So, the Labyrinth is a piece of cake, is it? Well, let's see how you deal with this little slice. -- Jareth, the Goblin King
I started my career as a babysitter. As the eldest of six children, the son of tired parents holding down multiple jobs, it was inevitable. The original working from home. Thankfully, David Bowie did not steal my siblings. It was an uneventful introduction to the world of work.
Yes, that was a Labyrinth reference. Yes, I'm nearly forty.
My driving license pushed back horizons. Maps opened up. I drove my blue, rust-flecked, rear-wheel drive 1981 Toyota Starlet all over the British home counties to supervise a wedding crèche service. I accompanied children with learning disabilities to theme parks and family-run zoos. At weekends, I sold CDs on the music desk at Woolworths and on school nights I stacked the shelves. I saved money for university by stuffing envelopes with flyers that promoted physiotherapy equipment on behalf of a nervous, former professional rugby player.
I could not contemplate, at this point, my way in to the world of work. I knew that there were future roles, that people had professions, but I had no real sense of how to get there.
At university, which postponed this deep thinking for four years, I bought cheap training shoes from TK Maxx and flipped them for profit on eBay. I drove my blue, rust-flecked, rear-wheel drive 1981 Toyota Starlet all over Tyneside delivering curries. I served discounted pints of Carling and bottles of WKD Blue to endless Friday night queues at J.D. Wetherspoons. I caught the 5:30 a.m. train through the countryside to teach woodwork, swimming and language skills to autistic and neurodiverse young adults while underperforming on my government-funded M.A..
Without knowing it, I was leaning into my multipotentialism, a term popularised by Emilie Wapnick in her book How To Be Everything. A multipotentialite is a person who values learning and the acquisition of multiple new skills. They pursue both sequentially and simultaneously. Multipotentialites learn fast and are great at retaining information.
I did not learn this term till a few years ago. When I did, I felt an immense relief. In a world dominated by specialists, generalism feels undervalued. My personality, represented by my haphazard career path, was a feature, not a bug.
The only way out of here is to try one of these doors! One of them leads to the castle at the end of the labyrinth, and the other one leads to... certain death! -- The Four Guards
At the timbered Victorian pub, the folk band in the back lounge never seemed to leave. I ran the bar, changed the barrels, and politely asked the drunks to go home. In the quiet moments, I booked and promoted loud alternative music acts for the concert venue upstairs. A group of us founded a glossy magazine that was never published and a record label that sold no records. Then I got a break from a friend of friend: an arthouse cinema was hiring an intern to co-ordinate volunteers.
This was a point in my career where the boundaries between work and play, professional and personal, life and art, didn't matter. I didn't sleep. Or stop. At that point, I had energy enough, but it would come back to haunt me.
Things moved quickly. I assisted at international film festivals. Tried my hand as a runner and an extra. Moved to Berlin at some point. Live-streamed conferences. Demonstrated loop software to bored A&R executives at glitzy music industry conferences. Created voiceovers for screencasts. Scraped a living as an experimental musician, just. Produced and curated digital culture festivals with strange capitalisation and throwback websites.
I had not heard the term burnout yet. But, as I travelled from the nightclub straight to work because there was no point sleeping at home for two hours, I knew what it was.
Everything that you wanted I have done. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn't that generous? -- Jareth, the Goblin King
A good friend once told me that no-one takes you seriously till you are thirty. When I hit that milestone, as if by magic, people started listening to me. It made no sense, but I went with it.
At an open source software non-profit headquartered in Prague, I started wrangling developer communities. As much as I could, I travelled for work, taking in the cities of New York, Johannesburg, Paris, Dakar, London and Maputo.
In this part of the career maze, I associated my self-worth with the success of the organisation I worked for; a dangerous game. Even if I did figure out a reliable barometer of success, the chances of me interpreting it correctly were marginal. Distinguishing causality versus correlation was highly improbable.
Berlin was soon left behind, and I joined an Irish social media verification start-up as director of business development, I became fully invested in where I worked. My job and my identity were inseparable. I was promoted to chief product officer. We sold the company to News Corp for $25m, hired 100 people, and I bounced around the world evangelising it to newsrooms, from the New York Times to the Sydney Morning Herald. Founders and friends left the organisation, until I was the last of the acquisition team and I too left, burned out.
After a three-month hiatus (enforced by a non-compete clause, not any concern for my own wellbeing), I took a role as the executive director of a non-profit. I moved to the Netherlands and got to work. Over the next few years I strove to transform the organisation into a beacon of best practice. We partnered with Google, Facebook, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and numerous governments to deliver grants and support to journalists. The organisation grew, with payrolls in four countries. And then it shrank again, as the pandemic forced cuts. Many nights, I went to sleep worrying that the organisation - journalism even! - would collapse if I didn't continue to do my job.
When I quit, having steered us through the worst of the storm, I realised that was never going to happen. Nothing would collapse.
The organisation had statues and a board, a team and a culture. It had witnessed far more cycles of depression and recovery than I have. It had seen its fair share of multipotentialites and burnouts since it was founded in 1992, right about when I started babysitting.
If she'd 'ave kept on goin' down that way she'd 'ave gone straight to that castle. -- The Junk Lady
A labyrinth appears to be a confounding network of paths, within which a way forward is almost impossible to discern.
Yet, in the end, it has only a single path to the centre.
Throughout my career, the next steps have been unclear, I have been unsighted by the complexity of the present moment. Along that path, I have learned lessons. My lack of specialism is a strength, not a weakness. Sleep and rest are key to good health. I have learned that I am not my job.
The most important lesson is to trust the journey, though it is further than you think and deviates often. From babysitter to delivery driver, music promoter to executive director, junk lady to goblin king, each part played holds importance. Forget about the castle, forget about the crystal, forget about the labyrinth.
At some point, the path will reveal itself to have been there all along.
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