What would you do if you won the lottery?

This morning on the radio I heard an ad saying something like “everyone wants to win the jackpot”, and it got me thinking. Do they? Do they really? What would change if I suddenly had a million or more dollars tossed in my lap?

Would I retire?

Would I buy stuff until it poured out my ears?

Could I change the world with that sort of money?

Would it change me?

They are probably the kind of questions that you can’t answer for sure, unless it actually happens to you (raise your hand if you’d like to be part of a statistically relevant sample). The temptation that goes with large amounts of money must surely have impacts that are hard to foresee.

But the idea does make me wonder what my ideal life looks like. I was very lucky when my second child was born. I was able to take four years or so off work, look after my kids, and explore different career options through volunteer work, among other things. We managed to avoid financial pressures, which meant that, when I finally worked out what I wanted to do, I was able to take a giant leap of faith – despite the huge drop in salary when compared with my previous job.

In those four years it became very clear to me that I need to work, and, moreover, I need a workplace. Working from home left me too isolated, too much at the mercy of my own hyperactive brain, which tends to create mountains out of every possible (and many an impossible) molehill without the constant presence of friends willing to wield the frying pan of enlightenment. (“Wham! Stop it, you big doofus! Wham!”)

I also need the opportunity to do the things I am good at, the things that make me feel as though I have really achieved something. Teaching is one of those things. So if I never had to work again, would I stop teaching?

No, I can’t see it happening.

Beguiling though the idea is of having nothing to do other than lounge in a hammock drinking cocktails all day every day, I don’t think many people would be truly happy without a sense of purpose. Of achievement. There is a fundamental need, deep in the human psyche, to feel needed. To feel purposeful. And at least in my psyche, there is a strong need for people. Holidays make me happy, but the first thing I want to do when confronted with a gorgeous view is to share it.

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Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania

So what difference would a sudden windfall make? I could inject some luxury into my life, but the overall shape of it wouldn’t change. Stuff doesn’t make me happy. People do. I am happiest when I’m surrounded by people I love and respect, and kicking goals at work – money can’t buy me that feeling.

I have awesome friends, and wonderful colleagues. Money can’t get me more of those. I’d buy a healthier body if I could, but technology isn’t there (yet?).  Overall the things I want and need are not for sale. Once you’ve met your basic needs, what else can money do for you?

So this is my question for you: What would you change in your life if you had a million dollars? And what’s stopping you from doing it now?

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You are what you do

I’ve long been passionate about people’s career choices. Way back when I was an academic giving career advice at University Open Days, I would exhort kids (and their hovering parents) to pay less attention to which degrees will get them the most money, or the most prestigious job, and more attention to what they really wanted to do, and what they really enjoy. Sadly I still hear kids plotting their futures based on reasoning that seems to me to be not merely coldly practical, but actually ill-fated. “Where are the jobs?” “What will earn me the most money?” “What will be most impressive?”

Think about it in terms of numbers for a moment. If you assume an 8 hour day, 5 days per week for 48 weeks per year (working on the Australian system of 4 weeks’ leave per year), a rough, back of the envelope calculation that doesn’t include things like public holidays or sick leave, would see a conservative estimate of 30 years of working life add up to over 57,000 hours of paid work in your life. Sure, you might go part time, or take maternity leave, and there are things like long service leave to look forward to, but even if you pare it down conservatively to fifty thousand hours, that’s an awful lot of time to spend on something you’re only doing to pay the bills.

I’ve just finished reading “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”, by Canadian Astronaut, Colonel Chris Hadfield. Sure, it was fascinating reading all the details of life on the International Space Station, and how they coped with (and reveled in) weightlessness. Plus it was a very funny read, and I frequently laughed out loud – the man has amazing talent in all kinds of different directions. But the thing that struck me really intensely about the book was one point that he kept on coming back to: although his lifelong dream was to go to space, he enjoyed every step of the intense and laborious preparation along the way. If he had never made it to space, he still loved what he was doing along the way. If he hadn’t enjoyed it, he could never have stuck with it.

That’s not to say there weren’t bad days – and some of them make my tough days at work look like birthday parties in comparison – but overall he was in the right place to use his talents, his passions, and his energies on something he believed in with his whole heart. Whether he went to space or not.

