When my friend, Andy, was growing up, he wanted to be a lifeboat captain. He sailed regularly with his family but the thought of pursuing it as a career seemed ludicrous for a bookish and musical boy.
Andy made a career for himself in the music industry running a record label, while every so often hankering after the sound of the waves.
It’s a scenario with which I am familiar. My childhood passion was music. I would sit at our ancient piano, imagining myself at Woodstock hanging out with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. I’ve spent the best part of my life saying, ‘I would have been a singer if...’ But becoming a musician just wasn’t something people like me from my background did, so I didn’t bother to look into it too much, and chose a career as a writer.
Four years ago, Andy and his family moved to the coast. He started volunteering with the local lifeboat crew and, when a job as a coxswain came up, he went for it. The move involved financial sacrifice but his family was supportive and, five months on, he says: ‘It was the right decision. My old work was beginning to feel routine and unimportant. Living up to the trust the volunteers place in me is a big responsibility, but it doesn’t feel stressful because I have the support at work and home to get the job done.’
His life changed dramatically. ‘In the music business, I was in St Petersburg one week and Los Angeles the next. Now, I’m on call 12 days out of 14, so I can’t be more than five minutes from the boathouse.’ These days, his work clothes are overalls, and socialising involves catching up with fishermen in the local club. But, he says, ‘Once I started volunteering, it felt more important than anything else.’
I knew it all along
My children are seven and nine, and playing music till the cows come home, entering exams and considering music as a career. I’ve joined them, singing in two choirs, taking up the trumpet and finally plucking up the courage to enter my Grade 7 violin exam. It’s probably too late for me to make a hit record, but musical me feels closer to the childhood Hazel than the one sitting at my desk writing. I’m happy and have no regrets, but I sometimes wonder why I didn’t listen to that nine-year-old telling herself she’d like to be a folk singer, or why I didn’t fight harder for music to be a bigger part of my life.
Recently, a friend told me about an art class that she was taking. At the age of 47, it had dawned on her that she was finally living the life she imagined as a child, having spent years pursuing what she considered ‘proper’ hobbies.
We do this a lot. A survey by Zety shows that 82 per cent of people who did not fulfil their childhood dreams are not pursuing them at all in adulthood, and research from Open Study College finds that only one in three people are doing the job they dreamed of when they were young.
Many of my peers say the same thing – forget giving up the day job, the thought of going to a lino-cutting class seems self-indulgent; that they’d love to be in a band but that’s for people without children and jobs.
We’re bombarded with advice on how to be the ‘new you’, make changes and seek fresh challenges – but what about rediscovering the old things?
Working out what we really want could mean going back to a time when our brain wasn’t so set in its ways. ‘Our pre-frontal cortex – the bit we use for decision-making and complex cognitive tasks – doesn’t develop until we are in our 20s,’ says psychologist Philip Karahassan. ‘This means we rely on our amygdala to make decisions when young. This part of the brain is associated with emotions and impulses, so we’re only thinking about ourselves, and we don’t have to worry about money, kids or stability.’
Money, of course, is the stumbling block. It can be terrifying, Andy agrees: ‘My last full-time job paid four times my Royal National Lifeboat Institution salary. It was a risk to give up those hard-to-replace contracts.’
For this reason if no other, going back to your childhood career plans might be more about accessing the way the idea of doing that job made you feel. What we wanted when we were children may be quite different to our present needs but, says Karahassah, ‘Thinking about the types of professions or way of life the child wanted will give us an understanding of what our needs are now, and also what we could be in the future.’ For example, he says, ‘Playing nurse when you’re a child might mean you would get a sense of self-worth or self-esteem from a caring role. It doesn’t mean a nurse specifically, but it could prompt you to look at your childhood value systems. Making a change might be about using your passion, values and creativity in a more fulfilling way.’
But it can be difficult ‘once you’ve taken on a certain brand’, says Karahassan. ‘Sometimes, it’s about mixing with another version of yourself for a while, dedicating time to just being you and being a bit selfish.’
LifeShine director Donna Easton runs programmes for adults who want to unravel grown-up layers and remember who they once were. ‘When we were young, we indulged in activities for the sheer fun of them. Have you ever seen a dancing five-year-old worry about how good their moves are? They just enjoy the music. As we age, we decide we can no longer take part in things we aren’t good at, so many of our inner desires are lost.’ Easton’s work involves using play to ‘look at a specific dream, working out the core of that attraction and finding ways to inject those elements back into the day to day. For example, if your dream was to be a pop star, what’s to stop you singing every day? When we access the joy that is right at the core of our being, we awaken the wide-eyed “anything is possible” youngster inside and realise that it really is’.
Unlock the child’s wishes
She takes clients through guided meditations back to moments in their childhood. ‘I invite them to remember times when they felt like superheroes or when they were proud of themselves, when people were smiling and telling them how great they were,’ she says. ‘We can also open up our childhood memory bank by being specific. Ask yourself:
- What was the first thing you did when you got home from school?
- Did you spend time with your grandparents?
- What activities did you enjoy together?
- How did you spend your holidays?
- When you played with your friends, what did you play?
- When you played alone, what did you play?
- When you were at primary school, what lessons did you love?’
Back to the future
This imagining comes easily to me. I close my eyes and picture my grandparents’ front room. I’m sifting through their record collection – Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley and Tammy Wynette, enduring loves of mine. Childhood me is telling me something.
Easton says she deliberately refers to grandparents as they are often the people who have more time and patience with us as children for beloved activities. This rings true as I recall hours listening to music with them and picturing myself on stage at the Grand Ole Opry while singing along to my grandad’s harmonica.
These days, while tooting away on my trumpet, nine-year-old me glows with excitement. I’m finally where I wanted to be and I’m delighted. I’ve resolved to encourage my children to never let go of these feelings like I did. When my daughter told me she could see herself having a career in politics, we had a discussion about what that could mean and how it made her feel, instead of me telling her to work hard and get good GCSEs. She might never fulfil her musical dream or be prime minister, but I hope she won’t forget that she once wanted to be.
How to reignite your childhood passions
Tap into your innate self-knowledge and ability to find fulfilment
- Try and return to your childhood emotionally. Look at pictures from your past and remind yourself what you wanted and who you were when you were that age. Read your diaries if you have any. If this doesn’t jog your memories, retrace the games you used to play, pick up a paintbrush, make a Fuzzy-Felt picture if you must. How do you feel? What did you want to be when you grew up? Get back in touch with your childhood dreams.
- Talk to people who knew you as a child. If your mother says, ‘You always wanted to be an actor,’ dig deeper. How did this childhood ambition manifest itself? How did you make your desire known? How do your schoolfriends remember you? What did they think you would be when you grew up? Have you surprised them with your choices in life?
- Think beyond the object or activity to the emotional sense of what realising your aspirations would mean for you. Ask yourself whether you are meeting that emotional need in the present. Are there ways you could do so right now? In the actor analogy, for example, did you enjoy performing as a form of expression? Do you need more creativity or playfulness in your life?