10 lessons I’ve learned the hard way

Over the last 40 years I’ve established a marketing agency, a social enterprise that delivers apprenticeship training to young people, led the formation of a grant making charity and written 20 books. But looking back now that I am retired, I can see that had I acted differently I could have achieved much more. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret the life I have led and have enjoyed the rich and varied experiences it has delivered. Here are ten things I would tell my younger self that I believe would have helped me enjoy even greater success.

1. Accept who you are and don’t blame others:

I did not have a particularly happy childhood and spent years blaming my parents for my shyness and low self-esteem. They both died when I was in my mid-20s, which made it easier to accuse them of giving me what I saw as my shortcomings. I was angry, and turned that anger on myself. I was sabotaging my own chances of success. Psychotherapy helped me see that I was the master of my own destiny. I would tell my younger self to do this now, and not wait 15 years as I did.

2. Qualifications matter:

School did not work for me and only later, when I joined Mensa did I realise why. I went to agricultural college and left with a diploma and for decades was scornful of qualifications. I told myself that experience and track record were more important, but there is no doubt that qualifications, particularly professional ones, would have opened doors that remained closed to me. I finally went to university at the age of 64 and now have a creative writing MA.

3. Don’t be a complete outsider:

Much of my success has resulted from the objectivity I’ve gained by choosing to remain an outsider. Belonging to anything means compromise at best, blind acceptance of the status quo at worst. Religion is perhaps a good example, but as I realised in my late 50s, philosophies have evolved over millennia and joining a group of like-minded, tolerant people can give you strength. Becoming a Quaker helped me understand myself and more importantly, helped others understand why I was different.

4. Don’t give up too soon:

I’m intelligent and think quickly, so soon become tired of waiting for others to catch up. Looking back, I can see many occasions where I jumped out of something too quickly and missed opportunity. I’d advise my younger self to realise that others also have priorities and deadlines to meet, and that I would be well advised at times to be patient.

5. Build a network:

I’ve met so many people whose network extends no further than the business sector in which they operate. Yes it’s important to know customers and colleagues, but what about people who can lead you to different and perhaps more exciting opportunities in the future? I’ve also learned the value of helping others with no expectation of their help in return. This has built my reputation and encouraged people to push opportunities my way. We now have social media, which did not exist when I was a young man. It could have made all the difference!

6. Understand your goals:

For decades people would say of me; ‘I know Robert, but have no idea what he actually does.’ This was because I was more focused on leaving my past behind me, than in creating a new future for myself. It took my years to work out what I really wanted to do, which was to be a successful non-fiction author. Most other things I did because they were there and I knew I could make good things happen. If I was 30 today, I’d go and sit on an island for a week free from distraction knowing that this would help me discern what I really, really wanted to do with my life.

7. Recognise and celebrate each success:

A good example of this is that I am learning to play the piano. Each piece my teacher gives me to learn is a little harder than the one before, but I never celebrate the moment when each becomes fluent. I simply move on to the next one. Only once in my career have I allowed myself to celebrate an achievement, and that was when I cut the ribbon to officially open a community owned shop that only came about because of my activism and determination.

8. Do not attempt the impossible:

At times I thought I was invincible and could do anything, so I willingly accepted impossible challenges, usually for modest fees. To some clients I appeared to be too good to be true, but all this achieved was to prolong their delusion that success was just around the corner. It also meant I subjected myself to Herculean tasks that took their toll on my own mental health. Given my time again, I would walk away from those impossible missions.

9. Ask lots of questions:

One of the secrets of my success is that I have always asked the questions others dare not. Friendly, but direct questioning has made those I work with think hard, and sometimes tell me what I need to know to make a difference. Others have thought me cheeky, but that is always better than assuming I know the answers.

10. It’s never too late:

I’m now 66 and graduated from my MA in December 2020. I have written my first book in a new, creative non-fiction genre which is now with a literary agent. This marks the beginning of a new career. I also have my sights set firmly on becoming a professional organist in my 70s, playing at funerals and hopefully helping give people a good send off. It’s never too late to start again!

Of course none of has the opportunity to listen to our future selves and regretting lost opportunities gets you nowhere. I hope this list encourages you to reflect on your life and work.

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