Giving and getting

“We want to make sure that you’re getting what you want out if this,” Fran said to me back in January.  It wasn’t a conversation I was expecting, but one which one of the Directors of the charity I volunteer with broached on a windy morning, forcing me to stop and think.  I hadn’t considered what I wanted, beyond the chance to spend time with horses over the winter.  But at that point, it was becoming clear that I might be sticking around for longer, so it made sense that we consider the future.

Let’s take a few steps back, now.  I’ve always been a Girl Who Likes Things: I enjoy spending money; I like trying new food (preferably accompanied by good wine in a comfortable setting where I pay for the privilege of someone else cooking AND clearing up); I take pleasure in going shopping, whether it’s to find the perfect dress, shoes, handbag or pair of jeans; when I go on holiday, I’m happy to pay more in order to stay somewhere nice with good facilities and a breathtaking view.  Essentially, I’m materialistic.  And until even as little as a year ago, that meant (in my terms) that my time was worth money.  Because money buys Things, and Things are what I like.  Plus, I reasoned, I have talent and skills, those are worth paying for, right?

I even went as far as to tell friends and family that I would never work for free.  I didn’t mind working for low wages (if you want to get rich, you do not work at summer camps), but I did need to be paid.

I’m not sure I could tell you exactly what changed, so I think I’ll call it kismet.  It’s probably a combination of things: I found something I deemed “worth it”; I had time on my hands; I had another job which did pay me; I needed what was on offer… I moved the goalposts.  I volunteered.

I didn’t actively expect to “get” anything, partly because I already was: when I first went to see Fran and Jo upon my return to the UK last autumn, they invited me to ride one of their horses for them.  He needed work, I could (and wanted to) ride, it made sense to them.  For me it meant that I didn’t have to pay in order to do something I enjoy doing (my other option at the time would’ve been to go back to the local riding school and pay for lessons on their horses again, given that I don’t have my own horse).  I already thought I was winning.  In fact, the more I showed up, I knew I was winning, because they allowed me to assist on therapy sessions, something that I knew I wanted to ultimately do as my job, and an area in which I needed experience.  I didn’t think I needed any more.

But they wanted to give me more, and they wanted me to tell them what more was.  They wanted to make sure that I was developing, and that was purely out of the kindness of their hearts.  The way they saw it, I was giving them my time and some physical labour, and that meant I was due something in return.  I love this attitude, not because I stand to gain something concrete from it, but because it matches my own – that anyone who is even a millimetre ahead should be supporting those behind them.  Because that’s how we stabilise the future.  We shouldn’t be job-blocking or holding others back or – worst of all – de-motivating them; we should be encouraging and nurturing.

I’ve written before about how I’ve been inspired by some great managers (who sometimes work for not-so-great organisations), those who I thought managed talent well, and who helped the business they work for achieve its goals, but without ignoring the individuals who are there making it happen.  Because it’s not always about what the organisation needs: whether someone is turning up paid or unpaid, we all have different motivations, but as long as you tap into those drivers, you can help a team function effectively even though they ultimately want different things.

I genuinely believe that by protecting the good habits instilled in me by the managers I worked for when I was younger, I will hopefully be able to perpetuate them, and make the working world a better place.  This post may seem a little out of the blue: in fact, it was inspired by a discussion during #CharityHour, whereby a few of us became involved in a debate regarding support or help given to volunteers looking to advance their careers.  On one side was somebody who essentially said, “ain’t nobody got time for that”, and on the other side was me.  The other side said, “but we can’t have volunteers taking up the charity’s resources,” following which I exploded with apoplexy, because volunteers are a resource of any charity and, in fact, they are more than a resource, they are an asset and assets, as any businessperson will tell you, must be protected.

The other side reared up at my suggestion that volunteers at the very least be promised a reference, stating that they had known organisations whereby one person were responsible for hundreds of volunteers.  My response was that the responsibility should then be divided – provide training, I said, make sure people can do this; our saying within the horsemanship community is, “find a way or make one”.  Anything is possible (insert more cat-skinning related clichés here).  The sticking point for many – and I have worked for at least two enormous companies who have this rule – is good old arse-covering: in the UK, it is illegal to give a negative reference for an employee or volunteer.  As a referee, you have three choices – give a positive reference, a neutral reference, or decline (and the final option tells the person requesting one that, if you could, you’d be giving a bad one).

