Learning stuff is a side effect of life

This new year there was a trend of people sharing pictures of themselves 10 years ago on Instagram, and taking stock of their achievements on Twitter and LinkedIn. But a more interesting question might be, “Who was I ten years ago?”

2020 lands on 2019 and smashes it, there are fireworks and it says Happy New Year.

I’m not sure why there’s been such a focus this year on us moving from 2019 to 2020 and the start of a new decade. I’m not sure I remember it happening before with as much intensity but maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention.

When I first started thinking about it, 2009 seemed like yesterday. I remember sitting with Dan and having a conversation about how we are still listening to (some of) the same albums. But that was just our old brains playing tricks on us – and once you start taking stock of what’s changed it all feels pretty huge, though you didn’t necessarily notice it at the time.

Rather than tell you all about my achievements over the last ten years (bleugh #humblebrag bleugh) I thought it might be more interesting to think about who I was then, what I was experiencing and what I think about that now. I think I was a different person then, and maybe I really am old now, but there’s advice I would definitely give my younger self.

~~Scroll to the end if you’re not interested in my life story but are interested in some of the things I’ve learned since 2009~~

1. Debts and doubts

2009, if I remember rightly, was a stressful year.

I was still dealing with the fallout of being followed home and attacked one evening in 2008. My social life died off as I was too scared to go out at night – a worry that still lingers 11 years later.

I got my first “proper job” in London in customer publishing in 2008, but the salary was £12k and, moving in with my (now) husband and playing rent meant that every month I went into the red. I moved to a new role as a Publishing Assistant / Account Exec at a different customer publishing agency and it was in that job that I started 2009.

An Adventure Time gif, Lumpy Space Princess says “Whatever, it’s 2009!”

Though I was being paid (slightly) more, things were still tight as I tried to pay off debts that I’d built up just by doing my previous job. Debts I’d built up just to take a job that would get me somewhere. Commuting costs (Bedford to London) on top of rent were really massive and ate up all of my pay.

But I enjoyed that role as I got to try lots of new things; picture research, sub editing, writing, PAing and more. I pulled together products for feature articles and got to go to jewellery launches at Claridge’s, or visit Jewellers on New Bond Street. I turned up to see jewellery (that cost more than I bought my first house for 5 years later) wearing scrappy Converse trainers and £20 jeans. I’m still amazed the security guard let me into the shop at all.

A gif of a carton hand that says “stop!!”

I was enlisted to stand guard over hundreds of thousands of pounds of luxury watches on photo shoots until their couriers arrived to collect them. I got to see some of how the other half lived and it added a small slice of luxury to my otherwise mundane experience. I felt lucky to work there.

Nowadays that would sound alarm bells. It was a small company and there were a few problematic personalities. I was young(er), less confident, and I internalised any workplace weirdnesses. The recession had hit in 2008 and, when the company lost two important contracts in quick succession, I faced redundancy. I took it incredibly personally.

Looking back, the company didn’t need to go through such formalities for redundancies; their workforce wasn’t big enough to warrant it, and they could have just asked me to pack up and go. But I was glad of the unnecessary process because it bought me some time, and it meant I could attend interviews in work hours and nobody could say no.

Still, it was hard having a meeting every couple of weeks where someone would outline the ways in which your role (and thus, yes, you) were disposable, and hear the £16k role of “Publishing Assistant” labelled as a luxury.

No mate, £275,000 worth of diamonds and rubies is a luxury.

A graphic animation of a diamond

Signing on and Spamming

I finished in April 2009 and sat in what was supposed to be my home, a flat I couldn’t afford to live in even when I had been earning. I applied for what the Job centre assistant called a “shedload” of jobs, when I signed-on one Friday.

Spring was becoming summer and it was a bit depressing and lonely. One lovely lady at the Job centre tried to recruit me to work with her— they had recently expanded to a second floor to cope with all of the people affected by the recession. Another, not so nice, lady told me not to apply for so many jobs — I only needed to apply for 3 per week to get my benefits — but I came back week after week with several pages.

We moved into a flat bought by my (now) in-laws who asked for a laughable amount of rent, which was lovely. This is a slice of my privilege, I know I’m lucky, and grateful for it. Without this I’m not sure I could have continued to afford working in London.

Then that summer, I became a spammer.

A gif of three envelopes with numbers going up and up, and the words “stop spamming me”

I scoured Google to find digital and publishing agencies, I created long lists of them all and even looked at PR companies. I knew nobody who worked in that field which I know now is a huge factor in finding a job in the “creative industries”.

I found email addresses and sent covering letters to them all telling them what I liked about their work and why I was a great all-round person to hire. I sent more than a hundred emails, and more than a hundred follow ups. I had a spreadsheet.

Then one by one I saw a hundred replies trickle into my inbox, emails saying how each agency “didn’t have any positions at the moment”, or worse, pointing me to their unpaid work experience schemes.

