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Where am I going, How far have I come?

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Seeking significance from the past and for the future

Anniversaries can be both positive and negative things, evoking happy memories or dredging up things we’d rather forget. In my case the reflections prompted by a recent anniversary did both. Let me explain.

You may have encountered the theory of confirmation-bias? It refers to a tendency to seek out information, opinions or evidence that corroborate our thoughts, actions and decisions. It’s not about seeking objective viewpoints or considering something without prejudice, but instead, looking for reassurance that we’ve done or said the right thing and helping ourselves to feel better about it. It’s like seeking out a pat on the back for something we’ve already done rather than seeking out opinions in advance.

If I’m ever unsure of what I’ve done in life, I exhibit a confirmation-bias, looking for things that prove I was right. I suspect we all have a tendency to want for that reassurance in our lives. Whether brimming with self-confidence or not, most fall victim to fear more often than we’d like to admit, either when it prevents us from taking action or when we immediately regret something we’ve done and are fearful of the consequences. At times like these we wish we could roll back the clock before the full effects come to pass. Knowing this is impossible, instead we seek to reassure ourselves that we weren’t that far off the mark.

Back to the topic at hand. I recently marked the 10-year anniversary of the start of a period of great change, that would come to be one of the defining phases of significance in my life. By spooky-coincidence it comes at a time that finds me in the midst of another period of relative change and uncertainty. Prompted by this, I’ve been reflecting on the last 10 years, not just with misty-eyed nostalgia, but also looking for confirmation that I’m on the right path and for hope and reassurance about what the future may bring.

Following-on from the parting of my first marriage at the tail-end of 2005, October 2007 saw the beginning of a new phase of my life, co-parenting my two daughters from that relationship, then aged 7 and 4 on a 50–50 basis. We’d spent around 18-months immediately after the split living as a conventional separated family, the girls living with their mum for most of the time and visiting with me at weekends. The dust had settled on the split and having worked through much of the pain, we decided that we wanted a means of raising the girls that gave us both equal input into their upbringing. With some logistical changes and a few ground-rules for the arrangement in place, we embarked on our co-parenting adventure.

This article isn’t about co-parenting though. Should you wish to learn more about my experience and the practicalities of co-parenting you can read my book on the subject. Helping divorcees to consider and implement co-parenting also forms a part of the coaching service I offer to divorced and separating people who are seeking a new and better life after divorce for them and their kids alike.

It’s the work involved with growing this business alongside my day-job, prompted by a search for greater significance alongside success in life, that is the source of much of the stress and strain that I’m feeling at present.

“We over-estimate what we can achieve in one year, but underestimate what can be achieved in five or ten years.”

-Tony Robbins

I recently encountered the above quote during a confirmation-bias driven search for assurance that I will get through my present challenges. This is what prompted my reflection on the past-decade and the realisation of the anniversary.

So, looking back over the last ten-years, what are the main things that I’ve experienced, learned and achieved? What reassurances can I find to help me in the present? What hope can I find that I’m on track to achieve more of the same for the future?

I’ve decided upon a short highlight reel of the highs (and lows) of the period. Please understand that any suggestions of self-congratulation are purely coincidental, since I’m generally self-critical to the point of self-sabotage.

I’ve raised two daughters single-handedly (for 50% of the time) to the point where the eldest is completing University applications for an Arts degree in the Netherlands (Brexit? What Brexit?) and the youngest is nearing her 14th birthday, thriving in a local Grammar School and representing her county in Badminton, her sport of choice. Proud-parent? You bet I am.

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Where the story began…

At the start of the arrangement, I was terrified of being able to meet the many demands of being a single-parent to a 7 and a 4-year-old while working full-time. I’d always been a hands-on Dad but was this was taking it to a new level. It’s certainly not been plain-sailing, there have been as many failures as successes, and we’ve learned and displayed endless-tolerance and patience along the way. I’m proud to have played a significant part in raising two daughters who are as socially well-adjusted, polite, sensitive, academically-accomplished and as solid-citizens as any parent could hope to raise (even if I am biased). I’m not a perfect parent but perfection isn’t a relevant standard as far as I’m concerned. In any case the job of raising them is far from done; is it ever really finished?

