Tales from the Vault – From the Bottom Up

Well maybe not exactly the bottom, but at times it sure felt like it. Apparently I was one of the lucky few. After a couple of years of a constant flow of rejection letters (in the days when you at least got them) I’d made it onto the Graduate Training scheme with a well known, fast growing, forward looking organisation. One of just 70 new starters, hand picked from thousands of applicants, so we were told, at the exuberant almost celebratory introduction week set at the companies swanky country retreat. I almost floated out of there feeling like I was King Dick and the known world was at my mercy and disposal. Just 4 weeks later, reality had kicked in hard and it felt a bit different. I was on the bottom rung and no mistake.

One day in particular sticks in my memory. My routine by now consisted of waking up at 4am to get to the warehouse for the early start morning shift, where I was supposedly learning to be a supervisor, although in reality felt more akin to a spare part, loathed and/or ignored by all. As I sheepishly, sleepily walked the length of the massive warehouse, supposedly “managing the aisles”, Tamsin Archers lyrics “I blame you” blasted out over the airways. And I did. I blamed the place, the people, myself and any greater power that may have been listening. How had I gone so quickly from hero to zero? This wasn’t what it was meant to be about. I was young, relatively fresh out of college and intent on continuing the good life, having a ball, but now also with the added bonus of money – so where had the fun gone? At that moment I turned a corner and saw him. John the loader, a well known warehouse “character”, and his full entourage, sat on a pile of crates, playing cards. Trouble.

Every instinct told me – head down, walk on. Nothing to see here. No need for conflict. But somehow I fought those urges and stood my ground. In fact not only did I stand my ground, but I advanced, just a bit, towards them. John gave me a contemptuous look, that made it very clear what he expected, which was a big dose of nothing. He and his crew knew all about these “posh kids on the fancy scheme, with no idea about the real world”. This would be over quickly. And yet I found myself fixing Big John with a steely gaze that I still have no idea where it came from, and in an almost un-shaky voice saying, “C’mon lads, there’s work to be done on the loading docks, and you’re not doing it here”. After a pause that felt like it went on for an eternity, John, after looking me up and down, put down his cards, jumped off the crate and beckoned his crew to do the same. As they turned the corner back towards the loading bays I think I did start to physically shake.

Looking back now, I can see this was one of those pivotal moments in life where you actually change. Up until then I’d been privileged. I was smart at normal school, so much so I got a scholarship to the posh school, where I didn’t really fit in or like it, but I got by. I became the first in our family to get into university. A big deal to the family, although not to me. Famously I took advice from the school careers advisor to pick a subject I enjoyed rather than one I felt I should do. My degree proved as utterly useless as I feared it would. It’s a bit of advice that I’ve been cursing for 25 years plus, as it was clearly totally worthless, but recently thinking I’ve been thinking he may well have been right. Do what you want to do, not what you should do – right? Anyway I took his advice and went for a degree I enjoyed only to find that it wasn’t the degree I enjoyed but all that went with it. I had a absolute blast. So much so I stayed another year. Two years later a plum job by lucky means ( ). And more than a job – the luxury of a top class 18 month special graduate “get to know the business” scheme that introduced me to the broadest scope imaginable. It gave me a drive for variety and diversity and that’s stayed with me ever since, and helped guide me up the career ladder and through the most wonderful long formative experience with that particular organisation, all over the world.

The training scheme itself, in retrospect, was magnificent. A thorough grounding in the realities and the extremes of working life. As with all things in that particular organisation, it started with the customer. And shit, they are real, and you have to talk with them and deal with them. And they know way more than you, about everything. They are full of common sense which makes you feel incredibly small and stupid. In fact it was a great introduction to the reality that over the next 18 months almost everyone, not just customers, seemed to know more than you about almost everything. A lesson learnt that has been invaluable ever since – never think you know anywhere near it all, there are always people close by who know more, they just need to be asked. Although some of the characters I came across hid it well.

The scheme introduced us to all corners of the business and all types of people, beautifully and mercilessly intertwined. Buying and marketing attract a certain type of personality. My month there was full of wildly enthusiastic introductory meetings with people called Pippa and Tarquin, most of whom genuinely seemed to believe that they were the hub of the organisation as well as being the bees knees. Brutally this was immediately followed by a project in Building Maintenance, which basically entailed following around two old school maintenance blokes checking the building, and reporting on what they actually did. “Stop effing following me you tosser” is a quote I won’t forget in a hurry.

There were occasional moments where you were able to hang on to the rapidly receding illusion that you were “special”. The Grad get togethers at the country retreat sporadically continued, yet it’s fair to say that none of them reached the heady euphoric heights of that first week. It was like we’d all been bitten by the reality of our situation, the reality of working life, and to varying degrees the barrage balloon of superiority was slowly deflating. Some quicker than others, and mine, in my very operational earthy role, faster than most.

I don’t regret the pricking of that particular bubble at all. Being brought back down to earth the moment I returned to whichever warehouse I was stationed at was in retrospect an absolute blessing. You were very clearly and very regularly let know that you weren’t that special, and those that didn’t accept it were quickly and brutally despatched. It was a world full of long standing and well renowned characters. Barbarian, the naked loader sticks in my mind. As does the night shift phenomenon the “phantom cage shitter”. The hated Warehouse Productivity team together with their stopwatches and backs to the wall mentality. The things I heard from shop floor lads that they’d like to do with those stopwatches…Then it was off to the more “civilised” side of the function. The planning team manager – always Mr. Feet up on desk and don’t sweat it. I loved my time there. Friday lunchtime, which often flowed on to the full afternoon in the pub, and yet totally trusted to deliver the goods. Then the ultimate chance to showcase all we’d learnt. Meet and present to the directors on their own director only floor at HQ. In fact not only their own floor but also take lunch with them in their own special director only dining room. Wow, how times change. But still, having gone through the grounding process knowing that this interaction was a privilege not a right.

Did it actually ground us? I would say like many things in life it’s a case of horses for courses. What you learnt was down to each individuals capacity and orientation and and what you were willing to learn. People, as ever were split into two groups. The majority, even back then, were the obsessive “look at me” egotists, who probably knew it all anyway. Sadly they are still the majority of those that have “made it” – more often than not male. Yet the intuitive observers and learners were there too – quieter maybe, perhaps less action orientated and impactful at that stage, but more in tune with what was really going on. For me it was the small moments that made it great. Whether it was showing bravery I didn’t know I had with John the loader, or a quiet, off the cuff, positive bit of feedback from a real hard nosed operator about my “lovely personality, you’ll go far” that was completely unexpected. And slowly but surely I started to believe that, and starting to trust that my own style and approach would actually help me, plus of course being introduced to the opportunity of such a wonderfully broad and varied existence. These were enough to launch me on my career path. And I must have liked it there. I stayed for 16 years. So, despite all the talk about the world shattering psychological benefits of the gig economy and living the digital nomad lifestyle, I have a slightly unfashionable bit of advice. In an ocean of never ending turbulence and opportunity, find what you like in life, and stick with it.

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