So big companies permit only neutral references – the standard is that you will confirm dates of employment and sickness record, but won’t comment on an individual’s performance.  Johnny who turns up early for every shift, stays late and is your top seller whose jokes, patter and warmth your customers adore gets the same reference as Bob, who shows up five minutes late, nips out for cigarettes every hour, looks unkempt and is borderline rude.  In my mind, to go the extra mile for Johnny – who has gone several hundred extra miles for you – is not hard.  To provide training and regulation for those who will be giving references (to ensure that your arse is covered) is also not hard.  To give you another equestrian analogy (because they work, as horses are mirrors): “Never knock the curiosity out of a young horse” – Tom Dorrance.  We remember those who snub us on our slow and steady climb.  We mirror their habits.  Let’s breed positive qualities.

I am hopeful that, one day, I will create my ideal world: the one where I get to do a job that I adore (full-time, paid), and develop those around me in a way I would like to see things progress.  I once heard a riding instructor say that they are delighted when their students enter the same classes as them at competitions and beat them, because that’s how it should be – the next generation should ultimately improve on the previous one.  It’s called progress, and without it, nothing changes.  But without a little help – a leg up, a “thank you”, and an opportunity – it can’t happen.  I want to see positive strides, but they can’t happen without my support, so I will give anything that I am able to, whenever I am able to give it.

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Public service announcement

“Nobody gets it,” I moaned a few weeks ago.  “People think I can be persuaded to go back.”  Last month, it emerged that the job I left two years ago had become available again… and that my former boss had also resigned.  Cue friends, former colleagues and other people asking if I’d be applying.  I probably didn’t help the situation by attending a trade show last month.  Or the fact that my LinkedIn profile still states that I’m a freelancer.

“They clearly don’t read your blog, then,” my Dad countered.  Which means that at least some people are getting the message.

I realise I have also been a little vague even here.  The reasons are twofold: I’ve always been hesitant to mention an employer by name – you could all figure it out if you really wanted to, but if I try to mask it a little, I feel that I can be freer with what I write; I don’t want to jinx my situation – yes, that sounds a little too superstitious perhaps, but I feel that it’s taken me this long to get this far, and that I want to protect myself and hedge my bets.  But perhaps it’s time to let the not-so-secret out more explicitly.  Today felt like a good day.  So here’s the plan:

Two years ago, I retired from event management.  I don’t know how much clearer I can make that.  Some of my closest friends understood right away, support me to this day, and I am continually grateful for their comprehension.  I could go back… if I wanted to.  If being the key word.  I still have the qualifications, experience and skills.  But there is absolutely no will there.  I honestly cannot bear the thought of the majority of my working life being lived indoors and at a desk.  I have seen the alternative, and it isn’t always pretty, it is normally hard, but it is worth it.

The reality is that, due to my experience and my long term aim, I will have to settle myself at a desk occasionally.  But I see that as being one or possibly two days per week in the future.  I feel better in myself for doing something active, even though it means that my standard work wardrobe these days is more waterproofs than wrap dresses.

And now for the really important bit: when I retired (I’ve decided I really like that word – it feels indulgent, and I’m also experimenting with the use of it in order to really ram the point home to those who are struggling to comprehend what I’ve done), I thought I wanted to be a riding instructor in the traditional BHS-mould.  I knew it could be a tricky process, given that I had no savings and was considered too old to join a typical apprenticeship-type scheme, plus I was in no way skilled enough to work as a groom or working pupil in order to get someone else to pay for my training.  The equestrian world also has a horrible reputation for promising employees the world and giving them very little – I’d love to be part of the change there, but… slowly slowly – so I assumed I’d have to go it alone.

After my first summer teaching in the US, something wasn’t sitting quite right, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.  I decided to go back for another shot – I hadn’t hated it by any means, and I wondered if what was difficult was the fact that the experience wasn’t fully representative of my potential future.  I thought I needed more time to think.  It turns out that I needed to meet someone new: I made a new friend who opened my eyes to a different way of working, and suddenly a few things clicked.  Equine therapy was something which had intrigued me for a few years, but I had even less idea of how to make that happen than I did of how to become a riding instructor.  The path always seemed woolly and mysterious, until I realised why: it plain is woolly and mysterious.  There are many therapists out there making it up as they go along, with the assistance of some overarching organisations, but most of them are learning by doing and through intuition and thinking laterally.  I found my place.  Sort of.

