The relative size of things

The time we spend thinking about something often doesn’t match its importance in our lives. If we parked all our worries in a line, they would stretch to the horizon. When is the ‘eat by’ date of the yoghurt? Did I use the wrong title on the presentation? Should I smile more at the check-out assistant?

Anxieties follow us into the night. A common one is the “unprepared-for-exam” dream. We turn over the page to face three hours of algebra and then wake up in a panic. How often does that happen in real life? Often, I guess, if we’re lazy students. For the rest of us? It’s on a scale from very rare to never.

There are examples of other things that take up space in our lives. Here is a list of countries by population size. The United States of America has 332,639,104 people and is the 3rd most populated country in the world (after China and India). Indonesia is next up at 4th, with a population of 267,026,368. Whilst Indonesia has the equivalent of 80% of the USA’s population, it probably takes up less than 5% of the news. Yes, America is big. But it’s also an extrovert that talks very loudly.

Compare Indonesia to the United Kingdom. There are less than 67 million people on this little island — a mere 24% of the population of Indonesia. But the UK is someone who butts in on conversations — a little person that wants to be known on the larger stage.

How about land mass and visibility? Russia is number one at 6.8 million square miles and Canada is second at 3.8 million. In third place, the USA is a similar size to Canada. All three look enormous on a world map, yet that’s misleading.

Le Globe Terrestre dressé sur la projection de M. de la Hyre, 1767, British Library

The world map we use every day is called the Mercator Projection. Back in 1569, Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator solved the problem of how to turn something round into something flat. Converting the globe meant stretching countries out of proportion. Those furthest from the equator got bigger (Greenland, Canada, USA, Russia) and the ones nearest the equator got smaller (countries in central Africa and central America). There are some interesting visual explanations here.

Small things look bigger and big things look smaller — worries that loom large in our psyches often end up less of a problem in reality. We expend a lot of our time and energy in “fortune-telling;” preparing ourselves for how we think something will pan out. We plan, plot, swerve, in the hope we’ll avoid some terrible fate. We’re absorbed in worry, yet the outcome often isn’t anything like the one we fear.

I interviewed over 100 people going through transitions in their careers and lives. Mary wanted to change a lot of things. She was thinking about moving on from her role as an engineer. She also had concerns about her relationship. Her partner was keen to get married, but Mary was “hemming and hawing, I didn’t want to do that, we were like friends.”

Part of the challenge was that Mary had a social life based around her partner — the couple were known in many of the pubs and restaurants. “It was a smallish town. It wasn’t like I could live the other side of it and not bump into people.”

Work was a big factor too because Mary was the first female engineer at her organisation, so she was often recognised. “Every second person in town I’d meet would be someone I knew from work. I just couldn’t really extricate myself from any of it without leaving.” She felt trapped. There was no way to leave one without leaving the other. But for years she didn’t reveal her worries to anyone.

Much later when Mary did open up about it to her sister “she was really surprised so I must have been really good at playing the part. I didn’t tell anyone else.” She was also “concerned about how my parents would react. They’d be worried I was giving up a permanent pensionable job. Having come through the 80s and the early 90s, knowing how hard things were, jobs were so valued.”

It took a long time, but eventually Mary plucked up the courage to leave — her relationship, her job and the town. She handed in her notice, sold her house and told her parents… but only when it was a fait accompli.

Their reaction was not the one she expected. “I ended up going to Ireland for a week between handing in my notice and the time I finished the job. And my mom told me much, much later ‘I knew you’d made the right decision. You never stopped singing all the time you were here!’ I didn’t realise I was singing. But I knew I felt lighter.” Handing in her notice and telling her parents was such a relief, but she can’t believe she put it off for so long.

Hannah was aware immediately that her new organisation wasn’t the right place for her. “I knew straight away — the way they would speak to me. The way they spoke to each other. There was no respect for anybody. You just don’t speak to people like that. It’s just completely unprofessional.

At first, she tried to speak up but over time it wore her down. “They were always like this, talking about people behind their backs.” The longer she was there the harder it got. “Not that you accept it as the norm, but you just don’t say anything because there’s no point because they just come back at you with something else.”

Hannah wanted to leave. “I should have gone… the reason I didn’t is because I was worried. “What do I say in an interview, wanting to leave after six months? Because you’re not supposed to say any negative things about the company.”

She could have opened up about it to the recruitment agency and asked them how to tackle it. “They would have advised me professionally to say something without putting in a negative light.” But she didn’t and stayed too long. “I’ve been trying to leave but my confidence is low. My confidence is knocked.” Hannah’s advice to herself: “I would have told my younger self myself ‘don’t stand for it. Don’t let other people override you and stay true to who you are.’”

Others talked about time wasted on worry. Morgan regretted not living in the moment and enjoying it. “The Aberystwyth years when I didn’t want to be there, I spent my whole time hating it and trying to get out of it. I was resenting things when actually I could have just accepted it.” What advice would he give himself now: “enjoy the moment more and use my time more. It’s all about embracing the moment. Stop waiting for tomorrow.”

Other people talked about worries being out of proportion. I asked Teresa what she would say to herself if she could go back in time: “I would say I need to realise that people aren’t as interested in me as I think they are. I had that sense of, ‘I can’t do this because what would someone else think?’ Or ‘I’ve got to be looking like this because that’s what everyone else does.’ But actually, everyone else is so in their own heads and own worlds that it doesn’t matter. It’s better to stay focused on what feels right for me.”

Mel would give this advice to others: “Most things pass, so try not to get too upset about the things that are bothering you here and now. Because, with a bit of time and distance, most of them become less important. I would also say try make sure that you are doing something every day that gives you some kind of fulfilment.”

David agrees. “Any challenge you’re going through in life will pass. Time passes, situations change, people change. And what you think one day is, is absolutely awful, and there for eternity, is gone in 24 hours or a week’s time.” Wise words.

We fret endlessly about what might or might not be. But most of our worries don’t come to pass. I’ll close with two quotes from a hypothetical speech penned by Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune:

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”

“Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.”

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.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan (excluding map)

Psychologist, coach, writer, photographer… juggling them all but often dropping balls.

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