The passion comes across with amazing intensity as you read the book. When I read the last page I was almost teary at saying goodbye to a very personal and emotional tale of a working life lived to its absolute limits. Chris obviously put everything he had into his work, believed in it heart and soul, and made a huge and very public success of it. Whatever your job, ask yourself this: do you feel that way about your job? Is there something else you could be doing that you could feel that way about?

I admit I have been exceptionally lucky. I’ve had opportunity after opportunity, and I have been well placed to take them and see where they led. But at the same time I have constantly sought to do the things I was most passionate about – almost never with a clear idea of where I would end up, or even any expectation of an immediate job. Those few times I had a plan for the future wound up being mere stepping stones to completely different, unexpected paths that have been breathtaking in their intensity and fulfillment. Those opportunities only arose because I was somewhere I wanted to be, working with good people, pursuing things I was fascinated by.

It took me until my late 30s to find a job that gave me everything I was looking for, and I can’t see myself giving up teaching for a long time, if ever, but I am always looking for new chances and interesting directions. I’ve been teaching now for 3 years and each year I think “Maybe this year I’ll do things just like last year, and have a chance to breathe,” but it never happens. There are always wonderful new chances to take, and amazing new directions to explore. Slowing down may be something I will have to contemplate one day, but in the meantime the opportunities are too good to waste.

Chris Hadfield may have retired as an Astronaut, but I have no doubt he will spend the rest of his life giving himself wholeheartedly to every endeavour. That, to me, is living. Anything else is just marking time.

Don’t mention the D-word

One of the most traumatic things about dementia – and there are many – is the fear that it may be inherited. As you fend off the aggression, the paranoia, and the surprisingly intense agony of answering the same question 10 times in 5 minutes, inside you are on your knees, sobbing “Dear God, please don’t let this happen to me.” Even if you’re an atheist. (Research actually suggests it’s not particularly heritable, but the spectre is too terrifying to dismiss. Also it’s not obviously heritable in part because it is alarmingly common.)

Dementia means being abused for “trying to run my life” because she can’t remember calling the plumber, and now believes I am siccing plumbers onto her as the first step to having her put away. (Because how else would you go about it?)

Dementia means a barrage of hysterical phone calls because her purse has been stolen out of her locked house, when she has hidden it under the bedclothes.

Dementia means trying to protect her from herself, without mentioning the “D-word”, and without suggesting that protection might be necessary, and still being screamed at for it. Often in public.

Dementia means walking on eggshells, while being pelted with emotional rocks.

Dementia means feeling guilty because she is lonely, but desperately protecting yourself from the endless trauma, and knowing she will not remember seeing you 5 minutes after you have gone, anyway.

Dementia means gritting your teeth and trying not to snap when you have the same conversation 10 times every phone call, and 30 times every visit. And getting abused for not telling her things that you have only told her 15 times today.

Dementia means a timebomb rigged to disintegrate your family at random intervals.

Dementia means flinching every time the phone rings, because it probably heralds the latest crisis.

Dementia means seeing the terror in her eyes and being unable to reassure her.

And yet, dementia means other things, too. Dementia means long phone calls trying to sort out her utility bills, with endlessly patient voices in call centres, who I can’t warn of the situation in case she hears me, but who nevertheless understand instantly, and handle her repetition and confusion with grace and good humour, patiently extracting the information they need and making things as easy as possible.

Dementia means the local bank teller calmly repeating things over and over, and never losing her patience or looking pointedly at the huge queue behind us.

Dementia means waiters cheerfully and compassionately reassuring her 5 or 6 times that yes, she did order this, without appearing tempted to throw her coffee at her.

Dementia means shop assistants patiently explaining that you have to pay for things before you leave, and smilingly reassuring her that they forget things themselves, sometimes.

Dementia means strangers letting her use their phone when she is lost and confused, or can’t let herself into her house despite having her keys in her hands.

Dementia is exhausting, demoralising, and truly terrifying. And perhaps because most people have been touched by it, if only distantly, it attracts compassion and concern from unexpected directions almost every day.