There was still the matter of how to make it really happen, because I’m still penniless, horse-less and largely clueless.  Then my one friend introduced me to two more, and things pretty much took off.  When I returned from my second summer, I started volunteering with their charity – although the problem is, I don’t see it this way, which might be another reason my peers are struggling to believe me!  It’s a sign that I’m doing the right thing, because it doesn’t feel like work, it just seems like hanging out with my friends and their horses, where clients happen to be.

The situation has evolved over the last few months to the point that there are serious discussions around booking me up for the days when I’m not working at the job which will help me tick over, plus that there’s a training course we’d all like for me to undertake, and the charity are hoping to fund that.  Whilst I’ve been out of paid work, I’ve been doing two or three days per week with the charity, some of these doing equine development (read: Prince’s boot camp), and others assisting with therapy sessions for clients (sometimes this is entertaining a pony who isn’t working, on other occasions it’s a more active role of teaching a group a new activity).  But whatever I find myself doing proves to be the missing link.  There wasn’t the same sense of fulfilment with event management; teaching riding is great, but I have a limited degree of patience when shouting “up, down, up, down” (though I do miss the fact that shuttle runs when teaching beginners keeps me fit, and tacking up my share of 30 horses four times each day gave me the best biceps and triceps I’ve ever had).

The charity is expanding rapidly, and there is a definite place for me there, thanks to a combination of old and new skills.  This summer there will be open days for publicity, play days for fundraising, pony camp-type days for income and many more things besides.  This all means that 2015 is looking likely to be the first year that my feet will remain on UK soil since 2011.  It’s going to be hard work, it’s going to be busy, and I’m still not certain that I’ve found the sector within therapy which really makes my heart sing, but I’m working for people who are supportive of my approach – they don’t know my entire history, because that hasn’t been important to them.  It’s important that I turn up, have the right attitude and want to grow.  It’s my favourite way of doing things – try it out and see what works, what you enjoy.  My hope is to undertake the formal training, work with different types of clients, improve my equine skills and see how far I can go.

There will be events, there will be paperwork and there will be marketing.  But there will also be wellies, skipping out and I will teach riding occasionally.  It took two years to properly figure out my retirement plan and how to implement it, but the next stage is here, and I’m looking forward to telling you about it as it happens.

Turning ten

When you grow up as a typical “girly girl” who appreciates the shiny things in life and have a magazine journalist for an auntie, it’s sort of inevitable that you’ll inhale glossy publications alongside your daily dose of oxygen.  I’m choosy about my literature these days, but there was no way I was leaving one of my favourites on the newsstand last month when I saw that it was said publication’s tenth anniversary edition.

As I flipped through my copy of Grazia once I got home, the articles got me thinking – something I suspect Jane Bruton and her team will be proud of – about how, in a way, I too am 10 this year.  I turn 28 this week, which means I am 10 years an adult.  If I’m honest, I wasn’t part of Grazia’s true demographic when it launched, but I read it anyway, as there was occasionally a beauty product featured which I could afford.  The greater relevance I saw of this magazine 10 years ago was that it was an insight and guide to the life I would soon be living – would, not might, because I was certain that I’d be a high-flying career girl before I was 30 – and so I’d better know what I should be doing.

Grazia is still one-of-a-kind, a lone weekly glossy among the gossip magazines on the same cycle.  When it launched, the strapline was “a lot can happen in a week”, and now here I am, reading the tenth anniversary issue and being reminded that an awful lot can happen in a decade.  When I flicked through the first edition of Grazia, aged 18, I still harboured dreams of being a journalist: I’d applied to journalism degrees – and got rejected by the universities – and had no backup plan.  I sat my A levels that summer with no idea what would happen afterwards, other than that I was booked in to hospital to have surgery on my back, and that I had no true idea of how long it would be until I felt “normal” again (answer: approximately nine weeks, which is when I first swung myself back into a horse’s saddle – don’t try that at home unless your surgeon gives you permission, kids).

