The F-spot

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.

I’ll explain…

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.

7 thoughts on “The F-spot

  1. To a large extent I think you have, or are, answering your own questions. In doing so you’ll get the best and most right answers. It’s your life and you know yourself and those whom you feel need to be factored in, better than anyone else.

    From observation, either of my own mid forties or those of similar age and older, poorer and richer one thing I see as constant and unavoidable is the “guff”. It’s either same shit different day, same day different shit, same shit same day or different day different shit. I’m sorry to say this seems to perpetuate until death. How’s that for optimism?

    I’ve seen rich men worry about loosing £10m, wonder who their real friends are and even if they can trust their family members. I’ve seen and been one who worry if there is going to be too much month left at the end of the money and to an extent, I’m still at that point.

    Unless your single and childless at forty (my brother in law for example, the lucky b@$t4rd!) then these decisions are never taken selfishly nor are they taken and faced alone. In that there is some comfort and support when the proverbial hits the fan or there to share in the celebrations of success.

    What we have is often much greater than for what we hope as what we hope for can often be something of an anti climax. A friend of mine for example sold his Ferrari and helicopter after being disappointed. He felt he’d wasted his opportunity to dream for the promise of ownership. The guff for him was losing his licence and a £20,000 a month maintenance on his helicopter.

    I knew a chap who owned a chain of high street butchers and got out just before the supermarkets took business and went into property. He was the poorest multi-millionaire I’ve ever known.

    The thing is though, life doesn’t begin at forty… You just know what’s comming and are able to deal with it more easily and effectively. Oh, and watch your health. Things do become that little bit more challenging. In fact, in this regard life ends and slow deteriation sets in. I warned my wife who turned for—, who turned 21 😉 last November that the aches and pains would come. She didn’t believe me. She does now though!

    Oh, and now, like me and like I’ve perhaps demonstrated, you can become an official GOM 🙂

  2. You lucky s*d only 40 .. 🙂

    Good comments from Lloyd.

    All I’ll add from an extra 37% 🙂 and still not 100% sorted (but who is ?)
    This is to my 40 yr old self:

    1. You are OK .. pat yourself on the back, you’ve achieved ! now say good bye to all those ‘shoulds’ and ‘expectations’ , notice what you really want out of life and steer a course (even a zig zag course towards it).

    2. Jettison the ego .. do you really need to show other designers how good you are ? (or is that really mum & dad, favourite teacher etc. ) which leads onto:…

    3. Money .. yes you need to live and support your family, but how much is enough ? do you really need an expensive office, cnc, RP machine, reception desk and all the cr*p that business advisors say you must have in the never ending urge to grow ?? Simples: cut the outgoings and slow down the tread mill .. what wrong with working from home, sub -con RP, cnc and even some design work ?

    4. Ignore the constant capitalist, media, ego, biz school, mantra to grow the biz get bigger, grow ! grow! grow! .. unless that what you REALLY want ie are you a designer or are you an entrepreneur … ditto the constant media mantra to be famous, important, powerful, opinions worshiped …….. … why ?

    Me i’m 100% designer/engineer, hate the rest, not too worried about money, fame, …
    (the book ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain, is the most recent of a series of books on life that has helped me decide who I am, and what I want … introvert, and to do own thing. It fabulously bursts the business school balloon of being a load mouthed ‘jock’ as THE only way to ever succeed 🙂

    But YOU may be different … SO … time for some navel gazing…..

    5. What do YOU really want to do ??
    a) day to day ? &
    b) longer term ?
    YOU may well be different, but for me it was:
    a) design and create better stuff, ideally to better humanity – cad, make, test, improve
    alongside enjoying the rest of life familly, world and everything between THE two oblivions.
    b) ditto forever 🙂 .. with enough money in/money out and a few rewards and treats

    6. How,
    Truthfully: as 3 .. how much is enough ? how many products out there are enough ?
    Now having answered that, assume a) you only have say a year to live & b) you only have 1st world money problems ….. how would you spend that year ?

