Are you happy with your work or harbouring a desire to do something – anything – else? Here, Standard Issue writers tell us about their own leap into the great unknown: a new career.
‘I ran from one kind of circus to another’
I fell into teaching quite by accident, aged 23, when I was working in marketing in London. I’d been catching up with my old drama teacher and she’d told me she was retiring soon. Halfway through a shitty business day, I jokingly said: “Can I have your job?” She came back to me a few days later and asked if I was serious.
A few months later, there I was in brand new teacher’s shoes, walking into my beloved old school as Miss Hasler, Head of Drama in a department of one. The nostalgia was as palpable as my nerves.
The hardest thing initially was being able to pee in a cubicle next to my old history teacher. (“You can call me Pam now, Sadie.” “Yes Miss Mansell.” *squeeze*) The next hardest thing was figuring out how the fuck you go about teaching when you’re suddenly not sure you know anything about anything.
It is a massive thing to be able to survey what you know, admit the odd bit might have some worth to others, and to be able to pass it on with an air of authority. (If you want the stats, I’d say teaching is 99% acting, 1% knowing stuff.) Like any job there are the things that can (and must) be learned, the things that are (or are not) instinctive, and those things you will always be chasing like the perpetual white rabbit (wisdom; ever achievable if you’re not Ghandi or the Dalai Lama? I’m guessing neither of them ever taught Of Mice and Men to Year 10 bottom set boys – they’d have been smacking their flip-flops against their foreheads, not plopping out aphorisms about peace).
There are many fine young teachers in the country – the kind who really were born for the lifetime vocation – but I think many either flake out or slowly learn the ropes by swinging madly on them like neurotic chimps. Somewhere between the clueless and the jaded teachers of the land are the brilliant people keeping it all together.
I had an easy start in teaching there in the sepia glow of my old girls’ grammar school. You only had to ask the kids to do things and they did them. I loved my girls (a lot of whom I am still in touch with). I felt like I was on the path that would become the road that would become the massive motorway of my life. Then, a month into the job, my father died (life, you tinker) and everything suddenly stopped.
Then it started up again; the shock of grief dragged me on because there really was nothing else to do, but I was just acting. I was like a bath whose plug had been pulled; all fine on the surface but everything underneath was falling away. I took a job at another school the following year but didn’t make it past Easter. I got too sad to do anything and wouldn’t leave the house.
Later, a strange conglomeration of circumstances and curious leaps took me into writing plays for children, on into comedy, into acting, into writing columns, like stepping stones away from pain, as though teaching was somehow still tightly tethered to how I felt back then. Teaching was death and the past; everything and anything else was survival and the future. I wish there was some way of knowing, like a projection of our alternative lives, what kind of teacher I would have been in different circumstances. I loved those kids a lot.
An actor friend at the time of my career migration joked that I had run away to the circus. I think I ran from one kind of circus to another – and this one feels like home.
“I never looked back”
I worked in IT. When I tried to explain to people what I did for a living their eyes would just glaze over with disinterest. By the ‘90s they would brighten up and expect me to fix their new PC or printer. Come the 2000s it was their blackberry or later their iPhone. Post 2008, they just got angry. Why? Because the IT I did was for investment banks.
Twenty-two years of high-tech computer science meant nothing. Because on September 15, 2008, I was working for Lehman Brothers in Canary Wharf and we broke the world’s economy, spiralling everyone into the second worst financial crisis in modern times.
Up to that time, it was an exciting and creative and rewarding job. But something happened on that day, beyond redundancy and beyond the global ramifications. It was like a wake-up call. It brought to mind an old cliché about living to work and not working to live. My entire life had been the job. I was 42 and single.
Since 2003, I had been dabbling with standup comedy as a hobby. It’s a drug: performing, gigging, whatever you want to call it. I had been lucky enough to win a couple of competitions and a small amount of recognition, not to mention an excellent agent, by the time the 2008 crash came. I had been planning on jacking the whole IT banking thing in and giving standup a go, but the collapse of Lehman’s took my shares, bonus and savings with it. So I clung on in the industry for two more years. It was hell.
The decision had been made and now I just wanted out to go and be full-time funny. I had to hang on for two years of paying off debts, preparing that clean slate ready to quit and tread the boards for real, but on that day I was out of the door quicker than a flash and never looked back. The first person I called was my agent.
I’ve been a full-time performer for more than four years now, branching into acting and writing and even learning to play and write music. My time is my own, my life is my own and my job is its own reward. I have a lovely partner and the flexibility of being self-employed is ample return in itself.
The reason I decided to change career so radically wasn’t one ‘big bang’ moment; it was a little serendipity at a time of upheaval which helped me see the light. It’s not been easy but then nothing worthwhile ever is. But I have definitely learned that it is better to be happy in your work than to try to work to be happy.
“One last job”
I’ve never wanted to be a scientist. I just fell into it and now – sort of like the mafia – I can’t get out.
