I remember rocking up to maths class, and Chelsea, a fellow student who always did her homework, asked me if I had studied for the test.
I didn’t know there was a test, I murmured. Okay, maybe I did, but I had forgotten. At that moment, I wanted to get out of there, pretend that I had come down with some vicious ailment that had struck me down with no connection whatsoever to any test.
In only a few seconds I was fantasising about all sorts of potential scenarios, and all of them about how to escape. How to disappear. There were no Harry Potter books at that time but an invisibility cloak would have been ideal.
I ended up with a “limited achievement” but strategically, for the rest of the year, managed to avoid any more testing. Funnily enough, I still finished with the same grade.
Although I enjoyed art and ended up with a higher result than for maths, I found the monotony and repetitive nature of schooling stifling. If I could get out of it, I would.
I left school at the end of the year and started working. I worked as a waitress and enjoyed the interaction with customers but after 6 months, I found that I became dreadfully bored. I then got a job as a receptionist, and that was over after only 3 months. Sitting all day and answering the phone and never leaving the same room felt like I was in prison. Seeing the same people every day was also dispiriting. They were so unhappy with their lives and work, that I would mostly hear about how wrong their life had gone. I left very quickly.
This pattern continued before and after the birth of my two sons. I would start a job with the zeal of a passionate lover. Everything looked so interesting and the people so exciting, but with time, sooner or later, I would be looking for an escape hatch. Like the ones that I would see in Bond films, where the most convenient escape door would be available. And oops, looks like this is where I make my exit…
By my mid-twenties, and unbelievably, I thought that becoming a high school teacher was The Answer. The job was not monotonous, or so it seemed, and I could learn every day. New and exciting things and share these with my eager, joyful students. I was already making a variety of colourful things for my little boys and the natural choice appeared to be teaching.
To say I ignored the warning signs is an understatement. When doing my practice as a preservice teacher, I would be relieved when each term was over. Some lasted for weeks or months, but in each case, I was very happy to leave. Too happy.
I got a job a year before I graduated. The school loved me and wanted me back. I was over the moon, a full-time job as a teacher. Finally, a full-time, permanent gig.
Again, I started with all the zeal my heart could muster, and for the first year, I was in for a roller-coaster ride. Four different heads of department, all falling from grace or fleeing the department, and mostly due to the wrath of disgruntled teachers. Many failed attempts of trying to teach Shakespeare to young people who wanted to be playing football or anything else other than Macbeth. By the end of the year, I was mostly in a daze and was cringing about having to do it all again.
First day back my second year, a teacher who had been there for over 30 years, and who I had nicknamed the Walking Encyclopedia said all earnestly, “Get out whilst you are still young, this gig is going to the dogs.”
I was like, oh shit. Not even the teacher I most admired was going to tell me it will be all okay. He was telling me to get out. This advice was followed by the new HOD, who had come into clean the deluge from the aftermath of the year before. If she were younger, she would leave.
I had a massive mortgage at this stage and a tonne of debt – it was the time of get debt, debt and more debt just because you can. I couldn’t go anywhere.
I tried to soldier on and suck it up, as my mum would say. After all, this is the woman’s lot.
I wasn’t having a bar of it.
For the first time in my life I realised that there was no escaping my predicament as easily as I had before. I couldn’t hit a button and presto, I’m out of there. The jig was up. Life had finally caught up with me and I wasn’t going to get away with it. I had committed myself and I was in deep. My sons were still young, and I wanted to be a positive role model. I didn’t want them to see me fleeing job after job. I also hadn’t read Paul Graham’s advice about role modelling how to suffer to your children.
I quickly spiralled into despair.
As much as I tried to hide my turmoil from family and colleagues, it was obvious. The spark that had lit up a room before had now all but mostly gone. I searched and searched for inspiration and answers to my dilemma but it seemed like there were no answers.
The word at first was alien and so out of my immediate experience. My father had tried to run his own business time and time again but would always struggle. I didn’t want to be like him. I believed business to be a life full of uncertainty.
That was why I had entered high school teaching. It was the sure thing. But the sure thing comes with a heavy price – a prison you can’t leave.
The more I researched and read about changing careers and other ways of making a living in the world, the concept of creating your own enterprise would come up again and again. I found myself drawn to it like a moth to a flame.
I would read about entrepreneurs and their nature, and in every case, the character descriptions would hit the nail on the head.
I had all of their traits: lover of freedom; intensely curious; highly productive; and most of all, self-driven. I would create endlessly if left to my own devices. Lesson plans, powerpoints, booklets, and every other resource imaginable. I also didn’t need anyone to whip me into line. In my first year of teaching, I mostly operated on my own. The Heads of Department were embroiled in internal wars – I was free to create whatever I wanted.
I created entire units from scratch, and would make them far into the night, like an artisan at her sewing machine, lacing garments with ruffles and frills for the world to admire.
I also learnt that the money didn’t matter, it was the process. I would get lost in the creative side of the work.
What my experience taught me was that I was doing what I was doing not because someone was looking over my shoulder, like a manager in an assembly line but because I loved creating things.
It was during this time that I decided to create a tutoring centre with a close friend from university. She had the entrepreneurial spirit. She loved creating things for her children in the primary classroom. It was like a match made in heaven.
We created a centre that reached 100 clients each week. And it was here that I was free to create what I wanted. I designed a whole series of learning materials and even a mascot. We named the mascot, a large, human-sized pencil “Perry the Pencil.” My sons and I would dress up in the costume and parade around shopping centres on most weekends.
After 2 and half years, I sold my half to my business partner. She was happy to take it on as she was at the beginning of her family life and wanted something that would be a steady form of income. I wanted something more original and beyond supporting a system that I no longer wholeheartedly believed in.
I started working for the local university and then as an instructional designer for an education startup. It was at this company that the reality of who I really was dawned on me. I was no longer an employee and never was one. I was a creative entrepreneur. I loved creating things.
At the startup I would talk about ideas of what I thought the company could achieve. The employees, although led by a self-proclaimed ambitious CEO were still operating on old standards of what defined learning. I left after a year, and the startup folded three months later.
Although with very little savings, I knew that I would never get another job. I had far too much imagination and drive to be an intrapreneur – someone that innovates from within a company. I was a self-starter, and someone who would need to create her own endeavour.
It was the voices of other entrepreneurs that became my saving grace. Authors like Paul Graham, Robert Greene and Robert Fritz led the way. If it wasn’t for these voices in the dark, I don’t think I would still be here. I really do believe that you will get sick and die when you are doing something that goes against your nature.
If you’re in a job, or contemplating returning to one, and you too identify the same traits within yourself, and you know you can’t stay where you are, you must go on the journey of discovering who you are and what makes you come alive. You then must begin (or continue) creating what you feel deeply connected to – and, most importantly of all, start sharing that with others. As I am now doing with you.
Please share with me what makes you come alive.
Here is a comic I created to illustrate the common experience expressed by creatives when in a job.
Comments will be approved before showing up.