Those are two jobs I could not do. Just thinking about them makes me a little tight in the chest. If clients aren’t already keen to buy, I have no business convincing them otherwise, especially if it involves a high-sugar drink that contributes to obesity and destructive palm oil harvesting. As for the classroom of rowdy youths, forget it. I wasn’t that fond of kids when I was a kid — all the screaming and name-calling and juvenile betrayals — and I can’t imagine being disrespectful to someone who is earnestly trying to teach me. Being on the other side of that is a non-starter.
Ahead of joining the working world, I was naïve to the extent that people would pretend to know what was going on when they didn’t, and I was appalled at the lack of cooperation. It was like there was some loftier goal that meant everyone-for-themselves was the way to go. I was especially sensitive to it because I hadn’t really wanted to get a job in the first place, so I couldn’t distract myself by playing the game.
Hell may be other people, but entering adulthood did make the vagaries of human interaction easier for me to deal with. I learned to walk in other people’s shoes and feel compassion instead of disdain; sometimes what we see as less-than-decorous behaviour is actually pretty impressive comportment when you know the backstory. It sounds a little trite, but books made me less judgemental.
Though I’m a hard worker who understands finance and commodities and banking and copy-editing and typography and French and professionalism, I’ve never had any energy to actualise those things in a professional context. There’s energy to complete the task when I’m on the job and formally asked to do so, but when it came to daydreaming about what I wanted out of my working day, whether realistic or not, I’ve never come up with much.
But we all have to work, right? So I didn’t question my indifference; I just ploughed on through.
At the end of this 21-day Be Yourself Writing Challenge, our final prompt is to write about a secret we kept from ourselves, so here it is: to me, the working world isn’t a nice place to be, just as the classrooms of my childhood weren’t so great either, and I’m not that interested in shoehorning myself into them. I can’t really care whether my editing business grows or not because I can’t really care about business.
There. That’s it. Here I am writing to a business audience, many of whom very understandably want to supercharge their careers, about my apathy towards business.
Maybe I’ll change my mind some day and maybe I won’t. I don’t dwell on it. In the meantime, life is rich, and I’m going to dabble in spheres where creating high-calibre work matters more than the furthering of one twenty-first-century Western human’s very transitory career. Get in touch and we’ll dabble together.
I’m not much of a spender, anyway; I don’t care much about chattels. I’m much more interested in mansions, ha ha, and the mere cost of upkeep alone for one of the British flavour is staggering, so it’s not something I give much thought to. If someone engages me to be the caretaker, that’s my most sensible route in. (If you’re wondering, I live in a plain flat on the second floor of a building on a lot that I surmise was bombed out in the war.)
So without a job and replete with time, I adjusted. I reduced restaurant meals to a couple of times a year, I flew less, I stopped shelling out for drinks so readily, and I started cooking nearly every meal. The weekly fruit and vegetable box from Riverford costs £17.25. Not all luxuries are expensive, of course. Monday morning a box of organic food shows up at my door for this low price, and the rest of the week is spent imbibing what my body needs to stay healthy.
Preparing fresh food several times a day for years has changed my view on work a little bit. Not only am I averse to grabbing a corporate sandwich to eat at my desk for twenty minutes, I resent how a day in the office crowds out our access to nutrition. If some of us are lucky enough to have healthy meals made for us, that’s pretty smashing, but my point is more about priorities. If I said to a full-time employer that I need leeway to be able to prepare each of my meals using foods sourced from properly sustainable farms that treat their employees well and don’t use pesticides, I would get a polite nod of agreement, but likely no job offer.
And I don’t think I’d blame them. It’s asking too much of a large company to adjust to each idiosyncratic request. There must be confidence that you will bring in a lot of incremental money before they start making adjustments.
So food and its preparation take up a large part of my day-to-day. I can barely enter a subpar supermarket without thinking about how important our food distribution systems are. Obviously what we put into our bodies is important. I don’t think my career is important; teaching, counselling, and maintaining power lines are important if you do those things well, but most of my work involves sitting at a computer, and some other editor or financial analyst could step in and do the work. The universe would be no worse off.
If that’s the case, why wouldn’t I structure my life so I’m ingesting proper food 95% of the time? If my full-time career is getting in the way of that, it’s like I’m making a value judgement – adopting the assumption that spending the majority of my waking hours in the office in pursuit of someone’s fuzzy commercial agenda is worth more. But that assumption should at least be examined.
These days I come at the question from another angle. If you’re making it difficult for me to eat well and sleep well, you better have a pretty compelling reason for me to come into the office.
I am a professional copy-editor (and semi-professional orderer of food in restaurants), which in my case is not the same thing as being a frustrated writer. I don’t want to write or sing or act; what I want is more time to take in the experts doing those things. I’d like two solid hours a day to search for new music, a little more time than that for proper food preparation, a good chunk of downtime to catch up on the nine books on my nightstand that have been there since 2016, and because this is Britain and there is a centuries-old pub on my street, I obviously should head down there and … Whoops! Where did the day go? I forgot about all that pesky paid work.
When Megan asked us today to explore the pitfalls of getting what we want, I shook my head. I’ve been letting my life happen to me since before I ended up in a high-demand religious high school where individualism was quashed, and well before I fell into a university and then a job without much more forethought than a coin flip. Before any of that, in a comfortable Western home where I was safe and well-fed, asking for things — toys, face time, assistance — was frowned upon. So I stopped asking.
These very natural questions being put to us, this hand-wringing over wants and dreams … they lose me.
But I am possessed of nothing if not an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and I have to submit my entry before the day is through. Forgive me, dear readers, for shoehorning this unadorned, almost surly answer to today’s prompt: after planning and lobbying for months, I secured the high-demand role at the bank that I wanted and once I got there I failed to elicit even basic levels of cooperation from my team. The role was highly difficult for no good reason, it made me miserable, and I stuck it out way longer than I should have. I didn’t learn any lesson from it because I’m either thick or not prone to questioning anyone but myself over the things that matter, and I don’t know that I would do things differently next time.
<Whew!> Glad that’s over.
But Megan has an extra instruction for us today, namely to address a common objection that clients raise ahead of engaging our services. Um, well … I dunno. Living in one of the world’s most expensive cities on a copy-editor’s pay just seems like bad financial management; if I get too much business, it crowds out the time I can devote to pursuits that will pay my way. Still, if pushed to address the objection, I can offer some more unadorned surliness.
To wit: as an editor and analyst with a penchant for high execution, I usually think everything is terrible. If you don’t want whatever you’re presenting to be terrible — if you want to come across with industry-beating professionalism — then call me now and I will charge you a lot and you won’t even feel it because I will have helped extricate you from the paradigm of mediocrity that the business world runs on as long as the money is coming in. And we’ll have fun! I am not surly in person.
Megan didn’t ask us to be calm and considered about today’s prompt because, I assume, she just thought it was implied. The pitfalls of getting what you want, you know?
I usually have to take myself in hand in order to indulge, not the other way around. After years of curiosity about pop rocks, I thought, it just can’t matter that I spend 79p for a little bit of American candy. So I circled back to the right aisle in the grocery store and WENT CRAZY.
Which is to say that I bought a single pack. I ate them, they shot off with little explosions, and then, really, I was satisfied. I likely will never have them again.
Every other house I visited as a kid had better candy and better toys. Except for the weeks after Hallowe’en, there wasn’t any candy in our house and just a small handful of toys. Candy wasn’t forbidden; very few things were. Not explicitly anyway.
As a typical candy-loving, toy-covetting child, I noticed this First World dichotomy when I started to go other houses in the neighbourhood, but it wasn’t until I was shipped off to boarding school under false pretences that I noticed the more fundamental differences between my household and the others.
