Like most people I know, my inner compass has not always been in charge as I’ve moved through life. Too often, I’ve lost track of my own north, and instead followed paths marked out by other guides – compelling whispers in my head about pleasing other people, not giving up, fitting in, proving myself. Some of these paths never felt right, and others I kept slogging along, long after the initial joy had subsided. They invariably ended in burnout, boredom or anxiety. Yet, when my inner compass has been in charge, I’ve followed other paths with disarming ease, guided by a clarity around what is mine to do and what isn’t. The ability to discern has certainly sharpened with age. Ignoring those other whispers no longer feels like some kind of rebellion as it did when I was younger, but it has taken many years and an awful lot of introspection to get here.
And so, I have spent the last week or so marvelling at my teenage sons as they discern their next steps in the world. It feels like a master class in navigating life and all its pressures whilst holding tight to that inner compass. I’m watching closely and taking notes. I’m also keeping one curious eye on my reactions to their choices and have been surprised to see some old thoughts popping up.
One of my sons decided some months ago to go to school. He went for about five months and has just chosen to stop. His teachers mostly sounded pretty agreeable, he got on well enough with his classmates, found some things interesting and tried out some new sports. I knew he was also sometimes bored, and found aspects of the system restrictive, but it all seemed good enough. I think I had unwittingly relaxed into the idea that he was now on a fairly straightforward journey to university. And so, when he said he’d like to leave, my first thought was, ‘But, what will he do now?’ Which is odd, because he has always known what he’d like to do, so there’s no reason that would be less the case now.
As we chatted about him leaving, I was struck by the certainty of his choice. He had stopped because ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough.He had gotten plenty out of the experience, but that path had come to its natural end. Novelty and interest had given way to boredom and lack of fulfilment and so it was time to move on. He would like to go and spend some time abroad, possibly attending school in another country, and whilst we figure out what on earth that might look like, he is biding his time happily at home, re-engaging with all his interests. As he shared his thoughts about what he’d like to do next, I felt both relief and excitement. Relief that this person knows his mind and isn’t willing to settle for things that aren’t interesting enough or no longer feel right. Excitement about whatever the next step might bring. Should he be worried about not getting GCSEs when his peers do? I don’t think so, and neither does he. He has a strong sense of the things that interest him, and he has some ideas of things he might like to do when he’s older. But he doesn’t have his eye on an illusory prize. He can take exams at school or outside of school if and when that feels right to him. Right now, he is just making sure that this current moment in time feels coherent to him. I’m not sure that any of us can ever strive for more than that.
My other son was planning to go to a nearby college in September, but has had some doubts over the last month or so. Like his brother, the idea is feeling okay but not quite good enough. And, like his siblings, he is a phenomenal self-directed learner, with an ability to find and gather everything he needs to deep dive into a subject. Consequently, one of his biggest concerns is that if he is to spend several days a week in a learning environment, he has to be learning something he couldn’t study by himself at home. If not, to him, this would be a waste of time, time that could be spent acquiring some other knowledge or skill that may otherwise be out of reach to him. He has also become increasingly involved in martial arts over the last year and is finding the idea of sitting at a desk for several days a week a bit overwhelming, or perhaps underwhelming. So, he has found a different course at another college that feels far more aligned with where he is in life right now. It’s a subject that he hadn’t really thought about before, but as I read through the description with him, I could see exactly why this would resonate with him at this moment in his life. But what really struck me was the difference in his physical presence as he talked about the two options. One left him looking resigned and cautious, whereas the other clearly filled him with energy. His posture, his voice, his eyes – everything indicated that this choice contained new and exciting possibilities. He can see how it might fit into some future career, but more than that, it all just feels really right. I did the same little mental journey as I did with his brother, from, ‘Oh no, but everything was all sorted out’, to feeling inspired by how energised he was and by his ability to discern and tune into a choice that feels aligned.
I think of the countless times in my life when I have talked myself into taking the sensible or dutiful path instead of going with what lights me up, and I feel inspired by them both. They don’t want to do something because it’s easy or keeps them busy. They want to be fully engaged with things that fulfil them. Learning to follow your own path is no small feat and the only way we can help really our children is by giving them plenty of space for trying different paths, allowing them to let go freely of things that don’t serve them, and letting them feel their way through, noticing what lights them up as they go. Sometimes, some gentle guidance might be just right, but any directions we suggest must always be secondary to their own internal compass, which is the only one that will know how to lead them successfully through life. I’m reminded by the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado (then used as lyrics in the beautiful song Cantares by Catalan singer/songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat), Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar, which translates (somewhat less poetically) as Walker, there is no path, the path is made by walking. Exactly.