This week has mainly involved lots of work again and, whilst I could sit here and moan about longer hours or annoying colleagues or not enough money (and don’t worry, I do), I also have to sit back and feel grateful for the fact that I have a career: something that makes me feel worthwhile, respected, exhausted-but-in-a-good-way. That I have the opportunity to interact with people from around the world, to use my skills and let’s face it, to earn enough money to survive. It’s not something we should take for granted.
Whatever horrors life has thrown at me, going to work has always been a bit of a safe haven for me; a place where I could just pretend I was a normal person whose mother wasn’t dying of cancer, where I’ve got a job to do and other people relying on me to do it. I can’t imagine how I would have coped these last few years without that normality, that full inbox and packed to do list to occupy my mind. Of course there were many times when I wished I didn’t have to trudge backwards and forwards between Solihull and London, when the thought of opening my laptop filled me with dread, feeling that I was letting colleagues down and not giving one hundred percent (because I genuinely didn’t have the energy to give one hundred percent), but thanks to the understanding and kindness of my work family – and they genuinely are a family – I see how important it was to keep going.
Throughout my career, I have been so lucky to be handed a number of opportunities, to have had people around me who want me to succeed and who have championed me much more than I felt I deserved.
My first foray into the world of work (forgetting a forced four days at Lesley’s Bridalwear in Year 10, when my main task was taking the owner’s dog across the road for a wee), was two weeks’ work experience at Penguin on The Strand – I had never really even been in an office before: didn’t know that it’s annoying as hell to go and hover next to someone’s desk waiting for them to stop typing, or that you should say your name when you answer the phone, or that nobody goes and actually sits in Pret to eat their lunch.
I look back on those two weeks with some regret; I didn’t make the most of the opportunity, was too nervous to try and impress anyone or ask any questions or volunteer an opinion. That first day I was so terrified I couldn’t even sum up the courage to tell anyone I didn’t yet have a security pass, instead remaining frozen at my desk with no way of going outside to get lunch. The people who worked there – mostly women – seemed so self-assured, so confident in what they were doing, so unlike anything I thought I could ever possibly be. I felt clumsy and childish – because I was – not realising that everybody starts off in that place, that it takes time and hard work to develop that confidence. I’ll give myself a little bit of credit here – Penguin was a pretty intimidating place to start, and I imagine I’d still feel a little bit like that if I went back there now, but needless to say, this work experience did not result in a job (although I did get a bag of free books – every cloud hey?!). My two weeks there did also play a valuable role, teaching me that in order to succeed, I would have to step out of this terrified bubble and stand up for myself. That even with my first class English degree, I would have to give something more.
What followed was a frantic few months of job applications. It was 2008 and the peak of the recession; this, and a ‘qualified for both everything and nothing’ English degree not being the best combination, I eventually found myself in an admin role at a small company in Tooting Bec. The office was quite literally falling down, and it was full of some of the maddest people I had ever met, but it was certainly the opposite of intimidating. Throughout my two and a half years in this role, I took on greater responsibilities, grew in confidence and learnt what it is to work in an office, to be part of a team, to have an opinion that is valued; to sigh and delete one of the hundred daily emails from an office manager with not a lot better to do (example: ‘Subject header: Soap; Body: Thank you for getting the soap. Kind regards.’). I had a boss that for some reason saw something in me, who wanted to help me to develop and grow, and I was lucky.
Looking back, this was not the real world – myself and a colleague (who is one of my best friends to this day) had weekly ‘poster meetings’ where we created a decorative to do list for ourselves; we spent a high proportion of our time in silent hysteria, tapping away on MSN Messenger about what stupid thing one of the office juniors had just done, or shut in her office pretending to do something important but really just online shopping. Oh to have that much free time! But it was a safe environment for me to find my feet, and by the time I moved on to my next role in the City, I wasn’t quite as terrified as I had been that day in Penguin.
I was of course a little terrified: I had a Scottish boss who I could barely understand, a manager who had been in the Royal Navy (who had perfect fingernails and was absolutely nothing like I imagined a woman who had been in the Royal Navy could be), a South African desk-mate who spoke on the phone in a mysterious foreign language, a fearless American colleague with a flawless blow dry and a leather coat: these people would become some of the most important in my career. They taught me to speak up (and even to speak a bit of Afrikaans!), to have confidence, to ‘demonstrate, don’t declare’; they made me feel valued and important, they pushed me – and they continue to do all of these things.
I’m still with that company and have gone through so much in the five years since my first day there. I’ve learnt that what motivates me is being part of a team – is being accountable to others who you like and respect. I’ve gone through major life events and come out the other side, thanks to the amazing people that I work with.
Here in the UK, we’re so lucky – we have a choice. We can choose what we want to do; whether we want to work with children or work in sales or work as a farmer. If we don’t like what we’re doing, we can choose to do something else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusion that we’re living in some kind of American Dream ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ utopia. We’re absolutely not, and you absolutely can’t. As my boss once said to me, ‘the sooner you realise life’s not fair, the better’. I’ve been extremely lucky to have grown up in a family that supported my education, that could afford to send me to university (we’ll ignore the £12,000 debt for now); to have been given the tools that enabled me to attend a job interview, to write a CV, to make a (hopefully) good first impression. I have no doubt that lots of young people in this country don’t have that solid backing; don’t have the right people around them, or the right clothes to wear, or the support system to keep trying: don’t see the point. But I keep coming back to what our lives could have been like had we been handed a different lottery ticket and been born in Ethiopia or Haiti or Liberia. If I’d been born in Saudi Arabia, I could perhaps work as a nurse or a teacher or a housemaid, but I’d have to rely on a husband to drive me there. Even if I could get to work, I wouldn’t be allowed to mix with any of the male employees when I got there. When I think of the freedom that we have in this country, it’s unimaginable that someone like me in another part of the world has so little. How can we even be living in the same time period?
I’m so grateful for the opportunities that my career has furnished me with so far, but more than that I’m grateful for the individuals who have taken the time to back me, to listen to me and to be my friend. Regardless of what job you’re doing (or even if you’re not doing a job at all and are instead bringing up children or caring for somebody), as long as you’re appreciated it’s so much easier to get out of bed and keep going for another day (despite the fact that Southern Rail might be doing its darndest to stop you). Wherever my career takes me in the future, I’ll keep with me so much that I’ve learnt along the way, knowing that I do have something to offer, that I can do more than I think (and that the only person who’ll ever thank you for doing overtime is yourself). And if I could say anything to my nervous self, crying on the train home after that first day at Penguin in 2008, it would be ‘don’t worry, you’ll get there… and also, bring a packed lunch tomorrow’.