life and art

It’s confusing when you’re young and your Whole Life is Ahead of You. When I was young and my Whole Life was Ahead of Me, I didn’t really know what to do with it.  The only thing I’d ever thought seriously about was writing, but that didn’t seem like something I’d even be able to do, let alone make a career of. I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, even though I had the academic stuff to pursue any of those careers. I didn’t have much ambition, career-wise, at all.

Even so, I ended up going to university and getting a degree, which didn’t make a lot of difference to my prospects – I still found myself working in jobs where the qualifications required were basic maths and English. (It did give me a chance to go to Japan, though. If you want to work abroad, having a degree can help with getting work visas.) Some years later I went back to university and did a PGCE, which I thought would professionalise me, give me a career and some job security. Then the government cut most of the funding for the courses I teach, withdrew its political goodwill, and pushed colleges into becoming profit-making businesses, which meant that I was only able to get work on temporary contracts, only paid for my teaching hours and given few opportunities for professional development. Or I could work in the private sector, where wages for an hour’s teaching can be as little as £8. Finally, last year, I decided to do an MA in creative writing – not because I thought it would improve my career prospects! I thought I might learn something, though.

So I’ve done the whole education thing. And I think, if I had been smarter from the off, and if I had been braver, I wouldn’t have bothered.

Here’s the thing. Getting degrees didn’t open a lot of doors for me. Employers don’t care that I have a first class degree. It’s not in engineering or maths or a specialised subject, so it’s meaningless – like every other humanities degree. Even a professional, vocational qualification like a PGCE doesn’t get you very far when the only decent teaching jobs are at universities where you are expected to have a PhD just to teach on a sessional English course.

What opened doors for me, gave me opportunities, and made it possible to support myself over the years? Being able to touch type. Secretarial skills are the skills I have that are marketable and usually in demand. And those skills, in my case, are entirely self-taught.

Here’s what I wish I had understood back then: If you’re an artist, be an artist. If you’re a writer, write. Get a job that pays the bills and doesn’t corrode your soul, something you can do without giving your heart. Travel and live cheaply, seek out adventures and experiences, find out what matters to you. Give up on the idea of university as a place of enlightened growth and learning. Universities are businesses now. The idea that an expensive education in the arts or humanities is going to open doors for you is a myth. That’s not how this economy works. It used to be that education was a way out for ordinary, working class people, but it’s not anymore. It’s a trap. It’s a rip off. What might open doors for you is having some kind of practical skill, a good work ethic, and no massive debts to worry about. Be more free. And good luck to you.