At some point, we will all grapple with the inevitable quandary: “What on earth do I want to do with my life?” In this extract from their new book, Stevie Martin and Tessa Coates explain how to cope with this common existential crisis.
‘Adulting’ is a messy, tricky business. There are myriad choices no one prepares you for, obstacles you’re not warned about. In an effort to make the whole process easier, actor, writer and comedian Stevie Martin and writer and performer Tessa Coates began their podcast, Nobody Panic, to provide a helping hand as they too navigate adult life. After amassing 2 million listeners, the pair are releasing their first book together. Nobody Panic: How To Be A Functioning Adult Without Screaming is an essential guide on all the baffling elements of adulthood, from how to nail a job interview to how to cry in public. In this extract, Martin and Coates give advice on an age-old quandary: “How do you work out what you want to do with your life?”
The reason we love the idea of the Sorting Hat, or Grandmother Willow, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or really any young-adult fiction, is because someone walks into the protagonist’s life and says, “You’re a wizard,” or, “You’re the Slayer,” or, “You should bring destruction to your people by pissing about with John Smith, even though Kocoum seems kind and sensible and extremely handsome.”
This is the person you are, this is the house you are in, this is the life you are destined to lead. And then one of the hardest kicks of adult life is realising that there is no path, there is no destiny, and you appear to be showing no signs of magical powers whatsoever.
It’s tough, and it’s easy to hurtle from person to person, desperately asking, “What am I supposed to be doing?” “Who am I supposed to be?” But the freeing, if scary, thing is that they don’t know the answer and you get to make it up.
There is no Magic 8-Ball, and it can be a long and winding process to work out what you want to do. Maybe you never work it out! Take comfort from the immortal words of Baz Luhrmann in Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen):
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life.
The most interesting people I know
Didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives.
Some of the most interesting 40-years-olds I know still don’t.
If you are very young, this was a song when we were in primary school in 1997. We only had this, Aqua’s Barbie Girl and Tubthumping by Chumbawamba.
Anyway, don’t worry if you don’t know. The coolest people don’t know.
TESSA: My greatest dreams are 1) Olympic gymnast and 2) country and western singer, but I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument, I’ve got no rhythm and I’m terrified of going upside down. I didn’t pull out spatial awareness, time-keeping or basic maths. But I did get imagination and reckless overconfidence. You get what you get.
Don’t berate yourself for what skills you didn’t get, or congratulate yourself too much either. Just keep searching until your skill set starts to match up with something you’re passionate about.
Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you couldn’t fail.
Ask yourself what you did when you were very small. Wrote stories? Put all your animals in a row and pretended to be a teacher? Put all your animals in bandages and pretended to be a doctor? Built Meccano? Designed rockets? Made mud pies? What did you do when you could still do anything?
We were sitting in the garden writing books and look at us now! Though let me tell you, we were a lot faster then. You could have a book written, illustrated and bound, and a soft launch organised with extracts read out to your dad by lunchtime. This thing has taken months.
Look at your past jobs and work out what you hated and what you loved about them. Do you need to be in a team? Do you hate the general public? Are you visually minded? Do you love to be in charge? Every job is just teaching you something new about yourself until you realise who you are and what you’re best at and, crucially, what you actually like doing.
After that, it’s just about trying on all the hats in the shop until one of them fits. Until a spark lights back up again and you think, “Ah yes, OK, this is my thing. My thing is working in a hat shop.”
It might be easier to let it happen in reverse, to be closing doors and saying, “OK, not that.” Crossing things off a list is just as helpful as adding to it.
TESSA: I once left an internship, and they very kindly gave me a good-luck card. It was probably the only good-luck card in the shop, probably no thought had gone into it at all, but I’ve kept it with me ever since. It says, “Go for it!” with a little cartoon man looking up at a crossroads, and one way says “It!” and one way says “Not it!” It’s just a cute way of saying go for it, but it profoundly stuck with me. It’s hard to find “it”, but at least knowing “not it” gets you a bit closer.
Sometimes that can be enough. Just keep trying things out and say, “Not it!” if it’s not right.
And if you find “it”, if you find your dream, for heaven’s sake, follow it.
You have one wild and precious life; if you have a secret passion, show it. If you find something you love, who cares if it’s “not a real job”? Who cares if you’ve been an accountant all your life and now you want to be a deep sea diver. Who cares if you’ve always been a circus clown and now you want to be a lawyer. You get to choose what you do, but you also get to change. Nothing is permanent. You can change careers even if you’ve been somewhere so long you don’t know how to do anything else.
When we first started the podcast [Nobody Panic], we had one listener and it was Stevie’s mum. Stevie’s mum left us positive reviews under different names about how we were very nice girls having a very interesting chat and retweeted every episode. She’s always doodled and been too frightened to show anybody, and then this year she finally decided to put herself out there. She tentatively put her drawings on Instagram (@wigglydoodles) and now… well, remember that drawing of us in the intro to this very book? That’s her! Illustrator extraordinaire, Margie Martin!
It’s never too late and no dream is ever too big, too small or too silly; we want you to finish [reading this] and immediately go forth and doodle. Or go back to school, or quit your job, or go see the world, or whatever it is you’ve been meaning to do and haven’t got round to doing yet.
And you never find the perfect answer, by the way. You never get the A* at life. You never sit back and say, “Wow, I’ve absolutely smashed this.” It’s not about one enormous, insurmountable goal. It’s about total commitment to tiny improvements.
You never get to the top of the mountain. Every time you think you’re nearly at the summit, it turns out to be just another ridge, but you just have to keep climbing. And waving, because we’re all up there. Up, down, sideways, often backwards. On we all go. Keep climbing, keep searching for your thing, for your people. Keep doing things that scare you.
We can do it.
Nobody Panic: How To Be A Functioning Adult Without Screaming by Tessa Coates and Stevie Martin is published on 11 November 2021 with Hodder Studio, £16.99.
Images: Getty/liravega, Marco Vittur