Role Models

Tim Jackson 11/04/2001

For most of my life I have felt insecure about the way I live.  When I was young, received wisdom was that I was supposed to get a nice responsible job in a profession with the security of working for 'the establishment', invest a proportion of my income for retirement at age 65 or earlier, marry a professional girl a few years younger at about age 30 and have a few children, which she would leave work to bring up.  By 50 I would be comfortably off in a large house in a couple of acres of garden, all paid for.  The children would be grown and at university or juniors in a professional practice.
It didn't work like that although it started out right.  A fee-paying grammar school that must have been so hard for Dad to afford, good university, job with the nation's main computer company.  Almost slipped the rails there, I missed the grade for postgraduate studies and the research project of my choice, but recovered and wound up getting paid to do the same thing in industry.
Then it all went wrong.  The trouble was I started to think.  Despite the glamorous image advertised in the 60's, working for the computer company was a dead-end job.  This was meritocracy on morphine, strangled by trade unions.  I knew we, the 'bright young things' hired on the university 'milk round'  were all good and I believed I could be the best, but soon found the company wasn't interested in best, only in cheap and good enough.  "Training, you don't need training, you're good enough." 
Despite missing most of my maths lectures through oversleeping I could still add up.  Pensions are paid out of investments.  Investments grow because businesses create wealth.  Count the people, more pensioners, less wealth creators - end of story.  The investment companies predictions were obviously based on unfeasible models. Trading on the edge, futures, currency dealing, 'financial services' however popular isn't wealth creation, it is the acceptable face of fraud.  We as a nation, as a world obviously were not creating enough wealth to pay pensions to the baby boomers when they came through in anything like the measure we expected.  My guess was the system would collapse around 2020, just when I would be due to get mine.
Businesses only exist because they create wealth.  A company stuffed with 'jobsworths' looking to get maximum pay for minimum work is not going anywhere but down, and most if not all the 'establishment' companies were like that.  The deck we were standing on looked solid enough, but the piles supporting it had woodworm.
I got an opportunity and left to become a freelance.  The first leap in the dark. Shock! Horror!  To some the word was synonymous with prostitute.  "But what about security?"  Well ten years later all my 'secure' colleagues had been made redundant, mostly more than once, and I still have my business after twenty four.  ("Told you so!")  I learnt quickly to be a good prostitute.  A contractor doesn't care about office politics, about someone else taking credit for the work, about being insulted or given menial tasks.  A contractor smiles politely, anticipates the customer's needs, delivers the goods and moves on.  Lie back and think of the pay cheque.  I suppose I got to be top whore, with Shell through the North Sea oil boom, so what went wrong?
For a start no-one wants an old whore.  The punters were quite right, it doesn't have security.  It's not a main engine but it is one hell of a booster rocket.  I started doing what I wanted to do all along, learning to be a proper engineer, designing things.  I never found anyone who would hire me to do a job like that so I built one for myself.  It looked easy but it wasn't; creating any sort of business is hard work.  To build a solid one from scratch is painful.  My massive pay cheques were employing five people to work on my designs.  I was certain which way I wanted to go, what I had to do, but I don't think I knew why, or what the process was.  Investing a year's pay in a project then pulling the plug on it because the market didn't go the way I expected was sort of scary and felt like failure.  Hiring a bright statuesque waitress from my favourite restaurant to do the accounts (which she did well) felt like success.  When she moved in with me that was even better.
Eventually it came time to "shit or get off the pot".  The oil boom was fading and I was getting stretched too thin, I couldn't keep earning to finance the business and run it at the same time.  The booster ran out and the main engine was barely turning.  Second leap in the dark.  One by one the employees moved on and I didn't replace them.  Even the former waitress moved out and left.  Cash got tight, then very tight.  I was working hard to complete a project on a fixed price, and it wasn't going well, lots of overrun.  First trial by fire.  This time pulling the plug wasn't an option.  I was juggling the books to pay for food and materials, borrowing on credit cards to the hilt, and of necessity learned how to negotiate and renegotiate contracts with large customers from a position of 'up against the wall'.  I thought I was cleaning up the messes I had made, it never occurred to me then that this was training, that I was learning important new skills.  Stubbornness got me through.  It paid off the debts and that was all, except I now had a business that just about earned enough to keep me alive.  By all the standards I knew, that was a failure, but the long dive had got the main engine up to flight speed.