In career terms, I’m certain that I’ve been extremely lucky in my work and whilst my job isn’t high on the scale of glamour or excitement (IT Project Management, since you ask), I’ve always done well at it. In the 10 years under examination, my earnings have roughly doubled and my skills, ability and corresponding responsibility and sense of accomplishment have as well.

It’s not the sort of job that one would love, day-in day-out (or at least I don’t) but I know that I’m good at it, I’m respected for it and that I can do it as well as those I admire in the field.

In October 2007 I started a new job, plying my trade in local government and 5 years later made the shift to doing it on a self-employed basis, in Financial Services. This shift played a significant part in the increase in earnings, but also in the yearning for significance and meaning that I now find myself trying to fill.

A further factor in my growing dissatisfaction is that have conformed to Parkinson’s Law (in fiscal terms), with my expenditures broadly increasing over time, in line with my income. This isn’t solely as a result of feckless consumer spending (as will become clear) but it’s certainly a part of why I feel like the career achievements haven’t brought about the results I might have wished for or expected. At 41 I still feel as financially vulnerable and stretched as I did at 31.

The ten-year period has also seen significant change and growth in my personal life. At 31, my mind was fully occupied by the demands of work and parenthood as I grappled with my new way of life. I was resigned to a life alone, and couldn’t contemplate starting over. Inevitably though as I got used to life and took things (largely) in my stride, and as the healing from my divorce concluded, I opened my mind to dating and relationships once more. A few adventures in the world of online dating (when it was still viewed with a mix of scorn, ridicule and scepticism) led to a few short relationships. There was one that progressed to co-habitation and an ill-fated engagement, but it was formed on the basis of toxic foundations, personal issues and baggage heaped into the relationship (for the sake of pride, they were hers more than mine). Its fate was doomed, and it collapsed in dramatic style, causing way more pain and upset than the parting of my marriage had ever done.

Undeterred, I got back on the dating horse and four and a half years ago, I met the woman who in May 2015 would go on to become my second wife. We have a blended family of me and my two kids, along with her and her two from her first marriage. We have two homes, kids in two different school systems some 25 miles apart (hence the the two homes we fund and the stretched finances) and to the annoyance of all the kids, no dog.

We lead a fragmented and non-traditional life that at times sees us all living in one place and at other times, just my wife and me when the kids are with their respective other parents. I’m still co-parenting my two and for the last year we’ve adopted a model known as ‘nesting’ where the girls stay in one place but we, their divorced parents come and go as live-in ‘parent of the week’. It’s an unconventional arrangement that no doubt requires great compromise by both my ex- and me (as well as my wife, and her second husband). We make it work and the niggles over who buys the bin-bags and who uses the cleaning products are kept to a minimum.

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Nesting: The kids got the home in the settlement.

Reflecting on this arrangement brings about a range of emotions in me. I’m unapologetic for stating that I’m doing what I think is the best thing for my kids, and have preserved my role in their lives and their upbringing to as great an extent as I could. It’s certainly been for my benefit as much as for theirs and even when tempers-fray and relations are stretched, I’m proud to have made it work for so long. I feel extremely grateful to have the bond with them that I do and I maintain they’ve had an upbringing with as much love and support as any child from a non-separated home would. The strength of the bond I share with each of them is also greater than I might have had if my first marriage hadn’t failed.

A side effect of this dual-life is that Sunday evenings over the last 10 years have always been tainted by a little sadness in much the same way as a child feels an awkward anticipation over the impending school-week.

It used to be that alternate Sunday evenings marked the end of a week of having had the kids live with me. I’d feel a mix of relief that I’d made it through a week of catering to their whims and needs alongside my own, coupled with an impending separation-anxiety as I parted from them for another week. Since remarrying, the same feeling has applied every week since I’m either facing-down a new week apart from the girls, or apart from my wife and the step-kids. However you look at it, for most of my life I live apart from a subset of those I love.

