There is an important question that should cross the mind of anyone who makes a departure from a particular career after a significant amount of your life has been given to it: Have I just avoided a mid-life crisis, or am I heading towards one? I had this thought last night, a bit drunk, while smoking and looking at the stars as usual. I should request here that those who say that 31 is hardly ‘mid-life’ to put semantics aside for the purposes of this article… you get my meaning.
A few months ago I finally left employment at the bank I had worked at for about ten years. It was a job that I had originally taken as an agency worker in my very early twenties after dramatically leaving my job at a pub due to differences in opinion (I thought the landlady was a nosy drunk, she didn’t). Before working at the pub I had been placed in several factory/warehouse jobs by agencies, so this time I wanted to try something that a) required greater use of my brain, and b) had somewhere to sit. So I decided to try and get a job in an office. At the time I had no inkling that I could turn my skills as a musician into a paying enterprise, and writing was still just an occasional hobby. I just wanted some money so that I could live for a bit and see what happened. The agency took some persuading, usually when I asked for office work they would nod, stare blankly, tell me that they would have a look, and then send me to a factory in the meantime. But eventually I got in at Britannia Building Society in Leek and was able to don my old school black trousers and shoes (literally, that’s not a fashion comment), pull on an ill-fitting work shirt (having fluctuated in weight by two stones since I had last bought any) and head to my new office job where they had computers and everything.
For the first two months I was put in a documents store room and spent all day on my feet filing miscellaneous paperwork into mortgage deeds. We had one chair between three of us, no windows and no supervision. It was just like being at a factory again, but eventually, after what seemed to be some kind of sadistic trial period, they let me upstairs to hit keys on computers and move paper around. They soon found, as did I, that I’m quite good at hitting keys on computers and moving bits of paper around. I was also quite good at telling other people what keys to hit and where the paper needed to be moved to, so I moved relatively quickly into a job where I helped to figure out what keys needed pressing, and even designed some of the bits of paper that got moved around.
I can’t say I enjoyed it, in fact, I pretty much hated it. I even grew to miss the honesty of putting cups in boxes, because it was a clear and distinct task that had some merit and needed doing. Most of the work at the bank, especially when I got involved in projects, was reactionary and unnecessary. It could have been done by the computers if they would just spend the time and money. But apart from that, it was just so damn false and I quickly learned how much emphasis was put on advertising and internal propaganda. They wanted us to whistle while we worked (not literally), to be ‘on-board’ and ‘with the programme’ – we were quite often told that if we didn’t agree with the bank’s ‘values’ we should leave (all very well and good coming from an exec who pockets over a million pounds each year… it’s easy to hold values with that kind of incentive). But I persevered, I panicked but did nothing, I threw my efforts outside of work into a relationship which eventually broke down, and then I had my first quarter life crisis.
I say a quarter life crisis because I must have been 25 at the time, so although it’s unlikely I will see 100, again, you get the meaning. As I found myself moving back home, a shadow of a possible life left behind me, I laid a lot of blame at the feet of my job. I had thrown myself into work, going for interviews, moving up the ladder slightly, bringing home the pay and bonuses. I had convinced myself that was what was required when I moved in with my girlfriend. I had a household to support etc… all that protestant work ethic crap which was somehow engrained in me (and still is to an extent – it’s that feeling of guilt you get when not being productive). But it made me unhappy, creatively starved and frustrated. That probably wasn’t the reason the relationship ended, but my retrospection found it the easiest thing to target as something I could do something about. I couldn’t do anything about the failed relationship, that was over, and I was determined not to slide into self-pity and destruction (I had done that before and it wasn’t pretty for a while). So I took the big, bold step of… going part-time. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was determined to carve out some space to figure out what I wanted to do. As quite often happens when you come out of a situation, I rediscovered a lot of my friends were still there, waiting to be supportive (I’m very lucky in that respect), and things started to happen. I moved to Leek with a friend and we set up a music production business, I got involved in organising events, I restarted my education with the open university and started to write, I lived by myself for a year (everyone should try it), I got engaged, I joined a band, I moved in with my fiancé, and then, last of all, after ten years of waiting for the right moment, I gave up the day job.
