Judging by the feedback I had on twitter to my writing a post about this subject, I expect to be partially ridiculed in the comments section. However, I will trudge forward and hope that some of this makes some sense and resonates with a few at least. I’d like it to, because I’d like some advice!
Sorry to disappoint anyone that was seduced by the blog post title, but this one’s all about turning FORTY. It’s a bit personal in many ways as I am the person turning forty, but I’d like to think it’s a more general comment on making key decisions and not being afraid of making them. I’ve also noticed (without any intention) that this coincides with the annual flutter of A-level and GCSE grade envelopes hitting hallway mats all over the country and deciding the futures of many a tempestuous young thing. So, if there are any A-level aged folk reading this, be reassured that you will face many more crossroad-like decisions as you meander through life!
I’ve never been someone to worry about age. In fact, I was always rather relieved to turn thirty. It meant I no longer had to live up to the crazy social expectations of being in my twenties. Thirty felt safe. I was now allowed to be who I wanted to be. I’d done enough ‘career’ years to know what I was fairly good at, I’d proved myself (to a certain extent) and I was married. I’d unknowingly fulfilled a throwaway bit of advice my Dad gave me when I’d just graduated…”3 jobs before you’re 30″ (something I hadn’t planned on, but it proved to be very useful). I was a father for the first time at thirty and life was exciting and shapeshifting. I made a promise to myself that I would take risks in my thirties, and that promise led me to set up my design business – Square Banana. So far so good.
The past decade has both sped past and yet – at times – crept along like a lethargic slug. It’s been a whirlwind of children growing up, building up a business, moving houses several times and all the other paraphernalia that comes with self-employment and parenthood. Nothing new there. I know I’m not alone!
However, despite my not being worried about getting old (as a human bean…to quote the BFG), as my fortieth birthday approaches I have started to consider my ‘career’ age a great deal more. Grey hair doesn’t bother me, but I have a nagging sense that I should be making more of what I see as the ‘F-spot’ in my career trajectory.
Now I appreciate that it needn’t be limited to the fortieth birthday, and can in fact stretch out into the mid-forties, but at about this time in my life, I see a virtual graph being plotted and me sitting at a specific point on this graph. When you graduate, you have a high ‘youth‘ value but low ‘experience‘ value. Conversely, at retirement (or your twilight career years…whenever they may be) you have a low ‘youth‘ value but very high ‘experience‘ value. So your youth graph descends on a linear path as time marches on, and your experience graph ascends (in a somewhat less linear way, but we’ll assume this is the case for the purposes of this example) towards it’s peak just as you decide to retire. An X shaped graph if you will. If there are any theoretical mathematicians reading this, please forgive me…I ‘colour in’ for a living!
Anyway, if you look at this graph, and consider it in a theoretical sense, there is a point in the middle where they cross. This is what I’m calling the F-spot. You have ENOUGH experience to be useful, considered, authoritative (ish), commercially savvy, pragmatically creative and you will have met enough people to know how to deal with most of them. Similarly, you have ENOUGH youth to be a viable hire to any business looking for a long term future. In theory, you’ve got 20+ years still in the tank and you’ve probably already made all of the really stupid mistakes you are going to make (I said probably!). I see this as a critical point in the career of a person looking to be a commercially creative influence in any way, shape or form.
So my awareness of this F-spot has caused me to start thinking about my future. Not in a negative way at all. In the way that life changes at 30 caused me to rethink my future and set up my business, so my (nearly) turning 40 has caused me to think about where I might want to see myself in another 10 or 20 years. I guess the realisation of this F-spot (be it utter codswallop or whether it has some element of truth) has brought it into sharp focus and has made me realise that there may be a fairly small window of opportunity to take advantage of circumstances. I have no doubt that every single person who cares about their future has had similar doubts, plans and realisations, although some may have had them at 30, 50 or 60. In fact, I was discussing this F-spot with someone the other day and they described a similar ‘crossroads’ at 30, and that 40 didn’t affect them in the slightest. Interestingly, they were from the building trade, and it was a question of fitness that made them question their future at 30.
