I never dreamed of an original life. I expected it
As a child, I assumed life would be a carnival of jetpack flights, moon landings, houses with secret tunnels, access to the entire catalogue of magic tricks, homemade rollercoasters and baby elephant clones.
I assumed everyone else’s life would be completely different to that too. Different, possibly bonkers, and surely original. Each of us would have life stories that were never before told.
I would eat potatoes in soup. If there were invisible vegetables in the soup, so be it. I would cook recipes with flavours no one had ever experienced before. People who served people in restaurants with green beans on toast instead of baked beans on toast when they were specifically asked by people’s mothers to serve him beans on toast, would go to prison.
I would get married, but not in a boring way. There would be a wedding in a strangely decorated venue with a band that emitted noises a bit like music. Maybe there would be no seating plan.
Our wedding vows would involve magic tricks and electric hand buzzers and a priest exclaiming at our inventiveness. My wife would be female. At that point, I had not spoken to females, particularly, as they were exotic. No one I knew had.
Nuclear fusion. I would be sorting that. Along with fair wages for nurses and people who are good at making sandwiches.
The five best ways to be the best in the world
Historical figures ask: Was I the asshole?
How Roger Federer eventually discovered tennis
I wrote a book that no-one read and you can too
Historical figures apply for modern jobs
How to live an original life
Then, like the evil rolling nothing in Neverending Story or the sandstorm in Mad Max Fury Road or the 6th season of Game of Thrones, a bad thing showed up.
“Pay this overdraft charge,” said the bad thing, darkly. “Endure this meeting,” it said.
The Cloud of Adult Responsibility had arrived. “The bins. It’s recycling week,” it reminded me. The Cloud of Adult Responsibility quickly enveloped me, insidious and life sapping. “The kids. The house. The mortgage. The dog. The lawn. Vegetables. The pride swallowing siege. Jerry Maguire.”
I sank slowly into its wicked grasp. I called out to my neighbour. “Help me, Brian,” I called out. “I’m being trapped by the Cloud of Adult Responsibility!”
“I can’t, mate,” said Brian The Mediocre Galoot. “I’m stuck in here too.”
“Show me the money,” I whimpered.
Time passed until about two months ago. I was reminiscing fondly about how boring life was while eating a plate of ratatouille, when I suddenly woke up. With a crash, I found myself magically transported back to my childhood.
There, I could see myself sitting at the kitchen table with a scratch on my knee and being served the most beautifully tasty ratatouille by my mother and suddenly everything was clear.
It was as clear as the production budget of the Crystal Maze was misspent. No one should ever reminisce fondly about how boring life is, unless you’re coming out the other side of a crisis or a war.
To hell with the Cloud of Adult Responsibility, I thought. Life should be a carnival, not a treadmill.
As my cousin Joe would say, the surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even - if you will - eccentricity. (His excuse for not taking his turn with the laundry, admittedly.)
My life would become a carnival. I would live an original life, as per the original plan.
(I hadn’t actually travelled back to my childhood, btw, it was simply, in practical terms, a very vivid memory. The “crash” was a sound effect I added for effect.)
The difficulty is there’s not much room for originality in modern life.
I quite like sleeping in a bed in a house, I quite like a bit of Netflix, and I enjoy eating regularly. I curse the bills that come with all that and the soul sucking effort to earn the money to pay the bills. But I’m not out to smash the system. You can’t fight human nature or a bad credit rating.
So even if I only make small departures from the norm, living some sort of original life is going to take inner strength and sacrifice. I’ll need to give up the security of staying within my tracks. No one will understand what I’m attempting or particularly care.
“This is madness,” my neighbour Brian says, once I’ve outlined the idea. “And why are you outlining things to me? We barely know each other.” I ignore the criticism, figuring hey, the mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.
At least I’m regaining some control of my destiny. And it’s my life, Brian. Go back to your memory foam mattress and stick it. Also, I’m keeping the pressure washer until after the bank holiday.
How will I know if I'm successful?
I decide to eliminate other peoples’ definition of success from the formula - money and fame. Making money is hard work and fame is only ever basically an on-camera live-streamed murder away.
I will define my success differently: achieving something interesting that’s never been done before and doesn’t ruin my life. If it makes a decent dinner party anecdote, that’s a bonus. Double bonus if the pernicious Brian apologises for his lack of support, while serving the mashed carrots at that dinner party.
Already I was feeling more confident and motivated. I didn’t even have an original idea yet, but I was feeling more noticed, interesting and attractive to others. I revelled in the knowledge that I was the person who, in the future, will have had been have had achieved something original.
