way until all four couples could make it.

This habit came to a head when I decided to adopt a puppy. We’d been married eight years, had no children, had a lovely townhouse, and I ran a media relations business from our home. We lived a stone’s throw from a beach, and the weather in Cape Town was almost always perfect for outdoor living.

And yet, I couldn’t make the final decision. As much as I longed for a dog (we both grew up with pets), I kept putting it off while conducting even more research. I visited veterinary practices to double-check the costs involved in a dog’s health care. Dog sitting services for when we traveled? We had that covered too. 

But I dithered and swithered (yes, those are Scottish words!), unable to make the final decision. Months passed before it dawned on me: most people have children with less planning! The pup was purchased, and dear Morag (our Scottish Terrier) brought us such joy. Was it always perfect? No, there were times we cut visits short and juggled our days so we could be home when she needed us, but that never really mattered.

I realized that life rarely hands us the perfect scenario to take a course of action, but it shouldn’t paralyze us.

Not everyone will like you. 

Again, another lesson that took me decades to figure out. As a child, my parents placed a high value on being considerate of and polite to others. Somehow, I segued from this to being a people-pleaser. I assumed that if someone didn’t like me or was even slightly indifferent, I needed to be even more cooperative and thoughtful. The only reason they didn’t warm to me was that I wasn’t working hard enough to win them over. 

Truly, I was in my 40’s before I figured out that there were people out there who simply did not care for me. It wasn’t as though they loathed me or wanted something horrible to happen to me (and I couldn’t recall doing anything to upset or annoy them), but for whatever reason, we didn’t “click.”  

My mum used the phrase “not my cup of tea” when discussing things that didn’t really work for her. Those enormously wide, flared jeans of the ’70s come to mind! She didn’t prevent my sister or me from buying or wearing them; they just weren’t something she could ever get fully behind. They weren’t her cup of tea.

I decided that this phrase was ideal when describing someone who didn’t “get me” or whom I didn’t get. No hard feelings; I was just not their cup of tea, and often, neither were they mine. 

Get the difficult stuff out of the way first. 

Many people make To-Do lists, and I suspect most of us tackle the easy things first. It gives one a great feeling of progress if you can strike four or five items off your list before you even hit your 11am coffee break. For years, this was my approach. The problem was, the more difficult things were only reached at the end of the day—the exact point my energy was waning. This often resulted in me bumping that item or items to the next day, where they would languish again until the end of the day. 

I broke this habit when I decided to write a book—in my early 50s! After dabbling with “being a writer,” I realized—with some degree of dread—that the only way I was going to get those words on the page was by getting to my writing first thing in the morning. With exquisitely bad timing—it was the depths of a New Jersey winter—I decided I had to be sitting in a Starbucks, at my laptop, by 6:30am five days a week. Truth be told, it was barbaric. It was still pitch dark when I arrived and freezing cold (ice formed inside the floor-to-ceiling windows that I sat alongside), but I got it done

I can’t always follow through with this approach, but it has helped me progress with difficult projects.

Maybe this is the joy of being alive; you can never know everything about navigating the world. I still chance upon stuff I don’t know, but now I tell myself I am not the only one late to the party!

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