‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ – Mary Oliver
Hands bleeding, shoulders scraped raw, arms hanging limply by my sides, I slump down on a bench next to my friend Nina’s father and open my packed lunch.
‘Ha ha, cosying up to the boss, love?’ winks the hard-muscled, sun-wrinkled man opposite me. I flush and smile politely as I hungrily gobble my sandwiches. I’m not going to cut it as a steel fixer – that’s already clear from my half day’s work at a new sewage works near Swindon.
I’d left school before I was sixteen, when the owner of a local riding school offered me a job: heaven on a plate, in the shape of horses all day. But eventually I noticed that my friends (the ones I still saw) were buying clothes, going clubbing and meeting boys, while I worked long hours for very little money. It was time to get a ‘proper job’.
Over the next ten years, I went for jobs in the paper or the job centre that I could do without any qualifications, or I followed up leads from friends (such as Nina) in my new world. This approach took me into roles as various as accounts clerk, waitress, van driver, administrator – and steel fixer. I wasn’t very good at most of these jobs – and neither did I like most of them (though I loved the van driving!), which is hardly surprising in hindsight. I physically couldn’t carry around huge bars of steel, and twist wire with my fingers – but equally I couldn’t juggle hotel bookings, car hire, petty cash, stationery supplies and reception duties without forgetting or losing something important occasionally.
If you have ever done a job you’re not very good at, you’ll know how bad it can be for self-esteem. I don’t know which was worse: the mistakes and sense of failure, or the criticism and teasing. I came to dread performance appraisals; the hot-faced embarrassment of taking a call from a manager who’d arrived at his hotel to find he wasn’t booked in; the moral dilemma of whether topping up an inexplicably impoverished cash box from my own pocket would suggest that I had deliberately stolen from it.
And all the time, I had this sense of bewilderment: I’d been quite bright at school; how come I was so awful at everything I tried?
My saviour came in the shape of a breakfast cereal factory manager, who co-opted me to the Investors in People steering committee. He saw my instant passion for working with people. He funded me to have a whole lot of training in recruitment and psychometric testing, and had me shadow the management development manager. One proud, memorable day I co-ran a leadership workshop, and that was it – I’d found my niche. At last: work I not only loved, but was good at!
I spent the next few years learning avidly. I worked for three years with a mortgage company, adding to my knowledge and practise of communication skills, leadership models, personality types and coaching. Meanwhile, I was delighted to realise I could learn to get better at things I’d never be a natural in – such as developing my planning and organising skills (but not lifting steel bars). It was a time of great personal growth. Performance appraisals were sometimes even enjoyable. But to my surprise, I began to feel unfulfilled again…
I realised that although I loved the work I was doing, I didn’t love what I was doing it for. At team pep talks I found I honestly didn’t care how many new mortgages were in the pipeline, any more than I’d cared whether our breakfast cereal was the best seller. I wanted to do work I loved – but I wanted do it for outcomes I cared about.
I moved to higher education, the charitable sector and then a housing association, gaining valuable experience as I went. But as fast as I moved, a creeping commercialism followed me… Eventually I went self-employed, using the skills I’d learned to benefit truly ethical organisations. As long as I could earn a living, I could take the reduced income.
My career journey taught me how much happier and fulfilled we can all be when we’re doing work that we love, we’re good at and we care about. It makes such a difference: not only to self-esteem, but also to mental health, and therefore relationships with family and friends.
I spent the next few years researching and writing about work (and obsessing, my friends might say!) I discovered that everyone has a particular, unique set of skills that they can use not only to make a living, but to make a positive difference in a world of societal and environmental crises; a world so full of need and opportunity.
Of course, finding the right work is easier said than done: some people’s natural talents are buried under layers of social conditioning; others ‘do their thing’ so naturally, they don’t even realise how good they are at it. Others know perfectly well what their thing is, but struggle to make a living from it in today’s commercial working world.
I dream of a world in which everyone has work they love, and that makes full use of their unique skills. I dream of a society in which the main purpose of work is to benefit people and planet, in turn creating vibrant, resilient local economies.
The work I do now – coaching, writing and workshops on the topic about which I’m so fervent – is my contribution to bringing about such a world. After five years I’m still learning, and still out of my comfort zone sometimes (that’s where the best learning usually is). But, I count myself so very fortunate (especially when I look back on my steel-fixing day!) to have work that I love, that I’m good at – and that makes a positive difference in the world. There are some very capable steel fixers in the world, and some excellent administrators. They have their gifts; I have mine.
With all that we’ve achieved as a species, surely it should be possible for everyone to be so fortunate in their work? We can all create a better working world, starting with ourselves.
The first steps are to identify, clarify and believe in your gifts – and yes, we all have at least one! The next steps are finding the best way, or ways, for you to use those gifts, and turning that into reality.
As far as I know, we only have one life. We might as well make it count, and enjoy ourselves along the way!