This article about my quirky ‘career’ was first published by Upstairs with the title ‘The pieces will fall into place in the end’.
An astronaut; a firefighter; a doctor. These are some of the answers that children give when adults ask the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
We’re supposed to have a “career.” It’s expected that we have an ambition. Or at least some sort of plan for our working lives.
But I challenge these assumptions.
My scepticism about “careers” comes from what I see around me. And from my own personal experience.
I didn’t know what I wanted to be as I was growing up.
Of course, I had dreams of playing football for England, and I wanted to be a pilot in the Royal Air Force. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that these were dreams, not career options. Not being good enough, even for the school football team was a reality check. And even a child realises that the RAF doesn’t recruit pilots who are short-sighted.
Teenage years are formative. We go through all kinds of changes, challenges and adventures. These years are also crucial for our careers because we have to choose which subjects to study at school.
Without a plan, I chose the subjects on the basis of what interested me, or I found easy to do. And I dropped subjects if I hated the teachers.
Aged sixteen, I had to choose between one of two routes: arts or sciences. I wanted to do a mixture of both, but it wasn’t allowed. I ended up studying maths, physics, and chemistry.
“All this science I don’t understand; it’s just my job five days a week” was playing in the background. Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ was the music of those days, back in the 1970s.
I had no direction at that time. My school was preparing us for university. That was the next educational step, but I had no real grasp of what it entailed. Nobody I knew, amongst my family and friends, had ever been to university.
In any case, I couldn’t think of any single subject I’d be prepared to study for three or more years. To the dismay of my teachers, I didn’t even apply to go to university.
Instead, I had some vague notion of wanting to explore “the University of Life.”
My exam results were a disaster. I can use the excuse that they weren’t the subjects I really wanted to study. And I can say I didn’t have a goal or purpose to study towards. But maybe I just wasn’t bright enough.
Over the next few years, my working life was chaotic. I worked night shifts as a labourer in a textile factory. For a time, I had a job at the lowest clerical level in the civil service. I got a job as a forklift truck driver in a warehouse. For higher pay, I worked as a van driver, delivering medicines to pharmacies.
Clearly, there was no sign of any “career path.” A mess like this doesn’t read well on a CV.
In contrast, a close friend was at medical school during these years. He’d always been sure he wanted to be a doctor. So at school, he knew which subjects to choose and what grades he needed. I envied him. Because he had a focus, a clear route. He had a medical career ahead of him. I had none of these things.
Instead, I became involved in community politics. I was a volunteer at an anti-establishment newspaper. I joined campaigns against racism. In my low-level jobs, I was a member of a trade union.
Along with some of my friends at that time, we thought it would be a cool idea to open up a community bookshop. It would sell books to inform and empower local people—part cultural project, part community centre. The profits would fund local campaigns and good causes.
Looking back, we were very naive. I knew nothing about business. In fact, at that time in my life, “business” was a dirty word. For me, it meant exploitation, greed, and Wall Street capitalism. And back in the 1980s in Britain, it wasn’t fashionable to be an entrepreneur. You were either one of us or one of them, a worker or a boss.
Ironically, I had to learn a lot about business. Even in a small bookshop, you have to deal with such stuff. I learnt about contracts, cash flow, and taxation. I had to learn to speak the strange language of accountants, lawyers and bank managers. I also softened my regional accent. So that I could be understood when phoning book suppliers in the south of England.
The bookshop wasn’t a great commercial success. But then it wasn’t meant to be. It was a cause rather than a business to make profits. I didn’t get paid much, but I don’t regret a minute of it.
Nowadays, it would be called a social enterprise. Retrospectively, it could be classified as being part of the creative industries. But neither of these terms had been coined yet.
Working there certainly wasn’t part of any conventional career. My friend’s parents could boast that their son was training to be a doctor. My mum and dad didn’t have a career label to proudly attach to me.
Reaching the age of thirty was a turning point for me. It was time to get some kind of career. To earn some decent money. To get my life organised. I shaved off my beard. I applied for proper jobs.
It wasn’t my first choice, but I ended up working in book publishing as a finance and publishing manager at a small company. Now I was working in the city of Manchester, not in my small town of Bury. I felt like I was growing up.
I learnt a lot there. We were innovating with our books. I was using the new technologies of that time. We experimented with marketing. It was also very stressful because of its management structure. Supposedly equal and democratic, a workers’ co-operative has no boss. This means that the relationship between authority and responsibility isn’t clear. It’s a free for all. Everyone wants to have authority, but nobody takes responsibility.
So I looked for other jobs. Still without a career path, I took whatever I could find. By now, my past was dictating my future, because I had certain work experiences and lacked others.
The next step along my unclear path was at Password Books. I became the managing director of a small book distribution and marketing company. I was the boss. At least it was clear who took the decisions and who was responsible for the results.
This promotion gave me imposter syndrome. The title Managing Director seemed too grand for my job. And for me. After all, it was a small company, not a corporation. And I wasn’t an executive, just a lad from Bury.
My dad had died by then, but at least my mum could be proud. She liked to show her friends my business card with the words Managing Director next to my name.
Now I had a proper job. But still no qualifications. I’d learnt a lot but had no certificates to show.
