Paul Catmur: Why careers are like cucumbers


I don’t spend much time watching the news these days. The headlines are quite enough to tell me that the world is suffering. Personally, I can do without coverage of the entitled complaining that efforts to keep us all alive make it difficult for them to get to their yachts in France.

Which brings me to the subject of gardens.

Paint the house, not the Mona Lisa

It’s hard to believe that we’re nearly two years into a pandemic that certain people told us would be over in weeks. The longer it goes on, the more I take comfort in Voltaire’s suggestion that we should look first to our own affairs. This message comes from his 1759 book Candide. (Don’t worry, I haven’t read it all, either.)

The eponymous hero is travelling in Turkey where he comes across a farmer with a small plot of land. Making conversation, Candide asks the farmer what he thinks about the murderous scandals which are taking place in the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul. The farmer shrugs and just says, “we must tend our gardens”. He knows that nothing he says or does will make any difference to the goings-on. Instead, he chooses to devote his efforts to tending his garden. His preoccupation is to look after himself, his family and those around him, by giving them something to keep them both fed and occupied.

The farmer knows his limitations and does his best with what he can. The suggestion is not that we should turn our back on the world and retire into a libertarian cave, just that we should concentrate our efforts on how best we can nurture what is around us and not worry our pretty little heads about that beyond our reach.

We must tend our careers

Similarly, in our careers, I think it makes sense to concentrate on what we can affect and not get too worked up about what’s going on in the boardroom in New York.

For the mediocre majority, a career is not like pole vaulting; it’s not made up of quantum leaps as our genius is swiftly recognised and we reap the reward of corner offices and seven houses. It’s more like batting in cricket: the slow accumulation of competence which is hopefully followed by a wave of the bat and a pat on the back sometime before tea on the second day. There’s no shortcut to success for the mediocre.

Don't get mad, get even

In my younger days in London, I would obsess about what other people were doing and resent their success. How lucky they were to have the advantages that never seemed to fall my way.

I would see ads on TV that other people were raving about and get angry. I could write ads just as good in my sleep, but they never seemed to get made. Other creatives were blessed with bigger budgets from more understanding clients so they could use the best directors and make amazing work that the public and the industry loved. If only a bigger agency would recognise my worth I could have all their advantages too.Of course, all that accrued from coveting my neighbour’s work was a downcast attitude and an irritating chip on the shoulder. I was getting bitter, not better.

Eventually, I stumbled into the realisation that if I put my efforts into my own work instead of worrying about what was going on inside the Sultan’s palace I could be much more productive. Blanking out the noise and concentrating on my own efforts meant that my work got better, and I got happier. (Well, happy for me).

Nurture nature

So tonight I won’t be watching the news. There’s nothing much I can do about the pandemic other than try and encourage everyone around me to keep safe. Listening to the crazies attempting to advance their own perverse agendas by spreading nonsense just gives me anxiety. Instead, I will grab a beer (zero alcohol) head outside and quietly ponder the wonder of nature as I water the garden. Cucumbers, like careers, rarely grow themselves.

• Paul worked in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best.

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