    Is that different from how you live your life now ?
    If so… steer the ship to better aim those zig-zags

    Me: it was less consultancy more own stuff, yes indulgent, but because so, also good. Then hook up with companies for the ‘shouting about it’ bit, marketing and distribution aspects. move, more from fees to a few royaltees. But thats me ..
    I guess this will not nec be YOU .. ??

    Enjoy the navel gaze – NOTICE – ….. ie mindful … [that is, between THE two oblivions]

    Mark +37%

  3. My mid-life crisis involved running a marathon and buying a Vespa, yours sounds like its going to be career based! There is no answer to happiness in work & life but for me at the core of it is appreciation for what you have, not what you want.

    I’ve been in the design business for 20 years now, worked overseas for 7 of those, setup Product Resolutions in 2000, that spawned another business that made a lot of money for a while, we had 3 offices, lots of people, then it all went wrong, I lost a lot of money. I look at those experiences as part of my business education and learn from them. What that has shown me is that there will always be “guff” whether you’re making lots of money or not very much, you need to embrace it, learn from it, accept it. I think its in the nature of us designers to care about what we do and so the “guff” is largely self-generated.

    Having a vision of what you want your business/life to be in the future can be important, but more important is to focus on what you are doing now and enjoy it because that’s the bit you can control. Opportunities will come and go and they are the things that will ultimately dictate where your business will end up.

    You’ve already shown that your predictions of what you might do in your career have been completely wrong so I’d stop predicting, get your head down, enjoy what you’re doing, enjoy the kids and take the opportunities when they come…..but that’s only the view of a 43 year old product designer who still thinks he’s 25!

  4. Welcome to the quadragenerian club! Having just turned 40 myself, there’s a fair amount in here which I can relate to so thanks. Great post. It’s an age that has always sounded very grown up to me though which is probably why it feels so alien to be it.

    I’ve never thought of myself to be mature enough to be a 40 year old. At least, to be what my view of a 40 year old should be or act like. But thinking about it I was like this when I turned 30 too so perhaps my mental age is lagging my physical age. After all I’m still not sure what I want to do when I grow up…
    Maybe we’re all a bit like this though and feel a lot younger than our real age. I think this is what brings the self analysis and introspection into play as it ‘sounds’ way too old to our younger feeling selves.

    Even if having goals and planning ahead is a way of us trying to get control back, you really never know what life is going to throw your way. Plans of mice and men etc.
    I’ve got a few ideas of what I would like to be doing in 5 years and in 10 too but they’re really just rough ideas and I know I’m enjoying what I’m doing at the moment and have a great family and friends which makes a big difference to being happy. That’s the main thing isn’t it?

    I guess we should really enjoy the moment and embrace the future if that’s not too corny. You can always look forward to some crazy purchases and eccentric behaviour, citing a mid-life crisis as the cause. …Not that THAT is my only plan!

    Anyway, not sure I’ve added anything to this discussion but I’m just going to keep telling myself that I look a lot younger than 40.

    Meh. It’s only a number anyway…

  5. This year marked 24 years of running my business, and to a certain extent I had a momentary late mid life crisis realising that I am still doing, more or less, what I was doing 24 years ago. I started the business when I was 24 (so work out I have a few more years on you Russell), because I wanted to “do my own thing” (not actually realising what my own thing would be). Over that time I had plans and targets but to be quite honest, they all went out the window as opportunities come and go, and life does its thing. I would love to say that I had planned my greatest successes but the honest answer is the best opportunities often arise simply by being in the right place at the right time. The trick, as you get more savvy, is to make sure you know where to stand!

    I have also had the privilege of working with and for some amazing people and companies, and this is probably what keeps me going. The thought of doing a job that is the same every day terrifies me – regardless of money. I also know that in the last 24 years I/we have contributed to helping many businesses grow and expand and take on more and more people. Then there is still the buzz of seeing a product you designed pop up on TV or in a shop or magazine, or hear that that product helped saved someone’s life.

