Biggest fuck up?
Honestly, like most things in life, when you look back and post-rationalize, my career looks like a series of pretty smart moves, getting me to a place where I’m really lucky and happy.
But when you play the tape the other way, it’s a load of total fuckups that just about worked out OK. Before anyone like me even begins to get smug, we need to remember the survivorship bias of all this. There are many more parallel universes where I’m in therapy or broke or a social media manager for a car parts business in Slough than where I’m given the chance to write this and sound all smart and wise.
I can’t be too precise, but there was an agency I moved to where I was promised literally everything. Over a 2 year period, I was almost literally seduced into a role where all my expectations were more than matched, and I was effectively promised keys to the castle. I just needed to drop to a smaller, less prestigious agency, take a whopping pay cut and make the rest up with commission in new business. Suffice to say that within 2 weeks, everything promised turned out not to be true, but entirely the opposite. I fixed it by leaving very quickly, and in the world of advertising, very few doors are one way.
There is a deeply unfashionable song by SnowPatrol called Lifening, the main chorus line is “ This is all I ever wanted from life,” and the verses list out predictably romantic and simple honest things, “ a hand upon my shoulder”, “the joke and then the laugh”, you get the idea. I think about it a lot.
When I look around me, I see a lot of people who live life on autopilot. People who feel trapped. Often it’s the people with the most who seem least in control of their lives and happiness.
It’s become very apparent to me in the last year how little time we spend thinking about what really matters. And by little time, I mean zero time. Has anyone actually thought about what matters most to them? Who they are? What do they want to accomplish, feel, do, be? And equally vital, what is it not about?
We don’t think about this stuff because it’s bloody scary. It’s hard. It’s embarrassing. It’s a bit hippy, it makes us feel vulnerable. I mean, what if we just want to be happy? Or be ourselves? What happens if we’d quite like to live in Norfolk and not New York, or we want to scoop ice cream for a living? That’s a bit shit.
So to avoid the embarrassment of this vacuum, the effort in self-discovery, and to ensure there is no deep existential dread at 3 am, we find the things we can most easily bung into our dreams as a proxy for what we assume to be an accomplishment.
We want a nice car so we can feel safe, successful and accomplished, but we will tell ourselves it’s because we have a distinguished love of design. We want our kids to be happy, which we can’t possibly guarantee, so we think a good (aka expensive) education is the way ahead. We want to be able to relax, especially as we’ve now committed ourselves to a lot of hard work, so we dream of holiday cottages in France or Cornwall or cabins by lakes upstate.
Quite quickly, our proxies for happiness become the target. We then work towards these directly, and a few years later, people are stuck in jobs they don’t like because they need to keep making repayments on mortgages for homes that are there to make them happy. They can’t set up their own business because school fees tie them down. They can’t write the book they wanted because they are too tired. We don’t have time to cook, but we can save up money to buy expensive cooking lesson vacations instead. It’s bananas.
It just strikes me that we’re probably best working directly on happiness, not the most obvious celebrated proxies that limit life’s options and cause stress.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a materialistic, ambitious, status-craving idiot, so I want a nice car or watch or an amazing home as an output of being happy, but I don’t want it as proof.
3. Useful Advice
A ruthless focus on outputs, not busyness.
This is seemingly a business one, but it also applies to personal lives too.
Quite often, the things we need to accomplish are not especially tangible in life. People liking you, thinking you are smart or wanting you in the meeting are not things that you can point to and show someone. As a result, we tend to find things we can point to and hold up.
Let’s say you are in a sales role. Probably the best way to actually sell $1m of stuff in a year is to fixate on the 8 best people who can realistically buy more than $500k of stuff. It’s probably to learn everything about them, spend time with them, nurture relationships, and learn about what they care about. It would be a year of no demonstrable progress except any sales. Yet imagine if it doesn’t happen? If you fail, you’ve no proof of “work done” to fall back on. As a result, most people in this situation will create a vast spreadsheet of hot leads, 100 people. They will color code. They will arrange status updates, they will make PowerPoint presentations to show the plan of attack. They will meet with countless people they know can’t afford to buy it but be able to show they are making 10 sales meetings per week. This latter person is far less likely to accomplish anything but will feel far safer doing it.
Few of us work in sales, but most of us work this way. It’s become pervasive in modern life to merchandise the work you are doing, not the outputs from it. You reply to emails over the weekend to show you are “on call”, you fill in status sheets endlessly, and you attend meetings you really don’t need to because saying no makes you look lazy.
If everyone was to focus on accomplishing 3 simple things each week, far, far better than they ever imagined, and ignored everything else, every proxy for progress, every marketing of value, every political gesture, we’d all get far more done. In this battle, saying “no” is your biggest weapon.