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.