How I went to the building site to the boardroom

How to improve a life situation.

building site

When I was 23 I could barely read and write.

I left school at 16 with few O levels, no A-levels and went straight to work as a labourer on the building sites in the north east of England.

Teachers would usually remark in my school reports that my grades would be a lot better if only I tried harder. I had no interest in trying hard at school and I couldn’t wait to leave.

I am the first generation male on either side of my mother and father’s family not to work thousands of feet underground digging out coal as by the time I had left school all the local mines had closed down due to Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies.

County Durham kids like me either became a mechanic, joined the army, worked in a factory or went to learn a trade on the building sites. I fell into the latter.

Labouring to plasterers is the most physically demanding job I’ve ever had. In fact, it is (and construction jobs in general) probably one of the most physically demanding jobs in the world.

After a day’s work, I would come home drained, covered head to toe in dirt and dust and with a hunger I’d never experienced before.

Those early years working outside in the long, cold and dark northern winters toughened me up and provided me with a mental toughness I can still channel today.

I look back on this time fondly and even now, as I write this, I feel myself choking with pride.

Would I like to still be doing it? Hell no, but as Freud said, ‘One day, in retrospect, the struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”

Whatever your struggle, try to enjoy it if you’re working to get past it.

Needless to say from the ages 16 to 23 I had very little opportunity to engage my brain academically or hone my writing skills in any way.

And why would I want to? My life consisted of work, pubs, clubs and all those other vices.

The moment

I remember it well. It was the moment when I knew things had to change.

It was the moment I knew what I was doing and where I was heading was destined for a mediocre life.

It was spring. The sun was beginning to make an irregular appearance after a particularly harsh cold winter.

I was outside of a new-build house we were working on. I was covered in dirt, my boots sinking further in the mud and I was feeling tired fried from the previous weekend’s festivities.

I remember looking up at the blue sky and thinking to myself, “Is this it? Is this what life has in store for me? Is this what I am forever?”

I knew I had to change and I knew I was destined for more.

What, though, I didn’t know, but I realised it started with education so at the grand old age of 23 I enrolled into college on the basis that it would get me access to university and ultimately a degree.

I worked my socks off. I had to learn how to read, write, think critically and speak coherent English, without the pitmatic slang I had used my entire life.

I stayed in on weekends, I read, then I read again and then read some more.

I studied how writers would put sentences together and look for patterns. I carried around a pocket dictionary (this was pre-smartphones) so whenever I read, heard or saw a word I didn’t know I would look up its definition.

I didn’t work for a few months purely so I could invest all my time getting my brain to function again.

The synapses in my brain started firing and wiring with one another. New neurons were created, expanding my grey matter allowing my brain to connect dots on topics that my previous limited worldview did not contemplate.

I bought myself a computer.

I didn’t know how to turn a computer on let alone know how to use one.

I didn’t even have an email address.

I studied the technology to become not only proficient but I ended up discovering a passion for it.

I studied public relations and the media and learned how the media machine works, what propaganda is, how to craft stories so journalists would print them and I also stumbled across this new thing called social media (at the time only known as blogging).

I was the quintessential university swot sacrificing my social life in order to learn.

Volunteering my newly learned skills for free in order to get that vital experience and foot on the ladder.

It was sheer audacity to believe that someone like me could transcend my current situation to something better.

Most people don’t. Most people stay in their current situation and accept their lot. Working class people stay working class. Middle-class people stay middle-class.

My friends who I grew up with (and who are still my friends to this day) continued to live and work in the same area doing the same things.

I knew I was different. I was willing to do whatever it took to move up the social hierarchy.

I knew I had to get to London, the capital city of the world, and thanks to a combination of hard work, determination, luck and right place right time, I did.

The rest, as they say, is history but in the ten years since I made that move, I did things my previous self would have never believed like rising to the top of my career, speaking around the world, setting up my own business and generally living a different life in the great city of London.

I’m not saying, “You need to listen to me because I’ve made it!”. Far from it. I just improved my own life situation and we are all on our own individual path.

Over time you realise that social status and external achievement isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. There are many unhappy people at the top. 

What I am saying, though, is you’ve got to have that drive to better yourself and your circumstances. If it means starting at the bottom, so be it. If it means working for free, then do what you’ve got to do.

Have a goal and keep pushing it. Have a dream and pursue it.

You might alienate yourself. You might lose friends. Sometimes people don’t want you to change.

I look back on that naive 23-year-old who had the courage to make something better of his life and thank him for his audacity, perseverance and will.

The grind never stops though and I better be thanking myself for the work I’m doing today in the future. 

Written by Ste Davies

Ste ‘Stephen’ Davies is a freelance digital consultant, traveller, writer, podcaster and speaker based in London, UK. You can reach him here or follow him on Twitter below.

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