Maybe it’ll prepare me for the time when the girls leave home; time will tell whether the blow is lessened or not I suppose. It’s also an unfortunate but accepted part of my married-life now, and was a pre-requisite for my second marriage that I spend approximately 50% of my life away from my wife to meet the commitment to my kids. Absence allegedly makes the heart grow fonder, and it’s always been this way, but it still hurts to be apart from her just as it hurts to be apart from the girls. Living out of a suitcase for most of my life is also a test, although I do my best to never feel temporary or transient regardless of which home I’m in. The arrangement also brings about pressure for me to feel like my time in either home is of the highest quality possible. I’m sure this has contributed to expectations that are heightened beyond a realistic level at times.

The silver-lining is that I’ve always got the anticipation of seeing loved-ones who I’ve been apart from for a week, to compensate for missing those I leave behind.

The final area of life that I’ve reflected upon is in how my thinking and approach to life has evolved.

Ten years ago I recall a mix of nervousness, short-termism and a survival mentality about life. I was still coming out of divorce, unsure of whether I deserved or could expect anything much more than a life of getting-by and weathering the storm. I wasn’t sure I had the stomach to start-over again or to find another long-term relationship let alone re-marry, build a career or see beyond the next weeks, months and maybe (at my most forward-looking) the next year. My personal finances were a car-wreck, my career aspirations were zero and my professional-confidence was limited to incredulity that I’d got as far as I had without being exposed as the fraud I felt.

My greatest aspiration was to do a satisfactory job of being a dad to my girls while keeping the rest of life on track, nothing more and nothing less.

Undoubtedly I went through many different phases and experiences over those ten years to get to where I am today, and I’m grateful for each and every thing that has brought me from that point to this.

There were horrible events and periods along the way (and I say this with grateful-acknowledgement that my definition of ‘horrible’ would be other’s definition of ‘normal’). I came through them, I did my best, I learned the lessons and I moved forwards intent on not making the same mistakes again. I was also blessed by fortune, remarkably lucky for the favours granted by fate, the support of others and all-round serendipity that helped me to come so far in that period of time.

The very fact that my biggest gripe right now is a search of greater significance in my life and in my work is a great indicator of how lucky I really am.

My first thought in the morning isn’t whether I’ll be able to feed myself or my family today, or whether any of us will be beset with mortal-danger before the day is out. My fears and frustrations are founded in whether I may fail to meet my current goal; to achieve a supplemental income through creative endeavours and in the service of others, helping them to deal with challenges I’ve already handled. I hope that one day it may replace the day-job and afford a better, more comfortable and dare I say it, more opulent life for those that I love. We’re not talking gold-taps and Rolls-Royce opulence I should add; I just want to be able to say ‘yes’ more often to the many reasonable (and occasionally not-so-reasonable) financial demands presented to me by my kids, my wife and my imagination.

Most importantly though, my goal is to feel that significance in my day-to-day life, rather than merely being driven by success as defined by society, statistics and my tax-return.

Past-performance is not necessarily an indicator of the future, as financially-regulated institutions are obliged to point out when selling new investment opportunities. When it comes to the effects of time in my life, I very much hope for more of the same.

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Seeking guidance? (Credit: pixabay.com)

Comparing life in 2007 to my life in 2017, there are certainly many similarities.

I am fearful about the impending challenges as a parent; I’ve no idea how I’ll cope as one-by-one the kids leave home (notionally for good), all of which will happen over the next ten years. The true test of how they’ve been raised will come as they fend for themselves in this crazy world. My fear back then was about how I’d get them to school, fed, dressed and happy before getting to work on time, but the fear was just as real and present in my life.

