I don’t often share my story of how I got to do what I do, but I was recently interviewed about my career journey and the wiggly road along the way. From looking at forensic science ending up at art college, there was even a tentative look at the RAF then to motherhood. My career started from dropping out of university sharpish and just digging in and working damned hard. I don’t think you need a degree to be successful – I certainly didn’t. But it’s frustrating that highly qualified graduates may struggle to get work. Then at over 40 you still have to leave the box unticked, so do you need a degree to be successful?

Bring on the fava beans and Clarice Starling

I’m not sure that reading Silence of the Lambs when I was 11 was a great idea, but it piqued my curiosity in forensic science. So I guess it had some value! But as I got older, the ‘dead bodies’ element disturbed me so I dyed my hair purple and went to art college instead. It was probably for the best as a very squeamish vegetarian. In fact, I stopped eating meat at 11 so I’m not sure it was entirely coincidental… Bring on the fava beans and nowadays, a chianti.

From the arts to global infrastructure projects

My parents ran their own business in the arts, so there was always an arty element to the family as well as hard-working determination. For me, the practical arty side came out so I studied 3D design. From there, I worked in support roles in interior design, architecture and engineering. I always had a role which edged more and more towards project management. As my career evolved, this included marketing, business development then quite quickly focused on managing major bids and coaching teams to win large-scale projects.

A talent for finding creative solutions early doors

I definitely gravitated towards project management and because I was good at it, more work came to me. From starting in a supporting role, two years later I was managing the department. It was great for me as it was both creative and practical, so it very much ticked the arty box. And it’s not just creativity in the colouring-in sense – it was all about finding creative solutions for problems. This is something that’s stuck with me all these years later and I still find really inspiring. If someone is struggling to construct a digital project plan, we’ll build it in Lego first. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to explain why there’s Lego all over the office floor!

One thing that was really clear throughout my career was that every move I made was strategic. I only moved roles to go bigger and broader and allowed for more opportunity. It was all about aligning myself to provide as many choices as possible. I had no advice or support during this, it was mainly gut instinct and asking the right questions. This has definitely led into the work I do now.

I’ll show you *digs heels in and clenches fists*

So, I never got a degree. Not having a degree, to an extent, gave me a bit of ‘prove yourself’ mentality. I went to university and one day I sat crying in the loo with the UCAS book as the course was just such a waste of time. I tried to transfer to Central St Martins but they said they ‘don’t have dropouts’ so not to be one for waiting, I went off and got two part-time jobs instead. It didn’t help me to feel that I hadn’t failed though, after all anyone can get a degree right? You need a degree to be successful don’t you? It took a long time for me to shake off the term ‘dropout’.

The two lessons here were universities always have people leave and move courses so don’t be put off from changing. And sometimes it’s OK to stick two fingers up at the system and make your own way.

No regrets

I don’t regret not having a degree, but I still get annoyed when there are boxes on forms asking if I have one (even at my grand old age). It’s just so irrelevant when organisations potentially lose good candidates at all stages because they can’t tick a box.

Before I would have graduated, there was still a part of me that wanted a structured path to follow so I applied for the RAF. Then I didn’t go as I met a boy and, well, the rest is history! To be honest, it would have been a terrible fit for me (and them). Sticking two fingers up at the system and dying your hair purple wouldn’t go down very well.

Then I got a real job…

I settled after that in work and thought it was all quite easy, then when I was 24 years old Oscar arrived. You think you’ve got it all planned out then parenthood calls up and says “don’t get too smug, you’ve got no idea what’s coming now” and ‘bang’ – that’s a real job. No degree would prepare you for that anyway.

When I was interviewed about my career path, I realised it was a wiggly one. But it’s given me an opportunity to reflect on the important inflection and decision points. There was pretty much 20+ years of trial and error, focusing and not focusing. Then Act 2 is the hard graft and where I think it gets meaningful. I’ll follow up with how motherhood, a recession, five-hour commutes and how I decided to “go big or go home” in my next blog.

Photo by Ivan Diaz on Unsplash