“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old”
― Peter Drucker
I started work in December 1980 as a part-time porter at Pontins Holiday Camp (it’s long since gone). My brother got me the job, telling his boss I was 14. Actually, I’d not long turned 13. That means, this year, give or take the odd period of full-time study, I’ve been working for 41 years; I still can’t believe it’s been that long. I really do wonder what I’ve learnt about work and myself?
In the early years, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My parents wanted me to get a ‘trade’. I wasn’t interested. Even if they were open-minded enough to allow me to do something else, I was expected, in my early teens, to nail my colours to a rock-solid career mast without demur. I refused to be branded that way. It caused a lot of friction and I shed a lot of tears not being able to articulate a job or career to their satisfaction.
In the end, and not necessarily because I was drawn to it less still interested, I opted for mechanical engineering. It was the wrong choice (like so many). I bailed and eventually found myself working for the Mob (quite literally) in London, in the heady world of IT recruitment (WANG, IBM and Ratheon were our potential clients). I didn’t have a bloody clue what I was doing but I teamed up with a great bloke called Bill McGowan, who’d been Sir Alex Reed’s right-hand man; he taught me all I needed to know to avoid the slings and lots of jagged arrows of the boiler house we found ourselves having to live and breath 12 hours a day. In the end, we decided, three months in, to jump ship and start our own recruitment business. And we did. It was called Ambassador Recruitment Limited (“Ambassador”). For the first time in my life, I was happy and I had a purpose. Long story cut perfunctorily short, the business quickly grew on the back of my messianic sales efforts but died, three years in, brought about by a combination (as best I now recall) of a lame Bank, interest rates going through the roof, staff turnover but, most especially of all, my partner, Bill, losing his nerve. I was gutted. In fact, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to wanting to end it all. But I was young and as one of my wonderful clients told me, you’ve still plenty of time to rebuild your life. She was right.
Let me pause a minute before galloping off into the Deep Blue Ocean of my work prognostications. Starting and running Ambassador changed me as a person — in a good way. It was hard though: I worked 100+ hours a week but it never felt like work by dint, mainly, of the fact that I was learning so much, growing as man, and I was mixing it up with some great clients (mostly in the FMCG space); I grew in confidence almost on a daily basis and I was happy despite the fact I was running on empty for most of the week. It wasn’t perfect — what is? — but I never once said to myself, I hate this job. OK, age was on my side, I was greener than green and I’d not yet been in the grubby work trenches, working for someone else. It was my/our show and I had a blank sheet of paper to draw whatever I wanted. Not that I reminisce too much about this period, but I do wonder why a young man with no previous experience of running a business — any business — would start one with someone he hardly knew and worried not a jot about all the sh*t that could and would eventually flow in his direction. I know hindsight is a wonderful thing but I’m not sure I’d do it again.
Back to my work theme.
After Ambassador went to the wall, and after a further brief spell in recruitment, working for a brilliant businessman, Douglas Knipe, and having met Allison, my wife to be, we left Surrey and moved back to Totnes, so that I could start a law degree with my best mate, Mark. I’ll spare you the detail but much like my total lack of investigation of running a business, I never once stopped to consider what a law degree might offer me, less still what I’d do with it, career-wise. During my time at university, I worked part-time for my father-in-law. Brian was a builder and the local undertaker, and so I was kept pretty busy during the week and weekends doing an assortment of jobs including picking up the deceased from wherever and in whatever circumstances they’d died. (If this didn’t make me appreciate and muse on the finality of life then…) I finished my degree but prior to then had toyed with a career at the Bar (a barrister). I didn’t go mainly because I wanted to stay in Devon and couldn’t see how I’d carve out a career for myself on a diet of work that mostly didn’t float my boat. If I’d gone anywhere it would have been to Bristol or London to practice environmental law. And so, I got a couple of training contracts with local law firms to practice as a solicitor and the rest, as they say, is history; my best mate Mark did the same thing.
