One in the morning. A time of day I rarely witness.
I was seated in a local neighbourhood bar. Surrounded by colleagues who appeared to be genuinely enjoying the beer, tapas, and each other’s company. The night had reached that point where desserts and coffees were finished, and it was time for the drinkers to part company with those who were dry.
One group bound for misadventure. Bars. Nightclubs. Destined for Jägerbombs, hangovers, and regret.
The other group headed for bed.
Both groups would reconvene over coffee at the office in the morning, to hear tall tales of getting lost, getting lucky, stolen wallets, and walks of shame.
As I slid my chair back from the table, it occurred to me that I was the oldest person present.
When had that happened?
It wasn’t so long ago that I was consistently the youngest in a team. Punching above my weight. Tap dancing and winging it as I walked the corporate tightrope. Having learned early on that, in the moment, confident delivery is indistinguishable from actual substance.
A little bit of confidence goes a long way!
Scattered around the table were an eclectic mix of delegators and do-ers. Execs. Engineers. Interns.
The CEO of a FinTech firm was six months younger than me. Various folks with important sounding titles that included words like “chief”, “global”, or “head” were all a year or ten younger than us both.
Only one of them had made the redundancy baiting mistake of wielding an intangible title, that of “Chief Awesomizer”. A job description I can only hope was intended ironically. He would soon join the ranks of start-up refugees seeking alternative employment, as seed funding for loss-making ventures at delusional valuations becomes increasingly hard to come by.
Feeling wired from an after-dinner coffee strong enough to double as a Pulp Fiction adrenalin shot, I took a walk rather than returning to the hotel. Dawdling a circuitous route through neighbourhoods bordering Avinguda Diagonal, I retraced the footsteps of Antoni Gaudi, before ending up at the perpetually unfinished Sagrada Família.
Backlit by the shop window glow of many fine traditional Catalonian culinary establishments. Ben & Jerry’s. Burger King. Costa Coffee. Five Guys. McDonald’s. Starbucks. Subway. Taco Bell.
A teenage thug kitted out in NBA fan gear sauntered over to offer me pharmaceutical happiness.
A dishearteningly young and very nervous teenage girl, wearing lots of make-up and not much else, promised carnal relief in return for dishearteningly few Euros.
When I politely declined both offers, the thug mentored the girl that she needed to learn to read how much a customer could afford, and adjust her prices accordingly.
The thought that I was old enough to be their father ran through my mind. My inner saboteur mockingly observed that I was old enough to be their grandfather. He wasn’t wrong!
The American junk food outlets and clothing reminded me of a conversation from earlier in the evening about the homogenisation of cultures. Where customs like the siesta had long been abandoned to the demands of an international marketplace, replaced by “always on” presenteeism.
Where once local market hits like La casa de papel now stood a chance of becoming global phenomena like Money Heist.
But also where we can start watching the South Korea series of Ojing-eo Geim in Seoul and finish it as Squid Game in Sydney, because everyone everywhere is doing much the same thing.
The internet had made the marketplace bigger, but the world infinitely smaller. Leading us all to dream, drink, eat, watch, wear, think, vote, and invest in much the same things. Regardless of location. Or what it costs to live there.
I recalled a tale from Moldova, where the young and the impressionable would happily blow more than a month’s wages on a single pair of Levi’s jeans or Nike trainers, just to look like the folks they watched on television. Despite the fact their incomes were barely 10% of those they sought to emulate. An extreme case of “keeping up with the Joneses”.
The next morning over a disappointing hotel breakfast of stale croissants and watered-down orange juice, one of the younger members of the team shyly approached to ask if I would be open to mentoring them?
I goldfished. Surprised. Humbled. Somewhat honoured. More than a little wary.
But mostly wondering why any sane person would possibly want to be mentored by me?
I’d never had a mentor.
I’d never formally been a mentor.
What does being a mentor even mean?
I invited them to sit down, and asked what they hoped to get out of the arrangement?
Did they seek an agony aunt? Career counsellor? Life coach? Network builder? To curry favour?
They looked puzzled. Shook their head. Said it wasn’t any of those things.
What they sought to learn was how to be heard.
