walking on custard

Be Careful What You Wish For: Lessons from an Unusual Opportunity

17 Feb 2020

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Wishes are dangerous. So every fairy tale tells us. The genie will grant your desires… but too literally. The monkey paw will give you what you want… but with an evil twist. And, just when you think you’re safe, the magic lemming steals your fruit in the night.

(I may have made the last one up.)

After spending so much time pursuing our desires, it can be a shock to discover that they aren’t exactly what we envisioned.

Perhaps we always viewed our dreams with rose-tinted glasses. Or perhaps we really wanted something else, deep down. And, sometimes, unexpected costs can arise from new opportunities…

A Wish Granted

As a freelancer, everything comes in waves. There’s always either too much or too little to do.

Earlier this year I was bemoaning a temporary lack of work. So when I got offered an unusual task I was intrigued: teaching a day of mathematical training for 15 staff members at a local organization.

Naturally, the novelty was appealing in itself. I love mathematics and I love teaching, and I rarely get to do enough of either. But I also have high standards for everything I do. If I accepted, it would mean days of work to prepare the content to a high enough standard.

I had some huge projects to keep working on, and I wasn’t far away from a busy time filled with speaking engagements—but at that moment all was quiet, and I find it impossible to resist interesting challenges, so I ended up accepting the offer.

Then, The Downside

Suddenly, almost as soon as I’d accepted, other problems immediately appeared.

I was sick. A difficult personal situation arose. A long-running administrative problem at my home abruptly clicked into gear, and days were lost filling in forms and waiting on hold to get it all sorted out.

And this exciting new work opportunity morphed into a source of worry. For a time, I cursed my past self for committing to such a huge amount of work.

(Of course, it didn’t help that I rashly decided to write an app to help deliver the teaching… but we’ll discuss that little detail in a moment.)

Somehow, I managed to battle through all these simultaneous difficulties and finish the preparation for the teaching while handling all of my other responsibilities.

But it was a lot.

And now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I want to share two lessons I learned from this whole experience.

1. You Don’t Have to Do Something Just Because You Can

I truly struggle with this idea. When I was deciding whether or not to accept this work, I found it difficult to justify saying “no”. I knew I could do it, so I felt like I should. In fact, I always struggle to justify saying no, if I can do something.

After some reflection, I’ve realized that I only find it easy to make any given decision when one of the options is literally impossible. If you think about it, this is just another way of saying I almost never make actual decisions.

For example, if I’d been unavailable on the day, this decision would have been easy, but because I technically could do it, that meant I had to think… and choose.

And since my main criteria is always “Can I do this?”, I end up saying yes to almost everything.

In future, I ought to consciously use some further levels of decision-making. Perhaps I could ask questions like “Should I?” and “Do I want to?” and “What will I have to give up?” and “What will I gain?”

I’m sure that, no matter what process I used, I would have ultimately accepted this particular job. I simply wanted to do it—and, sometimes, that is enough. But, at the time, I should probably have gone through the process of thinking a little more.

Next time, I’ll remember that I don’t have to do something just because I can.

2. Re-use Effort Where Possible!

When I accept a stand-up comedy invitation, I know I’ll likely be able to re-use the material I write multiple times.

But, as I was working on this training day, I struggled with the knowledge that I probably wouldn’t find other opportunities to teach these exact branches of mathematics to a group of about this size. All these hours spent writing content would be wasted!

This is where I had the idea to write the app. I decided to make the day more exciting by writing software that would divide the participants into teams and beam questions at them on the topics we’d covered (as well as fun things like a “getting to know you” round about me).

This serves many purposes. First, this necessitated learning new technologies that I intended to pick up anyway. This was effort I was already planning to spend, so I might as well use it to create something useful.

More importantly, I can re-use this app in other circumstances. I’m already planning a stand-up routine which uses the interactive features to play games with the audience.

Now I have reusable skills, and an app I can re-purpose. All those hours creating the content are no longer entirely wasted!

This is an important lesson. If I can make my effort pay out in multiple ways—through new skills, or creating something I can use in other contexts—then it becomes much more worthwhile to say “yes” to future opportunities.

The Moral: Making Better Decisions in Future

Even though I’m several years into freelancing, I’m still constantly learning. This one experience taught me about decisions which don’t quite fit into my normal routine.

In some ways, perhaps I could be more cautious—to consider the pros and cons more fully beyond “Is this possible?”

And in other ways, maybe I’d benefit from being more creative—what can I create, or what skills can I learn, which I can re-use in future?

Next time, I’ll remember both of these lessons.

And surely now I’ve learned these two things, I must know literally everything I’ll ever need to know, and I’ll never make a bad decision ever again.


(Next time: why fairy tales should have warned me more explicitly about excessive confidence.)

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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