I grew up with a grandmother who cared a lot about what people thought of her. She was a wonderful woman – incredibly generous, pillar of the various communities where she lived, from India to Malaya to New York and finally, the Cotswolds. But in all the years I knew her, I don’t think she ever truly relaxed – to the point I’m not sure I actually did know the ‘real’ her.
I put it down to the fact that my grandfather did awfully well for himself – a super-clever engineer who designed the co-axial cable that takes the phone lines under the Atlantic, propelling him on a stellar and well-paid career – but she came from somewhat humble roots. Unlike my Lancashire-born grandpa, who came from a not dissimilar background but was very comfortable in his skin, I don’t think my grandmother ever made peace with the fact that her dad was an ostler, looking after horses for a bakery. I honestly think she always fretted, as she hung out with District Commissioners and CEOs of global technology companies, that someone would ‘find her out’ – and she assumed plenty of airs and graces – as people often did, then.
But I think not giving a damn what other people think of you is really rather wonderful – and something I strive to cultivate increasingly, as the years go by. An early role model for this was an elderly gentleman who took a fancy to me, decades ago (never laying a finger on me, BTW), taking me to lunch at San Lorenzo in Beauchamp Place way back when that was the place to be. For his starter, he ordered Crêpes San Lorenzo. For his main course, he ordered Crêpes San Lorenzo. For his pudding, as my eyes grew ever wider in awe, he ordered Crêpes San Lorenzo. Now, this remains one of the great desserts on the planet, if you ask me, with its amaretto cream filling – but it requires a certain don’t-give-a-damn elan to order it thrice in one meal. (Funnily enough, my beloved friend Paula Yates used to do the same with the Crêpes des Anges, at Langan’s, when we lunched there. I guess I’m the kinda chick who likes to hang out with three-pancake people.)
So: when eating in a restaurant where the Caesar Salad is off-the-scale delicious – as I am very occasionally lucky enough to do with Ms Gill Sinclair of this very website – I now order it for two courses in a row, not giving a fig how weird the waiters think I am. (I have yet to have it for pudding, too. Although I think it’s only a matter of time). After all these years, I know what I like. I know who I am. And I’m not in the least ashamed of showing it.
This is only a small example of expressing self-knowledge, but it’s surely something we all have to cultivate on the path to contentment. This very morning, an e-mail pinged into my inbox from the marvellous School of Life (Alain de Botton’s academy of philosophy, psychology and wisdom, in Bloomsbury), which said this: ‘When we lack self-knowledge, we miss out on valuable insights about ourselves and what we need to make us feel fulfilled… A lack of self-knowledge is likely to result in bad choices, particularly around love and work, as we’re not sufficiently aware of who we are, and what we need.’ Exactly.
But what’s that got to do with ordering three pancake courses? And what’s it got to do with my grandmother? Well, quite a lot, actually. Because feeling like we ought to be behaving in a particular way, or be a particular person, is exhausting. And going to make you fretful that who you really are or what you’re really like is going to somehow ‘seep out’ (and it probably will, ultimately). So I’ve stopped pretending on any level, for instance, that I enjoy parties or late nights. I’m sorry if it occasionally upsets my friends to miss their celebrations (of course I’ll turn up for a wedding or a landmark birthday, NB), but I’m quite happy for my party animal husband to go on his own, nowadays, while I contentedly catch up with my magazine pile.
I’ve also stopped buying anything at all because it’s ‘fashionable’. Fashions come, fashions go and I truly don’t give a flying fig, any more. I’ve got clothes in my wardrobe that are 20 years old, patched and worn, and the older they are, the more I like them. What a relief not to have to worry about whether I’m wearing ‘the right trainers’ or ‘this year’s colour’. (Every now and then, shoulder pads swing back into fashion and I am momentarily ‘in fashion’ – but it’s entirely accidental.)
On quite another level, I have given up pussy-footing around in business conversations: let’s just get straight to the point and put our cards on the table. Saves so much time (and we all know why we’re there, frankly). And it’s who I am.
None of this, though, has happened by magic. Except it sort of has, because I do think that the practices I follow – yoga, meditation, walking in nature and by the sea – have all helped nudge me towards this self-knowledge. Daily self-reflection is one of the keys to unlock this wisdom about yourself. Sometimes, it can be helpful to write down your strengths and weaknesses, to help pinpoint who you really are. (Me? I’m creative, bossy, easily bored, direct – see above – and veer between untidiness and an OCD need for order on any given day. I don’t mind admitting that I’m generous – maybe I got it from my grandmother – but also utterly crap at accepting compliments. And what I also know is that it’s entirely AOK to be a walking bundle of paradoxes.)
If you’re really stuck at figuring out who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are, ask friends to tell you what they think of you. (This might require putting on a certain amount of emotional armour, because the point here is honesty, not flattery.) And after that, my suggestion is that you stop trying to be anything other than who you are (unless you have self-destructive drink and drug problems, in which case: deal with it, or you’re going to be in deep trouble sometime). Yes, you can cultivate good habits: exercise more, prioritise spending more time with friends and family over work, take up a sport. But the underlying stuff probably isn’t going to change.
You can’t change where you were born, or who your parents were, or where you went to school, so there’s no point crying over any of those pools of spilled milk, if you’d like it to be otherwise. You can’t really change whether you’re a lark or an owl, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning and asleep under the coats at a party (see above, and see also most parties I ever went to in my teens and twenties), or vice versa. You can’t really change your body, long-term, in my experience – so best to focus on making it the healthiest and strongest it can be, and stop worrying about how many calories are in an occasional bag of Walker’s Salt & Vinegar.
So I say: embrace who you are. If your dad looked after the horses in a bakery, be proud. If you’re crap at sums (as I am), embrace it. (And thank your lucky stars to be living in an age when we’ve all got calculators on our phones.) And if you happen to want three plates of pancakes (or two Caesar Salads) for lunch, go for it.
And don’t give a damn what anyone else is going to think.