How to win arguments without appearing to participate in them.
How to carry the room using nothing more than confidence, delivery, and presence.
In short, they wanted to learn how to tell engaging stories, the way that they felt I did.
The kind that use short sentences. Simple words. Compelling narratives.
Stories that swept the audience along. Convincing them of the merits of a given perspective, without their realising it was happening.
It was my turn to look puzzled. Was that something that I did?
And if so, how do you teach someone else to do it?
I spent the next hour or so making friends with the kid. Adopting the usual approach: ask open-ended questions to encourage the other person to talk about themselves, then use reflective listening to make them feel heard.
By the end of breakfast, I had learned they were driven, but also impatient and entitled. Unwilling to bide their time nor pay their dues. They were smart enough to do the big jobs now, so why not skip the boring character-building middle career part, and cut to the chase? Not an unreasonable question.
I also discerned they had made an ill-suited career choice. Chasing money. Ignoring interest. Now finding themselves at a crossroads, facing many potential avenues for success, but none that inspired or captured the imagination.
Deep down, they wanted to be a storyteller. Journalist by day. Novelist by night.
However, their lifestyle choices meant going back to school or starting over weren’t viable options.
Which meant their behaviours and values were misaligned. Causing frustration. Generating stress.
To their mind, success meant climbing the corporate ladder. Earning more money. Conquering the professional world. A well-trodden life script, but one they felt left little room for telling stories.
They said they observed I had been able to use storytelling to succeed in that corporate world.
Something they wished to emulate.
They also saw in me someone who focussed on the right solutions, rather than the politically expedient ones, and who survived to tell the tale.
Creating the impression of an independent thinker.
Who was worth listening to.
Who was usually right.
I didn’t quite know what to make of that last piece. Were they being genuine, or just stroking my ego?
It is true I don’t play politics, but this had nothing to do with compelling narratives. Instead, it was a luxury afforded by having accumulated “enough”. A position which meant I can afford to say no, or walk away. Which provides a whole world of confidence, and options that would simply not be available to somebody who is a slave to their salary or lifestyle costs.
A luxury that somebody closer to the start of their career than the end probably could not yet afford.
A luxury those “boring character-building middle career years” had paid for.
We had a brief chat about financial independence, selling time, and that there is usually a way to start doing much of what we hope to do “one day”, today. Like writing, for example.
Then we agreed to catch up again over coming months, for more coffee and conversation.
I assigned the kid some homework, to do the thinking on a high-level transition plan. Possible routes from their current unfulfilling career towards their desired future storytelling vocation.
Not as a giant leap. One and done. Hollywood style dramatic “Hail Mary” play.
Rather, as a series of small steps, that cumulatively should see them reach their goal.
Later that day I got to talking with a guy about my age who seemed to have life pretty well figured out.
After a couple of decades playing the corporate Game of Thrones, he decided he had “enough”.
He quit. Went into business for himself as a freelance consultant, working two days a week remotely.
Half the year he lived in a beach house in the south of France. The remainder he spent travelling, mostly hiking along wilderness trails in locales with temperate climates for the time of year.
He had always wanted to write a book, so with his newfound free time, he did. Not a novel, but a thoughtful evaluation of a very specific failing that plagued his former corporate niche. A book for which there was a potential global audience of maybe a couple of thousand people. Something he hoped may open doors into a guest lecturing sideline at universities around the world.
Before I realised it was happening, he had me talking about myself.
My hopes. My dreams. My frustrations. My future plans.
The sorts of things I never talk about in a professional context.
The sorts of things I rarely discuss in my private life.
He had used the same open-ended questions and reflective listening I had adopted over breakfast.
The irony made me laugh out loud. In response to his curious look, I explained about my brief foray into mentoring that morning. He agreed with my conclusions about the luxury of choice provided by financial independence, something his own lifestyle choices embodied. He only wished he had figured it out sooner, before he had become the oldest person in the room, so he could have gotten started on the life outside of work side of things younger.
We agreed to keep in touch, for coffee and conversation. Perhaps some mentoring. Though I’m uncertain who would be mentoring whom, as it is often a case of the blind leading the blind. But confidently so!