And change absolutely became the theme of my decade: every time I thought I had things figured out, organised and handled, life would shift again.  Sometimes, that meant sending out yet another job application, or looking for a new place to live.  On other occasions, it was about handing my notice in and booking a flight in order to start the next stage of my life.  And most of the time, I felt like I was failing: people are very conscious of what they don’t have, and we live in an age where we constantly compare ourselves to others.  When people around me, from cousins to colleagues, were busy doing very grown up things like settling down and buying homes and climbing the career ladder, I was, at best, going sideways, and horrifyingly occasionally going backwards.  I felt like a bit of a loser in the game that is life.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.  Twice, I’d sat down and mapped it all out, putting together my grand plan of how I’d take on the world and win.  In the earlier one, I was at the very least married and a home-owner by now, and I was definitely winning in the career stakes.  It’s taken me a long time to learn that goals are fine, and even achievable, but big grand plans to conquer the world and having your life mapped out year by year?  Not so realistic.  And although it’s happened to us in different ways, I’m not the only person I know who’s come to this realisation.

Friends of mine have said premature goodbyes to family members, or seen their own lives overtaken by illness.  Others have supported partners through redundancy or grief.  Some have picked up and moved to the other side of the world, thriving in their new surroundings.  And others have stuck to the traditional dream and plan of buying a home, getting married and, no doubt filling their lives with children.  I don’t have any of the traditional elements of an adult life – my first career is behind me and my second is only now starting to take shape; I haven’t even started saving for a home of my own, nevermind actually picking up the keys to it; wedding and baby plans also aren’t on the horizon (though that I’m more than happy with) – but thankfully, I also haven’t experienced the reality of other adult issues.

When I thought about what I haven’t done in order to craft this post and report on my first decade as an adult, I began to feel pretty despondent, like I didn’t have much to show for myself.  So I started to think about what I have done, rather than what I haven’t done, aided in part by a friend’s theory that our five years post-university are the times when we go through the greatest personal change, or rather, they’re our actual growing up years.  A bit like the common wisdom that you truly learn to drive after passing your driving test.

If my baby adult decade were put together in a highlights package, what would they look like?  I had the driving thing nailed already, but in terms of everything else…

  • I got my degree. It felt like a minor miracle (especially having almost fallen asleep whilst standing up when waiting for my dissertation to be bound – don’t try and write it in four days)
  • I went on holiday by myself. There were strangers when I got there, almost all of whom weren’t alone – my first lesson in adventure and being bold
  • I worked, and climbed, and fell… and got back up again. Essentially, I persevered.  Until I felt I could no longer…
  • …and then I came up with yet another plan. Except, with the realisation that the previous plans hadn’t worked, I settled on an idea and allowed it to flourish
  • I lived and worked in another country. I made friends there.  I explored, on a shoestring and by the seat of my pants sometimes.  Which means I observed my comfort zone a few times (from a cosy distance)

I don’t have a house, husband or horse (still.  Guess which one of those annoys me the most?), but I do have stories to tell and lessons learned, the biggest one being that if a lot can happen in a week, good luck on guessing what can happen in a decade.  I’m making no bets on the next ten years, and I’m making the shortest plan I’ve ever had: I’m dedicating my time to being happy.  Because I’m not interested in just ticking boxes any more.

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the degree: graduating in 2010

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the career: I’ve never forgiven that stranger in the background for mugging. Or myself for not learning sooner that day five of an event requires more makeup than I was wearing

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the adventure: South Africa and going it alone…until I got hold of a horse

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the unknown: living and working somewhere different. With different people. And doing something different

 

 

 

 

Memory lane

I found myself in a bit of a surreal place last week, as I attended an events industry conference primarily to be part of an alumni event.  It’s five years this summer since I graduated from university, and nine years in September since I began my degree course… I’m not sure where those years have gone!

I can’t remember the first time I attended Confex, which bills itself as the best events industry trade show in the UK, and I’m actually not sure how many times I’ve been… one trade show tends to blur into another, and there were times when I went to at least four in any calendar year!  Now, Confex and another have merged (whittling things down to three shows overall), and I’m told the best one to go to now is one which was still fairly new back when I was still in industry.

Confex has shrunk considerably as organisations choose to use their marketing budgets differently – once upon a time, it was two three-day shows and was absolutely enormous.  Companies pretty much threw free canapes and gifts at you (particularly cotton bags, at one point), and if you wanted to, you could get pretty tipsy without spending any money (even more so if you were in control of your organisation’s annual budget or venue sourcing…)  Now, it’s down to two days, and there was a lot of stand space (at what is comparably a small venue) which had gone unsold.  The show didn’t feel as vibrant and interactive as it used to, which I found strange, because the events industry isn’t exactly a sad place to be at the moment.