The main issue with getting older, is that typically every decision you make that affects your life significantly, also significantly affects those around you. In your twenties, a job move across country meant packing what few belongings you had amassed, into a car or van, and renting a slightly different shaped version of the house or apartment you had before. Your thirties are a little more complex, but very small children are very adaptable! With children about to start secondary school, a business that is established and a more complex family and friend network (I’ve got two daughters…its very complex!), your forties are inevitably a more tangled web. I appreciate that I am talking very specifically about my own circumstances, but I expect everyone has their own versions of what I am talking about. Each and every major decision you make as you get older – to a point – seems to get more and more political and entrenching. Nobody’s fault. It’s just life Jim!
One thing I realised when we decided to move to Australia 10 years ago, was that it wasn’t the act of moving that was difficult. It was making the decision to move. That was the tricky bit…those bloody mental gremlins. Once we had decided to go, the rest was simply organising bank accounts, movers, rental agreements, job contracts etc. etc. The same stuff we have to deal with over here, but just in a different country and with a different currency symbol. I was genuinely shocked by how straightforward it was. Even when we realised that we would be having our first child in Australia, once we had resolved in our own minds that it was going to happen, the rest was simply organisational pragmatism. I’m simplifying somewhat, but in the main, it is true. The main obstacle to change is our own reluctance to it. We use excuses like schooling, pensions and family to avoid making these key changes in our lives, but in truth, unless you are moving to a war zone, you and your family will cope and – most probably – thrive as a result. You as a person can only be a better version of yourself with more and varied experiences to call upon. Especially if you are a designer for goodness sake!
So, what am I going to do about this blasted F-spot?
In truth, I have absolutely no idea.
I *sort* of know what I’d like to be doing in 10 years time, but I’m not entirely sure how I go about getting there. I love what I do and I love running my own business, but will I be equally happy with this if it remains the same for the next 10 years? That’s what I have to resolve. It’s a bit like when I used to get grief from ex-colleagues who used to bitch about me being wheeled in on the occasional freelance contracts, claiming that I was being paid “…way more than they were!” The only way anything can change is if you change it. If they wanted to earn a freelance rate, go bloody freelance! Now cope with the insecurity, lack of paid holiday…yadda yadda yadda!
I’ve started putting plans in motion which will help me decide how my future might change to something I choose, rather than something I end up with. Whether these plans work out will yet to be seen. I know I love to design….to actually design. To be ‘on the tools’. I also love helping others solve a design problem with my input (or interference!). I love dealing with people. I love hearing stories. I love crafting solutions from seemingly impossible roots. What I don’t like is the guff that gets in the way of design. The bluff and bluster, smoke and mirrors of others who want to sell an impossible future based on misinformation and spin. The knotted reel of wool that has to be picked apart and straightened out before anything meaningful can be embarked upon. That’s what I hate.
If, in 10 years time, I can be in a position where I can still be actually designing (not simply dictating from afar), earning more money to secure my family’s best interests, helping to create meaningful solutions to genuine problems and avoiding the guff, then I’ll be a happy chappie! It sounds simple, but I’m not sure it’s that realistic.
I’ve always wondered if we are – to a certain extent – limited by our own expectations of our abilities. I for one, never expected to be ‘right’ for consultancy. At university, we were once asked by our lecturing tutor, to raise our hands if we thought we would work in a design consultancy. I kept my hand down and quietly considered a career path within an in-house engineering design team (and I would have been entirely happy with that BTW). As it happens, I’m probably one of the few in my entire year who has (accidentally) forged a career predominantly in consultancy. I vowed never to work in London and yet did so for a number of years. I vowed never to set up a design business on my own and yet have done so (some would say foolishly!). At each stage in my career, I have done things I had previously never considered myself doing. So what of the next 10 or 20 years? Should I aim as high as I possibly can? Why not? I am always telling clients to be ambitious and aim high….why can’t I take a bit of my own advice?
It’s those mental gremlins again.
So as I approach 40, I will be thinking hard about that darned F-spot and what it means for me. I may not do anything about it for a number of years, but I think I ought to do something…even if it is to reassure myself that I am happy doing what I am doing for the next 20 years. Conversely, I may up-sticks and head to the other side of the world (again) to seek my fortune. Who knows? I’ve had a number of opportunities in the last year or so to make me never take anything for granted, nor to expect the status quo. It’s a time to reflect, ponder and reconsider.
With wine of course!
Of all my blog posts, it is this one that I am looking for comment from others who have either sorted themselves out or had similar quandaries. I am genuinely interested to hear how others have dealt with this point in their careers (at whatever time it may have occurred) and appreciate anyone who takes the time to comment.