Just being there, more projects came my way.  Beggars can't be choosers and I had to offer a competitive price and carry all the risk.  More trials by fire, much pain but no disasters, I was getting better at it.  It is exciting and fun to design something, but it is boring and hard work to make it run. It's a living, I get respect, I call the shots.  I can't claim failure any more.
So what has this to do with role models.  At the start my role models were 'yuppies' climbing the promotion ladder in 'the establishment'.  Intellectually I knew they were dinosaurs, but emotionally I envied them.  They were richer, earned more for doing less, attracted mates easily, had all the trappings of success.  Later I learned about the long hours, the stresses, the conflicts with family life, and the terrible constraints on creativity.  Sometime around then I started dating a vaguely wealthy divorced businesswoman.  We went to a dinner party with her yuppie friends in their tastefully converted barn on a smallholding probably hired out to a local sheep farmer.  Someone got me to talk somewhat reluctantly about my business, my work and so on.  As I described my little efforts, I suddenly realised that these people, these Gods and Goddesses, were actually jealous of me!  They had all the material possessions, wealth and beauty, but I had a better quality of life, and I was in control of it.  Never did quite get the mate thing sorted out though.
The next role models were successful business owners.  Fast cars, extravagant lifestyles.  I didn't actually know any, but you see them around, you read about them in the papers, you see them on TV.   Well I did know a few, industrial customers,  but mostly they weren't quite what I envisaged.  Either they had inherited wealth, or they were living briefly off someone else's (probably the pension funds'!) ill-advised investment in a doomed business, or they were just crooks, or in a few cases they got lucky break.  I knew about lucky breaks, I once read that the difference between regular employment and business was like that between riding on a donkey or a tiger.  Well yes, but tigers are rarer than Blackburn buses on a Saturday night and you just have to walk until one happens along.  You don't get anything if you aren't on the road.  A few get tiger rides, and a few get eaten, but most walk, and get overtaken by donkeys.
Still, the real successful entrepreneurs that I knew were nothing like their media images.  Apart from luck and inheritance, wealth is proportional to nastiness.  The 'self made men' with the wealthy lifestyle were crooks.  Or sycophants to crooks - not so wealthy but with much more need to demonstrate their affluence. If a salesman tries to impress you with his fancy car then his product is overpriced - it is you the customer who pays for that car.  It slowly dawned that it was the media image that was wrong, either the authors didn't know any or they just portrayed what they thought the public wanted to see.  That's what I like about Dick Francis novels, even the wealthy characters are realistic and believable with feet of clay.  He obviously does meet them.
The hardest lesson was that earning money doesn't bring quality of life, it's how you spend your resources that matters.  I defended that argument intellectually when I was a student, but my emotions took decades to catch up.  Fortunately they weren’t holding the steering wheel in the meantime.  The media images drive the idea that happiness is new furniture and an expensive car.  ( CAR!  A car is a tool for going somewhere in a hurry.  It is at best dangerous, smelly and uncomfortable.  It represents the greatest risk of death in middle age.   Driving is a stressful monotonous repetitive task best left to the intellectually challenged.  Getting thrills from driving may be fun but it is extremely antisocial to do it on the public road.)  We are asked to believe "One day I'll be rich and free and able to buy and do all the things that the advertisers exhort me to." and so we work towards that end and live our lives forever in dreamland, never enjoying today.
Now I am living as a single parent with my seven year old daughter.  I love her and she loves me.  I am totally in control of my life.  I have enough income to maintain our lifestyle and put a bit aside.  I get respect at work, and I can sack customers if they annoy me.  I can spend a lot of time with my daughter.  I feel that adjusting to widowhood was perhaps my greatest achievement.  In many ways I have never been so happy.  (But I'd still like to get that mate thing right.)  Strangely, people have called me successful and wealthy.  My first reaction was to wonder who they were talking about - in both areas I feel barely adequate.  Orthodoxy is coming to meet me at last, the establishment giants are dying and entrepreneurs are in fashion, after the money-mad eighties, real values are coming back.