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
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
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
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
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
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.