Friday, December 30, 2011

A Different Tune

I've just returned from Rye, where I met an old friend for a drink.

Twelve years ago he was living around the corner from my flat in Twickenham, earning a fortune in business publishing, but hating every minute of his working day. Then one day he decided he'd had enough, sold his flat for £120,000 and bought another on the Kent coast for £60,000, using the balance to pay off his mortgage.

He's never had a 'proper' job since, and seems much happier for it.

Last year he was invited to audition for a French punk-folk band (he is a violinist) and phoned to book a seat as a foot passenger on a cross-channel ferry. "I'm sorry," he was told, "but we don't accept foot passengers any more, only people with vehicles. You'll have to pay the car rate, which is £60".

My friend slammed the phone down in disgust, lit a cigarette and fumed. Then he had an idea and redialled the number:

"You said I had to pay for a vehicle. If I came by bicycle, how much would that cost?"


Two weeks later, my friend was the sole cyclist in a slowly moving queue of cars and lorries at Dover's docks, congratulating himself for his moral victory over mindless bureaucracy. The band were apparently waiting for him in Calais, so he decided to spend the hour-long crossing relaxing in the bar.

With five minutes left until the ferry docked, my friend made his way down to the vehicle hold and unchained his bicycle. Soon, he could hear the sound of chains moving and ramps descending, followed by the hissing of hydraulic brakes as the lorries began to edge forward. He quickly phoned one of the band members to find out where he needed to go.

"'Allo Graham. You muss follow le traffique and take ze second exit on the left. Yes? We are 500 metres away".

Graham followed their directions faithfully, making sure that he took the correct exit and found himself cycling up a rather steep ramp, which left him feeling a little breathless. To his relief, the ramp became flatter and seemed to be joining a proper road, then suddenly: WOOSSSHHHHH!

A powerful gust of wind almost knocked him off his bike and to Graham's horror, he found himself on a motorway being buffeted by a succession of fast-moving lorries. There didn't seem any way to get off the motorway. Terrified, he stood on the edge of the slow lane, wondering what to do next.

Suddenly, Graham's phone rang: "'Allo Graham. Eet is me again. Do NOT take ze second exit! Comprenez-vous? It is the WRONG exit!"

After a farcical (and very dangerous) half hour spent trying to leave the motorway, Graham eventually found the band and began what turned out to be a very alcoholic weekend. He now plays gigs with them on both sides of the channel.

It's strange how people's lives can change so much, in ways that we could never predict.

In the late 1990s, Graham seemed to have it all. He was earning at least four times as much as me and always seemed to be getting promoted. Evenings were often spent in smart restaurants, dining with the leading lights of international banking, or at the Strangers' Bar at the House of Commons, getting gossip from drunken MPs.

Occasionally Graham would say how depressed he was by the ease of his ascent. He'd never been particularly interested in business publishing and couldn't understand why people at the highest levels accepted him as one of their own. Success bought financial rewards and status, but also increasing levels of stress, boredom and frustration.

I don't know what finally pushed Graham to suddenly hand his notice in and he'd never expressed any interest in visiting Kent, let alone living there, but within the space of a few months he completely transformed his life.

Today, Graham plays the fiddle at folk festivals and private functions, earning just enough to pay the bills and enjoy the occasional trip to India. He lives quite frugally but is completely debt-free and doesn't miss his old life at all.

I'm sure that Graham's example partly gave me the courage and inspiration to change my life. Unlike Graham, I've never had to face the same temptations (although I was made a very attractive offer earlier this year), but it was still hard to take a leap into the unknown.

After saying goodbye to Graham, I sat on the train and looked at BBC News. In a piece about people who died in 2011, I saw these particularly apposite quotes by Steve Jobs:

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."

I know it's easy to make statements like that when you're the billionaire CEO of a corporation (I'm not sure what the Chinese sweatshop workers who make many of Apple's products would say), but I agree with the sentiments.

I think that next year will be all about putting these ideas into practice.


Little Nell said...

Good for him - to have the courage of his convictions and take that step. I can see why his example inspired you to do the same. Some people are going to be having a tough time in 2012. My daughter was made redundant from retail management just before Christmas (this is her fourth redundancy since she graduated twelve years ago. She’s now weighing up the possibilities and wondering what to do next. I’m trying to encourage to use her writing skills (her strength) but in the meantime she has to pay the rent. Much as she’d like to take that leap forward how will she live in the meantime? I find myself saying the same things I said to you when your were embarking on your own venture, but of course, it’s not quite the same. We didn’t expect to be supporting a 34 year-old as retirees, but we’re not going to see her starve. I hope she’ll be able to follow you and Graham and start on a new path. Let’s see what 2012 holds for us all. Meanwhile my fingers are well and truly crossed for Steerforth books. May it go from strength to strength.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Nell. I'm only too aware that for many people, the stakes are too high to be able to take these sorts of gambles.