A reply from an agency pointing me to their unpaid work experience placements.

Every automatic email response — impersonal, standardised — was a paper cut. Every time it hurt a little bit more. I was worried that I’d gone back to square one, fresh out of uni, and that none of the work experience I’d gained counted for anything.

Micromanaged and miserable

But somehow by June I’d managed to find a new role as a Web Editor at a tiny employee benefits company. The money worry came off (a little) though I still did a lot of cold calling and emails to agencies. And now I had the word “editor” in my title (which made me feel a teeny bit clever and important).

But the person who hired me for that role left for a new job before I’d even started, and her replacement didn’t seem to like me very much. I’m not sure if she resented that her team had been recruited before she was in place, but I suspect so.

Her team were all young, or at least that’s what she used to regularly tell us. I was micromanaged and miserable. The days stretched out endlessly.

The final straw came one day when my manager told us that we all needed to work in silence for 45 minutes. I was fuming at being treated like a child. During the silence, she turned and asked me a question.

My response of…

Sorry, I would answer you, but I’ve been told that I have to stay silent.

…did not go down well. I was unceremoniously “asked to leave” after less than 6 months, and found myself out of a job again (but was secretly relieved).

I think this is Adam Sandler, with a microphone singing “I was fired!”

They said I could tell future jobs that it had been a temporary position, which was generous of them. I had a season ticket loan that they wanted me to pay them back, costing a few thousand pounds that I couldn’t afford (obviously) and I had to fight with them over the difference between the value and the refund that the train company gave me. The whole thing was stressful.

Oh yeah, and it was the day before my birthday! I’d forgotten that gem of a detail.

So it was November and 2009 was almost over, not a great time of year to be job hunting. I applied to Waterstones for a temporary Christmas role telling myself that it would be romantic to work surrounded by books, especially over Christmas when people must love buying books.

Plus, this would mean no stress. Maybe I could start writing or go back to uni (though I couldn’t afford to). I dreamed about splitting my time between the bookshop with its friendly fantasy-fiction writing staff and staring out of the window of a coffee shop, pen in hand, thinking of beautiful things to say. Just maybe this was right for me.

I did two shifts.

A gif from the TV series Black Books. Bernard says to Manny “I’m a quitter, I come from a long line of quitters”

The dawn of 2010

Via an old school friend I got offered a contract role doing QA work for L&D software and courses for Capita. It was triple the money, but it was boring and required travel to a concrete monstrosity on the outskirts of Northampton. I caught the bus in the snow and it was so cold I usually wore at least four layers, amazing for a building with no openable windows.

I was a contractor so I invoiced weekly and would get paid six weeks later, so I was still earning nothing, but I learned how to reeeeeally chase invoices.

At Christmas, my (now) husband asked me to marry him.

And then, something amazing happened.

(Haha, the proposal was also amazing, I’m sorry Stephen).

I got offered an interview at one of the agencies that I’d spammed!

They had held on to my CV and, 6 months later, asked if I wanted to interview for an entry level project manager role at their offices in Soho.

So I started 2010 hopeful, with ambition, and in a completely different place to where I’d started.

So what??

What’s the point in recounting these stories of 2009? Well because I guess that I’ve learned a few things along the way that might have helped me if I’d known them back then.

I thought it might be worth sharing them here:

1.Don’t let a workplace swap you “cool” for where your pay should be. Nowhere is cool enough that it should cost you to work there, and nowhere should make you feel as though you are lucky to be there. All of the freebies that you get from press days do not add up to anything resembling a good salary (and if you try to make it up by selling those things on eBay you will incur the wrath of the PRs).

It panned out for me somehow, but I wouldn’t recommend it for your mental health, you are worth more than that.

A gif of the word cool getting bigger and smaller

2. Know when to get out. If you’re miserable, move on. Or at least make moves to get out (I know quitting is a privilege). Don’t let your frustration build up and get yourself fired, it’s not worth adding “what does everyone think of me” to the list of things you’ve got to be worried about. And it doesn’t help if you have to fight for anything you’re owed afterwards.

3. Getting a job is easier for some people than others. If you have family connections, friends of family, or parents who work in the industry you want to work in you’re much more likely to get a job you want. If you don’t have those connections then you have to be tenacious, you will get knock back after knock back and you will have to pick yourself up. You will end up working twice as hard, and for free, and managing additional workload as you scour call, apply and put yourself out there.

You won’t know it, but sometime years later someone will call you resilient and you will think they are mad because you feel anything but. They are right though, you are concrete.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is for another post.

4. Life only goes in one direction. A side-effect of life is that you learn stuff, without even trying, it’s just what happens. Of course you can learn even more stuff along the way if you want, but in a year, or ten you’re never going to be the same person you were. So chill the hell out.

Thanks for making it this far xx

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