I was young and foolish and I did it for the money, or rather, for the lack of money. My parents kindly offered to pay my university fees and I jumped at the chance. Turns out there were strings attached. They wanted me to study science. By the time I realised I’d made a mistake, I was in too deep to back out. I’d done two degrees and it was time to pay my dues by getting a job – and pay I did.
I got a job in a urine-testing lab. Over two years, it became my job to collect as many female urine samples as I could. Some days, I’d have hundreds of women queuing out my door, steaming pots in their hands, waiting their turn. What can I say? I was really good at it.
On the surface, I carried out my duties with ruthless efficiency, but inside, I was miserable. Trapped in a career I never wanted with little hope of circumstances improving, I needed an escape. I started listening to standup comedy. With my iPod tucked into my labcoat pocket and Mitch Hedberg or Dave Chappelle blasting into my ears, I’d actually find myself smiling as I decanted that fresh batch of urine. The people who inspired me to get through each day weren’t the scientists around me, they were these people speaking their truth, one joke at a time. I wished I could do that for someone some day.
That’s how I started standup. A hundred gigs, three weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe, and a few competition successes later, I was hooked. My urine-testing contract ended and desperate to stay in the UK and keep gigging, I took on my next science job as a pain researcher. To me, it was a temporary job ’til the comedy took off. I told myself, “This is it. One last job, and then I’m quitting this lifestyle for good.”
I worked hard at the comedy – got an agent, did more competitions and some TV, and then suddenly, I lost it all. My lab didn’t get the next grant it had applied for. My contract was cut short, I had to quit my PhD, I couldn’t apply for UK permanent residency, and thus I couldn’t get any paid work in the UK. My agents dropped me, and if I wanted to stay in the UK with my boyfriend, I had to find a new job fast.
That’s how I ended up in my current science job. It’s been three years and looking back, it’s been good to me – given me an income, got me UK permanent residency and helped me realise that I absolutely 100% do not want to be in science.
I’m starting all over with the standup and I’m also making my way into the world of screenwriting. It’s not paying yet, but I’m hoping it will because this one, this is my last science job, and then I’m quitting this lifestyle for good.
“Things have rarely worked out as I first planned them”
I set off at quite a pace down the road of becoming a criminal barrister, before veering sharply off to standup comedy. I enjoyed my legal training and still find the whole shebang fascinating but I’ve never once looked back with even a quark of regret.
Things have rarely worked out as I first planned them. I’ve always battled with my own sensible fear of change and insecurity. Eventually, I ended up being led by something as instinctive as love. As barking as it sounds, I’m proud of myself for that.
At A-level I was besotted with history and philosophy. I didn’t even consider them at degree level though. I remember justifying it by saying, “I don’t want to end up just floating around not knowing where I’m going.” So I did law, with its obvious, reassuring, vocational aftermath. Meh.
The degree was hard but I had a real passion for crime, criminology, sentencing and jurisprudence. I penned a 60,000 word dissertation espousing a complete overhaul of the law on rape. I started mini-pupillages all over the country, beginning to imagine myself becoming a barrister. I was completely emotionally and intellectually committed and invested, but it wasn’t enough.
I felt invigorated but it never felt fun. I’d never once felt expressive or creative. I realise this now. At the time, I found a more pragmatic excuse for making a U-turn after more than three years of hard slog.
Crime is the most popular area of law in which to practice, so it’s both the least well paid and the most competitive. I knew if I was going to succeed in a field like that, I would have to be above-and-beyond committed to that and only that. Much like I am with comedy now. I said, “There are too many other things which I might want to do and I want to try them first.” On that, at least, I was right. I got my 2:1 but before I started the Bar I dropped out of being a lawyer. My parents were quietly gutted.
There’s no logic to it. I quit law for being too risky, too all-consuming, badly paid, saturated and a boys’ club. Now I’m a standup comedian. That’s the definition of irony, right? Or am I ‘doing an Alanis?’ You know what I mean.
I happily rambled about for a few years, travelling and temping. I wrote a lot of comedy before I got whiff of standup as a viable option for an actual job. Then, in 2008, I went for it, and I went hard. I live in London, so I was lucky, able to gig five nights a week at least, until I found my feet and became fully and hungrily addicted. I fell in love and I’ve never looked back.
It’s really fucking hard. I travel a lot. It does define me and affects all my relationships. I earn less than all my friends (I’ve got very high-flying friends) but it’s still more than enough, I have a pretty lovely life.
It’s the sort of job where you’re never on holiday. Every time you achieve something, it instantly feels tiny compared to the next set of goals you’re yet to get to. But the older and wiser I get, the better I handle it. Success is how fulfilled and how happy I am. I do comedy just to do comedy, to learn, improve and grow. Every single time I go to work it’s an adventure. Anything that comes from it is a bonus and to have it as my job, feels like the most incredible gift. I love it.
Picture by Isabelle Adams
Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.