I've only been able to take the plunge because I've spent most of the last decade concentrating on repaying debts, as I was pretty sure that the economic boom couldn't last. Thank God I did. At times I resented the cheap (or no) holidays and being stuck in a tiny house without a proper garden for the boys to play in, but at least I'm not up to my deck in debt.

I'm really sorry that your daughter's had such a tough time. It's a horrible time to work in retail management - even if you have a job, the pressures to achieve targets in the face of increasing competition and a downturn in consumer spending are making the job unbearable. I hope that she doesn't underestimate the whole range of transferable skills that she's acquired over the last few years. I'm sure that she has a lot to offer any employer.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Steve Jobs was inspirational indeed. And he certainly didn't start out as the CEO of anything! He was also a rubbish advertisement for going to university as a university drop-out himself.
Good on your friend, though fingers crossed that your future will bring something slightly more comfortable than 'frugal' living. Personally I've had enough of poverty wages in the past to appreciate the joy of being able to have the odd meal out without worrying or being able to go away for the weekend. There's no two ways about it - money buys freedom - even if it is just a tool at the end of the day, and should never be an end in itself (also disastrous for the economy if not kept circulating).

Steerforth said...

I agree that money can buy happiness - a wonderful holiday, a box at the opera, a meal at the Ivy - but only if those things are treats. When they become commonplace, the magic fades.

In the years before we had children, Mrs Steerforth and I used to go abroad regularly and I remember how jaded I became about travel. But last year, going to France for the first time in years, I felt excited again and relished every moment. So I think the trick is to have enough money to eliminate worries and provide a few treats, but not too many.

lucy joy said...

All I hate about being skint is the fact I have to think about money every day. I don't like thinking about it. Despite mostly working full time since I left school, I've not had one single period of being financially stable.
Not one of my interests requires money to indulge in. What motivates me is the idea of freedom. Having no money, or lots of money limits freedom.
If I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I would spend my remaining time telling as many people as I could to never settle for second best.

Rog said...

Love the story of the bike related discount. And I suppose lighting a cigarette and fuming go together in France.

Steerforth said...

Lucy - I don't like worrying about money, but I do like planning how I'm going to get through the week, buying x here and y there. Maybe it's my hunter-gatherer instinct!

I agree, it's all about freedom Only a few weeks ago I was talking to a man who became a millionaire at 19 and lost it all in his mid-20s. He said that the stress of having so much money and worying about losing it was far worse than actually losing it.

On the other hand, if I had a serious amount of money, there are several environmental projects that I'd love to set up and I'm sure you'd find something constructive to do. The people who tend to react badly to money are those idiotic lottery winners who buy a horrible mansion (miles away from their friends) and ten Rolls Royces, then feel surprised that their lives feel empty.

Rog - Defense de fumer!

Sir Button said...

Another fascinating and inspirational post Steerforth. I wish you all the best for 2012.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Happy New Year, Steerforth, and all the best to you and yours in 2012.

We'll look forward to more interesting posts in the new year.

In the meantime, take care and God bless,


zmkc said...

It's the dining with the leading lights of international banking bit that I really envy.

Anonymous said...

Your posts are always inspirational in themselves Steerforth, and I'm so glad you have others to inspire you too. Very best wishes for Steerforth Books and a brilliant 2012.

Martin said...

You know how I feel about making that leap, Steerforth. It's best to keep that list of 'what if?' questions as short as possible. Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

I love that your friend thought of taking a bicycle and saved £50 - even if the post-crossing part of his journey was hair-raising. I agree with you that it's horrible to have to worry about money, but nice when treats remain treats. As Lily Tomlin said, "The thing about the rat race is, even if you win, you're still a rat."

I'm sending you all good wishes for you, your family, and Steerforth Books in 2012. Thanks for your blog!

francoise_hardy said...

Course, it's swings and roundabouts. Rejecting dogma (conventional medicine) at an critical stage probably contributed to Steve Jobs' early death. The trick is not just reacting against things but judging which are the right things to react against. Or rather to make positive choices about what you want to do, rather than just reacting against what other people do.

Sam Jordison said...

Happy New Year, Steerforth. Thanks for another funny and inspiring blog. Here's hoping Steerforth books goes splendidly.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Sir Button, Chickadee, zmkc, Gaskella, Martin, Christine and Sam, and please forgive me for writing a single reply but I have two boys shouting "Daaa-aaad!" every 20 seconds, so time is limited.

I'd just like to thank you for all of the comments and encouragement you've given me. When I write a blog pots, I'm often tormented by the feeling that it's probably rubbish, so it's a relief when things strike a chord with others.

This blog has run out of steam recently, but I hope that I'll have new material in the near future that will justify your repeated visits. In the meantime, thanks for visiting.

I hope that you have a Happy New Year, recession and Mayan apocalypse permitting ;)

Romney - that's a very good point. Yes, Steve Jobs followed his instincts a little too far.