My cat’s favourite place to sleep is sprawled in a sunbeam on top of a tropical fish tank.
Occasionally she will hang her head over the side and watch the movement of the fish swimming with disinterest. Before long she becomes bored of the sight, rolling over and going back to sleep.
From an early age, clichés and stereotypes have conditioned me to believe that this should not be possible. Cats eat fish. It is the natural order of things.
Yet in all the years they have peacefully coexisted together, she has made a total of one attempt at piscicide. It ended in tears. Hers. Turns out cats don’t much like swimming!
Some conventional wisdom turns out to be correct.
What if we are wrong, about everything?
In my final year of university, I had a girlfriend who was ambitious, fast, fearless, and fun.
She attended the career days and read all the glossy graduate recruitment brochures. The vision they sold of being part of a close-knit “work hard / play hard” team doing meaningful work spoke to her.
Taking the bait, she set her sights on becoming a partner in what was then one of the “Big 6” global accounting firms. By the age of 40. Not just any partner, but a full equity partner.
When I met her, she was already working full time while studying full time. Ruthless with her time prioritisation. Suffering no fools. Flattening anyone and anything that got in her way.
In the run-up to final exams, we both felt the need to escape. Clear our heads. Blow off some steam.
Friday night in our home town was late night shopping. It was almost midnight by the time I emerged from the store I managed, only to find her car idling outside. She beeped the horn and ordered me to get in for an impromptu road trip.
We drove through the night towards the coast.
Dawn found us seated on the still-warm bonnet of her car, leaning back against the windshield, watching the sunrise over the ocean. Crashing waves provided background noise. Seagulls battled over soggy leftover French fries from the 24-hour roadside burger place we had visited on the way.
As the sun rose the early morning chill burned from the air. My girlfriend declared it was time for a swim, swiftly shedding her clothes to reveal a bikini underneath.
I was a tad reluctant, still clad in my work uniform from the night before, and not having brought a towel or change of clothes on our unplanned adventure.
I pointed to the officious warning sign prominently displayed between the carpark and path to the beach.
No ball games.
My girlfriend read the sign. Laughed with delight. Whipped off her bikini top, and hung it over the sign.
“We wouldn’t want to break their rules now, would we?” she teased, as she ran towards the waves.
My reluctance instantly vanished as I chased after her. Hopping, stumbling, and falling as I tried to remove my trousers while running across the dunes.
A couple of hours later, we returned to the car. Sand in our crevices. Sunburnt. Bikini top stolen.
Our early morning skinny dip had temporarily dispelled the looming exam pressures and uncertainties about life beyond university. Equilibrium temporarily restored, we headed for home.
On the long drive back, we discussed the future. How we would conquer the world. Together.
Graduate recruitment offer letters were due to be sent out in the coming weeks.
For some, this would provide options. Certainty. A new set of goalposts beyond university.
For others, their absence would derail carefully laid plans. Banish hopes and dreams. Usher in the harsh realities that life as an adult is often unfair.
Displaying uncharacteristic vulnerability, my girlfriend gave voice to a question that troubled many soon to be graduates:
“What if we are wrong, about everything?”
What if corporate life, with its sharp suits and big pay packets, wasn’t all we had built it up to be?
What if graduate programs weren’t the fulfilling and nurturing places they purported to be?
What if life as an adult wasn’t as good as that of a student?
Was not feeling broke all the time worth being time-poor?
Fluorescent light tans?
The doughy body of the desk jockey?
Stress-induced grey hairs and wrinkles?
What if this was as good as it would ever get? Here. Today. Now.
History tells us that we were indeed wrong about most of the things we had been so certain of then.
The following week my girlfriend received an offer letter to join a prestigious “Big 6” firm in a distant city, commencing as soon as she completed her final exams. She was thrilled. The next step in her life plan secured.
The letter I received was of the “thanks, but no thanks” variety. The first of many.
A week after that, she had dumped me for a fellow graduate recruit bound for the same city.
Ever practical, she had researched rents in the city and concluded that sharing a bed in a small well-located apartment was a more optimal lifestyle choice than renting a room in an affordably located group house.
A year later, they both had been chewed up and spat out by the relentless “Big 6” corporate machine.
Fuelled by an endless supply of cheap, hyper-competitive, interchangeable, starry-eyed graduates.
A business model reliant upon consuming them as low-value cannon fodder. Willing to trade their youth and vitality for a recognised brand on their CV. A corporate network. Applied training in institutional politics and blame avoidance.
“Real life” had turned out nothing like she had planned. Not only had the job been a bust, but shortly after relocating to the big city her new boyfriend had figured out he was gay!
The recruitment propaganda had painted an illusion that merit and hard work were sufficient for the best and the brightest to succeed. Her first year in the corporate workforce provided a brutal reality check. Advancement and ability have little correlation. Connections, luck, and ruthlessness play a larger role than many would care to admit.
She was left jaded by the experience. Disillusioned. Exploited. Lied to. Taken advantage of. Used.
Found unattractive by the first man she had lived with.
Found wanting by the profession she had dreamed of joining.
Found unemployed in a big expensive city that didn’t care whether she lived or died.
She was utterly convinced that she was a failure, believing that she would never amount to anything.
“What if we are wrong, about everything?”
Five years later she had carved out a successful career. Specialised in a lucrative niche. In an industry strongly in demand.
She was lured back to the cut-throat world of the now “Big 4”, as a Senior Manager.
A competitor to her former graduate employer sought to purchase credibility in the niche, giving her considerable negotiating leverage.