    Truthfully, I occasionally look back at some events and wished I’d done things a little differently, but 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing to have! A great customer of mine once told me “the older I get the less I know” (he is a big Bob Dylan fan) and that is very true. In business terms I know a lot about developing products and dealing with the issues surrounding that, but it doesn’t make it any easier or less of a challenge to try to predict the success of failure of a product in the market.

    I didn’t make a million by the time I was 30, or by the time I was 40. Maybe by the time I’m 50 🙂
    Contrary to what some of my Twitter followers believe, I am the eternal optimist!

    As Paul says above, live for the day and deal with the day to day issues and opportunities as they arise. Life is a precious commodity and all too short. Carpe Diem!

  6. The internet is amazing. Here I am, 21 and Canadian, just a few years into being a designer and I get to read the advice and wisdom of people who have been in the field longer than I’ve been alive, from the other side of the world. How neat!

    If your graph is true, I’m high in youth and low in experience. In my youthful arrogance I’d contest that second point, haha, but it’s probably objectively true – I will no doubt look back on what I’m doing now in five and ten years and shake my head. After that I’ll probably be so old as to have forgotten my youth entirely 😉

    I don’t have any advice, of course, but I am asking these same questions from the opposite side: there’s 60 or so years left in my theoretical life. What do I do with them? What do I even want?

    Personally, there might not be an answer. If life is a stream we sort of just float down it, bumping into the banks every so often and experiencing a few rapids. But there’s also smooth sailing and the sunset glow on the water. Money can always be made, and most often easily. But time. Time is the tricky one. Paradoxically, the more activities we try to stuff into a set amount of time, the more burnt out we feel; yet the more we “waste” by not hustling constantly, the more we’re rested and happy. That’s where I’m at, and I liked the comments above that said similar things: slowing down, killing the ego, enjoying life and it’s little things. I don’t need to be famous or world renowned to experience success or pride in myself. My work is my work, some will be good and others less so, but I’ll enjoy the process. We are designers – we’re led to do these things from our very sinew. All we can do, likely, is just enjoy the ride.

    Thanks all, for your opinions and advice

  7. So… The big 40, allegedly life begins at this point – to a degree I found that true, but actually it sounds like yours began a bit earlier and actually, if I’m honest, mine has gotten better and better since in many ways, although the aches & pains, failing eyesight, hearing etc. that also all seem to “Begin at 40” I could well do without.

    Several others, should we call them the usual suspects, have made all the good points I thought of – and were far faster off the mark (Another sign of age!) than me. I do particularly like Lloyd’s “GOM” point. I am really grumpy these days, I use it as a filter system to put off idiots and others upon whom my increasingly precious time is not to be wasted. The more astute will (Usually) see through the grumpy exterior – and those who don’t fail the test!

    So, here you are, staring a mid-life crisis in the nose hairs, but hang on, from what you say life is not so bad. True the youth value is receding faster than the hairline (Sorry Kevin) but actually the experience value is more than making up for it – trust me on this one, I still have the ability to make the youff sit up wide-eyed on occasion, apparently incredulous that the old git knew the answer to their intractable problem. True I have no idea how long I can keep it up for (Yes, pun intended!) but so far so good – and you know the best bit, I no longer care if it fades away in due course, something else will come along to make up for it. You also have travelled, set up a business, got a family and, from my observation, seem to be in a reasonably good place all things considered. So what are you worrying about? Judging yourself against others will always give you doubts, or worse, arrogance! These days I only judge my current self against my past self and then only as far as; “Am I happy with where I am / who I am” in the moment? Occasionally the answer is negative – but more and more it is not, maybe because I am not very self-critical – but then, do I really care what anybody else thinks?

    So my “Advice” for what it’s worth. Find something positive in every moment and if you can’t – then change your expectations not your circumstances. You made the universe you inhabit and actually yours sounds like it suits you, mine certainly suits me. You and I – and most of the rest of the world, will never be the richest, best looking, most famous etc., etc. but we will hopefully be the best “Us” we can be – so will most other people we know and care about. What more can we ask for?

    See, told you it was deep! Happy (Impending) 40th. Now go and enjoy the next decade aware that in ten years time you will still be a lot younger than me – and I still won’t care!

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