Sometimes I can feel such a fraud. I’ve been feeling that way a few times recently when involved in conversations to younger friends about the future, university and job choices and the like. The simple fact is that I never planned anything of that sort myself at the time, hardly even thought about it. When I was at school I knew that I wanted to go to university and I wanted to study something biology related. But that was because I wanted to be David Attenborough – or at least David Bellamy. I’d always been interested in the natural world but ‘Life on Earth’ suckered me completely and there was no going back after that.
But I never gave much thought about what and where to study until I was sat down by the Deputy Head and realised that my school actually expected me to have some idea of what I wanted to do.
‘So, are you applying to Oxford or Cambridge?’ He asked.
It was that kind of school. It was not so much are you going to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but which one. Needless to say, since no one in my close family left school with A-levels never mind being at College, I had no idea.
‘Oxford then,’ was the advice,’ Brasenose college is a good one,’ said the teacher who had been educated at, yes, you’ve guessed it, Brasenose College, Oxford.
Actually like many hopefuls wanting to study Zoology at Oxford I applied to New College as a first choice, because that was where Richard Dawkins was the tutor and needless to say fame attracts. I was nowhere good enough to get the place but I was lucky enough – like a lot of my peers – to get hoovered up by another college. Good old Brasenose. Luckily for me, I liked the course and three happy years later I was again in the ‘what do you do now?’ scenario.
And again, I hadn’t the faintest. I did not feel like devoting at least another three years to academic research (although the experience of a disastrous final year project cannot have helped with that view), but what do you actually do with a zoology degree? I could tell my ctenophores from my cnidarians and knew that a walrus penis bone could be used as an offensive weapon (think truncheon) but outside of the specialist area I was not sure that any of that was going to be particularly helpful (incidentally I have been dogged with this all my life – as far as I am concerned I have no transferable skills. Basically when civilisation breaks down I’m in deep trouble as human ballast). So I had a fit of ant-creativity and half-heartedly went for a PGCE, and was somewhat taken aback when I got the place. So it seemed set. A career of teaching beckoned. Well, I reasoned, if I wore a light blue shirt and slacks every day I could pretend I was Sir David and perhaps inspire some teenagers who had more of a vision to go and do their stuff.
But…That is not what happened in the end. I do not even know why I started poking around corporate recruitment brochures. But there in the black and white, next to the pictures of young men and women in white coats posing with forced grins (those never change) the discipline ‘zoology’ was listed under suitable qualifications for a job in Regulatory Affairs at Procter & Gamble. So I applied, and after a whirlwind of interviews they gave me the job I am still doing. I apologetically turned down the PGCE; on reflection, that would have been a disaster. I was nowhere near confident enough at the time to handle a class of kids, not really sure I would be up to it even now.
So I never planned any of it. It just seemed to happen to me.
So why do I feel qualified to talk to teenagers about the future?
I think I am there for the people who don’t know. To remind them that it is OK not have everything planned out to the smallest detail and for those that are that driven to remind them that they need to be agile too, as life throws things at you need to react to and standing around ineffectually like a stranded commuter whose normal train has been cancelled is not going to help. People these days seem paranoid about making a false start but life is not about certainties and every decision should be the best you can make at the time; if it turns out not to be ideal, there are ways of changing things until they do fit. Rarely is it easy, but the possibilities are legion. If I can give anything, it would be to get encourage young people to take a leap off the cliff into the waters where their heart directs them to go and not to be afraid of the future but to prepare for it as best they can. The water is deep and there are sharks and other threats, but there are friendly dolphins too, and the water feels so good once you are in.