“What do you want from life?”

I go to the hairdressers once every few weeks. We start with the usual hellos, the polite small talk: “How are you?”, “Terrible weather today, isn’t it?”. Then you have the business talk: “Please take a seat”, “How much would you like taken off?”. It should end there. I should sit in awkward silence as she cuts my hair, perhaps continuing the odd small talk, making comments about how the passing cars outside the window are loud, how the music on the radio is soothing. Then I should pay, make a light-hearted joke (where I tend to be the only one laughing), and then wish them a good day as I leave. I like small talk; it is quick, efficient, and actually rather entertaining.

But the reality is very different. We cut the small talk. We go deep: “How is your life getting on?”, “What is your course like?”, “What do you want to do as a job?”, “What do you want from life?”. I might return the gesture: “How are your children progressing?”, “You have done this job for 32 years, have you ever thought of a change in life direction?”. Whilst I do not know this woman really closely (oh gosh, I do not even know her name!), I answer openly and truthfully in an effort to prolong the conversation, and so too does she.

And it gets me thinking. The first two she asks me are easy to answer: I know how my life is getting on, I know how the course is. The last two require more thought. What do I want to do as a job? And then the big one: what do I want from life?

I turn 19 today. Physically I feel young; mentally I feel experienced. I am in a good place. I sit and I think and I type. Job? Life? These are big decisions, which we all always think about, but I have never actually gotten round to writing them down before.

So “what do I want to do as a job?”. My career plans have changed immeasurably over my life so far. My first recollection of a job I wanted was in when I was 8. I recall finishing a really dull lesson, and I proclaimed I wanted to be a teacher. It was such a boring lesson — I felt uninterested, I felt I was not learning — so I wanted to put things right, to correct the education system and do it better for the next generation. How noble! I thought it was a good personality fit too: I like people, I am a good listener, I can feel passionate about the subject I am talking about and I can convey that.

Then came the classic teenage-boy dream of being a footballer. Again, I thought this was a good fit: I could be strong in a tackle, I was quite good at reading the game. There, life sorted: I was going to be the next John Terry (minus all the personal shenanigans if I may swiftly add, rest assured that that is not my style).

And now, the realistic me wants to go into the financial services. I like it, I can make a life out of it. It likes me, and I firmly believe you have to go where the love is in life; I am a deeply loyal guy.

But who knows where I may dabble in the future? In a world with such opportunity, I no longer think it is possible to stay in a job for 32 years any more. I like writing: some sort of economics journalist? I like numbers: some sort of statistician? I like making an impact on people: a (non-lying) politician? I truly do not know. But I am almost thankful I do not know. It is this intrigue that keeps the hunger there, the spontaneity that keeps the drive going. Variety is the spice of life.

That second question is even harder to answer: “what do I want from life?”. Like, actually actually want? A job is necessary to get through life, a means to an end. Of course, it is never an end in itself; no-one ever wishes they worked harder when they are dying. Can you imagine someone on their death-bed going “oh I wish, I really really wish, that back on that day in 1970, I really really wish I worked 30 minutes more over-time”? Can you seriously imagine? No. Damningly, some people actually wish they did not work as much. You wish you lived more. Loved more. Felt more. Experienced more. Saw more. Travelled more.

So what about me: deep down, what do I want?

To be popular? Absolutely not; I prefer to be respected by a few than just ‘known’ to many people.

To be understood by people? Not as much as I want to understand other people.

To be successful? Measured in terms of what though: salary, status, popularity?

All of these are great. It is super fun interacting with people, knowing what makes them tick. Everyone has a story. As for the last point, to be successful is equally desired, though with salary, status and popularity often brings too much responsibility and stress. So whilst people love to have success on the face of it, do we factor in the potential long-term burden it could bring?

But here comes the big one, the one with no long-term negatives:

To be happy and healthy. Always the number one, and poignantly always the one people neglect and take for granted.

‘Happy’ is one of the biggest words ever (not really actually, it is only five characters long). Joking aside, it is utterly packed with emotion. I want to feel content with every day of my life. That I am making progress. That I am better today than I was yesterday. That I met more people, experienced more of the world, truly lived more.

Everyone can feign happiness. Put a smile on, take a photo, broadcast it everywhere on Facebook and everyone thinks you are loving life. Maybe you are; if so, that is fantastic. Truly, I am happy if you are happy. But what are you happy about? Happy you have a drink in your hand, happy to feel popular for that one night? Sure, I love a glass of wine and I love to know I have friends too. But, deep down, I feel we should all strive for happiness within ourselves.

I have not got the perfect life. No way. Some have it a lot better than me, for sure, but my goodness do some have it a lot worse. I will very happily make do with what I have got. I have seen some (many) miserable people in the world. I do not like it. I do not want to be one. Right now, I feel deep down very content with life. Day-by-day, of course, you do not see much change. Year-by-year, birthday-by-birthday, I can see great strides. I was never so immature, but looking back, I do not like the 7-year-old me, the 11-year-old me, the 15-year-old me. For now though, I like the 19-year-old me. For now, I feel satisfied with life, a deep-rooted contentment.

So, what do I want in life? I want to feel happy with myself forever. I want the 21-year-old me to be happy with me, I want the 60-year-old me to be happy with me.Deeply, innately happy. I want to feel happy with my life decisions, with my career path, with my network of friends. With every passing day, I want to like the progress I have made. I want to like me forever. This is something I wish for everyone.

(As in, I wish everyone likes themselves forever too, not as in I wish everyone likesme, but if you do like me then I welcome that news also.)

My hair is nearly cut, our conversation over for another few weeks. She makes one final remark: “Promise me”, she says, “Come back in 10 years’ time, and let me know how much of that life and career plan you actually followed, or if you took a totally new path.” For sure, things will change. The 9-year-old me is very different to the 19-year-old me. The 19-year-old me will no doubt be very different to the 29-year-old me. But Martin please, please, above all else: do not lose the happiness and the health.

So before I wish myself another good, happy and healthy year, what is the moral of the story? I have three. First: life is unpredictable, beautifully so, do not be scared by this unpredictability and just embrace the excitement that it brings. Second: strive for happiness, not shallow happiness, but deep-rooted contentment within your body and your mind. This should be the most important thing for everybody, because without it you cannot possibly achieve any of your other life goals.

And the third? That hairdressers are pretty damn good people to talk to.

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