All my life, I’ve envied people who had a career plan. People who, at school, knew what they wanted to do and were able to pick GCSEs and A Levels that would let them go ahead and do it. I especially envied people who wanted to do a job whose purpose everyone understood instantly – a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a vet. Nobody ever asked those people what they do and then stood around looking politely perplexed when they heard the answer.
I can’t ever remember knowing what I wanted to do. I went to a school where you had to pass an exam and then – unless you did so well in the exam that they gave you a place right away – attend an interview. Quite what they look for in ten-year-olds I don’t know, but I do remember my mum coaching me for the interview by asking me questions that she thought might come up. When she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I thought about it for a moment and then said “a waitress”.
(I was a waitress, for a night, at a pub in West Wickham, when I was twenty-two. My first task was to take two plates of food out to the customers who had ordered them. I checked the table number, checked the table plan on the kitchen wall and confidently walked over to the customers with their meals, only realising as I reached them that I had no idea what was on each plate. “A sort of stew, and…something with meat?”, I asked them uncertainly. I never did another shift at that pub.)
Actually there was one thing I wanted to be, which was a theatrical lighting designer. I did the lighting for all our school plays and I loved it. There was something about being able to make perfect and ephemeral art by pressing buttons and sliding dials that thrilled me, and I also liked being an expert (nobody else was interested in the lights, so I was the only person who knew how they worked). But when I put this ambition to my school careers officer it was pooh-poohed, and I was told that I could work in the theatre as a hobby, but it was important to have a proper job (by which they meant, one that required a degree). I still think I’d have liked to be a lighting technician, although I have become less confident with climbing ladders in the intervening years so it’s probably too late now. You have to climb a lot of ladders when you do the lights.
So I chose the subjects which seemed easiest and most interesting at GCSE and A Level, and I did the same when I went to university, which is how I ended up with a degree in art history. And while I was doing that degree I got genuinely fired up about architecture and urbanism, but I knew I didn’t have the time or money to study architecture so I thought maybe I’d be an architectural writer, but that’s not a thing you can do from scratch. I did a Master’s and in the course of it found myself talking to a retired professor at Harvard University, and ably guided by him I came up with what seemed to me to be a brilliant idea for a doctoral thesis, but I was tired of being skint, so after I got my Master’s I went and got a job instead. And then another job, and another, falling into each of them through friends and friends-of-friends, never with a plan or a prospect or a great deal of enthusiasm. Somehow, accidentally, I ended up being a person who worked in digital media, and then I did it for long enough that I became a person who had lots of experience in digital media, and then I became a person who was head-hunted for jobs in digital media, and all the time I had intermittent bursts of enthusiasm interspersed with long periods of indifference and occasional bouts of active loathing.
And then I started doing the job I do now, which is still a digital media job but is also a charity job, and through it I have met people who work in other charities, big and small, as well as people who are starting their own charities, or branching off from existing charities to do new things, or who have benefited or continue to benefit from the work that charities do – people who have never chased money or glamour or excitement in the pursuit of their careers, but who have instead committed their lives to making the world better in one way or another. And these people whom I once would have thought of, had I given them any thought at all, as worthy, serious people doing work that would never appeal to me; these people turn out to be the most engaging, funny, perceptive, interesting and interested people I have ever worked around. On Friday I spent the day in Hull with some folks who are working on the HullCoin project, which will introduce a virtual currency that can be exchanged for work that benefits the local community, which has all sorts of really exciting social, technological, financial and even political potential, and the passion and expertise and focus that they all showed made me realise: this is work that actually matters, and isn’t that novel and exciting?
So I find myself thinking, maybe this is what I want to be when I grow up. I’ll keep you posted.