People seem to think that life travels in straight, orderly lines, with everything mapped out from birth. I have never felt that my life was like that and it is always startling when I find other people assume that I know, and have always known, what I‘m doing and why, as well as what I’m going to do next. The other day an interviewer kicked off with the question ‘When did you decide to…..?’. It was a question that left me floundering: it hadn’t been like that, I hadn’t made the decision, I’d just rather fallen into a particular role. I cannot believe I am alone in my life being, in fact, a lot less considered than it may appear to an outsider. Indeed it is little more than a chaotic trajectory of opportunities, failures and accidental progress. And this I believe is hugely important. People – especially the young such as those who’ve just got their A level results – shouldn’t be fooled into thinking success equates to ‘I always knew what I was doing and why’ and that if you personally don’t know it will invariably lead to failure or at least stagnation.
The title question is rather like the question ‘why did you decide…?’ in my case usually posed as ‘why did you decide to study physics?’ (or its variant, ‘what or who inspired you to study physics?’). I have no good answer to either question other than that I liked it. I know I’m meant to come up with an answer which demonstrates I was inspired by Marie Curie/my teacher/my aunt (or even uncle) or perhaps, more studiously, that the inspiration arose from reading Carl Sagan or Fred Hoyle. It always feels wimpish simply to say I liked it. But that is the truth and I’m not prepared to invent a false history to suit someone’s idea of what life ought to be like.
The same applies to decision-making of many sorts in my view. I am sure there are people who could say they decided to do a PhD because they wanted to understand quantum dots or black holes (or embryo development or to cure cancer if you happen to be a biologist as opposed to a physicist). Equally I am sure there are many who decided to do a PhD for the reason that the then head of department Brian Pippard told my graduating year at the Cavendish which he clearly thought was entirely the right reason:
‘if you think you ever might want to do research, now is the time to do it’
without any more specific goal in mind. Any faint penchant for it and you should aspire as soon as you graduate rather than wait a few years and regret the loss of opportunity (although of course people do return; sometimes they are even are sponsored to return). Pippard’s advice seemed good enough for me to take, particularly as I had no desire to do anything else very definite – such as join industry.
If I look back on my life there are decisions that I did consciously make, including getting married, starting a family and staying in the UK rather than returning to the USA to make my career there. Big decisions undoubtedly, but not the ones interviewers tend to ask. After all, asking why you decided to start a family would seem a pretty intrusive question; in fact I could give an easy answer to why I stayed in the UK (like the location of my wider family and my husband working here). But the questions that are asked tend to be about motivation, inspiration or direction, or else they make implicit assumptions in their question which immediately take the question into territory in which I’m not comfortable.
So, how many people, hand on heart can stand there and say they always knew they wanted to be an XXXX, they knew what they needed to do to achieve that goal and they have never deviated, hesitated or allowed repetition to slow them down en route to getting to that endpoint? I doubt many people could swear to that. Of senior (and successful) academics, I know ones who thought they wanted to be – or thought they were going to be, which isn’t necessarily the same thing – a writer, climber, musician, chair of the local PTA, a social worker or a tax inspector.
Perhaps they never got beyond the idea of expecting to end up unsalaried as a full time parent, or simply unemployed. I recently met an eminent lawyer who set off intending to be a medic. Perhaps these accidental academics believed they knew their (different) plans at 14, 18, 21 or even 25 but at some point they got locked into an academic career. Nevertheless, most probably didn’t know what their goals were beyond a horizon of a year or two even long after that. Doing the next thing that turns up (assuming it appeals to you) I think is not a bad thing to do. But it probably isn’t always writ large in self-help books.
Based on my own trajectory, experience is often helpful in the most unlikely ways. To give a fairly recent and very personal example, when I was asked (and agreed) to chair the Royal Society’s Education Committee in 2009 I had not previously been very close to school education but I thought the challenge would be interesting. I had at that point no aspiration to head a Cambridge College, but the knowledge I gained about curricula, examinations and the rapidity of change in both under recent Ministers has been immensely helpful in my first year in Churchill. The one opportunity did not lead to the other, but the detour into educational matters from my research has stood me in very good stead. Had I sat down in 2009 and thought that in a few years I wanted to be a College head, would I have thought that this was my optimum strategy to achieve that end? I’m sure not. Call it luck, or serendipity, or blind chance as you will, but it merely confirms me in the belief you never know what might grow out of seizing opportunities or when knowledge gained will come in useful. Perhaps the only thing you should regard as worse than turning down opportunities is not being offered them.
So the next time someone asks you ‘when did you decide…’ maybe you should come clean that actually you never made that decision at all. It just happened.