After leaving for school at the age of twelve, I doubt I spent more than three days in a row with my family ever again. I had internalised the understanding that I was on my own to such an extent that even though virtually every day at school was unhappy, I knew there was no one to appeal to; there was no way out. Except for one very unhappy child of staff members, everyone in my original class had been extricated by the time I got to graduation. Rather stark truths like that left my parents unmoved; if they even stooped to listen to me about the school, which was rare, they blamed me for the trouble I was having. So much of my will was dedicated to navigating the school’s capricious censure — we were constantly being berated — there seemed to be no room for thoughts on a career or building a life the way I wanted. My energy was dedicated, without rest, to diminishing my particular purgatory. I had stopped asking for what I wanted years before, and I am still out of touch with a lot of those notions.
Case in point: I left the task of choosing universities late, and I applied to completely different disciplines at each one. Soon after, I turned eighteen and was truly on my own. Underneath I was still adjusting to my freedom and so the nature of my new circumstances left me a little flat. University? Okay, sure. Whatever.
An explanation: this impromptu exploration of my history is all a little bit self-centred for my liking, but I am writing this piece in response to a prompt from a business consultant whom I trust, and I’ve been called to explain how my family or history influenced my own philosophy. The question is, of course, fundamental, but I am here typing a little faster than usual and circling a conclusion without approaching one, I fear. I notice that I’m blathering a bit and also becoming frustrated. I can’t see a link between my upbringing and how I view the working world, though of course the link must be very real and very strong.
Much was wrong with how I got started, and none of my immediate family members take responsibility. Brick walls, all of them. Equally, they didn’t unduly impose their will on me. There was little to absorb or push against, and so questions of how that influenced my own approach to, say, work just leave me confused.
I didn’t navigate my relationship with my family as many of you did. There was no surly adolescent phase, no real fights, no truces, no finding my own feet. I had a safe, quiet upbringing largely free from upheaval, but in that safe space I was on my own. The walls weren’t whispering anything that I could discern.
My parents’ career success was evident, while their willingness to make a home for their children wasn’t. That must mean, if I’m forced to analyse it, that until someone came along to explain why having a career was so crucial, I just couldn’t get that fired up about it. And nobody did.
I remained armed with less lofty intentions: let’s do the work well, avoid producing output we can’t stand behind, and strive for cooperative relationships that don’t leave people subtly unhappy. If most of our waking hours are spent working, then why can’t we enjoy it? And if my personal enjoyment matters, then it matters for the people I work with too.
How this fuzzy career philosophy stems from my background, I cannot yet say. Annie Dillard wrote that ‘how we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives’. In the absence of a career plan or any dreams of launching my business to greater heights (whatever bigger-is-better world view that presupposes), I can feel a little closer to work I want to be doing when the emphasis is on quality of execution and the team finishing the day happy, if tired.
For me the conclusions are of mild scientific interest, but they change nothing. Should the results suggest that I screen for certain illnesses, that seems worthwhile, but what my long-dead ancestors looked like or where they spent their days would occupy my thoughts for about three minutes before they shifted back to the present day. I’d probably forget the results of the test in a year.
Is it a similar experience for those who truly don’t know who their parents are? I’d like to gently protest here that family is what you make it, but not everyone feels that way.
As there’s no television in my household, in the rare instances when I find myself sitting on a couch and zoning out to a programme, I love it. So it was with cheerful interest that I was presented with the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? The well-known culinary star tracing her family tree became increasingly distressed by the misdeeds of an ancestor she hadn’t known the existence of up until that point; she took it personally. I was a little … incredulous, but she was visibly upset, and it brought home to me how utterly unlinked I feel to my family background.
What is the link? What sort of responsibility or understanding is imparted by the people that went before me? I ask the question, but I know the answer for myself: none. Whether prince or pauper, Ashkenazi or North African, I don’t feel the weight of meaning or history. Yes, I rather hope my people, whoever they are, were nice to their fellows and family, but it’s not the sort of hope that waits for an outcome.
Though my family is not particularly big, I couldn’t keep track of the great-aunts or second cousins or anyone once- or twice-removed. Family gatherings were rare, so if I’ve seen any of these extended kin four times in my life that’s a lot. I couldn’t map them onto my own history, so their names and faces occupy a semi-familiar jumble.
My sister and I never talk about the old days because there aren’t any. We grew up in different places with different parental arrangements. I never saw her for more than two days at a time past the age of five and likely only ran into her twice a year for a day or two until I was eighteen.
I’m not sure what the outside world’s impression of ‘our’ family was because ‘we’ didn’t go over to other people’s houses and no one came over to ‘ours’. I’m using quote marks there for a reason: there was no ‘we’. When my parents used the word ‘we’, they were referring to themselves, not their children. They didn’t talk about us as a unit because we weren’t one. We didn’t eat meals together or tackle problems together or go on vacation together, and we certainly didn’t reminisce about the past. Which past? Neither I nor my sister were made to feel part of a family present, and that would be the starting point. We didn’t even own a camera, so retracing the barely-there family memories is difficult. The few-and-far-between portraits of the wider family hid the fact that no pictures were being taken at home. You don’t take pictures of things you’re not interested in.
To be impelled to trace a line to our ancestors, to underpin the effort with some sort of emotional link, maybe first we need an idea of our own living history so we can map one onto the other and discern the proud and shameful similarities and differences. But for ‘us’, for me, the connections to the people that were alive were tenuous. There’s not much of a story even there.
I credit the Society for Editors and Proofreaders for instilling some humility; for one thing they taught me how language evolves and how it pays to be careful about coming down hard on the right/wrong divide. While I studied to become more skilful at weeding out textual problems and to communicate the same, I detected an increasing reticence in my approach. With power, if I may invoke Peter Parker, came responsibility.
So training in copy-editing and proofreading had a sort of calming effect, but when the typography bug bit me, the change felt radioactive.
I don’t have any training in the visual arts. I did not get the high grades I craved when I was forced to take art class at the age of twelve. I couldn’t study harder to perform better, and that’s all I knew how to do. In one way, I was a poor student: always chasing grades instead of the love of learning. Art still leaves me mostly mute. I am neither here nor there on what is good or bad.
The manipulation of words was easier for me to hold on to, and as the most intense period of my editing training was winding down, a number of us fellow editors met in the upstairs room of a modest London restaurant. We had invited the publisher of Lodestar Books, fellow professional editor Dick Wynne, to talk to us about his imprint: the difficulties, the highs and lows and all that usual stuff. He carried under his arm a stack of books, some he had published and a few that he had relied upon along the way. Mr Wynne held up a modern-looking volume entitled Typography for Lawyers, and I think the most succinct way to describe to you what happened next is that the book just called to me.
In the years before this personal watershed moment with a hyper-specific paperback, the wise guidance provided by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders helped me formalise what I already knew: text was often a mess, and I felt compelled to remedy that. But now there was another dimension to contend with: once the flow and meaning of words was ensured, slapping the result into an double-spaced Word document in Arial is like serving a delicious cake that is collapsed and discoloured. The quality is there, but you’d be forgiven for taking a pass. Typography matters, and I just hadn’t known that before. You probably could have guessed by my attempts in art class; this artsy-aesthetic stuff hangs together in mysterious ways.
I give away most of my books after reading them, but I now have a collection of typography how-to’s; hard evidence of my newfound obsession.
That is the backdrop as I alighted from a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord and got into a cab, expecting to wind my way through familiar city streets. But that’s not how it went. As the taxi got going, I relaxed into a sort of desultory stare out the left window until something started to happen and my jaw dropped. The endless string of signage and banners, the offers and adverts and posters and awnings printed with Chez-this and Boulanger-that rifled by as the driver made his way, and all of these regular accoutrements of the city streets came alive for me in a way that I was not ready for and could not have anticipated.
And it was bad. Very bad. The cacophany of messages from advertising and 30%-off sales and phone-card price lists and faded food photography and cheap decals in the windows had transformed the ground floor of the Paris streets from a pleasant traveller’s vista to blocks and blocks of abject type ruination.
Dramatic, eh? It feels a little silly if not schizophrenic to tell you that the city’s words were sending me messages, but that’s how it felt. I was reading the ones and zeros of the Matrix. Every time the printed word was rendered, I knew whether it was bad or good.
