The past five months have forced me to think about what I do with my working life more then I ever have. When I entered the workplace, in 1994, I had only one aim: become a journalist. Everything that has happened since then has been an evolution of that goal, the next step on a journey that had a fairly clear set of paths I could choose from.
And then the path got faint, and became a barely-trodden track - and then ended. I found myself looking at an open field. There are a few, basic tracks left by others. But they're still figuring out the best routes. For a while, I looked desperately for a new path, one that looked like the old ones, and came close to finding some. But I'm glad nothing came of those in the end. It would have been easy, safe and possibly even sensible - and they would have robbed me of the opportunity to really think about what I want my career to be.
Lately, in part inspired by some of the talks at last month's Like Minds, as well as long coffee-fuelled conversation with friends, contacts and colleagues, I realised the difference of emphasis between these two statements is subtle, but profound:
- What can I do that will make money?
- What can I do, that will make money?
Neither is inherently the wrong or right path. I know people who have followed the first path, choosing making money as their primary objective, but ploughing the money back into having a wonderful - and generous - life outside the office. Equally, I know people who are loving their work, but are challenged by the disparity between their income and many of their peers. Both have their pros and their cons.
I've spent a long time hovering between the two exteremes. I was working for a big corporate, but I wasn't making that much money. I was enjoying my work, but to allow that to continue I had to stop myself from seeing that my employers were significantly less committed to the sorts of philosophies and tools I was espousing than I was. I was dumbing myself down to serve security.
In a sense, I see that choice ahead of me again. I can walk one path, holding to my belief that social and communication tools will reshape our institutions and societal structures fundamentally, as the old barriers to communication erode. Or, I can put back up my old barriers, and choose to tone down those beliefs. I can try to reshape emergent technology in the form of old business models and structures, for a good paycheck, a nine to five job and a sense of stability.
But it's a false choice. The equation no longer resolves. The element that kept the second path viable is gone. My trust in corporates is broken. I genuinely believed that if I worked hard, focused my energies on the success of the business, and fought for what I thought was right, I would be rewarded. Instead, I was made redundant. I am no longer capable of trusting an employer like I did then. The noble words of valuing people can be proved empty in one, formulaic, soulless meeting in a bland little meeting room. It's likely that I'll take a corporate job at some time in my future, but I'll understand the provisionality of that job on both sides much more fundamentally.
That's liberating. That leaves me to pursue what I believe is right. I really believe - and have seen plenty of evidence - that human beings can be wonderful things, given the right tools for communication, for exchange, for conversation. Sure, there are darker aspects to human nature, but I'd rather strive towards the best, while preparing for the worst, than swim in a pool of committee-approved, unadventurous, packaged medocrity.
And you know what? So far, it's working. I'm not making what I was at RBI - yet. But the work is good and interesting, and usually for cool people who see the possibilities inherent in the changes we're going through. I have more time for family and friends. I'm taking a lower toll on the environment. I'll be around my baby when he or she arrives next month far more than I would have been otherwise. These are all good things.
Maybe this time next year, I'll have taken a new job, or have started my own business, or still be freelancing and contracting. I don't know. But, right now, the journey is its own reward. And that's cool.