The experience served as a reminder that I did the right thing – events will continue to be a part of what I do, particularly if the summer goes according to plan, but it’s an industry that I can no longer see myself in full-time, or as the main thrust of what I do.  The skill of organising things and making stuff happen is innate for me, I don’t think I’ll ever fully leave that side of my personality behind, but I am relieved not to be doing it 24/7 anymore.  It is also nice to have transferrable skills which will be useful to the organisation that I currently work with, and ones which I may work for in the future, and that’s one of the best things about the apparent death of jobs for life: many of us will make career transitions, absorbing new skills and taking them with us through different paths in life, and allowing us to benefit different people in different ways.  Maybe it’s how I’ll help change the equestrian world for the better, by helping to galvanise and adjust the culture in order that equestrians can provide a higher quality of service and become more business-minded.

I doubt I’ll find myself booking venues, numbering poster boards or setting six-foot rounds for five course dinners (with seven pieces of glassware) again, but if those things do turn out to be necessary, I’m ready.  And I’m ready for all kinds of other things too…

Back in the classroom

I’m doing a lot of learning at the moment, having dipped my toe into the water of a different method of working with horses, but today I’m switching roles again and playing at being the teacher.  In fact, it’s a big change: I’m off to the university I studied at.

Periodically since I graduated, I’ve returned to assist with classes and, on a couple of occasions, I’ve even been on the lookout for staff.  It’s 11 months since my previous trip – longer than I’d wanted, as I was invited to go in October but ultimately wasn’t able to make it – and I’m in a similar situation than I was last time.  Last April, I was on an extended holiday, technically between jobs and enjoying not having one eye on a blinking BlackBerry and the other on the clock which showed how many hours before I was expected to return to my desk.  I was nervous about what my forthcoming summer in the US had in store, but feeling much happier having extricated myself from my job in London.  But I told the students none of this: I presented myself as a freelancer.

My logic was that they would hear only part of what I said when introducing myself if I was explicit regarding my situation: they’d have heard that I wasn’t in an event management role, and that would’ve resulted in me losing any potential credibility as a source of information and support.  Admittedly, there was some vanity and embarrassment involved on my part – I didn’t want to have gone all that way for them to ignore me, and I was in a position of huge uncertainty in my life whereby I didn’t need a group of students probing my career choices.  So I protected myself, made a quick but necessary introduction and proceeded to do my best by them.

The classes are exhausting, as the ones I assist with are in a speed dating format: various guests are brought in, the students work their way around in small groups and the guests answer questions.  You spend two hours talking.  My message is usually a no-nonsense, “pull your finger out if you want to get a good grade”, but I have had some challenging questions which test my brain (and my memory of textbooks and theories!) and it means that I end the session mentally exhausted, though realising I know more than I thought I did!

Beyond “work hard to get a good grade”, “make sure you get a job which makes you happy” and “enjoy your final few weeks as a student – it’ll be a long time before you have it this good again”, I don’t know what I’ll be saying today.  It’s possibly because it’s a year since I was in an events role, but I definitely feel rusty going into this class, and I’m glad it’s not a case of preparing a slide set and giving a didactic lecture.  What I am focusing on is coming up with a way of being more explicit with the truth of my own situation, whilst getting across that I know what I’m talking about and that I’m qualified to do so, even though it’s not what I do at the moment.  Here’s hoping I can convey the message.

Nirvana

I’m entering my sixth week of a temp assignment in an office, and I’ve learned a lot.  Since I came back from the US and decided to take another year before settling down and working with horses full time, I’ve essentially been clock watching until I get to go back again.  Which is possibly a sign that I made the wrong decision – isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

There’s nothing I can do to change the choices I’ve already made, so I’m doing my best with what I do have, and my current situation has taught me a few things.  In a lot of ways, it’s nice to be a temp: I got in, do a basic job for a little bit of money, and I go home.  It’s largely lacking in stress, and high in thinking time.  It’s also given me an opportunity to people watch, be a fly on the wall in the daily lives of some other people.

As with many companies, there are people who’ve worked there for most of their adult life, and those who are at the very beginning.  Some are fresh out of school – 17 or 18 and, for whatever reason, have taken basic office or call centre jobs, either as an interim or in pursuit of a permanent career with the company.  What I don’t think I’ve seen is anyone who really and truly loves their job – it was upon realising this that the phrase, “if you see it, you’ve got it” popped into my head, and I started to feel as if I were observing an army of former versions of myself.