I allow, of course, how subjective this all is, but I’ve lived a life of correct writing and discrete mathematical/financial calculations. That I was now seeing words in terms of beauty and ugliness whereas months ago I hadn’t even known the word ‘letterform’ was a sort of life change. (I guess something can be life-altering for oneself without having the least bearing on the rest of the world. One to think on.) This was an entrée into the world of aesthetics that I neither anticipated nor yearned for. That little taxi ride blew me away.
I can see felicitous type everywhere now. I appreciate those who render it well, and it has brought a positive metaphysical dimension to reading. Except when it does the opposite.
That’s life: just after learning to hold my tongue about the sorry state of the written word, I become a type snob and so will be learning to hide that too. As I’m still reeling from the cab ride, let me cite a type professional, namely the author of Typography for Lawyers, Matthew Butterick, in order to put it plainly: ‘professional writers should use professional fonts’.
When I joined the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, it was a pragmatic move towards learning the trade, and I didn’t anticipate the group to be so upstanding and supportive. Anxiety around income, however, is rife among members. I get it, and it never seemed fair to me. How is it that these widely overeducated boffins with an outsized sense of duty to their work, namely the work of making text demonstrably better, are so chronically underpaid? I’m irked on their behalf.
I like my life curated, so to speak, and I see editors as doing that work. Walking through the streets of Britain, the Edwardian and Victorian architecture is responsible for making my life a little better. I rarely shop, but I love the creativity business owners put into their shop windows and interior spaces. It’s hard for me to be moved by art, but get yourself a good audio guide and a whole story comes alive in a painting. And why patronise some sad café when Max’s Sandwich Shop in Crouch Hill makes such good sandwiches?
The analogy here is to the work of editors taking dull text and making it shine. Edit the world!
Not everyone feels this way. My first assignment for a major publisher was a proofread of the fourth edition of a finance textbook. Typically, a copy-editor takes the manuscript and gets it ready for publication; a proofreader comes along later once the proofs are ready, which is to say the last version of the manuscript before it goes to print. At that point, everything is laid out and formatted as it will be in the physical book, and the proofreader makes sure there are no errors.
Well, the book in question needed more copy-editing. Sometimes bullet points were capitalised, sometimes they weren’t; footnotes were missing information; terms popped up that didn’t appear anywhere else and went unexplained; because the authors’ first language wasn’t English, funny phrasings were common. Such infelicities are the preserve of the copy-editor, and why the materials you read don’t have these problems is because the editor caught them.
Except in this case, that didn’t happen. I marked every single issue with the 900-page book, but when I raised the depth of the problems with my friendly and intelligent desk editor, I gleaned from her answers that this was the way things are done, that deadlines didn’t allow for substantial changes, and that we were just going for ‘good enough’. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders had warned me about this.
Raising my hand to say the book wasn’t ready was not helpful. It made more work for the desk editor who had no choice but to buy into a subpar process. The publisher was a billion-dollar business with a share price, and that share price is kept elevated by short-term profits, which are partly sustained by churning books through the system. if you’re like me and are drawn to work that is good on its own merits, income-generating potential is less interesting when it goes hand in hand with cruddy literature.
Because editors are in the business of refining material, gatekeeping against the confusing and the unready, I see them as professionals in making life richer. For this, I love them.
Practising the art and science and magic of making words flow is no mean feat. If that resonates with you, then it’s more than possible that we should work together. Like me, you enjoy rendering quality for its own sake, whatever the forum, with less regard for where it moves one’s career.
Just to confuse the message, I still think editors should be paid more. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
I didn’t have a clear view of our destination, either. I despaired of paddling for hours on end, and I waited for it to be over so we could stop and set up camp at which point I’d wait for that to be over so we could make our way back to camp headquarters, and then I’d just pine for home. I went to camp for six consecutive summers and hated almost every minute of it. Our wooden cabins were set back from the craggly shoreline of the island, and we were absent electricity and running water for the three-and-a-half week session. (An important exception was the canteen, where the staff provided us with tasty, unwholesome food and even tastier 0%-fruit fruit-type drink when we weren’t on a canoe trip.) In my first year I was the youngest camper on the island, having turned seven two weeks earlier. Whatever you are supposed to get out of venturing through the lakes and portages of Canada’s Georgian Bay — and I have it on good authority that people love it — it was lost on me. Other kids were jerks, and I certainly didn’t rise above it.
One cabin mate in my fourth year was from France, and his English was too limited for conversation. As my formal French education was just getting underway at that time, I was excited about learning another language, but in a class of twenty-five children with maybe an hour’s instruction three times a week, we were scarcely past Qu’est-ce que c’est? Ç’est un stade and Comment ça va? Ça va très bien.
My exuberance meant I intervened whenever there was a communication problem with the French kid, and it was way, way too much. It would have been too much even I’d been able to speak the language, but my ten-year-old brain thought pulling off a duplicitous coup by convincing a monolingual francophone that we could converse was entirely possible. Argh.
I badgered him with the same five phrases and eight words (Tu veux nager? Tu veux nager?) and babied him at times when he didn’t need help. I wasn’t mature enough to give him space.
After days of this incessant aggravation, his brother, who was old enough to be on the other side of the island with the bigger kids, came over to test me. He released a torrent of angry French on me, while a few others were watching, and demanded an answer in English, in a rather effective attempt to display my total inability to converse. I couldn’t say anything and I was utterly humiliated. The spectacle was surely just as bad in real life as I’d made it out to be in my mind: I had been overtly, vociferously shamed, and I deserved it.
I recoil at the mix of self-aggrandisement, deceit and desperation for friendship that spurred me to lie about what I could do. Though they were hardly aware of it, other kids detected a desperation in me to be liked — no stronger than anyone else’s, perhaps — and they made connections elsewhere. I wasn’t able to bond over sports or outdoorsmanship or humour or anything, really, and eventually I kind of got used to it. Plus, I became smarter about keeping my head down in order to avoid any similar rebuffs to The French Incident.
Whatever complicated mixture of personality traits children respond to as a basis for regular friendship escaped me on that island. I was unhappy, surrounded by water on all sides, 220 kilometres from home, and very, very stuck.
That familiar human history of making people miserable — people who aren’t interfering with the lives of the observers, or at least not in a way that couldn’t be positively worked out — makes me crazy. I need to be ambushed with strong films on the subject of persecution, any form of persecution, because if I think I already know what I’m in for, I don’t have the mental energy to sit through them. Examples don’t come readily to mind, probably because I can’t remember films I haven’t watched.
An excerpt from the podcast:
for her book in the family way, jane robinson interviewed more than a hundred people affected by the sting of illegitimacy. i wanted to know if it had always been frowned on.
‘before the sixteenth century, it didn’t really matter to be honest. i mean, you didn’t even need to have a formal marriage ceremony. you just needed a blessing from a man of the church.’
Ah, yes, leave it to the church to make a rule and then destroy people for it. Ripping ‘illegitimate’ children away from their loving mothers because you think you know better sounds barbaric because it is. I lack the historical perspective to account for all the complications at the time — maybe some in the church truly thought they were doing the best thing for mother and child — but there’s no arguing with the psychic scars.
Unlike you, perhaps, I wasn’t particularly surprised at the Catholic Church’s attempt to cover for the abusers in their ranks. (Pick your scandal.) The ecclesiastical authorities are just people, and I never put them on a pedestal.
Speaking of pedestals, the head of the high-demand religious organisation that was my school was ordained, and he held court over the lives of students and staff alike. During meals he sat on a dais and occasionally barked out pronouncements with his rigged-up microphone set. You could be concentrating innocently on your soup, avoiding small talk because even that was a pretext for censure, and his voice would boom: ‘I sense many bad attitudes in this room!’