Again, long story cut very short so as to not to bore the pants off you, I spent the next 14 years trying to make it in the legal profession. I didn’t. It broke me, and I’m not afraid to say that. In fact, it took a spell in hospital for me to realise that despite the best of intentions and working my arse off, much to the detriment of my family, all I achieved was making a lot of money for a small group of people who never once, and I’m deadly serious when I say this, appreciated the sacrifice of everyone in the firm, including myself. They, of course, wouldn’t and didn’t see it like that: they were doing us a favour by allowing us to work in their great firm(s) but they’re deluded if they think that’s the case given their indifference to their staff’s mental and physical wellbeing. Put it this way: paying someone a decent wage doesn’t and will never compensate for the psychic sacrifices that were made in order that they could enjoy the trappings of wealth and to keep the good ship Profit Per Equity Partner afloat. I sound cynical. I am. Very.
And so, in August 2010, I leapt, having had more than a gutful of professional practice indifference. I had no plan and no idea what I was going to do but I knew I had to get out before I went stark raving mad. The net did appear — thank god — but I couldn’t escape the clutches of the legal profession, despite no longer practising as a solicitor; my final job (in 2016) was as CEO of a small law firm in Torquay. Did I learn much about work or myself? Not much save that the people were deeply unhappy and desperate to do something with their lives. We can, of course, get into the etymology of the word work and split hairs about its import but the overriding memory from that period, particularly when I was wearing my consultant or coach’s hat, was that work was the last thing anyone wanted to do given that it had no purpose save paying the bills and adding a bit of materialistic froth to their soulless lives. I know I over-exaggerate this point but when I canvassed views from around the clients I was working for, it was obvious that most people didn’t feel appreciated, listened to and were routinely put upon. As to the work, well they made the best of things but it wasn’t what spoke loudest to their hearts. The question I’d usually lead with was: “If you weren’t doing this job, what would you do?” Mostly, it was a blank look and an indifferent response that met my inquiring eyes but for the few that did meet me head-on, the answer was premised on something more creative, or working outdoors or where they weren’t doing it just for the money. Pretty hackneyed, eh! I certainly wasn’t shocked but I had to tread a careful line between not inciting a spiritual insurrection and helping them to come to terms with the fact that if they didn’t do something, in all likelihood, things would get a lot worse that or they’d slowly and inevitably go to sleep on their lives.
Just to complete my hurried biopic on my innumerable jobs and career (which I’d hardly describe as linear), in the end, I swallowed my pride and went back on my legal tools as a solicitor. I’d not practised for six years and was scared that I’d forgotten everything. I worked for a couple of law firms in Plymouth. Neither worked out and in fact, my experience convinced me that I wasn’t suited to private practice. After that, I got a job as a Contracts Manager for a small but great little software company before leaving to start my current In-house gig where I’ve been for three years.
And what dear Julian are you trying to tell us?
That’s a good question.
You’d think with my weight of work experience that I’d have cracked the Code but I haven’t. I’m still none the wiser why it is that we spend most of our lives either working or thinking about work but hardly ever describe it with any degree of fondness. We do it because we’ve no choice; and the money is the highest priority, not spiritual satisfaction or anything like that. I know this is old ground but from my nascent investigation of the industrial revolution, wasn’t it supposed to free us from a long working week and have more free time to enjoy ourselves in the deepest sense of the word? If anything, it’s done the complete opposite; namely, we’re now strapped to the incessant need to do, to produce and plugged in to the capitalist ideal, even if it takes the best years of our life.
Of course, not everyone plays to the work/company/bosses tune and has decided that the world of self-employment or building their own business is the name of the game. Brilliant I say but it’s a qualified cheer by dint of the fact that usefulness should be the sine qua non of every business — of whatever size. And what this pandemic has shown us is that sadly self-employment is not where you want to be when the yoghurt hits the proverbial fan.
I think for now that’s all I need say but I will, over the coming days, return to the subject of work, with a particular focus on why we end up where we do and how instead we might get closer to our true selves.
To be clear, it’s not my business to tell you how to live your life, run your business or adopt anything I say but I think there are a few messages that are worth sharing that, hopefully, bring a bit of clarity to my own long-standing investigation and truths about how we might combine work with a life of meaning and purpose.