Now, as then, I’m fearful of my financial future. The source and scale of fear is different, but it’s present nonetheless. As I face down the costs of the last 12 months of funding and working at the expansion of my business, coupled with a share of the first round of university fees, it fills me with dread. I’m also FAR short of where I want to be financially that I can fund the comfortable life I want for me and my wife. I’m even further away from being able to be there for my kids financially as my parents always have been for me. My branch of the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ is still a long way away from opening up for business.

I’m fearful of my own resilience in the face of whatever challenge that life may throw at me. My aforementioned charmed-life is by no means taken for granted. I worry though that there will be something around the corner that tests the bounds of my comfort-zone still further, and I wonder how and if I will cope when it does.

The similarities work for the positive though, as well.

In even my darkest times, I’ve always maintained a fundamentally positive outlook for the future. Whatever difficulty life presented me with, I always rose to the challenge, I rolled up my sleeves and I did what had to be done. It didn’t prevent me from having the melt-downs behind the scenes, and sometimes even publicly, but when times got tough, I did what had to be done.

I’ve always exhibited a degree of gratitude in my life, and acknowledge that without the support I’ve been given and the opportunities I’ve been blessed with, I wouldn’t be the person I am, in the place that I’m in right now. These days, as I immerse myself in as much personally developing insight and knowledge that I can access, I realise even more the importance of gratitude and of acknowledging all that you have before you can bring about anything additional in your life.

Finally, I’ve been blessed with the love, support and encouragement of those around me. My kids have grown up with the co-parenting arrangement as the norm, I suspect for most of their living memory in fact, but it hasn’t stopped them from being aware of the difference between their upbringing and that of many of their friends. I can’t recall them once holding this up to either punish me or excuse themselves from anything in their own lives or to seek special indulgences. Their personalities, their achievements and their characters give me all the feedback I could ever want on whether I’ve done enough.

My family have always been the unshakeable foundations that underpinned my life regardless of what earthquake I brought about, and I know they’ll always be there for me just as I try and do the same for them. My wife, for her part in the last 10 years has bolstered the strength of these foundations even further if that were possible.

So as I approach the next ten years, how do I feel? Well, if I remember to look back in this same way in October 2027 then I certainly have some hopes for what I’ll observe.

I hope that I’ll be similarly involved in the lives of my kids, albeit likely from a distance. They will conceivably have all flown the nest. If they follow my example (and in this regard I’m not entirely convinced that I want them to) then conceivably 3 of the 4 could have kids making me a Grandfather at 51. All will either be at University or graduated if that’s their chosen path. My co-parenting has a potential shelf-life of up to 4 more years if my youngest requires me until the age of 18; Summer 2022 will likely see the end of my living out of a suitcase and instead living full-time with my wife. I’ve no idea what that will be like and how we’ll adapt, but it’s something that I know we both view with keen anticipation.

From a business and career perspective, it’s quite simple really. I’ll continue on the journey I’m on, trying to find more meaning, make more of a difference, help more people and to feel more fulfilled in what I do. As tempting as it may be to throw it all in for a simpler life, a hand-to-mouth existence of communing with nature, I won’t succumb to this as I aspire to give my family the same opportunities and support that was given to me.

It’s coming up for a year since I started the search for more meaning in my work aside from increasing turnover. Whilst I’m still motivated by money, I realise that I’ve got at least one or two more 10 year iterations of work in my life, and I need significance as well as monetary-success. As such, I need at all times to be mindful of the aforementioned Tony Robbins quote, and acknowledge that my goals for one year were unrealistic.

The solace I can take from his quote, is that I’ll likely surprise myself by what can be achieved in 5 or 10 years. I’m not content to wait that long I should add, but I’m also not going to beat myself up if it takes longer than I previously thought.

So, my message to myself at this point is quite simple: Look how far you’ve come in just ten-years; think how far you can go in the next ten.

I encourage you to reflect similarly on your life if you are ever in need of some confirmation of where you’re going or how far you’ve come.

Toby

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A writer, dad and husband sharing his thoughts, wins and losses to help and inspire others. Say hello at bit.ly/TobyHazlewood

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