I was always a very studious kid. I loved school. I both liked, and had some aptitude for, almost every subject we studied, making school a generally enjoyable place. I was also lucky to have many wonderful, fun, insightful teachers who somehow made quadratic equations and phenolphthalein titrations fun. Magic, the lot of them.
It never made sense to me when people complained, “why do we have to learn trigonometry – I’ll never use it!” To me, it was obvious. You learn it for learning’s sake. Not everything needs to have a direct use in your future. You could learn trigonometry and analyse Of Mice and Men and conjugate German verbs for no reason other than they were there be thought about.
When I was a teenager, lots of my friends were extremely talented outside of their studies. They were amazing musicians, talented actors and dedicated artists. While I had always been athletically capable, my sporting abilities only became more serious at university, and generally, I was happy to spend my non-school time studying and hanging out with my friends. The creative stuff was for the others. I knew where my skills were – academic stuff – so music and art was not for me when I wasn’t, well, good at it.
I didn’t feel badly about this. I had lots of strengths and talents of my own and found plenty of ways to fill my time. I made it part of my identity, not being creative.
But then I got to university, to Cambridge, and being academically talented was no longer a special skill. It was difficult working so hard at university to be so average, an unfortunate reality that was made entirely bearable by wonderful friends and, crucially, finding something I did excel at, even in this hyper competitive environment. I quickly found a new pursuit to throw myself into: rowing.
I became, frankly, obsessed with my new hobby. People who have rowed, or been friends with a rower, may recognise this obsession. When you’re a rower, you become unspeakably boring to people who aren’t rowers, because you inexplicably manage to relate absolutely fucking everything back to rowing. This is why rowers mainly hang out with other rowers, and the cycle continues.
(Two years later, at the peak of my rowing exploits, I was sobbing about not wanting to get up for training at stupid o’clock in the morning and Kate gently reminded me, “this is your hobby.” I looked at her like she was crazy. Something about it just gets you.)
I focused on rowing obsessively for three years, seeing success at the university level, both nationally and internationally. I won medals in the Boat Race, at BUCS, at Henley Women’s Regatta and EUSA. Then I promptly gave it all up because there’s only so many consecutive 4.50am alarms and weeks of extreme calorie restriction one person can, and should, put up with. (There’s more to it than that, but that’s for another time).
Anyway, this is a post about creativity, not rowing. After leaving university with passable academic results and a host of shiny medals, I felt like I’d learned something extremely valuable: how to give something a go, even though you might completely fail.
I’d been academically focused for as long as I could remember, so once I started to make choices for myself, trying things academically wasn’t really pushing myself. That doesn’t mean I was always successful – indeed, my Cambridge career was defined by academic inadequacy – but the world of academia was, at least, familiar.
Putting myself out there with the elite rowing team was distinctly unfamiliar, and terrifying, but I pushed through the nerves and ended up having the most incredible – if challenging – experience. After I stopped rowing and graduated, I used the skills I learned about how to manage nerves and put myself out there in job interviews, first days and presenting to hundreds of people around the country for my first job. The things I learned about myself during all those hours in the gym and on the water are with me everyday.
This first job was working in performance and educational psychology, teaching kids at schools about their brains, dealing with stress and setting goals, among other things. I only spent six months there before being lured to the City by a bigger paycheck and a non-racist and sexist boss, but my few months there solidified some important facts.
Other than that it is wildly beneficial to sleep with your phone outside of your bedroom – highly recommended – the most important thing I learned in that job is that… you don’t need to be good at something to do it and enjoy it.
Revolutionary, huh? I probably sound like a dick, but I really didn’t get it until recently. I was a fairly anxious child, and one of my earliest memories is of me refusing to get up and dance with all the other children at a performance because I knew I’d look silly. These ideas clearly ran deep for me and I’m sure it’s tied up with a fear of failure and caring too much about what other people think.
Repeating certain ideas to kids everyday really emphasises them in your own mind. After spending months imploring these students to give things a go, because the first step toward being good at something is usually sucking at it, I started to wholeheartedly believe it.
That sounds a little dramatic. Obviously, I knew that you don’t have to be good at something to do it. I knew that rationally. But I never put that idea into practice, for fear of… failing, I guess, but I honestly hadn’t examined it that much (a rarity for my neurotic brain).
After stopping rowing, graduating, moving to London and settling into my work schedule, I had all this time that was no longer filled with essays and ergos. I don’t want to spend all my time on Netflix and I had no desire to ever raise my heart rate again – a feeling that has waned, but only slightly – so I turned to books, drawing, singing, writing, dancing and photography.
It took me over twenty years, but I’ve discovered creativity. Guys, it’s fun being creative. And it doesn’t have to be about trying to start a career, or being the best, or achieving anything in particular – it can just be about enjoying yourself for the sake of it.
I did the delayed gratification, stressed out student thing for years. I cried when I was fifteen and I got an A, rather than an A*, in a physics module. Kate, you would have hated me. In all honesty, this part of me still exists, which can be good when it comes to working hard, pushing myself and getting stuff done. But the highly-strung workaholic is regularly tempered out by the new relaxed part of me, who understands that life is for laughs and that not everything is part of a big picture, self-optimisation program.
I love to sing. I’m not great, but I’m not terrible, and every time I do it, I get a little better. Maybe I’ll take lessons one day, maybe I won’t, but I can always put on a soundtrack and sing and it will always improve my mood. As does taking a great picture, writing a blog or baking something delicious.
A lot of people have asked me why I started this blog. I shrug and say, “because it’s fun!”
Post-A levels, post-Cambridge, post-rowing – I finally found some chill, and some creativity. Here’s to making stuff, just because you love it.