I pegged him as an embarrassing figurehead from the start, ripe for ignoring. It took a few weeks to dawn on me that the staff were obedient to his every whim. He told them what their sins were, how they needed to change, and even whom they they could marry. Not that there was a real choice for partners; the staff only went off campus with permission, for the most part, and having regular friendships with outsiders was forbidden.
They were miserable for years on end. Cults have their own special place on the spectrum of human misery. On this front, allow me to speak from my own dais: if you are responsible for an interpersonal environment, and the people around you are miserable in the medium or long term, whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong.
I know. I’m a genius.
The shaming of children and parents with non-traditional family structures is poisonous human folly. Do such arrangements, unplanned or otherwise, stop us from getting to know the people involved or celebrating life with them? Of course not. Having two parents isn’t a mark of much in my experience, anyway — it’s only a nice-to-have if your parents are nice to have. The question leaves out the character of everyone involved.
I got through the podcast in the end, but I didn’t get a lot out of it even though it was well done. Instead, I experienced the feeling of resignation familiar to me whenever I’m reminded of how much misery is created out of nothing.
So when peers and television described the allure of Las Vegas, it was lost on me. But, I thought, it’s … trashy. I didn’t care about gambling or some ill-defined version of being a bigshot, which sounded embarassing anyway. And at that age I didn’t even know what letting loose meant; someone would very much have to explain it to me before I flew to another country to enjoy it. Aren’t bright neon signs a clear indication of where you don’t want to go?
In truth, I didn’t give it all that much thought. There were no castles down there, and people were loud, so who cares? I already lived in a big city, and it had what I wanted.
The freedom I enjoyed in the city stood in stark contrast to my experience at school. My lot was six years at a remote boarding school with energetic cult tendencies. The school’s administration rejected society, monitored our reading and conversations, and peopled the faculty and staff with obedient, self-hating Christians with barely-there access to their families on the outside. One of my best friends was expelled on graduation day for having gone into town with his friends to celebrate; nothing bad happened, he just got into bed late. We weren’t allowed to ask about his disappearance.
Once that ended I was in the throes of university: freshers’/frosh week and the frenzy and drinking and games and sexual health seminars. I’d be forgiven for experiencing some whiplash.
Except that wasn’t it. I was so relieved to be in an institutional environment where I could think for myself, where I could make jokes and mistakes and declarations (however jejune), and where I could just sit back and watch if I wanted to without getting in trouble for some thought crime. Beyond some real nervousness about stepping into rooms with a bunch of strangers at the beginning, which I forced myself into, it was a piece of cake.
The shock of the transition for some was written on their faces. Sure, I felt more self-regardingly worldly with my big-city cred, but I didn’t think I knew how to do life better than anyone.
Like an untrained anthropologist, I quietly watched my contemporaries stress out over a host of interpersonal, academic, and post-adolescent struggles that I couldn’t even begin to get worried about. I was safe, entertained and free. Between me and my circumstances, I could no longer point to my circumstances as bringing me down. Anything that was wrong I was rather responsible for.
I was neither here nor there about it. When she started I was five or six years old, and I’d look in the mirror afterwards to behold the transformation. Except … I couldn’t tell for sure. ‘You’re not really supposed to see it,’ she’d say, in that blithe way adults offer confusing explanations even when children are largely capable of understanding the nuance. She didn’t explain much, really. There were no admonitions or codes of behaviour to accompany my newly cherubic face. (I don’t think I looked cute with or without, but cuteness is a metaphysical quality lost on the very young with respect to themselves and other children, and we didn’t own a camera, so there is scant evidence.)
Indeed, she hardly needed to say anything. I was a shy, polite, well-spoken child who scrupulously avoided trouble and was fairly frightened of the outside world: the concrete towers, the swearing adults, the graffiti and rubbish. I didn’t come into my own as a confident city kid until my teens. And because my parents didn’t fraternise, I never got to see the happy, messy families behind what looked like to me like the rough and tumble of different parts of town.
At the (post-blush?) age of twelve, I was deemed capable of holding down the fort on my own when my parents were away for the weekend; I remained self-sufficient and low-risk throughout my adolescence. All those years of good behaviour did not pay off, however: I was shipped out to a frightening boarding school that fronted onto a country highway and was actively hostile to the outside world. Beyond missing out on how the other half lived; I barely knew which half I was in.
Pro-tip #4 for Successful Cults: severely limit contact with outsiders.
So when I say there was nothing I got in trouble for, it’s no exaggeration. The closest I came to contravening house rules — other than, you know, just being there — was asking for things: a birthday party request or the nomination of a specific Christmas present was met with a recognisable reluctance that I had internalised very young. There were no explicit prohibitions against toys and gifts outside of those annual milestones, but the implication was clear: We resent buying you anything. Don’t take up our time. I was a good little kid, so I took the messages and ran with them. I gently tested the boundaries a couple of times by asking for some participation in what I was doing, watching television or playing a game, but it didn’t work.
There was no reward at the end for being good and quiet. I’m not sure what to tell my younger self because, without an adult’s wherewithal, there was no hope of altering my circumstances. Expressing anger would have just reinforced the bizarre internal exile I lived out in my own home and then again at boarding school. Maybe I could tell the little guy that his instincts about right and wrong were functioning, but I’m not sure that would have helped. Confusion and self-doubt let me coast.
I sometimes think about what it would have been like to be a ‘bad’ kid, not a bully or someone who destroyed things intentionally, but a rambunctious, jumping-up-and-down-on-the-bed, singing, experimental kid who tried things, and who tried things on with his parents. The list of things I didn’t learn because I never tested the boundaries must be rife.
In situations where no one is speaking up, it doesn’t mean everything is fine. The squeaky wheel gets the grease is a maxim for extroverts.
How could this have happened? I don’t play fast and loose with these things, and while I admire the gumption of people who fly to Britain without a plan, I’m too tightly wound. I knew my path to citizenship, and I was checking off all the right boxes.
Or at least I thought I was. When it came time to fill out the forms for the last visa I’d ever need to remain in a country I’d spent much of my life in and had no intention of leaving, things started off fine. Applicants submit to a points system, chalking up a score for things like age, higher education and income. My job at the bank had ended a few months back, and I jumped on the application the very week I became eligible. Like I said, I don’t mess around.
With my severance, I hit the annual income threshold I needed for my visa, and so I didn’t go back to work right away. After years of devoting evenings and weekends to the office, I was excited about a different type of life for a while. I trained to be an editor, I started cooking all of my meals with fresh fruit and vegetables, and I invested in a couple of restaurateurs who I admired for their creativity.
My legalistic bent saw me carefully read the guidance notes to the application as I filled it out, documenting my previous addresses and time spent outside the country. There were even accompanying notes to the guidance notes, and while absorbing every word, I hit a snag: severance pay, I read, as my heart leapt into my mouth, doesn’t count towards income.
I didn’t have enough points to qualify. Apparently, my stay in Britain, where I had settled and made my adult life, where I had spent part of my childhood and paid copious taxes and contributed positively for years and years, was over.
Damn, damn, damn. I didn’t know whom to be mad at: the authorities for burying this rather crucial distinction in the fine print of the fine print or myself for not having read it all ahead of time. I say this with tongue in cheek, but I’m rarely bested by paperwork. Much of my work entails poring over commercial contracts as a financier or going through text with the proverbial fine-toothed comb as a copy-editor.
The thing about a problem like this is that it’s real, it changes your life, and you’d have to fight the man to change it, which isn’t realistic. Despairing over my fate in the hardware store, there was nothing to push against, no authority to appeal to. I couldn’t even beat myself up that much because I would’ve done the same thing again.
I loathe Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and its ilk. Observing the protagonist destroy his own life while making kith and kin miserable for an entire novel feels neither edifying nor entertaining. The rationale for sitting with this jerk for a few hundred pages is what, exactly? The aphorism ‘Character is destiny’ gets us there in just three words.
As for my visa ordeal, by the skin of my teeth I managed to find a temporary employer to sponsor me until I qualified for citizenship less than a year later, but there was a world of anxiety to wade through before I got there.
