Letter to my sixteen-year-old self

by Radio Somewhere

Dear Suzanne,

Congrats on your O-level results. You worked so hard for those exams. You’re going to work hard at A-levels too. You always work hard — it seems to be the only way for you. And looking back at you right now, I feel nothing but heartache — for you will find that your hard work doesn’t always pay off. And I am in big part to blame for that. Please let me explain.

Who am I? I’m the troubled part of your soul that evolved in response to the pressures of growing up. By now, I’m pretty intimidating aren’t I? I put enough pressure on you to make sure that you are able to please and impress the “right” people. You’ve chosen to do A-levels in Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Physics, because the headmaster once announced in morning assembly that this was the hardest three-subject combo, and I thought you owed it to yourself to do it. It makes sense to you, because you’re good at mathematics and are OK at physics — and I get my way with no resistance from you.

You’ll decide to study engineering at university, because this is 1978 and girls don’t study engineering in large numbers, and I think it will be a feather in your cap to be one of the few that does. And you will name Imperial College as your top choice on your UCCA application, because I think you should set your sights as high as possible. I’m sorry, but I never consider that you might end up rubbing shoulders with a fast crowd, and that in your attempts to keep up, you will fall behind with your studies and have to drop out in your second year.

It looks hopeless for a while and I don’t know what to tell you. But that’s good — because YOU take over. You find yourself a nice job where you meet an American who you end up marrying. And you find that life in the United States suits you better. But I don’t leave you alone for long.

You finish a rather generic undergraduate degree in an evening program while working as an engineering assistant at a job you really enjoy. But I lean on you to go to graduate school and you end up as a college professor. Somewhere along the way, you start to assert yourself though, because you do a Ph.D. in geography, even though right now, I won’t hear of you doing geography as an A-level. You have a nice grant from the National Science Foundation and get some decent publications, so you are looking good for tenure. But your marriage ends. And you have a breakdown. And you start listening to someone else.

You will shut me out for several years. You resign your position and move to Seattle where you are unemployed for a long stretch and then work a series of retail jobs just to pay the bills. You hang out in Starbucks and write lots of stories. You ride the bus everywhere and make friends with bus drivers. You drink too much sometimes, but you are immensely happy. Then I find a way back in.

Even retail work has room for overachievers. You get noticed as an employee who can be counted on, and when you are offered additional responsibilities, I convince you it’s a good idea, even if there’s no immediate pay raise involved. You burn yourself out at one job. And then at another. At the next job, in a warehouse, you are resolved to go unnoticed. But I won’t let you! You get noticed and then promoted. You take on more responsibilities and this time you ARE rewarded with pay raises. You feel affluent for the first time in years and go on a bit of a shopping spree.

One Saturday morning, in your late forties, you look at yourself in the full-length mirror before heading out. You’re very satisfied with what you see. Your hair and makeup look great, and your outfit is contemporary and stylish. But you suddenly feel sad. You remember the way you were when you first moved to Seattle; when you were unemployed and almost broke; dressed in old shabby clothes, with natural long hair, and very little makeup. You miss being that “little person” as you remember her — and I realize I will have to work harder to keep you motivated.

You love writing more and more as you get older; and you fill one notebook after another with your thoughts and dreams. You sometimes think you should apply yourself more at becoming a better writer instead of just doing it for fun. Now, I love that idea of course, and so I lean on you to take it more seriously. But then you don’t seem to enjoy it so much and stop doing it. And then you get depressed — are less able to go with the flow of things, especially at work.

Just before you turn fifty, you have another breakdown as you realize you have burned yourself out yet again. You have savings you can live off for a while and so allow yourself to quit your job. I am not happy with this at all. I have been hoping you will buy a condo. But all is not lost for me. As soon as you resign, I start throwing ideas your way. I remind you of the fun you had in graduate school, writing programs to do rather hard statistical analyses — and I encourage you to think big this time, and set your sights as high as possible. After all, this is the age of Big Data, and you live in Seattle, one of the Big Data hotspots. Under my renewed influence, you learn R and Python and start attending Meetups in the hope of meeting folks who work at places like Amazon and Zillow. But despite my encouragement, you have your doubts.

You will find, little Suzanne, that you become less impressed with me as you get older. After about eight months of not working, you take matters into your own hands and decide you need a part-time job to have at least some income while you work on this career change. You interview for a job as a shipping assistant on April Fools Day — and walk out the door hired. The next day, you dress in warehouse clothes and sneakers to ride the bus to your less-than-impressive new job — happy to be the “little person” again.

You haven’t given up on me yet. On most days, I can still convince you that it’s not too late to be the successful career person — if only you would just try harder. I even have you working with a career coach! As always, you are cooperative, compliant, and diligent — but somehow, you never seem to get the results I look for. I am started to doubt myself.

I wonder if I should tell you to change your A-level plans. How about Mathematics, English and Geography? And forget Imperial College — you will do better reading geography at a provincial university with less pressure. You could still end up in the United States doing that Ph.D.

But then I stand back and marvel at how you always manage to salvage something from the wreckage you find yourself in. And I am chagrined to admit that you have never been your best under my influence. I can’t even claim responsibility for all your successes either. I am really, really trying to let go — and allow you to be the amazing “little person” you are capable of being. And you know why? Because after fifty years, I have finally come to know and love her so much more than any version I could mould you into.

Good luck, my dear.
And I’m so, so sorry.