The stick that stuck

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I’m ready to thank, after nearly 20 years, the man who made my life miserable at work when I first started out.

It had all started out so well. I was having such a jolly time of it I couldn’t believe that this was really work – that this was what work, real work, having a ‘proper’ job, was like.

I finally felt I was in an environment that suited me.

Everything moved really fast and there were lots of different things going on at once – not like school with its predictable timetables and the clocks where the second hands sometimes jumped backwards; not like university with its bursts of activity and long stretches of guilty avoidance (“I really should get on with that essay and not be lying on the sofa watching This Morning…”).

This was constant adrenalin. Constant demand. Constant change. Faces. Faxes. Photocopies. And, indeed, emails (slow ones – this was 1997).

And here I was, six months after graduating, welcomed home into this ad agency in the heart of London, writing for a living. Coming up with ideas. Going out and meeting people and talking about things.

I worked in a little closed office, sitting at a tiny computer table squeezed between the desks of my two colleagues (both of whom have become lifelong friends) and all three of us smoked like chimneys (and every night after work, everyone drank like fish).

(I find it hard to believe that was what it was like. It does sound so Mad Men, but I promise this was only the 90s, not the 60s).

I couldn’t believe my luck.

And then I started to do a lot of work for a certain Mr X.

Now, to protect the identity of Mr X, I’m going to try to be pretty scant with details here. He was middle management, middle aged (probably younger than I thought as I was 21 and at 21 everyone over 35 is deemed middle aged) and wasn’t what you’d call the sunniest of souls.

I’m sure he worked very hard and took it all very seriously, but you never got the sense he enjoyed any aspect of it. Actually, later, I realised he was a very nice guy with a nice sense of humour, certainly down the pub, and, of course, I had no concept of any pressure he might be under at the time.

Everyone else seemed to love me and love my work; Mr X had a problem with it – and clearly a problem with me.

Night after night he’d keep me back, amending copy over and over, picking it apart, questioning every construction, every word. I’d be forced to bring out grammar books to prove a point; would read and re-read every brief, every bit of documentation, so I’d be ready with my argument for him – “But it says it right here Mr X…”

One night I lost it.

“You know that makes perfect sense, you know there’s nothing wrong with that and that is how you spell that. I don’t understand why you’re wasting my time – and yours!”

And he coolly replied, “One day, you’ll thank me.”

To which I snapped, “I won’t.”

And I didn’t.

Even though he eased up eventually, warmed up eventually, I could never quite forgive him for the seemingly endless nights of pointless copy massage.

I never forgot the “One day you’ll thank me” line – an admission, to me, of the premeditation of it, the intent to waste my time (and keep me from all my other lovely chums down the pub).

I saw it as punishment. Needless punishment. Cruelty. Directed at me, for no good reason.

Okay, so I’d got into the agency on work experience initially because my father was an ex-client. I suppose you could call that nepotism.

But they’d kept me on, paid for me to be trained up and offered me a full time job – on merit (my father had retired, it wasn’t like his business would be back because of me, but, fair enough, I could see some people might see that as getting something handed to them on a plate).

I suppose I was quite loud and certainly alarmingly confident – but then, everyone seemed genuinely amazed at what I could do, and I was young and absorbed and enjoying myself.

I was certain then it was all because he didn’t like me, for whatever reason.

It never occurred to me he was trying to help me.

Maybe he did do it because he just didn’t like me, but I like to think now that wasn’t the case. He was helping me refine my craft. He was presenting me with every possible way someone might like to pull apart your copy and making sure I had my story straight.

He made me assured. He made me able to justify my work. He made me scrutinise every aspect of the information I was provided with. He made me thorough, prepared (and able to negotiate!).

I’m not saying I whole-heartedly endorse his approach, all stick and no carrot. Had I been solely working for him, had I been a little less confident or resilient, he might have crushed me (but I sense he knew I was made of sterner stuff).

He flashed into my mind the other day when I had some work experience students in, working on a project about young people’s expectations of work and the realities they find.

At the time, at 21, Mr X was my definition of a bad manager – mean spirited, pernickety, condescending and kind of controlling.

Nearly twenty years later, I really want to thank him. Maybe he wasn’t any of those things. I don’t think he was. But, whether he intended to do it or not, he made me resilient – and he made me better at my job.

I’ll be forever thankful to him for that.

This blog first appeared on smrs.co.uk 12th June 2015

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