In the end, and with the benefit of hindsight, I couldn’t see any points of light; any reason or reckoning of the sort we crave to explain a crisis. If I didn’t miss the lesson completely — not an unlikely scenario, mind you — then going through all that psychic pain was utterly pointless. On paper I didn’t deserve to be kicked out, and I was neither spurred to modify my behaviour nor taught a valuable lesson. It’s like sitting through Casterbridge: a wanton boatload of distress and then no payoff.
The ol’ intestinal squeeze did not go right for me, and organs ended up in places they don’t belong. When I was born, I was very sick, and they cut a wide opening into my middle and purposefully shifted my organs into their rightful spot.
Malrotation of the gut, it was called then, and now intestinal malrotation. (The word nerd in me would get a kick out of knowing what was behind the change of name.) While the doctors were in the area, as it were, they removed my healthy appendix and left me with a scar that grows consistently as I have, stretching across half my abdomen.
But I wuz robbed. Elective removal is no longer favoured: just because we don’t know what the appendix does, even the risk of appendicitis is no longer considered enough of a reason for pre-emptive action. It’s embarrassing enough that, as Bill Bryson writes in A Short History of Nearly Everything, by the late nineteeth century ‘many wise people believed that there was nothing much left for science to do’. The cheek.
I am indignant that the removal of my appendix, absent my cute little baby permission, was justified partly on the grounds that they didn’t know what its function was. My parents seem to have just rolled over. ‘That’s what they did in those days.’ Oh, did they give you something for the vapours, too?
In any event, such conformist tendencies are echoed in the modern workplace. Operating as they’ve always operated, it means the loss of all kinds of creativity and day-to-day happiness (and I say that as someone with conformist tendencies). I don’t think I’m talking about disruption, no less because I hate falling into cliché, but rather the ability of companies to integrate anyone with a good attitude and a willingness to work as a litmus test for company performance. It’s as if they don’t understand what a human’s function is unless it’s a precise match for what the company is already doing.
Hire an artist or a self-taught day trader or someone coming back to the workplace after years of childcare, then create a framework where they can thrive. There are dozens of meaningful ways to improve a company that don’t involve directly furthering the profit motive. I know this because I’ve worked at half a dozen of them and none had an environment they could be proud of. It’s rare. Unless what you’re making at work is crucial for humanity, I’m not sure management should justify anything but a terribly positive work environment, even with high pay. Show me an executive who is happy only when profits are up, and I’ll show you the boss of a workforce who rarely smiles when talking to friends about work.
My 16 cm scar makes me think of the loss of my healthy appendix (ahead of my life-saving operation), and that makes me annoyed with the doctors. Like us and our colleagues in the workforce, they were just going through the motions because that’s all they understood. But the modern office environment is nothing to be proud of, and we should arm ourselves with a healthy scepticism about how we’re going about it.
I can’t get my appendix back, but I can do my part to reject the assumption that work has to be something that we pine for the end of.
Such frustration comes up a lot less when teams collaborate unselfishly. While my colleagues were usually right to be holding their tongue, they were smart people, and putting their constructive criticism into action would have made the bank better. The trust wasn’t there, however, so they wisely chose to keep the peace instead of wasting their breath.
Here’s not much of a secret: I also thought I knew how to do better. In fact, I’m sure of it. What I didn’t know, and what is entirely germane to the bank’s modus operandi, is whether my guidance would have contributed meaningfully to the bottom line. Better, to me, meant something else.
My brain lends itself well to questions of content. Is what I’m holding ‘good’? Is the message clear, compelling or attractive? Does this online report, paper invitation or data interface (e.g. Bloomberg, FactSet) get its message across in a professional, digestible manner? I’m talking about business ‘objects’, if you like; the tools in front of my face, which I can use and deliberate over.
Amorphous idea-driven work and business conversations are a different animal. Certain professions involve talking to people and not much else, or creating ideas or making connections. This is all very important. ‘Here’s a groundbreaking idea for increasing your efficiency at work,’ the management guru intones. I take in that sort of input uncritically. Show me the output: if the quality of the widget is high and the workforce is happy, then you’ve got my attention.
It wouldn’t be quite right to say I held myself back from contributing to questions of organisational behaviour or blue-sky strategy; rather, I rarely had anything to say. How was I to read the tea leaves, or pick one strategy over another, or understand what a market of three hundred thousand households wanted?
When I was asked just those questions, I drew a blank. I was an analyst in the strategic planning group of a FTSE 100 energy company, and in order to secure something to hold on to, I concentrated on financial modelling; spreadsheets, essentially. It was work with an ending, with approximately ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. I wasn’t comfortable presenting conclusions that I didn’t feel more than 70% confident about (something the sales teams seemed perfectly happy to do). Instead I could build the model and render its results in written form, usually as a report or a PowerPoint presentation. Again, this was work with discrete aspects that I could finish, evaluate, and move on from.
I’m no artist, but I think I understand their frustration when they can’t get something rendered on canvas or in clay. While at the bank I found myself copy-editing portions of the equity research team’s reports on the sly. This was decidedly not my job. I was already an overworked corporate finance professional, and Chinese walls limited our communication with the other teams, but when their output reached our clients or the public, it made me wince. Our junior analysts were invariably intelligent and highly capable young professionals, but no one was coaching them to express their ideas convincingly on paper or teaching them how to crunch the numbers any better than by rote.
For the sake of our bank’s reputation and for the professional satisfaction of our analyst team in a job well done, I could have made my case for a better class of research. Instead, I held back and made marginal changes on my own. Beyond a little positive coaching, my efforts will have gone noticed by just about no one. I see the world through my own prism, of course, and I understand output that is passably tangible better: a report or a financial model. It’s the work I know how to do. Management had bigger, more valuable fish to fry. I can’t imagine even having a conversation with them about the design failings of our research. Why did it matter if we were making (or losing) money?
So I’m careful about the weight of my prism, and I struggle with holding back versus speaking up. And what if the tables were turned? How much did the rest of the bank think that my department was missing the mark? In what respect could they have swooped in and made us more effective? Without a spirit of cooperation, we were unlikely to find out, and my ego is safer because they were holding back too.
If we could quantify the waste of talent, however, we might all be embarrassed enough to raise our hands at the boardroom table occasionally.
After the white-knuckle fear passed, I discerned the disparate personalities of the student body. Flummoxed by how self-confident, well-spoken, mischievous, self-possessed, profane, uproariously funny and tall everyone was, I saw the seniors (grades 12 and 13) as basically adults. They moved through the world like they owned it. I grew up in a one-child household, and we didn’t fraternise, so the force of everyone’s personality was a shock for a quiet, well-mannered twelve-year-old.
When the staff weren’t around, which was seldom, the seniors swaggered and they bellowed. They held a power I didn’t understand. They were the only ones allowed off campus for a ski trip once a year as a last hurrah. If I could get a ticket to that trip, the Senior Trip, there could hardly be access more valuable. It was a pipe dream; even if I were allowed to go it never would’ve worked because seniors don’t want a little grade 7 nipper cramping their style, but I daydreamed about how to be cool enough to make it work.
Fast forward six years and I was the last man standing: the highly unorthodox methods of the school meant that no one, but no one, in my class had lasted at the school from the start until graduation. Except for me. It was a high-demand religious organisation run by a rather unsavoury and ignorant churchman and his frightened and exhausted adherents. (It is depressing how people will turn off their brains for someone who tells them he knows what God is thinking.) Our speech was monitored, staff were not allowed to show affection to their families, and the outside world was villified.
So when I describe for you the sheer freedom that came from strapping on two planks of plastic and shooting down a snowy hill, whereby you were necessarily free for fifteen minutes from any staff member admonishing you for some thought crime, you can get a glimpse of what promise the Senior Trip might have held.
And now there I was, a senior. The Senior Trip was the last and only time to bond with the people who were going through the same thing. Sure, we had to go, but we were used to mandatory fun.
