Updated: Jun 27
(Pictures drawn by Langdon's two lovely daughters!)
When I look back on my twenties (from a comfortable distance), I’m struck by the huge changes that decade brought about in my life. I started as a lonely and insecure university student, with the idea that I wanted to be an opera singer – and entered my thirties as a teacher of adult migrants, with a wife, two stepchildren, and a son.
My twenty-year-old self would have never pictured this future – I think he would have been simultaneously relieved and horrified by the thought itself – but for me that’s one of the biggest lessons I learned from during that period of my life: that things rarely, if ever, turn out the way you expect them to.
To be more specific, I entered my twenties with a lot of fixed ideas about who I was, what my strengths and weaknesses were, and what success and my future happiness looked like. I was unhappy and lonely much of the time, and I clutched tight to a fixed mindset: I would only achieve happiness via becoming a successful and admired performer, even though this means ignoring other opportunities for happiness that surrounded me each day.
The journey in my twenties was as much about un-learning most of those fixed ideas, as it was about learning something new. Actually, life shook those ideas out of me, despite my efforts to cling to my existing image of happiness and success (like a drowning person gripping a raft).
The realisation that happiness might not lie in the direction I thought it was, first came home when I was studying a part-time music course for "would-be" opera singers. When I started the course, I aspired to be like the most successful students there – those with the biggest voices and personalities, who appeared so confident and only a few steps away from a successful career on the world stage.
It took me the best part of two years to let go of the idea, that I could somehow turn myself into those people through sheer willpower. Instead, I started to notice that the singers I really got along well with, were not the bigger-than-life performers: They were the down-to-Earth, quiet guys who didn’t have the expectations or pretensions of becoming world-famous great singers one day, whose trajectories in life were far humbler, accepting, and grounded.
By letting go of the path I had imagined for myself, I started to establish meaningful connections with people, one of the main ingredients for happiness. They were already at hand – I didn’t need to ‘become’ something else first. After more than 20 years, and until today, two of the singers I connected with in my early twenties are still among my closest friends.
The lesson of just being open to where the flow of life is going – rather than trying to impose a pre-determined sense of direction or purpose – enabled me to gracefully let go of my singing ambitions. I never had a voice to build a career. My talents lie somewhere else.
I started to consider a completely new career path, which was inspired by a single comment. I was acting in an amateur theatre production, and one of the other cast members started talking about what she had done with her students that week, in one of the drama classes she taught at a private girls’ school. She asked the girls to create a short performance piece to represent how they saw their life.
Until then, I had seen teaching as a sad fall-back option for people who couldn’t succeed in their real aspirations: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.” But at that moment, I understood that teaching is a career that enables you to inspire and challenge others, and to create situations and environments that could generate new, and possibly life-changing experiences, insights, and understanding.
Five years later, I graduated as a teacher – and thanks to my wife’s support (I got married along the way), I started working as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher, which is another change of direction.
Some may read my story and see a tale of fickle ambition and aimlessness. However, I truly don’t see it that way myself. For every path I pursued, I pursued whole-heartedly – until it was no longer the right path. I came to trust that I was better off following my heart, even if it meant letting go of the previously-held ideas of who I was.
When I just entered my twenties, my fears and insecurities made me cling tightly to my notions of the world and my place in it. Then I discovered that those thoughts I carried around in my head were just that – thoughts in my head. Instead of guiding me in the right direction, they just blinded me from the opportunities for meaning, purpose and connections that surrounded me.
So if you are in your 20s now, whenever you’re feeling stuck, thwarted, lost, disappointed, frustrated or fearful, perhaps try to look inside, and find out what beliefs, ideas and images are creating you difficulty, and see what happens if you gently let go your grip on them. You may reveal life's whole-new, previously-unimagined landscapes and paths to explore.