Improvising As You Go

Just occasionally one sits down with a new book, starts to read and a great sense of calm, of recognition and of identification with the words in front of you descends. It’s all too rare but is wonderful when it happens. So it was with me when I read the opening pages of Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson, who incidentally (as far as this post goes, probably not in terms of the book) is Margaret Mead’s daughter. I have only read about three chapters so far, so possibly the later sections will disappoint me, but it is about her wise and enlightening words in the first chapter that I want to write which resonate strongly with things I often write about on this blog.

As the title suggests, her aim is to look at how lives develop despite setbacks, personal and professional, and how some people seem able to thrive whatever their circumstances. But people’s lives rarely progress in a straight line. Consider the following sentence:

‘We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labor to assert the artist’s vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and bodies.’

Her sympathies are all with the crafting of a life from bits and pieces rather than those (few?) who simply move from A to B, knowing that B was always where they wanted to be, probably even having set a timescale to achieve this pinnacle of their aspirations. Some people may start off like that. Few I would wager actually manage such a straightforward passage, far fewer than the young setting out are likely to believe. For most of us, however successful we may look to others, there has been a substantial amount of crafting, reshaping, thinking again once one’s heart desire is snatched away and picking oneself off the floor amongst the detritus. I tend to write about this in the context of a scientific career. Bateson is obviously equally as interested in the way personal issues intervene: marriage and divorce, death or other personal calamities. But whatever the source of the obstacles that fate may toss in your direction, putting one’s life back together, even if in a very different shape from one’s initial dreams, is crucial to a satisfied and happy life. Improvisation, as Bateson puts it, is what it’s all about, constantly adjusting to new circumstances.

So, be you a young researcher single parent or a professor with a sudden burden of elder care to factor into the daily grind, it is constantly necessary to re-evaluate goals and the construction of one’s day-to-day life. Things never stay the same and, to my mind, it would be very boring if they did. Of course, when mired in the complexities of each day’s problems, it is hard to remember all this. But I like the image of a patchwork quilt to describe the reality of our existence, it seems far more plausible than the well-flighted arrow of popular self-help books. Of course Bateson’s thesis is (already by chapter 3) more subtle – and more explicitly gendered than I’ve just expressed it. Writing in the 1980’s she was particularly interested in how women’s roles and expectations were shifting from her mother’s generation’s views, but the idea of reinventing oneself to fit a changing landscape is clearly central.

All this seemed particularly pertinent given that at the weekend I was involved in a ‘speed mentoring’ event as part of Cambridge’s first WOW (Women of the World) Festival, serving as an offshoot of the successful WOW Festival initiated at London’s South Bank by its Director Jude Kelly. Speed mentoring is meant to give an opportunity for ‘mentees’ to raise issues and challenges with their ‘mentors’. 15 minutes of concentrated discussion on priorities, goals, hurdles and challenges – and then the mentees move on for another conversation with another mentor. My conversations, with people of all ages (in my case ranging from about 16-40 I would guess) had strong connections with the theme of the book. Individuals who felt they wanted to make changes in their life but needed to give themselves permission and be less hard on themselves if they were to make this change. People who also – too often – seemed to believe there was a single right answer to their dilemma and that someone with a magic wand could show them the way. It’s a feeling I recognize only too well, that strong desire for someone else to tell you the answer when actually it has to come from within. But, to use the language of the book, the mentees I spoke to also needed to recognize that life is not monolithic, that there may be opportunities that were unanticipated and that can open new vistas; also that there will be long-cherished goals that will not be met.

I found myself saying, that mantra I so often use in my talks to the (relatively) young ‘seize opportunities when they come your way’ but also tried to point out that just because they see my job title as intimidating and representing ‘success’, they should realise I got here by some odd diversions and certainly not in a straight line. That what I expected 10 years hence at 20, at 30 or even at 40 or 50, did not bear much relationship to what actually transpired. Improvisation, making-do. possibly even making-up can turn what might look like a dead end into something quite different. That dead end might be a dreadful boss, the ticking of an internal biological clock, the realisation that what had once satisfied no longer did or the demise of a relationship. But it doesn’t mean there is nowhere else to go to gain satisfaction or no possible course of action which might highlight a way out. But if you assume life is uniquely determined from start to finish you are less likely to be prepared to improvise with the materials to hand.

I hope the women I spoke to gained something. We weren’t meant to be advising so much as helping the mentee organise and clarify their thoughts. As I’ve said before, about a not-totally-dissimilar event, one never knows whether words will fall on fertile ground or softly and suddenly vanish away like a boojum. I know I felt I was connecting with their issues when they stopped and said, as several did, ‘that’s a good question’ because it means they were starting to look at their lives not as the same old treadmill but with different perspectives. Perhaps what one should really hope for is that one’s words at least do not deter or discourage. But a patchwork quilt of a life improvised on the hoof, a life full of interest but probably also pain, is not such a bad aspiration for a scientist or anyone else.


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6 Responses to Improvising As You Go

  1. Claire says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments about a career being made up of a series of unexpected events, out of which we make sense, or to which we adapt, rather than a smooth, planned progress. Had I known, as an undergraduate that I’d be a professor at a prestigious university, I would have been surprised but delighted. Had I know that most of my time would be spent as a member of the senior management team of said university I would have been frankly incredulous, and probably rather dismayed. For many years I was certain that the last thing I want do to, or was fit for, was leadership/management, yet here I am, and I love it, and find, rather to my surprise, that I can do it. How I got here was a very complicated mixture of doing as you suggest- seizing opportunities- but really bumbling from one unexpected thing to another, and fitting it all round personal-life challenges such as the elder care you mention. That’s how life is for most people, I’m certain, so it’s really important that you are writing about it and talking about it to younger women, thank you again.

  2. Sally McArthur says:

    the comment “wanted to make changes in their life but needed to give themselves permission and be less hard on themselves if they were to make this change” really struck a note for me. I have gone after the next stage in my senior academic career and realised it probably isn’t the right role for me, so even though stepping back may be seen as failure, I need to accept it and envision what it is I want to do next. It is just not obvious what that should be, but being open to opportunity and remembering the patchwork analogy will help.

  3. rr says:

    I should bookmark this and read when ever necessary.

    As a young post-doc, who constantly worries about future and changes, I always wish someone with a magic wand show me the way. I think the magic I found in this article is this:
    ” putting one’s life back together, even if in a very different shape from one’s initial dreams, is crucial to a satisfied and happy life. “

  4. Sarah Boon says:

    Thank you for this timely post, which reminded me to read Bateson’s book again. Especially now, as I navigate a particularly tricky career transition….

  5. Fred says:

    Thanks for writing this post, for highlighting a book to add to the tsundoqueue and for expanding my vocabulary to include boojum. There’s wisdom in your writings

  6. Colin G. Finlay says:

    Yes, indeed, that “new book feeling”, although, in my case, most recently applied to French fiction. Thanks, as usual these days, to Kindle I have enjoyed Flaubert’s ‘ Salammbo ‘, the long -awaited antidote to ‘Madame Bovary’.

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