“You’re very brave,” they said.
“Such a courageous thing to do.”
“You must have been so worried, changing your life like that?”
I have heard these words many times. I heard them when I first announced my plans to study medicine and I hear them now, whenever people ask me about my career. It’s not so much the difficulty of the degree I chose (although I’m sure that comes into it), but the fact that, at the time of the announcement, I was in my thirties, with one O-Level, and I was earning a living delivering pizzas.
“You’ve been watching too much Grey’s Anatomy,” they said.
Each time I’m told it was a courageous thing to do, it stops me for a moment and I think back to my decision. Each time, I arrive at the same conclusion: it wasn’t courageous at all. It was just … necessary. As much as I enjoyed delivering pizzas (and I still do it, from time to time), the need to alter the course of my life had become all-consuming. Logical. Making that change felt as natural as taking a breath.
I’m not saying the whole experience was a walk in the park. While the decision was as simple as breathing, the execution took determination. Determination to endure a five-hour round trip each day. Determination to sit in a lecture theatre after 20 years of being marked absent. Determination to ignore the fact that my consultant was often younger than I was. Adapting to those changes wasn’t easy and not just because it meant setting my alarm for 3am each day. Psychologically, it was tough, because human beings, generally, fear change. Or, rather, they don’t fear the new experience, they fear letting go of the old one. Because letting go of the old means – somewhere back in time – we didn’t make the best decision. We were wrong, which is never an easy thing to admit to. It’s much easier to keep doing the same thing, over and over again, to reassure ourselves we’re smart and clever, and never make bad choices. Signing up to do A-Levels meant I had to acknowledge that walking away from education at 15 maybe wasn’t the finest decision I ever made. Change can be overwhelming.
Change can also be small and quiet. It can be a phonecall. It can be an email of support. It can be cheering on someone who is struggling
On a larger scale, the need for change is everywhere. It watches us from newspapers and television screens. It crawls across the internet and shouts at us on a night-time pavement. It invades our workspace and waves from packaging on a supermarket shelf. The World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap won’t close entirely until 2186. We know the changes we have to make, we feel the need to take a breath, but knowing and doing can be a heart-breaking distance apart.
The way I tackled my own, personal change was to think of it as small decisions. I made a phonecall to my local college. I filled in a UCAS form. I went to an open day. “Let’s see what happens,”’ I thought, “if I do this instead.”
The theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is “Be Bold For Change”. Change can wave a banner and march on a pavement. It can stand on a stage and shout to an audience. It can be brilliant and brave, and loud and angry. But it can also be small and quiet. It can be a phonecall. It can be an email of support. It can be cheering on someone who is struggling. It can be challenging past decisions and acknowledging they were wrong. Bold does not have to be a march – bold can be a small step. Because, surely, if we all take small steps, we will arrive at our destination sooner.
When I was interviewed for medical school, I was asked many questions about many different subjects, but one has always stuck in my mind:
"Do you have a husband to support you financially?”
Isn’t this a breath we all need to take?
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is published by Borough Press.