I was giving a talk to a studio a couple of months ago. Someone asked me how I
managed to start my own company – we’re talking 1979 here and Carroll &
Dempsey – I won’t go into all the ins and outs of that time. Too long, I’ll
save it for another time. But it got me thinking about why people leave secure
jobs and launch themselves into the unknown. Conversely why some people never
do, preferring to stay put.
During my life I have had 14 jobs. And although half of them were appalling I did learn something from each. For example here is a story from 1960 when at 16 I was already on to my third job.
I was working in the City of London at a stockbroker’s office as a lowly clerk. My task was to keep everyone happy with copious cups of tea and coffee, run messages, go to the post office and do menial tasks around the office including the filing - which I hated! The firm was a very antiquated Dickensian operation still using large handwritten ledgers that went back to the 19th century. At the end of the each week there would be an enormous amount of filing to do. – This is a time when file copies were printed via carbon paper onto extremely flimsy sheets. The filing cabinet was one of those enormous vertical systems and each file was bulging at the seams. Sliding those flimsy sheets in was painful and arduous with many of the copies getting crumpled.
Anyway the Friday filing thing went on for months with me getting ever more depressed until one day I had a brain wave. What if I found an alternative place to file those fragile flimsy sheets, for example one of the many London street waste bins? Eureka!
So from then on my visits to the fresh ground coffee and biscuit emporium was accompanied with a healthy bundle of filing secreted inside my overcoat. On the journey I would pass a lovely cast iron Corporation of London waste bin emblazoned with their dragon crest. I’d look right and left, and then quietly deposit the weeks filing into its welcoming mouth. Perfect.
This became a regular event for months. I was far happier and no one ever asked for a single copy of a letter so I seemed to be on pretty safe ground. Or so I thought.
One afternoon while adding the finishing touches to the afternoon tea tray for the Partners – who occupied the wood paneled inner sanctum of our offices – I noticed a uniformed bank clerk (as they were then) standing in the reception area. He was talking in hushed tones to the office manager, while surreptitiously pointing at me. I noticed him pull out a pile of crumpled paper. My heart sank.
The messenger departed. The office manager disappeared into the partner’s quarters clutching the incriminating evidence. Meantime I was having hot and cold flushes. A few minutes later the door opened and I was ushered in.
There I was standing in this cavernous office in front of Mr. Turner, the senior partner, like a naughty schoolboy. This is how it went. ‘ Sit down Michael’. Pause, is finger gently tapping the crumpled pile of filing. ‘Michael you were witnessed depositing this into a waste bin. What do you have to say?’ Me, quietly spoken and fearing the worst. ‘Yes I did. ‘ Why?’ he asked. I then launched into the trials and tribulations of the bulging filing cabinet, the flimsy paper and the frustration of it all, becoming more emotional with every syllable. I then waited for the inevitable response – ‘You're fired!’ But what actually happened was a revelation. It turned out that Mr. Turner had, at an earlier stage in his life, written a book about child psychology. He asked me a number of questions; how did I feel, was I happy, stressed, fulfilled etc? I answered as honestly as possible – I had nothing to lose.
There was a silence at the end of the interrogation. He lit up his pipe and engulfed in smoke he opened a draw of his enormous desk and handed me a five-pound note. ‘Michael I want you to take this to the record store and buy this album. He had scribbled a title on a piece of paper, which to me looked like a doctor’s prescription. I hadn’t a clue as to what the record was.
At the store I was handed the album – Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2. I returned to the office and was once again in front of Mr. Turner. He looked pleasingly at the purchase and said, ‘This is for you’. ‘Now whenever you get feelings of stress or anxiety I want you to listen to this.’ ‘ And promise me Michael that you will never do this again’ passing me back the pile of crumpled filing.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 was used extensively in David Lean's classic film Brief Encounter 1945
I have never forgotten that event. It taught me to listen to people and look beyond the surface. I think it helped me become a ‘people person’.
Two other significant events also happened in that year that helped shape my future. Another office co-worker was a chap with the extraordinary name of Jasmine Wade. – A rather effete, gangly, swotty ex public school type. He took a shine to me (perhaps for other reasons? I was far too naive at the time) Anyway he invited me to the National Film Theatre on the South Bank. I had no idea what that was.
Aleksandr Nevskiy directed by Sergei Eisenstein, 1938
But there I was exposed to the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Andrzej Wajda, and many more of the doyens of alternative cinema. I having only been used to a diet of British and American films. It was a revelation and the beginning of a love of serious cinema. Thank you Jasmine wherever you may be.
In the same year Penguin Books published ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ after being cleared of obscenity charges at the High Court. There was a W.H.Smith, a short walk away from the stockbrokers office. On the morning of publication a queue formed outside the shop.
At last Britain gets its thrills from D.H. Lawrence 32 years after Lady Chatterley's Lover was originally published in Italy
And I - the little sheep that I was at the time – I dutifully joined that queue and shelled out my 12/6p and avidly read the intimate machinations of Mellors and Lady C. A total of 200,000 copies were sold on the first day of publication. But that event got me into reading a far wider range of books and later in my life lead to ten fantastic years as art director at two of London’s leading publishing houses which for me became my university.
I tell you this story because no matter how hopeless you may feel in a job or no matter how much you may hate it there is always something you can learn and use in your life.
To leap or not to leap?
But many people tend to just stay put, gently festering in their jobs. To do this in design is to my mind a bad idea. All of the designers I admire have been ever curious and moved around like butterflies when younger in order to gain knowledge and experience, always wanting to work with designers that could teach them something new. Eventually this leads to the desire to take flight on your own. An exciting and frightening thing in equal measures.
But many never have the courage or inclination to take this path preferring to stay for years with the same firm, in some cases since graduating. Sadly most end up being competent but lacking in that crucial passion that makes for a really great designer. The work tends to be unexceptional, verging on the bland. But I guess if you don’t have the drive or desire to battle in the creative jungle well, why not just sit back and let others do it.
The main thing in life is to be happy.