As things were getting organised for the trip, two students reneged. One senior begged off with an injury, and I was the other. I don’t remember my excuse, but I must’ve invoked yearbook duties, my frequent shield for fending off the school’s organised misery.
That I had gone from pining for the Senior Trip to avoiding it was an irony not lost on me. Near the end of my long and grey tenure at the school, it wouldn’t be right to say I was counting the days; there had been too many days to count. My brain’s coping mechanism was to turn off. When it came to the trip, I couldn’t feel much of anything. Go on the trip; don’t go on the trip: what difference did it make? I had stopped hoping for good times years before then.
When the seniors returned, I lobbed a perfunctory ‘How was it?’ to two classmates. In an environment where you could get in trouble for anything, and certainly for your words, you learned to keep answers short and positive.
‘Good’, they both said. No one thought to examine it further.
Indeed, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the copy-editor’s name anywhere on published material even if he or she was wholly responsible for taking it from unworkable to engaging. I suspect my ego is less anxious to have my name cited than the average; where the author ends and I as the editor begin is a distinction I’m happy to have been lost on the reader. Dust to dust, and all that.
I don’t know where most editors’ views fall on the question of attribution — it will often depend on what they are putting their name to — but in one respect I diverge from the norms of the professional editor.
I nervously admitted as much to an audience at the 2014 conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. In the stately surroundings of Royal Holloway’s Grade I listed Founder’s Building in Surrey, I spoke to the assembled crowd about fear — which was fitting: public speaking does not make me happy — and how I felt stricken by these words of warning from the SfEP to wannabe professional editors like me:
If you find it frustrating to have to accept an author’s style you don’t like or a publisher’s house style that you find sadly inadequate, or if you find it impossible to do a less-than-perfect job (if that’s what the client wants), then again this probably isn’t the job for you.
But … but, but … that is how I feel. This sensible advice had me questioning the wisdom of my editing journey before I’d barely got my training off the ground.
Look, I’m no iconoclast. I don’t seek to change how editing is done or even to change the SfEP’s minds, but I sit uncomfortably with their
edict guidance that the primacy of the author’s voice is to be upheld even if it isn’t effective.
There are many flavours of editor. Some thrive helping authors from abroad to sort out English’s hurdles. Others relish the elbow grease required to untangle a fantasy manuscript with 19 subplots and 110 supporting characters by chapter three. Others still will have your typos wiped away faster and more accurately than you could hope to achieve with a computer.
As for me, I picked up editing after many years in business and finance, in part to get away from the shoddiness and short-termism of that world, where all seemed to be forgiven as long as we were making money. That’s fine so far as it goes, but I wanted to be paid for what I saw as better work, better execution, more felicitous business text and more thoroughgoing analysis. Higher expectations for everything that went into the bottom-line number relaxed me. I wanted to be paid for quality.
No need to put my name on it.
If I insist that foreign travels open the mind, it’d be a little rich to invoke my own. But when I’m presented with arguments based on American exceptionalism, it bothers me: according to a 2016 CBS News poll, 36 per cent of Americans own guns,1 while the BBC reports that only a little more have passports, just over 40 per cent.2 While my travelling tendencies may be painfully yuppie, in my most didactic moments I can be heard pleading with people to live somewhere different than the place they’ve been their whole lives. Has anyone in the history of literature pined for their old life, the one they inhabited before experiencing the novel modes of thinking and living of people halfway across the world?
Exactly. So, one presumably fine day I was walking around Salzburg with my good friend from university, coming from where and going to where I couldn’t say, except that a beerhouse was more likely than a hotel; we were students on a budget after all. We came to a bridge and crossed it about halfway before a clearly distressed teenager a few years younger than us started to climb over the side in order to jettison himself into the void below.
Crap. I don’t want to be a part of this. He looks like an attention-seeker. Can we leave him to his own devices? What happens n—!? My mate rushed to the edge, grabbed the kid, pulled him closer to the centre, restrained him for a few seconds before releasing him, at which point the red-faced young chap started taking swings at us, hampered in part by how hard he was crying, by his surprise at being accosted by two foreigners in cargo shorts, and by our relative strength and stoic immobility. (I followed my friend’s lead on that part. I did not feel stoic.) Flailing, he screamed at us to get away from him, his voice part command and part wail, his self-pity getting all muddled with his anger.
Now, I’m a city kid. My urban instincts are honed. To this day an automatic part of my brain monitors my wallet when I’m out and about in London; I’m not worried, just alert. I don’t turn my head when the fire trucks come barrelling by, when couples are having a domestic on the sidewalk, or even when talented street performers are doing their thing. Public spectacle makes me shrivel. A stonefaced urban façade, softened very slightly with the inkling of a sympathetic smile, protects me from the frenzy of the city. I like the hustle and bustle in the abstract, but I don’t want to wrestle with it personally, if it can be helped.
My mate was from the same city, and he and I were simpatico enough not to be the least worried about the strains of backpacking souring the relationship. We had the same temperament, the same sensibilities, the same Weltanschauung (When in Rome …), but the twenty seconds between when we encountered a teenager in distress and when he walked on to safer ground revealed a stark difference between us: in the moment my mate did the right thing and I didn’t.
Look, the stakes of this episodic little European misadventure were low — the kid was unlikely to die; his climb over the edge of a bridge with no guardrails was going comically slowly; it was a terribly public place to live out a low moment; heck, I think I might’ve been able to jump feet-first off that bridge for fun — but as my mate was picking up the slack I didn’t necessarily know all of that, and the fact remains that someone might have been putting themselves in possibly mortal danger, and I was a proximate agent for changing that.
Instead, I defaulted to my vaunted city instincts, preferring to walk on.
It all happened so fast, and in the aftermath I ran through the litany of mitigating circumstances, but I remained ashamed of myself. Twenty years on and I can still feel it. Someone in pain could have been hurt and I wanted to, what? Save face? Spare myself the embarrassment of being smack dab in the centre of a public spectacle? Mm-hmm. I wasn’t bold enough to overcome my sensitivities, and to this day I try pushing down the shame by hoping that when faced with a similar choice, I won’t be such a coward.
1 Ingraham, Christopher, ‘American gun ownership drops to lowest in nearly 40 years’, The Washington Post [website] <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/29/american-gun-ownership-is-now-at-a-30-year-low/?utm_term=.bd20c630efc3> accessed 31 Jan 2018.
2 Amos, Owen, ‘Is it true only 10% of Americans have passports?’, BBC News [website] <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-42586638> accessed 31 Jan 2018.
The theory goes that our lovely cleaner had innocently opened the fireplace valve while performing her duties, but we scarcely stopped to consider it before frantically throwing open the windows and killing all sources of electric heat. Yikes.
The technical term for a failure of the olfactory function is anosmia, and I had it for a very long time before I knew I had it. How could I not have known?
In general I’m a slow burner, and even after the flatmate’s complaints about the effects of cooked fish and smelly cheeses (I’m partial to smelly cheeses), I didn’t clue in: ‘Sorry about that; I hadn’t noticed.’ Yes, I was losing my sense of taste as well, but it was gradual.
When do you address an ailment, and when do you wait it out? (I don’t like gumming up the health system with my sniffles.) This First World problem completely dovetails with an action/inaction paradigm that confounds me now as much as it ever did.
In Megan Macedo’s ‘Becoming yourself in your business’ video, against the backdrop of the northern Irish coastline and humanising shots of her family, she reveals ‘At times I would deny my big dreams. I would tell myself that the mature thing to do is accept it’s not possible and that life’s full of compromises. And compromise is necessary in life … but not that kind.’
So. Damn. True! But the ecstasy of this little truth nugget was short-lived; I despaired because my history was littered with failures to recognise the line between compromise and unnecessary capitulation. Do I ditch the miserable boss even though the work suits me? Do I take the lawyers to task for fumbling my visa application, or is there context I’m missing? Am I within my rights to insist that our team produces better work, or will that create resentment?
