When I was ten, I made a decision that would alter the course of my life.
It wasn’t a big decision. It wasn’t anything obviously life-changing like “I will be an astronaut,” or “I will study medicine.”
There’s debate about whether everybody sees their life as a grand narrative, but I think that people who think of life as a story tend to imagine that critical turning points are always huge and dramatic moments.
But my ten-year-old self didn’t stand over the body of my father and vow to devote my life to vengeance against his killers, or anything like that.
Nope…. I chose to learn to play the tuba.
My Year Five* teacher was strict. Very little nonsense was permitted in her class. Maybe my adult mind exaggerates the memories, but I remember feeling frustrated, bored, and repressed all year.
* For Americans, our UK “Year Five” is what you call “Grade Four.” (It’s probably best not to ask why we’re one year ahead of you. Suffice it to say that there are secrets you are not permitted to learn, and we need an extra year of school to fit them in.)
And so I mostly tried to ignore what was going on, keep my head down, and hope that Year Six would be better. (With hindsight, this is quite a sad mentality for a child to have!)
This meant I was caught by surprise one day when a number of students stood up to leave the class during a particularly boring lesson. They were going for a music test to see if they could learn an instrument!
I vaguely remembered hearing about this, but I hadn’t paid enough attention. I put my hand up. My very strict teacher looked at me over the top of her glasses.
“Can I go too, Miss?”
“Did your parents sign to give you permission to miss this lesson?”
Of course they hadn’t! I hadn’t paid enough attention to realize this was happening. My heart sank. Surely the strictest teacher in the school was never going to let this one slide. But I wanted to get out of this lesson very badly.
“No, Miss. But… please! I’m sure my parents won’t mind. They love music! And I already know about planets! And! And!”
I tried desperately to find a persuasive angle. I didn’t have much hope. I was going to have to stay and be miserable while half the class got to do something fun and musical.
But to my great surprise – and immense gratitude – she nodded.
“Go on, then. But bring me that slip tomorrow.”
I ran to join my friends.
After the test, I was chosen as one of few to be given an instrument and taught to play it. Naturally, this being me, I wasn’t given a trumpet or a horn or anything sensible.
I was given a tuba. Thanks, Universe.
At the age of ten, it was essentially the same size I was. (This ratio didn’t change much in my favour, even by the time I was eighteen.)
I spent the next eight years at school with a vague reputation as the “tuba kid” as I carted this massive tube-strosity around for my weekly lessons.
But the more important consequences arose when I was fifteen and I joined a local band. Suddenly my social life exploded. I met people from different schools all around the area. I started getting invited to parties by the older kids in the band.
The band opened me up to travel opportunities and I ended up getting a taste for international adventure. When I finished school, I went to South America to work and improve my Spanish.
While in South America, I changed my mind about my future. Instead of studying linguistics, I’d take up physics. And then, during my degree…
One Decision, Many Changes
I’ll stop there. You don’t need my entire life story. But I find it fascinating that I can trace the trajectory of my life back to one decision I made at the age of ten.
Of course, if none of that had happened, I’d still have been passionate about languages and travel. Maybe I’d have even still studied physics. But I have no idea what would have happened. I can see a clear line from this musical incident that led me down the path I’m on now.
If I hadn’t attempted to be so persuasive in that moment, it seems likely that things would be very different. Not necessarily better or worse. Just different.
Whatever stage of life we’re at, we multipotentialites often struggle to decide what to do. The idea that tiny decisions we made in the past could be affecting us today might be frightening. How were we supposed to know the consequences?!
The simple answer is that we aren’t. We can’t possibly know the consequences of every little decision we make.
Most have no consequences. Some have huge consequences. We can only accept that we can’t tell the difference, and relax.
Be Open to Possibilities
Of course, not every turning point is small. Dramatic moments do exist, whether in the form of job interviews, marriage proposals, or sudden fortune dropping an opportunity into our laps.
But even these dramatic turning points have their roots in tiny organic moments. We meet someone, we try something new… and a chain reaction begins, which may lead to major life changes later.
We can’t force this. Running around searching for inconsequential moments that lead to new lives would only send us mad. It’d be like trying to find the exact butterfly in the Amazon whose wings flapping caused the rainstorm I got caught in the other day.
However, we can make these moments more likely. The only way to miss out is to be closed off to possibilities. Perhaps we ought to open our eyes more, and say yes more often.
Many times, nothing will come of it. But sometimes we’ll stumble onto the first step in an interesting – and maybe life-changing – chain reaction.
Can you trace any surprising turning points in your life story? Let us know in the comments!
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.