Maybe it’s because I’m a relentless optimist. Maybe it’s because people – not you, other people – say life begins at 40. Maybe it’s because John Lennon called me a dreamer (he did. He said “People say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one”, which was clearly a reference to me. Well, people like me. And him).
Whatever the reason, a part of me still clings on to the belief that I will Achieve Something Momentous In Life. And it’s a fact that once you’re over *whispers* a certain age, the feeling that you’re going to do this begins to diminish somewhat. And the feeling that you’re going to be the first person to do this thing doesn’t so much diminish as laugh in your increasingly lived-in face.
When Margaret Thatcher got into power in 1979, I was fuming. Not because I was a leftie – I am, but I was eight at the time and didn’t have strong political views – but because Thatcher, the Iron Lady, had instantly scuppered any dreams I, the Iron Baby, had of becoming Britain’s first female Prime Minister. I was incensed! The only way I could console myself was to listen to Roger Whittaker’s children’s album really loud.
As life went on, I tried to put that early defeat behind me (and to be honest, the Roger Whittaker albums helped). I dreamed of being the first person – not just the first woman – to do all sorts of things, or at least to feature in one of those ‘Ones To Watch’ pieces in newspaper weekend magazines. Amazingly, though, these features weren’t paying close attention to The Ones To Watch In Independent Cinema Management, or The Ones To Watch In Digital Television Companies That Are Clearly Heading For Failure, and focused instead on things like British theatre and entrepreneurial business. BORING!
I soldiered on. I switched from career to career – each time getting older as I started a new job, but each time feeling just as young and full of hope, because I was starting afresh. But I had, I now realise, a personal glass ceiling. I would reach a certain level of success in each field… and then move on. This wasn’t down to a dreadfully short attention span, I hasten to add, but rather a form of self-sabotage. I understand now that – even if I had the wits and talent to do so – I was afraid to succeed at A Grand Level, afraid to be ambitious. I’d constructed this glass ceiling myself, and it was following me around like Charlie Brown’s rain cloud.
Now, I may not have completely smashed that ceiling, but I’ve at least punched a great socking hole in it, and continue to try and do so with every new challenge or opportunity that I face (although as we all know, the former is actually the latter in disguise – right, kids?!). But to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter how less afraid or how more ambitious I am now – because the fact remains that one’s chances of being The First Person To Do Something aren’t just diminished by age but by the fact that in order to be The First Person To Do Something, you usually need to be Jolly Good At Something by the point at which you hope to be the first person to do it. Or at least you need to have discovered and then channelled your focus, passion and ambition before the age of fortysomething.
The London Olympics, for example, might have inspired us Brits to get off our fat arses and… watch the opening and closing ceremonies. And maybe go and see some sport. But the fact is: no matter how many Jessica Ennises and Chris Hoys there are (there might be a few – I’ve not checked the modern phone book, LinkedIn), we, the average Joe/Jess/Chris, are unlikely to achieve their records because they’ve worked bloody hard at being brilliant at running/jumping/cycling/stuff for years. Similarly, Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s just become the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars, started acting at school and got his first lead film role at the age of 14. What’s more, according to Wikipedia, at school “he was introduced to his three most prominent interests: woodworking, acting and fishing” – so who knows what Day-Lewis could have gone to achieve in carpentry, too. Probably make amazing fishing rods.
In short, you have to Get Your Shit Together And Work Really Hard At Something For A Long Time if you want to achieve great success. Which is how it should be, of course. I don’t expect any shortcuts in life – except perhaps from Charing Cross station to the Embankment, along that little walkway thing. But I’m increasingly fearful that I’m running out of time. Increasingly fearful that not only has that ship sailed, but I wasn’t the first woman to captain it.
For example, here are a few things I’ve realised that I can never be the first person to do. (Or you. Sorry about that.)
- First person in space
- First woman in space
- First dog in space (thanks a bunch, Laika!)
- First woman to swim the Channel
- First woman to guest-star on The Muppets (that’s still going, right?)
- First female Chancellor of Germany
- First black President of the United States
I realise, of course, that I can never be the first person to do any of those things above because I was born just that little bit too late and/or just that little bit too British. And crucially, I’ve never had a strong enough interest or ability in astronomy, swimming or politics (The Muppets, on the other hand…).
But as I said at the start, I’m still holding out hope. That glass ceiling is increasingly full of holes and looking more and more precarious. Plus, as I explained here, I’m definitely one of life’s late starters. Who knows what I’ve still got it in me to do… after someone else has done it?