A few years on, let me answer those questions: I still don’t know! Between action and inaction, wisdom has not come with age. I’m so wishy-washy that I can be convinced by both the puritans and the hedonists, the careerists and the hermits, the business leaders and the happy alcoholic in the corner of the pub. When do you strive and when do you give in? This kind of indecision means seldom taking any important risks at all but rather letting life wash over you, for better or worse.
Soon after the nearly-exploded-flat incident, I spotted a truck with an open, smoking cylinder of sticky black tar-like substance. You know to avoid these when you see them in London; the stench is completely rank. I approached the truck, inhaled deeply, and … absolutely nothing. That day, the fear of losing my sense of taste, too, finally spurred me on to the doctor’s. I even found out I had a deviated septum and an operation helped me breathe better than I had in years.
The lesson? Don’t ask me. I’m still wondering what I should have studied at university.
And when it started, I groaned. ‘Right,’ he ventured politely if firmly, ‘tell me what you think you deserve.’
I hated the question. I had ruminated on it privately maybe five times in my entire life, but the daydream never went anywhere. It wasn’t a notion I was comfortable with, much less one I was able to speak to constructively.
On top of being nervous, now I was falling over at the first hurdle. Not that I was trying to ‘win’ therapy or that there was a ‘right’ answer in that space; my disappointment was more banal. Possessed as I am of an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, I felt I should probably be helping this health professional with his work, and starting things off with a non-answer was not a good look. (Ha! Probably another line of thinking we’d be examining eventually, but one neurosis at a time.) ‘I don’t think in those terms’ was all I said.
And it was true. Deserve? I don’t even remember being asked for what I wanted. And what was someone from the Western world who had never suffered for food or shelter or economic anxiety supposed to say? I was embarrassed by the question.
Material comfort, of course, is crucial as far as it goes, but even the softer aspects of career success or the fruits of self-determination — chasing your dreams, if you like — were not presented to me, either as a virtue or fodder for self-denial. Neither peers nor mentors nor family canvassed me for what I wanted or if I was okay or if I was even just thirsty.
If you’ll allow me some armchair psychology, going year after year without that sort of input and you may well stop wondering about something as all-encompassing as your career. I didn’t look to television or magazines or the internet for guidance either, and when classmates talked about a famous singer or athlete in glowing terms, I eventually caught on by fabricating my interest in so-and-so. At university the posters on my wall were whitebread and predictable: ‘Beers of the World’ and the like. While I admired the passion that drove my classmates to law or art or social work, I didn’t relate to it.
On top of that, I was fed, watered and educated. Was I about to complain that I had no idea what I wanted to do? I could hardly bring myself to care. Instead, I faked it.
Did it work? Well, it depends on how you measure success.
I don’t mean to suggest I necessarily have nobler values than promotions or a nicer class of holiday. Rather, unlike many of you, I couldn’t motivate myself to chase a career. I never wanted one; I’m just a very hard worker.
Still, something is shifting: having been in the employ of several start-ups [yawn!] and multi-billion-pound enterprises [double yawn!], I find myself inching closer to a way of running my work life in a manner that fits. It’s not a specific job or even an industry; it’s a way of working. By now you know that I’m no fanatic, but I admit: there’s a spark.
Whenever the business conversation moves away from short-term profit-seeking and towards producing very, very good work, my interest is piqued. Quality is a hard thing to pin down, to be sure, but I’m happiest collaborating with teams who are excited about industry-beating execution, whatever that means in the context — whether it’s a book that is well-bound, French lessons that really move you somewhere, a meal that demands attention, or the complicated and sometimes harrowing work of assimilating refugees into a foreign and scary place in a way that reinforces their faith in humanity. Whatever it is, do it well, you know?
Guidance, direction and mentorship were vanishingly rare jewels as far as my admittedly lucky First World circumstances went, and I cannot say whether their absence diverted me from the proper path or protected me from the wrong one. Life is short, but I’m not a careerist, and the fact that I’m approaching a headspace characterised by good work and cooperative ethics is a kind of gem that shines brighter for me than the properly expensive ones.
Did I chafe from all that from fence-sitting? Not, really. I lived in a quiet, peaceful country and didn’t feel close to the horrors of elsewhere or the more moderate hand-wringing of the political class.
When I read Naomi Klein’s No Logo, however, it connected my life of plenty with countries I seldom thought about. How can that t-shirt be so cheap? Why were public companies evasive about their overseas factories? What’s the point of garages full of stuff?
The injustices that Klein outlined were very serious, and part of the moral problem is that we blithely use products from factories that would be forcibly shut down in the UK for their substandard working conditions. The way she put the spotlight on the product chain also bled into my worldview into a more quotidian way: Where is the cheap, healthy food? Why does it make sense for publishers to hire proofreaders from non-English-speaking countries? And why did my nephew’s ice skating learning aid break before it was out of the box for ten minutes?
Cheap has a cost. I’m less willing than I used to be to let an invisible worker pay the price of backbreaking labour and low wages while the company enjoys the profits and I enjoy the savings and ease. I’m sorry I didn’t give at least a little weight to these considerations before. That’s part of why we read, I guess: to understand.
With apologies to Primark and its shoppers — I don’t know enough about their situation — whenever I walk past the hordes on Oxford Street, it brings me back to No Logo: somebody somewhere is paying for this frenzy.
Now, my righteous indignation against underpriced t-shirts doesn’t go too far; I’m not much of a consumer of anything besides food and housing, but I like goods and services done well — with expertise and fairness — and if I can identify them I don’t resent paying for them.
Indeed, I want to encourage everyone to do their job well. The metaphysical rewards of a cooperative working environment and a human-positive output, whether it be textbooks or bicycles or medicine, are real.
Juicy profits are just way too reductionist a goal for me to get behind.
The technical work was more gruelling than I expected, though I loved it. But, boy, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. Where I expected there to be right answers, there was ambiguity and interpretations and shifting standards. Think on this: no final authority on ‘correct’ English exists — not the dictionary, not writing guides, not etymologists. English is a mutable thing; what was considered demonstrably wrong in the past can be the gold standard of clear English in the present. As I walked the streets as an eight-year-old city dweller, the red fire trucks that flew by had the word ‘Inflammable’ printed in big, readable letters on the side, yet in many circles the form ‘flammable’ has taken over. My teachers would have identified the new form as a clumsy error back then.
At that age, bubblegum ice cream occupied more mental real estate than fire trucks; wherever it was available, I wanted it. My father took me for a cone during a hot day on the shores of Georgian Bay, and I was feeling pretty good, possessed of that transient juvenile confidence that manifests itself as smugness and a weak ability to walk in others’ shoes. I used that confidence to turn a nice moment into something negative.
As we were talking and enjoying our cones, my father ended his sentence with a ‘you and I’, and I swiftly corrected him, insisting he should have said ‘you and me’. When he reasonably offered a rationale for why his usage was fine, I snapped at him. ‘No!’ I shouted wantonly. ‘That’s not right because of …’.
The way he capitulated, by saying ‘Oh, okay’ and then clamming up and looking around the room, mostly to get away from my righteous stare, makes me wince. Being right was more important to me than my father’s feelings.
In the way that personal memories stick in one’s craw but seem terribly trivial to anyone else, I never shook this episode of rudeness. I still regret how I barked at him. And now that I’m a trained editor, I realise I didn’t have a firm enough grammatical grounding to account for my self-righteous position anyway. Maybe I was snippy and wrong. Ouch.
The gentle shame of that moment serves as a reminder of the virtues of humility, and so does instances like this: while pointing out errors on a fellow editor’s personal website, I highlighted a bullet point that read something like this:
‘are you a marketing company with pamphlets that need proofread?’
Depending where in the English-speaking world you were raised, that sentence may sound perfectly all right or patently unworkable, and I embarrassed myself by saying it was plain wrong and needed to be changed. The answer is more complicated than that, but I was a junior editor and lacked the perspective and experience to offer the right critique. My shoulders hunch when I think about what other nonsense I’ve put forth in my zeal to get things ‘right’.
