The voice on the phone wants me to draw a picture of Where I’m At. I’m baffled. Where I’m at, at that moment, is in the kitchen trying to extract a tissue that’s just been through a hot cycle with the children’s school uniforms. “No, where you’re at in life,” explains the voice. “In your life Right Now.”
That’s the point when I begin, briefly, to panic. I’d volunteered to submit myself to one of the UK’s leading career advisers, Corinne Mills of Personal Career Management, partly because the idea of talking lengthily about oneself to a captive stranger is always agreeable, and partly because jobs in newsprint are looking increasingly precarious. Flexible work that permits you to appear twice a day at the school gate is elusive, and recently I’ve found myself assuming my professional future will be bound up with a Tesco checkout.
Mills tells me, helpfully, that where she is, Right Now, is juggling her career with housekeeping and her picture shows herself waving a duster like somebody drowning. I realise, surprised, that I’m perfectly contented with my life as it is now; it’s the fear of unbidden change that alarms me. I ponder a composition involving me dangling smugly in a well-cushioned hammock, a precipice yawning below. Then I start to fret about vanishing points and chiaroscuro. Mills, evidently clocking deep-seated neuroses before we’ve even met, suggests I concentrate on identifying my skills from an alphabetical checklist.
I’ve never had much time for counselling. Skilfully done, it can be an essential prop and motivator, I don’t doubt it, but giving myself a good talking to in front of my husband’s shaving mirror should, I feel, be enough to align slewed perspectives in my own privileged life. Nevertheless, I’m slightly excited as I arrive at the Buckinghamshire mansion that PCM shares with a commercial insurance broker. I have hopes that Mills will delve into my moribund CV and extract unperceived treasures that will open vistas and ease me through calamity.
“Love Monday Mornings” it says on the doorplate and on the walls inside. The receptionist leaps from her chair with a firm handshake and well-trained eye contact. There is a forest of buffed and polished foliage in the waiting area. This place is all about affirmation.
In a bright meeting room Mills begins with a glance at the homework she’s set me. This is not a good beginning. The A-Z of skills, from conceptualising to quantifying, adapting to winning, has unnerved me. I discover I do not know myself. It’s far easier to define the skills of one’s colleagues than one’s own and I’ve agonised over whether, if push came to shove, I could “assemble” or “certify” or “finalise”. Almost randomly I’ve ticked “articulating”, “sorting” and, with memories of that shredded tissue, “coping”. And, of course, “writing”, the only concrete skill I feel I possess to earn my keep.
I feel the need to apologise for the fact that I’ve ticked any skills at all. It seems presumptuous, un-British. “Don’t be self-effacing – this is all about playing to your strengths because recruitment isn’t about who is the most talented, but who appears to an interviewer to be most talented,” says Mills. “People tend to focus on the negatives and take the positives for granted.”
This is surprising because a large part of her clientele are lawyers and financiers who are weary of wealth without the leisure to spend it in. But even they, it seems, are vulnerable to self-doubt when it comes to leaving the familiar and marketing their assets elsewhere. “People don’t come to us because they want any job, but because they want the right job,” says Mills. “What we offer is a confidence-building process.”
The gift of self-confidence is a pricey one. A full face-to-face course, which identifies desires and options, details job search strategies and hand-holds through the process of applying and interviewing, costs up to £4,500, although Skype sessions and a programme for new graduates are cheaper alternatives. The investment seems sound, since PCM’s statistics show that 83% of clients find jobs that appeal to them and 11% set up their own businesses. “A lot of career advice companies look at your CV,” says Mills, “but don’t analyse who you are as a person, your needs and aspirations.”
Who I am as a person remains nebulous, for my career has never required a written CV and I have left the sheets on Identifying Your Achievements largely blank. A memory surfaces about saving a couple’s wedding day through my consumer help column, but mostly my 20 years in journalism have melded into a pleasant blur. It’s now that Mills’ skills are unleashed. She asks me to recount my job history and pounces when I start with leaving university. “Which university?” “Cambridge”. “So why didn’t you say so?”
I sketch my early years on the now defunct European newspaper, explaining that I edited a wine column when I never drink wine and took charge of the Arts section when I knew nothing about Arts. I’m about to add how this miraculous deception ended in redundancy, when Mills pounces again. “Evidently,” she says, “you are used to having varied niche things flung at you. You’re adaptable.” We write down “adaptable”. Even the redundancy is turned into an asset. Mills considers my adrenalin-powered overtures to rival newspapers proof of Rising to the Occasion and we write it down.
Over the next two hours Mills tells me nothing that I didn’t know – I just didn’t know I knew it. It’s the act of describing one’s career history to an attentive listener, with the skills to decode it, that is so unexpectedly illuminating. I’m happiest listing my defects; she seizes them, inverts them and turns them into saleable virtues. I tell her that my career is largely down to luck. “There’s no such thing as luck,” she retorts. “It’s what you make of opportunities.” It’s delightful to think that all those random openings I’ve attributed to good fortune could be down to my own skills in disguise.
With more time she would have helped build these skills into a seductive CV and schooled me in self-marketing. As it is, she instructs me to establish a website to showcase my newly identified wares and to nibble cocktail sausages with influential people. I explain that the latter is impossible. I’m no good at networking. How then, she asks, have I managed a seamless succession of media jobs? I confess that my secret lies in tea bags. I’ve always kept colleagues well irrigated and they remember my efficient waitressing when I’m needy.
Mills snorts. “Willingness, caring, empathy, good personal relations …” We write them all down and ring them with marker pens so that my career history dances inspiringly before me in a pattern of rainbow coloured circles.
Heading home I feel freshly invented and equipped to embrace the adventures of middle age. The session might, or might not, secure me a fulfilling professional future, but it’s made me evaluate the past in an encouragingly different light. I’m even tempted to pay a few grand to hear more. But, right now, I’m off to a mirror to see if my newly translated self is visible to the naked eye.