That was three months ago now. February 2013. Throughout all the changes I had continued to work for the bank, partly because I still didn’t have the confidence to give it up, but mainly because for the last three years there was the possibility of redundancy and walking away with a reasonable sum of money (due to the take-over by wool-clad wolf, the Co-op – see http://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). Eventually that possibility, though still hanging in the air as a remote distant chance, was denied to me. While others around me were losing jobs they wanted to keep, I couldn’t get rid of mine. I tried my best to argue the senselessness of this to the powers that be, even ending up face to face with my ‘big boss’ and telling him what I thought of the way they did things, but it didn’t make a difference. Perhaps I had showed my cards too often, threatened to leave just one too many times, because they wouldn’t cut me loose. Why would you give me money to go when I quite obviously wanted to leave anyway? That’s the corporate way. Despite all the work and energy I had given them for ten years, despite the moving of the ground from beneath our feet as one lot of corporate clowns took over the running of our lives from another bunch, that path was not open.
And so, after a few sleepless nights and the flaring up of every ailment in my mind and bodies repertoire of stress-induced warning signs, I gave it up. It was not very dramatic in the end. I told them I was going to leave, they did the paperwork, and within a couple of weeks (thanks to stored up holidays), I walked out of the building for the last time, with the sun and the chatter of open-office politics behind me. I was overwhelmed for a minute or two as I drove away, laughing tears, and then I was back to normal. I waited a few weeks for the reality to kick in, but it already had. All I had now was what I made of it, all I have now is what I make of it.
So the point of this blog is, have I just gone avoided a mid-life crisis or am I walking straight into one? And I hope to make this appraisal global enough for this blog to be of value to anyone else reading who has or might be thinking the same thing, otherwise I’d just be sharing with you chapters from my life, which is not my intention.
One of my nightmares as a teenager was ending up like ‘Ernold Same’, the eponymous character from the Blur song over which Ken Livingstone drones this monologue:
Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
And felt the same way he did every day,
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to him the same old what’s his name
On his way to the same place to do the same thing
Again and again, poor old Ernold Same.
– ‘Ernold Same’, Blur.(The Great Escape, 1995)
So if turning away from a day job at a bank, in which I sat in the same chair, next to the same people, doing the same things, again and again, the same drive to work, the same canteen, the same coffee machine, the same pot plants, the same meetings, the same screens, the same problems and the same solutions, the same frustrations, the same politics, the same building, has made me a little less like Ernold Same, and a crisis that is, then a crisis is certainly a good thing and I would urge anyone considering having one to go for it.
If on the other hand, the crisis is forthcoming, and this is a temporary stop-gap where everyday my work is what I make it, be it writing music for high-street companies, writing stories, writing scripts, writing scores for original films, writing blogs, or whatever else I choose to do, then what a crisis the next one will be! Is it possible that one crisis will cancel out another and I could end up back at a desk in an office? Not if I have anything to do with it, not unless the work that takes place in that office is creative and/or for the benefit of those who need it (the moral-void of bank work is a strong motivator to express yourself and help others). So now, as a fledgling self-employed person, with all the uncertainty that brings, not knowing if the last paid job was literally my last paid job, having to try and pick my opportunities from everything I am capable of and convince others of that capability, a crisis would surely be a good development. I mean, the last two crises I’ve had started my desire to educate myself further and produce original work, and have given me the opportunity to do so. What will be next? So far, I’ve had only net gain from crises, the only thing that was ever holding me back was not instigating one in the first place.
I say, if you are heading towards a crisis, at whatever stage in your life, bring it on! It is a creative act and we are creative creatures. It is decision and action, and those are attributes we are blessed with. Aristotle said that our capacity for reason was the objective of human-life, and that only aiming for mere survival like plants and beasts is to not fulfil our humanity. So let’s not be plants, not just now, maybe another life-time if you believe in that kind of thing, but not now. Let’s greet crisis with open arms, because it means something is about to change, and change is the only way we can create (there was only ever one truly creative act in this Universe, and no one really knows how that came about, we just work with what we’ve got).
So in answer to my own question, I think I have both gone through a crisis, and am heading towards my next one, and I hope that is always the case. For others, and I do not mean to undermine the choices people make, some people genuinely do want to work for a bank or other such industries and that’s fine (though I wager most people don’t), but if you are becoming a bit ‘samey’ and you wonder where that feeling of wasted time and senselessness is coming from and what, if anything, you can do about it, instigate a crisis of your own. So far, the evidence tells me, they can be very good things, if you have control (which of course we all do, though it may not seem that way). There is a fundamental truth in here somewhere, even if the crisis comes to you and seems negative, there is nothing you can do about the past, there is only how we choose to appraise and move on from it to the future by choosing the present moment by moment. That is not a wishy-washy, motivational sound-bite, it is just a statement of fact. I certainly don’t feel that I have ‘made it’ yet, and the anxiety of self-employment is a formidable foe (this article is just one round in the fight against it), but I’m definitely on the right ladder now, which is a start.