All of this is to say that now I shepherd my clients carefully towards better communication. The more I learn, the more circumspect I become about throwing my knowledge around. I don’t correct people in public anymore (unless they ask me to); it’s not a good look for a professional editor.
Who’d have thought that becoming an editor would make me less prone to making corrections? I was no ogre before, but in the hierarchy of importance, being right trails far behind treating clients with respect and ensuring high-quality prose.
As much as I may privately bristle at notions of marketing and selling oneself to an unfamiliar audience, my reticence isn’t doing me any favours. I save myself from embarrassment, but that’s just the absence of a negative; I don’t achieve much.
So, hello, world! Allow me, good strangers, to be egregiously self-centred for a moment, with the view to getting out of my shell and announcing myself in a way that will resonate with the audience I’m really after: people like me [ahem].
Megan Macedo, our guide on the twenty-one-day Be Yourself Writing Challenge that I am announcing my participation in here, uses the example of people you click with at, say, a dinner party as a proxy for finding the right audience. Your personal Venn diagrams overlap. By writing about my penchant for executing and consuming work of a very high order (whatever that means!), I can find people who are energised by working on such projects with me; my professional tribe, if you like.
A toast, then, to you, to me, and to finding our tribe. Twenty-one days of a little self-expression won’t kill me.
Consider your own work situation for a minute. Would you bristle at being compared to the actors in this drama? To be sure, our Canadian example comes down to matters of choice and human rights. Very few of us would agree that it’s acceptable to coerce other humans to chronically act against their will in return for money.
Or, wait … is that your every day?
I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill job dissatisfaction. You’re a big girl; he’s a big boy. You have a brain and a passport. If things aren’t working out at work, it is incumbent upon you to do the hard work of self-examination. What am I good at? How do I self-actualize (or not) through work? What is the appropriate balance between the office and my life outside? When should I stand my ground?
Still, it’s not that easy, is it? We don’t all settle into some sort of job-satisfaction equilibrium by the time we’re thirty-two, like shaking a container of irregular spheres that tend toward higher density as the smaller ones sink lower. Often we dutifully undertake our responsibilities, but we mutter under our breath as we read yet another email from management and think, ‘Why on earth am I being asked to do this? It makes no sense.’
I see evidence of such frustration in the law and accountancy offices that my clients occupy. One department wants less coverage on Brexit, another wants more; a tax associate is keen to respond to a think piece in The Times, but her marketing department wants sexier topics; two senior partners are after a more casual tone while three others most certainly are not; a competitor’s piece on Dubai’s legal system made some waves, and the team needs to show it is on top of the issue, so the brief is for a short — no, long — piece, and it’s got to hit all the same points — but be really different.
When we sit down to discuss industry-beating work, I hope to hear my clients say:
we’ve got a great message for the world! we just need help saying it.
Except that’s just not how it is. They aren’t sure what they want to do or say.
Trapped in these unhappy chains, it feels impossible to achieve any sort of excellence at all. These clever, overeducated people of commerce and the arts are unable to simply ask me for good work.
In the face of all this second-guessing and fuzziness, I feel compelled to put my hand flat on the table, gently yet forcefully, and say, ‘Look, let’s not worry about any of this. Instead, let’s create some reports and blogs that people actually want to read — that you would actually read. Something you can be proud of.’
Actually, I don’t usually get the courage to do that until the third meeting, if I get a third meeting.
I know what’s happened: it's been years of twisting themselves into knots serving a master who is hard to please; a capricious boss, an ill-defined marketing goal, requests from demanding clients who are just as confused. They’ve lost sight of the sheer virtue of applying their expertise. Add a dose of short-term-profit-seeking and a class system that puts up barriers to communication, and what have you got? An entire office engaged in an interminable guessing game about what the senior partner wants, what the client wants, and what their line manager wants instead of spending the bulk of their mental energy just being good.
What are thinking, breathing people supposed to take from this state of affairs? When what you are being paid to do chronically doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s not necessarily Kafkaesque or backwards, but usually no one has explained the proper motivations, or the motivations are so self-interested that the instigators can’t come out and say it, or the only motivation that matters is whispered by the walls: more money, more money.
I don’t want my idealism to stretch plausibility. Every job entails tasks that we’d like to see the back of, but in the main, if you’re not showing up to the office to apply your brain and natural talents every day; if, instead, you are relying on your wiles to navigate a protean, confusing or unrealistic path to ‘success’, you are probably someone who hates their alarm.
Be good at your job. Work somewhere that asks that of you.
Otherwise, expect your waking hours to be spent on tasks that you would refuse to do if someone wasn’t paying you. In Canada, lawmakers have prohibited such exploitation in at least one industry.
Um, well … having said that, I am going to start, and soon after I’m going to stop.
Here goes: my mind bends easily to considerations of clarity, flow, and quality of execution (largely in the spheres of business and writing). Take for example a well-designed building, sitting there day after day, quietly elevating the neighbourhood, ceaselessly radiating quality. I walk by it, and I move through the world a little bit more satisfied. When I walk by a concrete apartment block, however, I feel deflated thinking about all the work and money that went into creating something so jaw-droppingly unsympathetic to its surroundings. (I’m finishing this article before you can introduce subjectivity into the argument!)
There are parallels here with the written word. When I come across permanent or semi-permanent text that lets the reader down, I’m plagued by questions: why doesn’t this read better? Why is the presentation subpar? Did the authors have more urgent considerations? If so, why didn’t they tell us so we could get on board with the more important effort?
It’s wise for me as a copy-editor and a businessperson to find clients who feel the same. The sets of our Venn diagrams should overlap nicely. If you care a lot about quality, and I care a lot about quality, then we can just get on with the work.
A few years later another fig leaf fell away. This time it was those consistently positive blurbs on book covers. It turned out that authors and pundits agree to provide a favourable comment when asked. It isn’t that their excitement at the book’s virtues is so great that they scrawl their well-crafted praise on the nearest notepad, stamp their insignia in wax, and dispatch a carrier pigeon to the printer mere moments before press because The world has to know about this! Yet, as I hadn’t thought about it critically, somewhere in my subconscious was the assumption that this was how it worked.
Alas, now I am older, more cynical, less cute. When I read a blurb at all, I see perhaps that its message can’t really be argued with, but it pertains to the author’s other books; or by the way the words are chosen it’s clear that the commenter won’t be drawn on whether the book is actually any good: ‘The author has a way with family dynamics that will remind you sharply of your own upbringing,’ they’ll say, or ‘The scenes in the school nurse’s office were priceless.’
I understand the appeal of testimonials on editors’ websites: the familiarity of the endorser's name gives the reader something to hold on to. But even if I knew somehow that the party providing the testimonial was sincere, and that the editor in question was a hard worker, that’s still not enough for me to buy in. The editor’s personal and professional skills may have been decently suited to that particular client’s expectations, but we don’t know much about either of them. And a testimonial from a big company just tells me they could afford the service; I wouldn’t expect such a company to make a call on what constitutes a world-class editor.
Instead, let’s see if we can’t establish whether the sort of text you want to produce dovetails with the sort of text I can help to create. Do you care a lot about the quality of your written output? Is your approach miles away from the sell-lots-for-cheap mentality we’re all used to? Then maybe we should talk.
Plus, a testimonial on this site would embarrass me a little. Let’s just keep the focus on the work, shall we? Leave me out of it. Word of mouth suits me just fine as a marketing strategy.
Does a code of practice represent an effective way of improving human endeavour? I’m not sure, but I suppose you do have to start somewhere. We need some basis for evaluating professional behaviour.
Now, I have read the code, and I can see where its authors are coming from. I like to imagine some venerable old editor, sitting at a mahogany desk by flickering candlelight in the library of an eighteenth-century mansion*, putting quill to paper to address the thorny task of improving the world by asking people to be better at their job — more adept, more ethical — merely by writing something down.
Well, I can get behind that. You too, I expect.
*Editors are fabulously wealthy without exception.