She found herself roughly two years ahead on the career ladder, of those few remaining members of her graduate programme intake who had survived six attritional years on the inside of the “Big 6 5 4”.
Her university era life plan was suddenly back on track. Accelerated even.
A year of high-pressure high profile engagements saw her viewed as a rising star. On the fast track to making partner.
Her network grew.
Her bank balance grew.
Her hopes and dreams for the future grew.
She was heading for the top. Anything was possible.
Despite a couple of setbacks along the way, which keeps things interesting, life usually works out in the end.
“What if we are wrong, about everything?”
The best justice you can afford
Late one night a senior partner, and renowned philanderer, attempted to demonstrate his hands-on managerial technique.
She reciprocated his unwanted attentions with a sharp kick in the batteries. One that would leave him walking with a limp for a week. The keening shriek he made upon impact saw concerned witnesses popping up like meerkats throughout the office cubicle farm. Once they saw who it was that was writing on the floor, the meerkats vanished. Nothing to see here, folks.
It should have been an open and shut case of sexual harassment bordering on sexual assault.
Except in “real life” things are rarely so simple. The victim rarely emerges as the victor.
The next morning she was summoned to appear before a committee of partners.
They had seen it all before. They would undoubtedly see it again.
The senior partner was a rainmaker. Important. Their livelihoods and bonuses were, in part, reliant upon the clients he brought in. Who stayed, in large part, because of their ongoing relationship with him.
Private boxes at the best sporting events.
Late-night visits to city’s finest strip clubs and brothels.
Everyone in town knew the senior partner, and he knew everyone who mattered.
By lunchtime, she found herself out on the street. Once again unemployed in the big bad city.
Clutching an envelope containing a boiler-plate Non-Disclosure Agreement. A terse employer’s reference. And a house deposit sized cheque that the firm had used to purchase her silence.
The lecherous senior partner had limped across the building lobby as she departed, his smug face bearing a victorious grin.
“In this industry everyone knows everyone, making the big city feel like a very small town. You should have played the game. Good luck finding your next job. I suggest you try looking overseas because I can assure you that you won’t have much luck here.”
Her world had turned upside down in a heartbeat. One moment she was shooting for the stars. The next she was not only unemployed but unemployable.
Professional life as she knew it appeared to be over.
“What if we are wrong, about everything?”
Five years later she returned to the big city after an extended stint living and working overseas.
Accompanying her were her husband, three-year-old daughter, and three-month-old baby son.
The sexual harassment hush money had been stashed in an investment account, out of sight out of mind. A chapter of her life that was best forgotten.
Now it allowed her to purchase her young family a small home in a desirable suburb walking distance from the beach. Not a fair trade for the abrupt truncation of her “Big 4” partnership dreams, but a better outcome than many in her circumstance might have achieved.
She now worked for a multinational firm providing services tangentially related to her prior niche. She no longer did the work, but rather provided expert knowledge and guidance to those clients who did.
This type of role didn’t exist in her home market. However, her more enlightened than average new employer recognised that most professional services jobs can be successfully performed from anywhere. Providing she was willing to travel a bit more often, they were content to have her based remotely.
A couple of months later I happened to be in town, so we caught up over a coffee. As we spoke she breastfed her baby, uncaring as ever about the disapproving stares and tutting directed in her direction by the other café patrons.
We laughed about how naïvely certain our younger selves had been about what the future held.
Now we were both old enough to understand that the world neither knew nor cared about our individual hopes and dreams. It didn’t owe us anything, and we were entitled to even less.
The best we could do is remain flexible, adapt to survive, while establishing a financial cushion sufficient to smooth out the ride and cope with those inevitable yet unexpected “life happens” events.
She got the once familiar twinkle in her eye, and playfully challenged me on that last point.
“So you’re saying you are prepared for pretty much anything then?”
I was about to claim that I was indeed, when she whipped her boob out of the suckling infant’s mouth and shot me with a spray of breast milk from across the table!
The baby and I raised simultaneous surprised protests. The former she silenced with a nipple, the latter with a wicked chuckle and a familiar question: “what if we are wrong, about everything?”
It was that baby’s birthday this week. He will start high school next year. Time flies!
I was reminded of my former girlfriend’s rollercoaster ride as I was read back through my pandemic diary.
She had often been certain of things that subsequently proved to be untrue. At various times her current views were diametrically opposed to her earlier beliefs. Yet each had been held with equal conviction.
Pandemic “facts” we were certain of a month ago have been forgotten.
What we believed a fortnight ago is no longer perceived to be accurate.
Undoubtedly the understanding we hold today will be similarly discarded.
Yet whatever the lens we perceive the world through in a given moment, life continues regardless.
The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. Waves break on the beach, just as they always have.
As ever, everyone will hold an opinion about how things will play out. Mostly uninformed.
Some commentators don rose coloured glasses and attempt to cheerlead the masses through times of uncertainty. Others encourage the hoarding canned goods and shotgun shells, in preparation for the breakdown of society and the approach of the zombie apocalypse.
Both are wrong. Neither are helpful.
A host of special interests attempt to influence the narrative in ways that are advantageous to their own cause.
Agenda driven calls to implement universal basic income. Allowing savers to spend their age-restricted pension savings today, or employers to be excused from contributing to those pension pots. Forgiveness of third world debt. Rent-seeking for taxpayer-funded bailouts.
None of the calls are new. Simply tailored to incorporate the current prevailing narrative.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!
I think my cat has the right idea. She makes the best of the circumstances in which she finds herself. Worries little about a future she has little control over. Takes conscious pleasure in the moment.