Running away or running towards? Why it’s important we know the difference

I was much further out than you thought. And not waving but drowning.” Stevie Smith

From a distance it’s hard to know why someone is running. Are they fleeing from or racing to? To the casual observer they look the same. It can be equally baffling to the runner.

Some of my Spoon by Spoon interviewees are running to. But many are running from. It takes distance and time to figure out which.

Tracey wasn’t happy at work but didn’t know what to do next. “I ended up temping. The best way to make money temping is to work in financial services. So I fell into that.” Tracey ran away from uncertainty straight into the arms of money. “I got lost for a long time in the wrong place.”

Jack stumbled out of one role and fell headlong into another. “I was in a pretty bloody awful state so I quit my job without any real thought of what was coming next. I just needed to leave. It was something to tide me over whilst I collected myself together and got back on track.” He’s there four years later. “It’s still the job I grabbed at. So it was never going to be ideal.”

Steph hoped work might be more bearable one step up the ladder. So she interviewed for a senior role that she didn’t even want. “When I was told I didn’t get it I was absolutely devastated. It wasn’t something I was desperate to do — it just upset me so much because I didn’t want to do my job. I guess it gave me the idea of hope, or an escape. A way out.”

Louisa wanted to get away from her job in fashion. She wanted something more meaningful in the public sector. But she set off at such speed she didn’t check it would be better. “It’s not the right way to go about it, picking a completely different career and just jumping into it without even trying it. It was a huge change.” Louisa leapt out of the frying pan straight into the fire. “So I’m now miserable again, just in a different job. I’ve learned a lesson there.”

Sometimes we’re not even escaping something else. We’re just trying to escape ourselves. Reggae singer Bob Marley and philosopher Alain de Botton are not obvious bedfellows. But they both agree on one thing. You can run but you can’t hide.

“Ya running and ya running
And ya running away.
  But ya can’t run away from yourself
Can’t run away from yourself.”

Bob Marley and the Wailers, Running Away, 1978

In The Art of Travel, De Botton recounts a holiday in Barbados. Despite the pristine sandy beaches and beautiful palm trees, he’s not enjoying himself. Over a day he becomes more irritated. It culminates in an argument over dinner with his partner. “A momentous but, until then, overlooked fact was making itself apparent: I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.” What was the disagreement about? The size of their Key Lime Pies — hers was bigger.

Rob was one of my Spoon by Spoon interviewees. “I just continued to run away from it and not face my past. I think I lived most of my life in fear, just probably looking to escape.” Rob spent years fleeing from himself, particularly his difficult childhood memories. “You think that you will sort it out tomorrow. But obviously tomorrow never comes. The impact on your future is enormous and the impact on your present as well.

A few years of psychotherapy and a change in his job have really helped. “There’s no doubt talking about it saved my life. It’s literally as black and white as that. Personally the last three and a half years have just been a voyage of discovery.”

Sometimes running away from ourselves isn’t such a bad thing. Particularly if we’re heading towards a more congruent self.

Zee wanted to escape the person her Bengali family thought she should be. “For them it’s really important for women to look like Bollywood princesses.” But Zee wanted people to focus on what she said, not how she looked.

I also asked a lot of questions and my mother was always really scared about that. My relationship with my family was quite turbulent through my teens and my 20s. It meant I ended up changing jobs every year.”

Zee felt like she didn’t fit in with her family, so she decided to run towards a different version of herself. But is she happier for it? “I wake up every single day thinking, ‘what do I want to do today’? I try and embrace that instead of ‘what should I be doing?’”

And don’t we all want to run towards that?

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan 

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