A Big Life

I've had three interesting women remind me of a very important lesson recently - one very young, and one entirely imaginary but oddly vivid, and one a cartoon version of me.

The first was Tavi Gevinson, the 17 year old wunderkind who was recently in Australia for a session at the Sydney Opera House entitled Tavi's Big Big World* (*at 17). (You can watch her full presentation here. You can also see her Melbourne Writers Festival Talk here.)

Like most of the adult women in the room, I was quite blown away by this incredibly clever girl on the cusp on womanhood. She stated quite plainly how much more satisfying it is to be a creator/curator/observer when you’re free to enjoy the process, rather than worrying about conventional ideas of success (money, fame, power), and how to free yourself from the expectations of yourself or others. She also touched on how important it is to be completely unapologetic about what you like, to love what you love free from irony or the need for an affirmation of "cool" from someone else.

Tavi talked about the idealism of inexperience, and the power of naivety. She recognises that reality will rarely live up to the fantasy, but it is important not to dwell on this, and to enjoy the daydreaming anyway. For me, it was a welcome reminder to appreciate our ability to daydream for the pleasure it brings, and to have the courage to pursue your dreams, even if you know they’re unlikely to be as wonderful as you hoped they might be.

Far from blissfully innocent and unrealistically idealistic, Tavi also spoke about the challenges of acute awareness of self and your place in the world, and her struggles with mental illness, acknowledging that having a vivid imagination, an inclination toward over analysis, and a willingness to indulge both does have a downside.

These lessons were reaffirmed by Nora - the central protagonist in Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, whose existence sits in stark contrast to the unbridled enthusiasm of Tavi.She's a nice, well mannered primary school teacher - good at her job and relatively happy with her life and her circle of friends. She nurses her beloved mother through a terminal illness and then cares for her widower father. She does all the right things and works hard to please everyone around her, but at the same time, she is frustrated, resentful and lonely.

Nora is looking for someone to blame for the fact that she hasn't followed through with her early creative potential and dreams of living a passionate, colourful life. She didn't follow the traditional life path and get married and have kids, and seems to resent the fact that her gay best friend has unexpectedly found a partner and raised a child. She's partially straddling both ideals, and achieving neither, reacting to the advice and expectations of her mother - her childhood almost-feminist role model and herself a repressed creative - and the actions of her conservative, dependable father. She finds herself falling in love with three members of the same family - the 8 year old boy finding himself, the emerging artist mother, and the established academic father - each of whom remind her to be an active participant in her own life, rather than passively accepting and conforming to the expectations of others.

(Jennifer Byrne and the team from The Book Club looked at The Woman Upstairs last month. Watch their discussion here.)

The third woman I've been intrigued by is Lucy the GYPSY (Gen Y Protagonist and Special Yuppy), literally a cartoon created to illustrate my own demographic as outlined in the Wait But Why article on the Huffington Post recently. (Read the article here.) The article outlines exactly why Gen Ys have wildly inflated ambitions, an overblown sense of entitlement and an absolute belief that they are "special". Nails it.

As a typical Gen Y - or GYPSY - I've been fascinated (ok, obsessed) by the idea of living "a big life", versus what I call "a safe life" and for me, each of these women - real and imaginary - reinforced the eternal challenge of living your life authentically, and living your life at scale, perfectly illustrating all sides of the story.

What strikes me about Tavi is that she's been allowed (and encouraged) to pursue her passions, rather than compromising for the sake of meeting expectations. Nora’s life has been a series of compromises, shrinking her creative ambitions until they’re literally in miniature, just like her small scale diorama works of art.

Why I think Tavi is incredible, is she's interested in how and why the things she likes are specific to her - her thoughts, her feelings, her experiences. The remarkable thing about her is that her inner world has been documented, catalogued, and published online for the whole world to see. She journals obsessively, ordering her thoughts experiences, observations and creative impulses, and she remarked at one point that she is at her happiest when she can forget what she looks like and just be a pair of eyes observing the world around her. Thanks to the internet, her internal world has been scaled, and is now writ large for the world to see. Nora’s world is turned in upon itself until even she is ashamed of it.

To me, a big life is about conviction rather than compromise. It is about accumulating experiences and insights rather than "stuff". It is understanding yourself, your place in the world and others around you as best you can. It is stretching norms or flat out going against them. At the same time, I recognise that for most of us there is a great deal of comfort and ease in walking the well trodden path. And in reality, the norm is the norm for a reason, and it has to do with simplicity, a lack of friction and our human desire to live life free of tension.

As far as I'm concerned, the easy option is almost never the best one. Always taking the easy option is not what sees us uncovering something significant, travelling to far flung places, meeting the most interesting people, or achieving something remarkable. Taking the easy road may be better for the bank balance, look better on the resumé and feel much more comfortable - in the short term at least - but it feels to me like it is deliberately ignoring our vast human potential to learn, innovate, change and feel something really wonderful. Sure it may be risky, but as any gambler knows, the greatest risks hold the greatest potential rewards.

For the first 5 or so minutes of Tavi's talk, I felt regret that I wasn't so wonderful at 17. But perhaps I was. Perhaps we are all so wonderful in our own way before we've learned not to be, before we learned to scale down our dreams and settle for safe. So there's the challenge - to ignore the people following the safe route when they tell you what kind of wonderful you should be, and how you should define success in your life.

For me, no one articulates it quite like Kafka does:

Wait But Why offer their own advice:

  1. Stay wildly ambitious.
  2. Stop thinking you're special.
  3. Ignore everyone else.

I'm onboard with 1 and 3, but I would qualify 2 by saying "define your own version of special". Remind yourself that you're unique, but you're not better than anyone else. Your perspectives and experiences are wonderful. You're a whole ecosystem of your own and living a big life is all about exploring what your capabilities could create with courage and hardwork, regardless of whether or not it makes you "successful" on someone else's terms.

Here's to living a big life - to staying naively passionate, and to filling our lives with as much colour, conviction and insight as we can fit in to one existence. Here's to living a life free of regret, resentment and the expectations of others.

What do you do to stretch yourself, stay brave and live a big life?