‘We’d like you to become a school prefect,’ my Head of Year told me as we stood in the middle of the windswept playground.
He’d just shown me a register of my attendance – or non-attendance. I hadn’t attended school for a full week for most of the term.
It was an unusual choice of punishment.
I’d been skipping school to hang out in my older friends’ flat, listening to The Clash and Linton Kwesi Johnson and talking ’bout a revolution. It was the 1980s – people still believed real change was possible back then.
My Year Head had seen me slip from an A grade student to A grade skiver and his offer of a prefect’s position was meant to entice me back into the fold.
‘Becoming a prefect is an honour,’ he told me. ‘It would look great on your CV.’
Part of becoming a prefect meant standing on duty on the school doors at break time, stopping other students from coming into the school.
I didn’t see this as an honour, I saw it as slave labour – students giving up their breaks to do a job that surely should be the responsibility of the staff.
So I told my Year Head that I wasn’t willing to become a prefect as I didn’t believe in the prefect system. I outlined my reasons why.
Then he nodded and smiled. Instead of bollocking me I saw a flicker of respect in his eyes.
Looking back now I see that I was lucky – another teacher might not have been nearly as understanding.
But I’m so grateful he was because it taught me an important lesson at an early age: Don’t be afraid to question everything.
From the moment we’re born we’re told that we have to accept certain things – the norm, the status quo, our parents’ and society’s rules.
But so often this involves massive compromise – we have to shrink ourselves and our beliefs and passions to fit these rules.
And a shrunken life is a miserable life. Trust me, I know.
In the years since my playground encounter I’ve questioned the norm over and over and over again. And as a result my life has been immeasurably more fulfilling.
When I found myself unhappy and broke at the end of my second year at uni I questioned the commonly held belief that a university education is the golden ticket to life. I left and I got a job and I paid off my debts and I blagged my way into a graduate job and I achieved my dream of becoming a writer … all degree-free.
When I found myself a single mum I questioned society’s belief that single mums are a scourge on society; a bunch of benefit-scroungers bringing up packs of feral kids. I started my own coaching business and I created a happy, vibrant home for my son and my family of friends. I wore my indie mum badge with honour and took an extra portion of pride in my son’s successes.
When I found myself dropped by my publisher seven years ago I questioned the commonly held belief that writers need a traditional book deal to find success. I self-published and achieved more success than I ever could have dreamed of.
When I found myself single again a few years ago I questioned the belief that we all need a partner to make us whole. I decided to swear off dating and men and romance for a while in order to focus on my dreams and goals. This turned out to be one of the best ‘questions’ of my entire life – filling me with a fearless, feisty sense of freedom that I’d always been lacking before. A freedom that led to some of my best adventures.
When I’ve felt stuck in a rut I’ve questioned the belief that we all need to settle down, mortgaged up to the hilt. And I’ve moved to brand new places to keep things fresh and fun. Once I even stuck a pin in a map (or hovered the cursor over a Google map), found a town called Berkhamsted and moved there three weeks later!
When I found myself home alone on Saturday night (I’ve just moved to another new town and don’t know many people here yet) I questioned the belief that women shouldn’t go out on their own on a Saturday night and I took myself to a local benefit gig. I had a great time – chatting to new people and listening to live music and accidentally getting caught up in a bidding war in an art auction! I also met a couple of local writers who I’ve planned to see again.
FULL DISCLAIMER: Questioning things is not the easy route. It comes with a big old side-helping of fear and doubt and some very dark nights of the soul. All of the times I chose to question above I had to overcome huge amounts of fear and I had moments where I thought I was effing mad to have done what I did. But I hung on in there through the scary times and lived to reap the massive rewards.
Because questioning things leads to a life fully and imaginatively lived.
It blasts your life wide open to exciting possibilities.
Possibilities you would never have believed possible before.
Some questions for you…
What do you need to question in your life right now?
How are you shrinking yourself and your dreams to fit in?
What – if you scratch beneath the responsible, acceptable surface – makes you feel uncomfortable and restricted?
If you want to live a truly happy life, question everything.
And only trust the answer that makes you feel excited to be alive.