DEBBIE SANDFORD: Wanting it all

DEBBIE SANDFORD: Wanting it all - When you stop working, your neighbourhood, which you thought you knew so well, becomes unfamiliar. The world is suddenly populated exclusively with mothers, pre-schoolers and the elderly. The rhythm of the streets feels d

by DEBBIE SANDFORD formerly worked at McKinsey and Random House
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When you stop working, your neighbourhood, which you thought you knew so well, becomes unfamiliar. The world is suddenly populated exclusively with mothers, pre-schoolers and the elderly. The rhythm of the streets feels different - parking spaces you thought were always full are now empty, roads you knew as quiet are rowdy with schoolkids.

All this is unsettling when you are trying to decide what to do with your newly won free time. I was delighted to be able to spend more time with the children, and I was resigned to going from a good income to no income. But it seemed mad to go from being a full-time, competent professional to being a full-time, incompetent homemaker. So I compromised and allowed myself a little feckless dilettantism as well.

I retained some childcare and decided to do a magic course. Yes, that's right, pulling rabbits out of hats. Everyone asks me, why magic? Well, in my new incarnation magic was tangible, useful even. The kids love it and, when asked for the hundredth time what you are doing with yourself these days, even adults are pretty impressed when you audibly tear up a piece of paper and then unfold it whole again in front of their eyes.

It doesn't surprise me that business people are often interested in magic - the legendary, recently retired Ace Greenberg of Bear Stearns being just one example. Magic is all about perception. And as any marketing type knows, the perceived value of a product or service is the name of the game in business. Moreover - and this intrigues me - knowledge does not dispel magic; I would watch endlessly as my teacher made a card disappear into thin air and then found it again. I know exactly how it's done - I've done it - but watching it still thrills me every time.

I'm one of those people who just love to know how something works. Not that you are allowed to tell anybody. That part reminded me of consulting - never, ever discuss your clients with anyone. I never did that - but read on and, unemployed and possibly unemployable as I am, I will reveal the secret of magic.

This fascination with knowing secrets seems universal; joining me on the course were, among others, a legal secretary, a musician, a radio newsreader, an IT professional, a pair of retired grandparents and a social worker turned adviser to social services departments. Every lesson, we would go through a new facet of magic: cards, coins, rope tricks, paper magic, etc. We'd be shown the trick, we'd gape, we'd be shown it again, we'd unpick it and have a go. Then we'd be sent home to prepare ourselves to do it properly the next week.

I was pretty hopeless, which I blame on my business training: it's hard to get your hands to be on one message and your voice and face on a different one when you've spent years learning how to get your persona co-ordinated behind the same message.

I admit, enrolling on a magic course probably isn't everyone's choice for filling new-found free time. For some, suddenly having free time is analogous to a financial windfall. There are those who advise keeping your hand in - doing a little professional work to keep up skills and contacts and to make it easier to go back, if you want to. What is that but saving for a rainy day? And then there are those - more like me, I suppose - who feel as though they've won the lottery and want to splurge: do something they've never done before, change their identity. I felt that during my years of work I had overdeveloped one side of myself while leaving other facets completely unexplored. Now I had the chance.

In the longer run, most people try to find balance. Linda, an ex-health studies researcher now in the position of not having to work, describes her motivation as attempting to create structures and routines in her life, based on what she loves to do. Most of us have had structure imposed on us for our entire life - school, university, work. It took me a while to figure out that I needed some routine and structure in my life to be happy, and that I had to create this for myself.

Pavel, meanwhile, one of the probably millions in early retirement, feels that the root of his motivation is self-improvement. In fact, taking responsibility for my own life and listening to others talk about their choices reminds me of nothing so much as Buddhist teachings: 'The purpose of life on earth ... is to realize and embody our true being.' It seems to me that work can help us fulfil this purpose at certain points in life but, at others, when work is just an obstacle, it is a great privilege to be able to not work. For me, locating my true being has been greatly facilitated by a sprinkle of invisible magic sparkle dust.

Did I forget something? Ah, the secret of magic. Of course, it's just the same as for a quite remarkable number of other things in life. Practice.


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