Decades ago I spent a postgraduate year that I thought was a year lost. I moved away from my first love, psychology, and instead reached for the sciences. In those days, the psych dept was not willing to let me study what I wanted (the collected works of Carl Jung) and I was considering starting from scratch and becoming a marine biologist instead. A geography professor, who specialised in climate and meteorology convinced me not to start over. “You can always jump across at post grad level” he said. I remembered a lecture I had attended by Sylvia Earl who had started as a botanist and switched across to studying whales. During her talk, Dr Earl mentioned that she had made this seemly impossible leap by first by studying the plants attached to the barnacles on the lip of the humped back whale…so I had seen it done and thought I could do something similar. With my professor’s help, we put together an interdepartmental post grad program between 3 departments (geography, oceanography and environmental sciences) where I could study climate and meteorology and also oceanography and at the same time environmental impact assessment.
It was in fact a year of studying fluid dynamics, the behaviour of storms and large masses of water. I was struck by the similarities of the mathematics and how the two elements impacted on each other. The inner dynamics of tropical storms became a fascination but I felt off course, more and more lost in my own personal storm…. who am I? Why am I here?
When it came to doing a thesis, a unique study in the field, i realised I didn’t want to spend my life collecting and crunching data. Whether it was wind speed, ocean temperatures or the growth of a single piece of kelp it didn’t feel like my role on the planet. I wanted to write but didn’t have any training in that field. I spent a year as a field worker for an environmental development agency living in remote African villages attempting to help grass roots communities switch to alternative energy before they even had the real thing. They wanted to be on the grid and I was trying to convince them that off the grid was better. Solar instead of wall sockets and electricity powered by the very coal mines that their men were labouring in. It was a no win battle. In the end I gave up. I switched back to the city and became a commissions only sales person selling solar systems and language courses and took up flying as a hobby. When this felt too self serving I switched to teaching in a coloured school in the gang-torn Cape Flats. Then I took a gap year by jumping on a sailing boat headed for the Caribbean….
Why am I telling you all this?
Because only now, decades later, that year spent studying the fluid dynamics of oceans and storms suddenly makes sense. I thought it was a year lost but now it turns out, is the crucial piece in the jigsaw puzzle. That year of studying fluid dynamics helps me now put everything together. As Steve Job said about his own life, one can only connect the dots looking backwards. Therefore don’t beat yourself up in the moment by thinking you have made a terrible mistake. There are no mistakes…be kind to yourself and others. The rest is detail.