Feelings of pride, narcissism, and self-righteousness washed over me momentarily. This must have been how Picasso, Neil Armstrong and the guy who invented shampoo rinse-and-repeat felt.
My Aunty Barbara is a Harvard philosopher who spoke in long paragraphs. She said to me once, “humans are a highly social species. We find our place in a social group through the things we like, our beliefs, and the groups of people that we spend time with.”
I’m like, seriously Aunty Barbara? Why would you contact me about this, of all topics?
Undeterred, she continued. “The things we like and believe can be very different from one another, and this is what often leads to conflict and disagreement between people. Now, if we each simply chose one of these things, then we’d never truly connect with others. Instead, we need to find a way to connect these things.”
I was rolling my eyes by this stage. What was the relevance?
“This is where our desire to feel special comes in,” she persisted. “When we feel special, this means that we value ourselves and what we believe in. It also means that we find value in the groups of people we choose to spend time with. This makes it far easier to connect with others and find a place in a social group.”
She treated me like a fool at times.
“Bullet points, Aunty Barbara,” I would yell, “all we need are bullet points.”
Shortly after I said this, I received a letter from her, in the cockroach entrail handwriting style of a professional pontificater, with the message… “You are special, Value yourself, Stop being a jerk.” She never did understand my point. My bullet point point.
Presently, I was googling the phrase “how to live an original life - easy style” when a mysterious postcard popped through the door. Through the slot in the door that was for mail, I mean.
The postcard was blank, apart from a photo of Cambridge, Massachusetts and this lengthy message…
How to live an original life - easy style
Embrace the day
Create something new
Make more social connections
Take a road less travelled
Experiment with different musical tastes
Don’t listen to the news
Write a poem
What the? Who the? How could anyone possibly know my intentions and the exact time at which I intended them? It was a mystery with no clues whatsoever attached at all.
I peered intently at the postcard.
The following day, I was out of bed by 5 am. The sun, powered by nuclear fusion, peered murkily through the morning clouds. “I embrace you, sun!” I whispered loudly. I ticked the first task off my list of original things to do with a Liberace-level flourish.
I couldn’t think of an original way to get washed, dressed and ready for work, so I just did that as per standard procedure. I did wear my red boxers, though, for secret sexiness.
In the kitchen, my ingredients awaited. I paired off a dollop of marmalade with a teaspoon of chilli oil, and swiped it across a water biscuit normally intended for cheese. Did I eat this concoction? No I did not! I left it out for the birds! Original and unpredictable, I felt.
A pair of two pigeons mingled about on the fence, instinctively curious. They monitored me with beady, grateful eyes. I stared back. Dare I say we had a social connection? My task list was looking like a right tick-fest.
Energised, I drove to work completely the wrong way.
I had time to spare, due to getting out of bed miles early. I tuned the radio to Radio 6 which is a station for all the songs that have literally never been heard before. Even the singers don’t remember singing them. They’re surprised to hear their name attached. When the royalty cheques come in, they send them back, with notes saying “you got the wrong person.”
I tried singing along, but it was hopeless. Musical confusion and hunger numbed my tongue but I was buoyed by the adventure of it. (I think Musical Confusion might have been one of the bands.) Upon the hour, the broadcast attempted to interrupt itself with the news, but I smashed the volume button into silence.
When I arrived at work, everyone was buzzing with news of the general election results, the rocket launch from Russia we’d been fearing and the outcome of the horse race we’d all bet on as a syndicate. I ignored them.
Work is such a funny thing, I wrote in my mind.
It really is so weird.
It makes you want to go outside.
But you shouldn’t be afeared.
Level completed! Candy Crush would have exploded about 50 beans in an animation at this point. I began tearing my task list into celebratory shreds of cast iron originality and eating them, when suddenly a mysterious message popped up on my computer. Right on the screen.
I will now move to a meeting that happened about two hours later. This adds tension. What about the mysterious message, you’re thinking. I tantalisingly describe a fly buzzing about a conference room. The fly flitted about landing on office stuff, a cup, a chair, a flipchart, back on the chair for a while until it upped and away and landed on the side of my eye.
“There’s a fly on your eye,” said the intern.
To protect her identity, I will not describe her accurately, turning instead to www.fantasynamegenerators.com to create a fictional characterisation.
Silver, frizzy hair tight in a ponytail reveals a chiseled, sad face. Glistening black eyes, set far within their sockets, watch yearningly over the city they've kept safe for so long. Fair skin delightfully compliments her eyes and hair and leaves an intriguing memory of her reckless luck. There's something obscure about her, perhaps it's her friendly demeanour or perhaps it's simply a feeling of arrogance. But nonetheless, people tend to take pride in knowing her as a friend, while training with her whenever she's available.
