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From the building site to the board room

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.

Working outside in the long, cold and dark northern winters and learning from the tough working class men I worked with turned me physically from boy to man and helped me to develop a mental toughness that has helped me ever since.

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, girls, pubs, clubs, alcohol and the other hedonistic pleasures which, actually, suited me fine.

My academic skills were that of an untalented 14-year-old and my lifestyle habits were bordering out of control.

16 year old me at an all-night rave

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, at best, working class mediocracy and, at worst, prison.

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 low because my dopamine receptors had been fried from the previous weekend’s partying.

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 ass 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 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 in getting my brain functioning 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 world view 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:

  • Rose to the top in my career and became known as an expert in my field of expertise
  • Made a lot of money
  • Contributed to two books
  • Set up my own business
  • Travelled around (for both business and pleasure)
  • Spoke at events in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and the US
  • Made new friends from around the world, including girls
  • Gained a lot more life experience
  • Experienced London absorbing its rich history, culture and the hedonistic trimmings that come with it

I’m not saying, “You need to listen to me because I’ve made it!”. Far from it and no one should ever seek completion in life.

Tomorrow I could find out I have a deadly disease in which case all of the above is just a small passing of time in someone’s life. At the end of the day none of this matters.

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. People don’t want you to change.

Whatever happens to me in my career now I feel I can’t lose. I can always go back and work in a manual job because that’s my baseline. Would I want to? No, not really, but I can.

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

What do you thank your younger self for? If you don’t thank him for anything then start now putting something in place that your future self will thank you for.

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