The road is wider than long

A beautiful vintage American car outside a restaurant at the back of London Bridge station.

Roland Penrose painting 'The Road is Wider than long'

I’m turning 40 in a few weeks and since I have little confidence that anyone will, in fact, ask me ‘anything’ at the Thingscon Thingsfest session I’m taking part in, I thought I’d share some perspectives, probably half way down the wide road of life:

  1. A body is a machine. My brain and the rest of me need to move every week for ideas to be put on paper, abandoned, become clearer. If I don’t move, I don’t function properly. This took a while to understand, but it’s a lesson I appreciate with every passing year.
  2. Not every piece of client work will matter. Sometimes you just have to pay the bills or the work you’re doing will be ignored by anyone other than the person commissioning it. It happens. Life goes on.
  3. Some people see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear. There’s nothing you can do about it. The sexism, nepotism and sometimes even xenophobia in this industry keeps me from jobs and work opportunities. I know when it happens. I once went all the way to Basingstoke for a meeting with someone who asked me what my experience was, and then stared at their laptop while I answered. When I’d finished, he looked up and said ‘so you’re a designer’.
  4. Being an immigrant means you’re on the outside, looking in. This is an interesting position to be in because you can use your otherness productively. But then, I was asked twice this year ‘what my plans were’ because of Brexit. I constantly have to frame my being here as permanent and not just a whimsical decision I took and now regret. Trust me, je ne regrette rien.
  5. Unless you make a Grammy award-winning album or win an Oscar for your acting, there is no such thing as fame in the world of design. I was once stopped on a dance floor (at Passing Clouds if you must know) by a young woman who yelled over the music ‘you’re the Arduino lady!’. That was 2 years after I’d closed Tinker. That’s about as close to fame as I’m likely to get. Most designers have delusions of grandeur and the awards industry doesn’t help. Just because you win an industry award doesn’t mean the man on the street knows who you or Alan Turing is. Ask them about Maradona and your odds will improve. What we do just isn’t that important culturally, even if it has an impact on material culture. Knowing the difference makes it easier to keep some perspective.
  6. Writing non-fiction will never pay the bills. But it makes me damn happy. When I was about 10 years old, I wrote a story about a man who set his apartment on fire to hide a murder. That’s the last time I wrote fiction and I intend to keep it that way.
  7. Don’t put all your love in your work. I keep most of my love for myself, my family, my friends. Work doesn’t need to be loved, it needs to be liked but mostly it just needs to be done.
  8. Travel truly is a luxury. I usually take between 40 and 70 flights a year, contributing to conferences as a speaker (and climate change as a frequent flyer). This year, nothing. But if I think about my travelling experience, most of these trips don’t register. The hotel, conference room and speakers dinners all blend into one. A waste. Whatever flight I might take in the future, I don’t think I’ll be so dismissive of the whole experience and if I really must fly for work, I’ll make sure I’m more present, spend more time on site and create more connections with others. It’s called Airbus but it really isn’t a bus, it’s space travel and should be treated as such.
  9. Age ain’t nothing but a number (sort of). Society and capitalism are pretty conservative forces. I’m not married, I have no children, so along with my migrant status, I’m outside of a lot of things that people participate in actively. The older you get, the more I realise independent women consultants are a rare breed. I only know a handful who live with a mixture of client work. If I had kids I suppose the cost alone would make me take a full time position and get a credit card. We can’t underestimate how much money and age shapes a woman’s work life as well as her family situation. I think about it more and more.
  10. This too shall pass. The pandemic has been stressful but so have other things in my life. Losing dad five years ago. Closing my business 10 years ago. Leaving home 20 years ago. Every period of suffering is followed by a period of post-traumatic stress and eventually what feels like an oil painting turns into a watercolour. I’ll probably be affected by this year in ways I can’t quite imagine, but I have confidence something else will take over and some new crisis looms on the horizon. Perhaps it’s Brexit, perhaps it’s climate change, perhaps something else entirely. I don’t know, but I try not to look back too often. After all, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

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