Of course, these people may all be hiding something.  They’ll each have their own reason for turning up at the office and logging in to their jobs five days per week.  It might be that they are on a concealed path, working towards a goal that they aren’t externalising.  Or it could be force of habit, a learned helplessness.

Either way, I find it sad that nobody makes it obvious that they love what they do.  And, if they don’t, that they aren’t changing that.  At the same time, I have first-hand experience of how difficult it can be to make changes, or even to decide to.  I went through a confusing time of figuring out what exactly my problem was: did I just have itchy feet; was I not working hard enough; are human beings destined to be discontent?  Ultimately, I decided that curiosity might kill me, and I took a reversible step as an experiment.  The results proved to me that I shouldn’t turn back, that forwards was the best way and that the dream was worth pursuing.

But lately I’ve been wondering whether that’s fair.  Clearly, everyone’s different, and the world would be a boring place if we were all the same.  And just because I can’t see the enjoyment in a certain role, doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t.  But what I’ve been wondering is this: is it possible for everyone in the world to do what makes them happy, without said world dropping out of orbit?  Is there room for everyone to do what they want and for our world to continue to function?

Job satisfaction clearly isn’t the way that everyone gets their kicks: some people are satisfied with having a fulfilling family life, whilst others take their joy from their hobbies and are content to do their job to fund the rest of their lifestyle.  But should that be the norm?  The advice offered by so many is: “find what you love and figure out how to get paid to do it”.  Which I think is the root of my question.  So, without further ado:

Have you found what you love and are you paid to do it?  If not, what’s stopping you?

Ologies: I got them

Anyone who’s followed my blog from the beginning will know that I love a good bandwagon (see: Olympic legacy; advice to graduands). There’s one rumbling past this week, so it’s time to hop on again.  Here follows an open letter to all those who are receiving exam results this week and next.

Congratulations – you’ve taken another step and opened the dreaded envelope (even the confident ones were dreading it – don’t be fooled by the fronts your friends have put up).  Do yourself a favour: take the letters in and then hide that piece of paper in a safe place.  Forget what’s on it unless you’re asked.  Why?  Because it no longer matters.

Every exam you’ve sat, each essay you’ve written are all stepping stones.  They’re small perches on a lifelong route of learning and development.  Many celebrities will tweet today that their exam results were abysmal (which shouldn’t come as a shock, as some will no doubt be famous for dubious reasons) or that you make your own luck and life goes on.  Both things are true.  Then there will be the naysayers who belittle your achievements, who insist that it was harder in their day, that your clutch of vowels and stars means less than their consonants.  This is false.  The world is a different place today from what it was even yesterday.  Measure your achievements against your own targets rather than the bar set by your forerunners.

Here’s something which will hopefully provide a better context than the mindless offerings of television pundits and empty nesters: I’m mostly pleased with the lines of letters on my hidden pieces of paper (bear in mind that I’ve had eight to 10 years to get used to what they look like), but I’m the only one who cares.  Providing you’ve passed, and demonstrated a basic grasp of vital concepts such as arithmetic, spelling, punctuation and grammar, employers will allow you to pass through their filter.  As long as there is enough purchase to get you to the next stone – whether that be achieving the points required to get onto your desired course at university, or achieving the grade necessary in your subject in order to continue studying it – the future is all that matters.

I’ve never enjoyed the examination post-mortems which occur on buses and in pubs nationwide.  I spent years attempting to avoid them.  Why?  Because by the time you put your pen down and leave the exam room, the time to affect positive change upon the situation has passed.  You can deal with what’s in front of you – make the best of that.  Waste no tears or sleep on that which is over.  Be proud of your achievements.  Hold your head high.  Move on to the next goal.

The day I picked up my GCSE results, I cried because I had passed maths, and had no further need to pick up a protractor.  When I had my A Level results in hand two years later, I was happy to be walking – I had no offers of university places at the time, though I wanted to go.  All I could do was make what was in my envelope work for me.  A reassessment of what I wanted from life took me down a path I hadn’t previously considered: it turned out to be a lot of fun and, in an indirect way, led me to where I stand today.

Behind me is a box containing a stack of papers which nobody asks about.  In front of me is a blank sheet which I control.