“I know,” I said, realising. Truth be told, I was preoccupied by the printout on the table in front of me.
How to live an original life - medium difficulty
Face your fears
Find something that sets your imagination on fire
Go on a journey all on your own
Commit a random act of kindness
Do something you would ordinarily dislike
Scavenge for hidden treasure
Find your inner purpose and tell someone about it
Who was this mysterious messager? How did they have my Slack address details? Had anyone ever actually printed something out from Slack before?
“I’m worried that I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be doing,” said the intern, using her friendly demeanour or arrogance.
Who could the messager be, I pondered unstoppably. “What does it mean to face your fears”, I said volubly.
“I guess it means to confront the things I’m worrying about?” offered the intern.
“Find something that sets your imagination on fire,” I continued down the list.
“Like customer interaction? Finding out what customers really want?”
“Go on a journey all on your own.”
“Actually go out and visit customers? That sounds amazing. How should I approach them?”
“Commit a random act of kindness. Do something you would ordinarily dislike. Scavenge for hidden treasure. Find your inner purpose and tell someone about it.”
The intern’s glistening black eyes, set far within their sockets, watered emotionally. “That’s the most original advice I’ve ever been given,” she trembled, strongly and in a manner that created total respect from myself and the HR representative who was also present as a witness. I felt pride in knowing her as a friend and resolved to train with her some day.
Once the intern had left to visit customers, I tore the medium difficulty list up and ate it. That was two pieces of card or paper eaten in one day. Normally I would not do that. That was acceptable in the 80’s. It was acceptable at the time.
After work, I drove home directly. “Guess who’s here!” announced my wife as I entered the detached four bedroom house which was on a repayment mortgage. “It’s Aunty Barbara!”
“Aunty Barbara,” I exclaimed. “Good old AB! What brings you here?”
Aunty Barbara was at the table, eating ratatouille. She was wearing a t-shirt with a series of bullet points on the front, I noticed.
“I came round because I’ve been talking to my good friend. He told me you wanted some help. My good friend’s name is…” she paused to finish her ratatouille. She literally scooped up seven or eight forkfuls before she continued, which added tension. “My good friend’s name is Brian.”
I felt as if the world had fallen out from under me. Time was affected by the shift in gravity. Seconds sped past before my vision unblurred after the shock. My neighbour Brian who I mentioned earlier! Slowly, I realised I could read the bullet points on Aunty Barbara’s t-shirt.
How to live an original life - Hard difficulty
Multiply your creativity
Become an expert in a tiny niche
Find a purpose that is not about you
Stop doing things that don’t matter
Achieve what you expected to as a child
Reinvent something from first principles
Remember that today won’t happen again
Love Aunty Barbara
“Oh Aunty Barbara,” I wept. “It’s all so difficult. How can I achieve these things?”
“You big silly galoot,” she comforted me. “You don’t need to achieve all these things today.”
“You don’t need to achieve all these things today.”
“Yes, I get it.”
But she was wrong. I was no galoot. And thinking about it, I had in fact achieved some of bullet point 5 already. I stepped swiftly over to the bookshelf and pressed a hidden button. The bookshelf swung round to reveal something.
“Best of luck then,” called Aunty Barbara. “It took me a little while to get used to that bullet point format you suggested. But you were right, it is a more efficient way of imparting information. When Brian told me you wanted to live an original life, I did some research into people who lived extraordinary lives and I found bullet points to be an excellent way of distilling my findings. They’re convenient, you see, and they present knowledge in smaller chunks which the human brain finds more digestible.”
Of people speaking in long paragraphs, I could take no more. I stepped into the secret tunnel and shut the door.
My wife is female. To protect her privacy, I will not describe her remotely accurately, turning instead to a characterisation from Wikipedia of one of the characters from the classic science fiction novel Roger Ebert’s Dune.
My wife possesses a basso voice and is so grossly and immensely fat that she requires anti-gravity devices known as suspensors to support her weight. She is a decadent, monstrous gasbag of depravity and evil. As ruthless and cruel as she is intelligent and cunning, she is crafty and power-hungry and has a talent for manipulating others and exploiting their weaknesses, as well as a propensity for torture and blackmail.
After I had spoken to her for four years, we got married in a small church down the road, and held the reception with close friends and relatives in a nice 4 star hotel a few miles away. We had food and speeches and a free bar and a wedding DJ. The DJ played Come On Eileen and New York New York and we all danced forever.
It was all a bit unoriginal, I guess. That was a happy day.