Dear Mark (age 16 and a bit),
You’re about to start a stage management course in York. You won’t enjoy it. You won’t enjoy the near two-hour round trip on trains and buses. You’ll feel less inspired by the subject than you’d expected to be. Mostly, you’ll be mind numbingly bored. And in about a months time, you’ll decide you’ve had enough, and leave.
You’ll tell your parents, and friends, that this is temporary. You’re just taking a year out. You might go to Sixth Form and do some conventional subjects come September. You won’t.
And really, you’ll know that from day one. You don’t want to be the one person a year older than everyone else. Some of your friends know it too. They’ll tell you you’re making a stupid decision, a big mistake, that you’re ruining your future. You’ll ignore them. But you’ll be scared that they’re right. It’ll take years for that fear to go away.
You’ll pick up extra hours at McDonalds. It was your summer job, after all, so you may as well. You’ll also grab some weekend work at Three, selling mobile phones. You like this a lot better. You’ll try to resign from McDonalds, but they’ll convince you to stay.
You’ll hit breaking point a couple of months later when some idiots, who were a couple of years below you in school, see that you work there and spread a few dozen packets of barbecue sauce over a table, which you have to clean. Three will give you more hours, and you’ll resign from McDonalds.
You won’t appreciate it right away, but you’ll come to value your time there. At McDonalds, you’ll have learnt what teamwork really means. You’ll have learnt to interact with a whole bunch of people you wouldn’t have otherwise. You’ll have learnt humility. You’ll have learnt that there’s value in doing something right, even if it’s not something you’d choose to do. You’ll have discovered that a process is just a series of cogs in a machine, operating at full pelt. This’ll matter later. It all matters.
Your hours at Three will gradually increase until you’re basically working full time. You’ll earn silly money because all your bonuses are based around your contracted hours, so you’ll consistently deliver 200% or so of target. This’ll end, dramatically. The company will cut back hours to the point that you’re only working your contracted ones, and you’ll realise that you’ve already adjusted to full time hours. You’ll cut your losses, and move to another job at Nationwide Building Society.
At Three, you’ll have learnt that it’s ok for work to be fun as well as challenging. You’ll have won a TV for dressing as an ice cream cone (no, really). You’ll have discovered that small teams work a lot differently to big teams. You’ll have figured out how to sell, persuade and convince (skills that you’ll later learn are transferable). You’ll leave on good terms, too. You still speak to your boss there.
Nationwide will initially feel like a bad move. It’s a more clinical environment than you’re used to. There’s a lot of paperwork, a lot of training and the same rotating door of customers each day. But you’ll carve out a niche, going to primary schools on NationwideEducation visits and teaching financial education to children, spending more time out in front of the counter on the shop floor, ordering merchandise and gaining the foundations of operational understanding.
You won’t be perfect, though. In fact, you’ll struggle with counting bundles of money in and out of the cash drawer. Every now and again, in the process of moving tens of thousands and pounds in and out of the Building Society, you’ll misplace £10 or £20. And when that’s someone else’s money, it’s a big deal.
It’ll become clear that if you can’t overcome this obstacle, you might end up out of a job. You’ll learn that sometimes, it’s ok to fail at something, to accept a limitation, and to find something else that doesn’t need it.
That’s how you’ll end up at Telefónica, as an O2 Guru. It’ll become two of the most important years of your career. You’ll learn how to manage people, create an education scheme that puts you in front of hundreds of students, deliver a new training and development program, be an active part of a union, travel to Madrid to speak about cyber bullying (your first proper business trip!) and move out of your parent’s house to a flat in Leeds.
It’s not all good news, though. You’ll start to have a nagging feeling that you’re an imposter. Your colleagues will mostly be older than yourself and you’ll feel that you have to work longer, harder and with more vigour to prove that you belong. Don’t worry, that feeling won’t last forever. But it’ll plague you for the next few years.
You’ll also discover what it means to struggle to make ends meet. You won’t be badly off, but the loan you took to help you move house, combined with rent and utilities and food shopping and all the stuff that you didn’t previously have to buy or budget for will catch up on you. Your next job move will be out of necessity to avoid running out of money, and spending more and more each month on credit cards. It’ll take you years to get truly under control of your debt again, but it’s a valuable lesson — and you won’t forget it.
Some people at Telefónica will tell you that you’re not ready for a ‘real’ manager role yet. When you travel down to London to interview for a role as Manager of Customer Operations, part of you will agree with them. The imposter syndrome will start to bubble, feeling bigger and bigger — even after you’ve obtained the role.
You’ll move to London, looking after Customer Service and Operations for OVIVO and later running Customer Service for blinkbox, then looking after Online Help and Agent Knowledge at TalkTalk after an acquisition.
You’ll grow your skills, learn to do more, manage teams, travel around the world and have colleagues on almost every continent. Your lack of degree will matter less and less every time you walk through a door.
People will refer you for roles, encourage you to provide advice and trust you with budgets and decisions. Usually, you’ll make the right ones. When you don’t, you’ll learn.
The sum of your experiences will teach you everything you need to know. You’ll be fine. You’ll gain financial stability. You’ll prove the people that told you your future was ruined completely wrong. Eventually, you’ll feel less like a dropout or an imposter and more like you belong.
At age 23 (and a bit), it’ll stop being something you wear as a reminder of your lack of education or the fact you don’t have a degree, and something you start to wear as a badge of pride. Being a dropout will have given you a wealth of experience and skills and a prospective on life that you’re proud of.
You’ll have learnt that it’s ok to be a dropout.
So stop worrying. Breathe. And go.
Mark (age 23 and a bit)