WHAT SHALL I BE WHEN I GROW UP?

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” – Woody Allen 

Life’s weird. To some degree, you have to have a plan, but, aside from numerical ageing, very few aspects of life are linear enough to rely on as truly determinable.

I decided I wanted to work in public relations when I was 16 years old. I remember going to meet a teacher masquerading as a ‘careers expert’ who had no idea what I was talking about. She did seem struck, however, by the fact that I had such definitive focus.

The truth is, I knew I wanted to move to London as soon as my parents took me down on the train from up north for my eleventh birthday. I was a shy child, but I always knew my own mind. I guess it surprised people that someone so often afraid to talk wasn’t afraid to state what he wanted or speak out for what he believed in. This contradiction still confuses me today.

Last week, I did some freelance work for the very first PR professional I ever met in London. About twenty years ago, I came down from Leeds – where I was at university – for an interview for a my placement year. It turned out that the firm I was interviewing for didn’t take placement students, but I was offered a job anyway (albeit it temporarily).

“I think you’re wasting your time at uni,” I was told, “you’ve got loads of experience already. Just join us now,” he suggested.

I think his HR manager must have disagreed – perhaps even thought it an irresponsible suggestion – so the offer was retracted. Still, I joined the firm a couple of years later before I had even graduated and it really kicked off my career. I was ambitious, promotions seemed to come more quickly than I could have imagined, and before I knew it I had been headhunted to take a job as a creative director at another PR firm. I guess I thought I’d made it. Life has a habit of un-planning things, though. At 23 I was flying high – an unstoppable, hungry, enthusiastic PR manger; at 33 I was abruptly grounded – yes, I was a newly-appointed MD at one of the best PR agencies in town, but I’d also suddenly just become a single (or perhaps more specifically, sole) parent. And this is not what I planned to be when I grew up. I expected to be running the show; I never expected to feel like life was running me.

Oddly enough, though, opportunity sprang from adversity. My wife was struck and killed by a car right in front of my eyes (my son’s, too). I wrote about the experience of grieving and raising a grieving child, and my words received a lot of attention. I was asked to write for newspapers and magazines and appear on TV shows. I won awards for a blog that I set up and got a publishing deal to write my first book. Although I’d left my role as MD at the previous agency, I got offered an equally diverse and challenging role at another. I consulted on a BAFTA-winning BBC documentary about widowhood. I spoke in support of bereaved families in Parliament. I did all these things I never expected to do when I grew up. 

But then how can anyone really anticipate the unthinkable?

Today, I find myself coming to the end of another project I never envisaged: I’ve spent the last few months renovating my house. I decided not to hire anyone in to do the final decorating work because I wanted to learn how to do it myself with help from my dad, so that one day I might pass on his skills to my son.

I’m not even sure that I imagined being a father myself when I grew up. But now that I am, I recognise it as the most important role and responsibility that life has given me. A role that has created such professional conflict that I just know that I have to do things differently to how I ever did them before.

At 39, I find myself asking, once again, What am I going to be when I grow up? For now, at least, I find the answer in freelance work, essentially ‘ghostwriting’ for other people. It gives me the freedom and flexibility to fulfil my role as a father to the best of my ability.

I wonder though, what might I be when he grows up? Although I find the idea of such long-term planning somewhat wasteful, it does excite me to think that anything could be possible once again. To think that I might actually still be that eleven-year-old boy with his whole life ahead of him.