At the time, I don’t think my friend even realised it could be taken as a compliment. It was something she said almost ‘in passing’ as we lined up to buy our bus tickets on the way home from uni. Even reading this now, I don’t think she would even recall the seemingly unextraordinary moment.
As I went about my usual business, rummaging through my bag looking for my student card and spare change, I noticed her from the corner of my eye, observing me with a degree of curiosity. I still have no idea what it is exactly that I ‘did’, but based on her reaction, I must’ve been pretty smooth in that moment.
When we took our seats on the bus, she turned to me, almost in that epic pausy/slow-mo style and said: “Wow. You know what you’re doing.”
That was it.
I knew what I was doing.
I knew what I was doing!
It probably doesn’t sound like much of a compliment. It was vague. It’s something that probably wouldn’t mean much to a lot of people. And my friend didn’t even know quite how to explain it herself. But I can tell you, it’s the most vivid compliment I’ve ever received in my 22 years.
It’s funny because, all these years, I’ve never once felt like I knew that I was doing. I’ve always felt like I missed out on the ‘life instruction manual’ handed out as soon as you exit the womb. I mostly traced it back to my lack of siblings and binge watching of Mr. Bean’s awkwardness during my formative years. I felt my everyday experience was the living out of a Mr. Bean episode. Like Bean, it was as though I too had been dumped onto this planet by a blinding beam on light and expected to know what to do- an alien on my very own planet.
In my mind, the essential ‘learning the ways of the world’ had been bypassed. And I always felt like I would pay the price for it for the rest of my life.
It’s those subtle, untaught things we always take for granted. Knowing how to ‘hold’ yourself. How to interact. Trusting your own judgement. Some may call it self-assurance or confidence. But there’s more to it than that.
It’s learning the rules of how to stay composed in public. Knowing how to be yourself and when. It’s like being able to walk through the unpredictable door of life on ‘Thank God You’re Here’, landing in any situation, and keeping your cool. You just know exactly what to do. A type of intuition, almost.
When going about life, I’m overly self-conscious and socially awkward at best. I’m a pretty harsh critic and probably overthink things just a little, but it always appeared like everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knew how to ‘do’ life. And here I am, struggling to put the IKEA flatpack of life together without an Allen key.
They’re the everyday moments and situations you find yourself in. Like overpassing someone on a footpath and thinking: “Ok. So how am I going to judge this? Should I speed up now? Should I overtake on the left, or…Oh wait, she’s veering over that side, maybe I should go to the right side. Ok here goes. Don’t trip. Don’t stumble. Whatever you do, don’t slam into the side of her with your handbag and give her a concussion.”
And then, you proceed to misjudge your fellow pedestrian’s movement, overtake on the wrong side, collide and knock the poor innocent victim of your ‘life incompetence’ to the ground. Meanwhile you notice about a dozen or more people observing your social misfortune from across the street.
With this scenario, all I can say is: Welcome to my life!
I have these thought processes about pretty much every daily situation. Older and supposedly wiser folk tell me I’ll grow out of it. When I reach about 45 or so, I’ll stop giving a stuff about everything and instead give life one big flip of the bird. Finally, after decades of stress, I’ll be able to live life in complacent bliss. It will be like taking an ‘I don’t give a crap’ pill everyday. How I wish those things actually existed. Although, I’m told they do exist in various, usually illicit forms already…#420.
In reality though, these tortuous happenings rarely eventuate. They are mostly just figments of my overactive, self conscious imagination.
So when my friend told me out of the blue on that occasion that I just seemed to know what I was doing, I was able to breathe a little. I was able to do a little nod of the head and say: “Yeah, I ain’t so bad.”
It made me realise that even though I may feel like I have no clue what I’m doing in any given situation, it may not seem so to others. Just like I thought everyone around me knew how to do ‘life stuff’, perhaps they’re just winging it too. Maybe we’re all winging it, fooling others into thinking we know what we’re doing. Tricking employers into hiring us, convincing crushes into falling madly in love with us (as an aside, if anyone actually does have this down pat, feel free to flick me an instruction booklet on it, please). Some are just more confident about it than others, and some just have a little more practice in this life trickery.
But I think what I realised most from receiving this compliment, is that it’s actually OK to not know what you’re doing. It’s often easier to tear down those walls of ultra self-consciousness and be open about not having a single clue about anything. For instance, I had absolutely no idea how to use a dishwasher until my intern days made dishwashing inevitable. I didn’t even realise that dishwashing powder had to be used until after a week or so of hijacking the office dishwasher (apologies to all the staff at Mamamia. As the saying goes, what you don’t know won’t hurt you, hey?).
But for the first time, I kind of just brushed it off. I accepted the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. And for the first time, I was ok with that. After all, it’s these kinds of situations that make for the best “There was this one time when…” stories. Maybe I can retell one of these stories when I find myself in a future awkward situation and it won’t be all that bad.
I mean, according to the wisdom of my elders, it will be another 20 years or more until I stop caring so much. So why not make light of it in the meantime?
Over time, I’ll gradually get more practice at this ‘life’ thing and hopefully one day, I’ll be able to trick people into thinking I actually have a clue about a thing or two. Or, I’ll just continue going through life not having a clue but not even caring about it in the process.
Total. Complacent. Bliss.