I decided to study for a master’s degree in business administration: the classic MBA. Without a first degree, my application to Bradford University involved an intelligence test. They also interviewed me. And they assessed the management experience I’d gained by then. I jumped these three hurdles and was offered a place.
Aged thirty-five, I went to university for the first time. I studied part-time over three years, whilst continuing to work in my company.
Now, at last, I knew what I wanted to study. And I didn’t have to choose a single subject. The fourteen different modules of the MBA course suited me perfectly.
Most of the other students were from banks and big corporations. I felt like a spy from the creative industries. I was stealing the commercial secrets of big business to use for different purposes. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of adapting the corporate case studies to fit my small company.
Even though I didn’t have a conventional career, I loved my job.
By now, my friend was a senior hospital doctor, earning much more money than me. I remember telling him how much I’d envied his laser-focused career when I was younger, zig-zagging from job to job. His response shocked me. He said he’d envied me. He was, in some ways, a prisoner in his career. Locked in a demanding profession with no time for anything else. He envied me that I could do all kinds of different things, in my work and outside it.
I’ve always valued my freedom. Generally, I’ve chosen to do what interests me rather than work in jobs just for the money. I prefer experiences to possessions.
Freedom is part of my personal definition of success. Now I have the freedom to choose the projects I do. The freedom to take time out. The freedom to select the people with whom I work.
Nowadays, my work is to help creative entrepreneurs achieve greater success. Through my speeches, books, workshops, videos, and coaching. It’s my passion, my mission and my profession.
I’m lucky to work with amazing people all around the world. I have a business that gives me financial and personal rewards.
Sometimes, I think I’ve reached the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Actualisation. My meandering path through the various jobs in my working life has led me to this point. I feel as though I’ve reached the right place. At last, I know what I want to do, now that I’ve grown up.
My point is that I never had a plan to get here. It’s the destination at the end of my wandering. It could never have been foreseen. It only makes sense looking back.
A few years ago at TEDx Liverpool, I met Sir Ken Robinson. Already famous for his TED talk about creativity and education, he happened to be back in his home town. He gave an impromptu speech and interview.
Something he said made me laugh with amusement and enlightenment. I wrote down his wise and insightful words:
“Your life is not pre-planned. You create your own life. And you can only make sense of it retrospectively when you come to write your CV. And you try as best you can to make it look like a plan. Because the last thing you want to do is convey the actual chaos you’ve been living through all these years. But with luck and a following wind and an open heart and an open mind, you can do all kinds of extraordinary things.”
As he says, I can now make sense of my working life retrospectively. I could also write my CV to pretend I always had a plan. But the reality is that whatever success I’ve achieved is the result of a chaotic journey.
At some point, we can stop and look back. The random pieces of the jigsaw we pick up don’t make sense on their own. At the time we collect them, they have little value.
But eventually, there are enough to start to connect them. Some fit together. Each random colour becomes part of a picture. I started to get a sense of this at some point along the journey through my working life.
With the confidence and credibility of having the letters MBA after my name, I gave up my day job at Password Books and became a management consultant.
I remember a meeting with the management team of a theatre company. They paid for my help to resolve disputes within the team. It was obvious to me that the problem was the organisational structure, not the personalities. It was the same structure I’d found so stressful back in my publishing days.
When I explained my analysis, and the solution, they looked at me as if I was a genius. Which amused me, because to me it was so simple and obvious. But only because of that previous uncomfortable experience.
Some years later, I was making a presentation to senior executives in Zurich. By now I had more letters after my name than in it. And some grey hairs. They were paying me a lot of money. And they were writing down my words of wisdom. But what I was telling them was common sense to me—stuff I’d picked up about management, somewhere along the way.
On both occasions, I thought to myself that maybe there was some value in those previous experiences after all.
Some people might even say that there was a purpose to having those earlier jobs. That they were all part of a pre-ordained plan.
More likely, it’s about the human need to find patterns. Linkages. Cause and effect. Retrospectively we can see associations in the randomness.
“One thing leads to another.” That’s my answer when people ask me how I was invited to speak at a conference in Azerbaijan. Or advise a business in Colombia. Or write a book.
I have to think back and trace the steps that took me there. And I discover a chain of events that’s clear when looking back. But I could never have guessed where things would lead, looking forwards. And there’s certainly no way I could have organised those various connections to fall into place as they did.
So this is the story of my non-career, so far.
Is there any conclusion I can draw?
Is there any advice I can offer?
Sometimes nowadays, younger people ask me for career guidance. How can they get involved in the creative industries? What is the best route to becoming a consultant like me? When should they make the move to set up their own business?
I don’t have the answers. There is no set of rules. No clever formula.
All I can say is this: If the “career path” ahead of you is unclear, don’t worry. If you feel that your working life is “going nowhere,” don’t despair.
As you engage in your endeavours, collect as many pieces of your jigsaw as you can. Even if they seem to lack value at the time.
No journey ever works out exactly as planned. At times your journey might seem to lack any direction at all.
It’s OK if it doesn’t appear to make sense moving forward. But at a certain point, looking back, you will see how everything has come together.
And then, when writing your CV, or your autobiography, you can pretend it was all part of your clever plan from the start.
Read more about David’s story.