Nothing to fall back on

My sixteen year old daughter has left school. She isn’t taking A Levels. In September she will begin a course at a top dance college, to even get a place there is a huge achievement. I’m hugely proud as she has worked so, so hard for it.

I tell people of her plans and they react in horror, “no A Levels? What will she fall back on?”

I find this a strange statement, and not just because it seems to assume that she is going to fail. Therefore below is what I would like to reply with. I don’t, of course, I just smile and tell them that she can always go back to school if she wants to.

I left school at sixteen to follow my own dream of being a dancer. I had no money but had a place on a dance course. I worked – often two jobs – for the four years I was at college studying dance and music theatre, rarely getting more than four hours sleep a night. You work hard when you have nothing to fall back on.

I had nothing to fall back on when I dumped most of my possessions, other than what I could carry on the train, and headed off to London with enough money to pay my rent for a month. You find yourself some work pretty quickly when you have nothing to fall back on.

I had nothing to fall back on when I decided to stop dancing and work backstage in the West End. I certainly didn’t have any experience and I’d never even seen a West End show. I watched the experienced crew and took notes, and soon became someone who could be relied on. Hard work and common sense go a long way for those of us with nothing to fall back on.

I had nothing to fall back on when I became pregnant and couldn’t continue to work in the theatre. I got a computer so that I could take in typing jobs, discovered the Internet and built myself a whole new career as a web developer before my daughter turned three.

As the dot com meltdown happened around me, and I realised I was on shaky ground in the job I was doing. I left to start up my own business. I had enough money for my daughter and I to survive for a month. It’s amazing how quickly you can get a business off the ground with nothing to fall back on.

The job I do now didn’t exist when I was leaving school at sixteen to a chorus of “but what will you fall back on” and the world of work has changed. I believe that the most important thing my daughter has is the ability to work hard towards her goals. That happens to be dance now, but the ability to work hard on a distant goal will be something she will be able to use no matter what she chooses to do in the future. Paper qualifications are no guarantee of work, and if she needs them later – they are there to do.

Unless you are following a clear path of training for a specific role, following the established, academic path makes little sense in a world where the portfolio career is a reality for many. What I really have had to fall back on, what I have always relied on, is the ability to work hard. That, combined with a decent dollop of common sense, and the ability to be incredibly geeky about whatever it is I have currently decided to do means I am pretty sure that I’ll never starve.

I react so strongly against this idea of having a career to fall back on because it speaks of second best. I didn’t see working backstage as second best to a dance career, nor is my career now second best to working in theatre. Had I been able to lay out my options in order then perhaps I would have spent my life doing my second choice. Instead, as one door closes I can just look around to see what interesting thing I can do next.

This is the site where I write about business and technology, I wondered if this post fits here. However I think an attitude of not waiting until you have something to fall back on can be hugely valuable in business. I talk to people who are thinking about making the leap to freelancing, or launching a product and they are waiting. Waiting until the perfect time comes along. I’m not a reckless person, however sometimes you just have to take a risk, step out over the edge, and be confident that if this move doesn’t work out something else is just around the corner.


Sue Maskell August 15, 2013 Reply

So true Rachel . I did not have A levels and spent a lifetime in medicine . My younger son did have A levels but chose NOT to go to uni -now a successful Supply chain manager with a large American company .

Rose Weisburd August 15, 2013 Reply

This is beautiful. You’re describing the kind of security that can never be taken away—one’s own skills, experience, and attitude.

Anon August 15, 2013 Reply

This rings true for me, but from the opposite perspective. I sat on the education conveyor belt and left university with the expected degree and respectable qualifications, but now that I’m at the end of a dead-end career and would like something to fall back on, my degree isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. At the end of the day you only have your skills, experience, and will to carry on.

Higher education taught me very little of use – my skills are almost entirely self-taught, and most of that was by the time I’d done my GCSEs. It may be cliched, but you only get one life and you have to live it how you want, not how society expects. It’s a shame that by the time most of us realise that, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Lobelia August 15, 2013 Reply

YES! Wonderful post! x

ajara August 15, 2013 Reply

so true, I went into the world with no fall back, let alone career idea. making it work for myself is the biggest reward of all. living my truth is the biggest success there is. thank for this wonderful blogpost.

Nicole Sullivan August 15, 2013 Reply

Love it! Exactly this. Sometimes you have to see something through to make room for whatever comes afterward!

Scott August 19, 2013 Reply

Reply to Anon:
It’s never to late to change your life & lean new skills.

I am 66 years old and have continued to update and lean new skills all my life,
5 year ago I was an IT Manager, then I was made redundant, at the same time my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I decide to stay at home and help my wife through the treatment.
At the same time I taught my self some new skills, PHP, HTML, CSS and javascript, and started a website project.
My wife is now in remission, I am a freelance web developer, (part time) mostly working on my own projects.

I hope to have a productive life for at least another 20 years.
So sit back and say to yourself what do I really want t do, then make a plan and do it, you have plenty of time.

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