Paul Catmur: Stop telling your wannabe rockstar child to make real plans. It wont work


My nephew Nigel is a personable, intelligent, good-looking guy of 22 years. He is currently taking advantage of these attributes to work part-time in a supermarket and play drums in a rock band that nobody outside its members actually wants to listen to. All he cares about is that he has enough money to let him drink too much with his mates at the weekend. Like his parents, I find it somewhat frustrating that he’s not doing more with his life. I keep thinking I should sit him down and tell him to start making some plans.

But I don’t.

Because I remember that when I was his age I was working in the toy section of a department store with my weekends spent listening to rock bands that nobody else wanted to listen to and drinking too much with my mates. At least my nephew is actually playing in a band which puts him ahead, particularly with girls.

'Plan' is a four-letter word

When you’re young, “plans” are things that other people talk about, but which have little interest to you. You may reluctantly go along with your parents’ schemes, but only if you see them as a condition of staying on rent free (with laundry services thrown in).

Yes, there are elite athletes who may have the first 30 years of their life mapped out second by second, but for most young people a plan is as nebulous as “try not to be too unhappy”.

More than just exist

Early in my young and confused period (hopefully it’ll be over soon) I had a contemplative moment when I promised myself that I would never just “exist”. That I wouldn’t allow myself to be satisfied at working 9 to 5 in a job, which was neither interesting nor carried the prospect of ever becoming so.

Unsurprisingly this promise was broken almost immediately as I started work in an office answering telexes (ask your grandparents) from civil servants in a small African country inquiring when the Land Rover spare parts they’d ordered would be delivered. This was not a hard job as the answer was always the same: “Not yet”.

After a while, I realised there were actually some interesting jobs around the office; however, these jobs were reserved for those who had university degrees. Frustrated by this unfair discrimination I resigned and allowed myself to be talked into going to university. If only other discriminations were as easy to fix.

University as a waiting room

Nobody bothered much about doing vocational degrees in those days, so I spent a wonderful three years putting off the tedious question of what to do with the rest of my days on earth. On graduating I was no closer to solving that dilemma, so I took the first job available to get some beer money while I worked it out. Which is how I ended up spending five years as a croupier. Not much of an upgrade on answering African telexes, but at least they gave me a uniform.

When I finally plucked up the courage to quit the casino world and fight my way into advertising, my aim was just to get a job. Then once I’d got a job it was to get some ads out. Then it was to get some good ads out. There were never plans, just shifting goals. Sadly, many senior people in business struggle with the difference between a strategy and a goal. It’s not unusual to see a company’s strategy described as to “double sales” without any thought given as to how to actually do it.

Where do you see yourself in five years' time?

The first time anyone asked about my long-term plans was when the CEO meandered into my office and asked what I wanted to be doing in five years’ time. He asked this as casually as he might have inquired if he’d left his glasses in the office or if I’d yet identified the individuals that he should make redundant. I have no idea what prompted that question, but for the first time in my life I gave some serious thought to my future career. I was 44.

Before finishing this article I checked with my nephew that it was okay to reference him. He reminded me that he wasn’t actually called Nigel but that otherwise it was fine, and then shared a few of his online dating tips. Interestingly, he seemed to have far more of a plan for that.

(War, pestilence, and editors willing, Part Two of this article will come next week. The observant will recognise this as a goal rather than a strategy.)

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