The previous blog focused on a particularly difficult period of my professional life. Basically, I desperately needed to jump start my career but, despite intensive marketing, I just couldn’t get a break. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, I was commissioned to write an article, which boosted my credibility and led to a series of new contracts that dramatically changed my fortunes.
One could say the phone call was a piece of luck. But in reality, it was the consequence of being amiable, professional and open-minded to new opportunities. That phone call was the indirect result of a connection I had made 15 years earlier. What’s more, there was no forethought, no intention and no logical thought process. The same is true of another defining episode in my professional life.
Way back in 1991, before I became a freelance journalist, I was a software salesman. The job paid well but I was disillusioned with the corporate world. One evening after work, while enjoying a pint in my local pub, I was chatting to a friend who taught business at the nearby college. I told Andy about my job dissatisfaction and my desire to inject some variety into my life. He suggested that I gave a talk to his students.
My first impulse was to decline. I’d never taught before and wouldn’t know what to say. Andy quickly put my mind at rest. “You’ve got a business degree,” he said, “and you’ve spent five years in the real-world of business. My students will be fascinated.” Maybe it was the beer talking, but the next word out of my mouth was “OK.” Andy was right: the students were indeed a very receptive audience and, although I earned nothing, I enjoyed it greatly.
Two years later, I’d quit my sales job and become a freelance journalist. I enjoyed the freedom of not having a boss and it was a major relief to say goodbye to the endless commuting and ever-growing sales targets. But I was struggling financially. My income was extremely variable and I needed some predictability. In September 1993, I bumped into Andy and he told me that a colleague desperately needed someone to teach a 24-week course: the economics of the construction industry.
I had never taught a whole course before, and I knew absolutely nothing about the construction industry. But, because I had enjoyed my first teaching experience and I needed the money, I immediately said “yes”. I spent the next week devouring text books and consulting Andy for guidance, and then nervously delivered my first class to a sea of semi-bemused faces. It took a while to get the hang of teaching, but I persevered and by the Christmas break, the students were engaged and I considered myself a reasonably competent teacher.
The college asked me to deliver the course again in the following year and I gladly accepted. But in 1995, the freelancing side of my career was monopolising my time and so I declined subsequent offers of teaching. Five years later, however, I was once again becoming jaded.
One of the problems with specialising in a particular niche is that it can become tedious. In 1999 and 2000, following the phone call from the Daily Telegraph, I secured lots of corporate writing work from IT companies that were eager to capitalise on what became known as the ‘dotcom boom.’ This became my specialism and for the next eighteen months, I worked pretty much non-stop. While this was good for my bank balance, it became rather boring to repeat essentially the same ‘message’ over and over. Also, although I loved being a freelance and working from my home office in deepest Wiltshire, there were times when the isolation was too much. I wondered how I could meet like-minded people, so in late-2000 I joined the National Union of Journalists and attended the local branch meetings.
Once a month, always on a gloomy Tuesday night, the same five faces gathered around dark pints of Arkell’s ale and lamented the slow death of our noble profession. It was at one of these meetings that Pete, a former newspaper photographer and a lecturer at Cardiff University asked me: “You do business journalism, don’t you?” Before I could confirm, he said: “You fancy doing some teaching?”
The timing of Pete’s questions was perfect. I needed a new challenge and, like my chat with Andy in 1991, this was another example of the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’. My simple desire for a couple of pints had inadvertently pushed me toward an open door that I didn’t even know existed. I had no latent desire to switch careers. I just happened to be in the right pub, sitting next to the right person, at the right time, and in a receptive mood.
On Pete’s instruction I met the course co-ordinator, told her about my previous teaching experience, sorted out a lecture plan, signed contracts and gave my first lecture a few weeks later. I took the train from Swindon to Cardiff once a week, and with every trip I fell deeper in love with teaching. In the next academic year, I volunteered to teach a second module and before I knew it, I’d become indispensible. In September 2003, a full-time position became available. I got the job, quit freelancing and I felt I’d found my vocation.
In retrospect, it’s clear that my teaching career would never have happened if I had not said ‘yes’ at two crucial moments. What’s more, on both occasions, I agreed to do something I’d never done before (although I was confident that I could pull it off – in theory at least). A path appeared that would take me out of my comfort zone, and I took it. And again, in much the same way that my random encounters with Michael in the previous blog transformed my freelancing prospects, meeting Andy and Pete at fortuitous moments helped launch a new career without any planning on my part. Whether you want to call luck, fate or coincidence, I strongly recommend saying “yes” whenever opportunity knocks unexpectedly.