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You're allowed to kill your darlings (sometimes)

You're allowed to kill your darlings (sometimes)

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

You're allowed to quit. You're allowed to say no. You're allowed to change your mind. You're allowed to stop.

These are words I have to remind myself of every single day. I have to repeat them until they sink into my consciousness.

We are no longer living in our grandparents' generation where people stayed in the same job and marriage for life.

Consistency is amazing when it works.  I love it when people find the thing they love early on and stick with it. I read about a Japanese woodworker who has spent 20 years learning to make table legs. Now she is ready to graduate to making the rest of a table. It's beautiful when that happens.

But on the whole, life is a process of destruction and pivoting. As we grow up, we murder versions of ourselves. The common advice to writers is to kill your darlings. That isn't solely about writing- it's about life. You have to kill the things you love and which are comfortable to move on. Jobs, relationships, projects, plans, ideas, parts of yourself. The only way to move on is to keep quitting.

When I was younger, I didn't know how to say no. I went through a long, messy abusive relationship because I had no boundaries. It was as much my fault as the other person's. I kept saying yes until it nearly destroyed me. Then one day I found the courage to say no. After that I decided I would never make the same mistake again. Whenever something felt wrong, I learned to leave.

Now I quit a lot. I quit university. I have quit jobs which didn't align with my values. I turn down job interviews on a daily basis because I know they would take me nowhere - click-bait journalism opportunities, jobs doing uncreative stuff like transcripts, stuff I know would result in me banging my head against a wall. Not because I'm entitled or think I'm better than that- because I recognize that you have to say no. The world is big and full of opportunities no matter who you are. As Seneca wrote, those who say no to fortunes fruits are those who know how readily they are offered again.

Looking back on the many times I have decided to leave, quit, say no, it is easy to fall into the narrative fallacy and pretend I knew what I was doing. I can pretend I always had a plan and that I made the conscious choice to kill those darlings for a bigger reason. But I didn't. I did what felt right and somehow it always worked out.

One of the great secrets of life is that it is actually quite hard to ruin everything. You can make a lot of mistakes, waste a lot of time, hurt yourself in many ways and still be okay.

I learned this (like most things) from my brother. Psychologists call it the psychological immune system. It's the reason we imagine we will feel far worse in a certain situation than we actually do. It's the reason married people imagine their life would end if they were alone, then their partner leaves and they are fine. Or someone thinks losing their job would be hell, then it happens and they end up happier as a result. Even when the worst things happen - bereavement, illness, disasters - people manage to be fine.

Leonard Cohen famously wrote that there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in. I wrote something similar in an essay at school- the more we pave our minds with self-knowledge, the more room there is for cracks and the more cracks there are, the more weeds can grow. It's why the simpler animals don't get the same doubts and crises as humans. Less paving equals fewer cracks equals fewer weeds.

This need to leave, quit, say no, make a change, arises because we are all complex people living complex lives in a complex world. Call it a tax on our intelligence. And we can suppress it, we can keep pushing down the same path or we can switch to a different one.

It can seem like giving up or failing. Freedom (a word which my proofreader always flags because it's too vague) comes when we are willing to walk away from anything. When we cultivate what the stoics called 'an inner citadel' and what I call a rich internal life. People get caught up in the misbelief that external things can be part of that inner world- careers, relationships, hobbies, addictions, possessions. And yet they are not.

An interesting part of minimalism is that the more you give up, the more you realize you can also give up without suffering.

I started with throwing a few bags of stuff and felt fine. So I got rid of more. And more. And more. Now I keep what I can carry and plan on reducing further because I'm a weakling and my bags get heavy. I got rid of people who made me unhappy. Television. Social media. Negative emotions like anger, regret, and boredom. I'm working on getting rid of my fears. My assumptions. My false image of myself. I'm working on becoming completely untethered- a lifelong project. There is always more which can go.

My life is not perfect but I am doing a whole lot more living now that I am willing to walk away from anything. I still get sad (very sad), I still fall into negative behaviors, I still fight the depression which ruined my life for years. The difference is that I look those things in the eye, telling myself I will soon leave them behind.

Marcus Aurelius put it best: there is no evil in things changing just as there is no good in persisting with a given state.

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