Substance vs form

More deep life realisations, aided by Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ graphic novel.

The story didn’t start life as a comic, but Gaiman’s better known for his comics, so an adaptation with pictures was always on the cards. Gaiman’s central conceit: ‘beneath’ our city there’s a parallel one called London Below, made of all the things we’ve lost or forgotten. When you leave something in a coffee shop or on a train, it becomes part of London Below. (There must be a lot of umbrellas there.)

Its population is a strange mix of runaways, madmen, and violent eccentrics, all those who fall through the cracks in the society ‘above’. London Below’s Tube stations are those the real London shuttered long ago, like British Museum and Down Street. You can get to Earl’s Court (and meet the Earl) using the Central Line. Night’s Bridge is difficult to cross. And the Angel Islington … has wings.

Buying the book on impulse today was prophetic, because I’ve been thinking about substance and form.

Substance and form explain why I feel everyone’s doing better than me.

Most of my peer group are ‘substance’ people. They left University, got good jobs, and have steadily climbed the ladder in incremental rungs of promo and payrise for a decade plus now. On the surface, they’re at the same level as me: successful affluent professionals. But if you scratch them, you’ll see layers supporting the surface, strata they’ve added each year to get where they are now. They’re London Above, living lives of quiet desperation but with depth and story.

I’m all ‘form’. I’ve done a huge number of different things, all so different that they don’t really reinforce each other. There are no strata that have made me what I am today. Everything I’ve done has been for the surface thrill, the quick win, the fast lane. I’m London Below, a discombobulated yet sensual feast. Scratch me, and all I do is heal.

What this means is that while on the outside I look like a normal member of the professional middle class, I’ve got much less ‘supporting’ that position than others in my peer group. This results in my present frustration. Because while they’ll carry on making incremental improvements in life – the next quarter’s pay rise, another head on their team – I will find doing the same much more difficult. Nothing built up, no momentum.

Subsisting on ‘form’ does have some advantages. When ‘substance’ people hit their mid-thirties, they’re contending with divorce, diabetes, early onset heart disease, and obesity. Whereas I’ve been able to switch jobs and countries in an eyeblink, I’ve jumped on new technologies and methods without a problem, and I’ve got the body of a man ten years younger.

(I call him Arnold. I keep him in the attic. He hasn’t talked in quite a while.)

The downside, though: when you’ve got no inertia, it’s difficult to get any momentum.
It’s as hard to win a day’s fee today as it was five years ago.

The driver was the thrill. My life choices to date have not been: Is This Adding To Me? But rather: Is This Thrilling? All surface. All form. No substance. Winging it with a day rate, rather than earnestly building up personal and intellectual equity, layer upon layer.

On the surface we may look the same. But the surface of the ‘substance’ people is the top layer of a coherent life strategy, whereas the surface of the ‘form’ people is as fragile as wallpaper with the wall taken away.

My life problem is substance vs form. I wondered why doing MBA appealed to me, why I ever thought it might be the answer: now I know. An MBA is my shortcut to substance. At last, I have the ‘why’.

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