We live in a time of the ‘network’ – whether it’s about the best schooling, right university or first step on the career ladder, it’s all about connections. Even as we progress through our working lives, we’re constantly encouraged to cultivate contacts, seek mentors and identify sponsors, who will be instrumental in our upward trajectory. The network is undoubtedly powerful and effective, but it’s also exclusive, so where are the opportunities for the less well heeled?
I was brought up in a working class home and my parents were immigrants with blue-collar jobs. Their priority was to ensure we had a roof over our heads, the bills were paid and there was sufficient to eat. Although they valued education, it wasn’t a priority and we lived a simple life, where the focus was family, religion and community. The people we lived alongside were much like us and aspirations didn’t stretch beyond a basic education and manual work.
I enjoyed school but was an average pupil. There was little likelihood of being identified as a potential high achiever and I wasn’t encouraged to aspire beyond the narrow expectations of my class and culture (which is not a criticism of my school or teachers). Like most of my school friends, I had no aspirations or ambition and gave my future little thought. And it may well have remained that way, if it hadn’t been for two unexpected experiences, which changed the course of my life.
The first happened when I was eleven, as I was walked home from school. Suddenly, I became aware of a presence within and saw two pictures in my mind’s eye. The first was of the life I was expected to live and the second was a path, with an unseen destination. I felt unenthusiastic about the first picture and excited by the second. I then heard an inner voice whisper, “Go your own way”. This experience lasted no more than a few moments, but I knew it wasn’t my imagination. I didn’t understand what it meant and although I didn’t share it with anyone at the time, I never forgot it.
It was also around this time, that I had the second experience. As a family, we were huge fans of the popular detective show Columbo, and one night we watched an episode where the storyline featured a lawyer. Something about that lawyer captured my imagination and shortly afterwards, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. Up until then, I hadn’t heard of lawyers and didn’t even understand their work. However, that television programme had a powerful impact on me and from that moment on, my mind was made up.
Having once been a shy child, I slowly began to transform as self-belief and confidence took hold. I even shared my ambition with my teachers and family, who responded with incredulity and mirth, due to my poor academic record. However, no amount of well-meaning counsel could deter me and when my teachers urged me to consider a job as a bank clerk, I remained resolute. My heart was set on becoming a barrister because I was drawn to the theatre of the courtroom and wanted to be an advocate.
I passed through the education system without distinction. At times my grades dipped below average, but even that failed to dent my enthusiasm. I knew I was academically poor, but I believed I could still be an excellent lawyer. I was full of bravado, convinced I had all the attributes and qualities needed to become a successful lawyer and I refused to be swayed. I didn’t understand at the time that the source of my inexplicable confidence and self-belief, lay in my relationship with God.
When the time came to find a university for my LL.B (law degree), my poor academic record (understandably) went against me. At one point it seemed I would have to pick another course, where entry requirements were lower, but by now a pattern had begun to emerge. Whenever a situation appeared hopeless, a crack would suddenly appear and I’d slip through it. And so it happened again. At the eleventh hour, as I was finalising preparations to study politics (with the intention of a post-graduate conversion) an unsolicited offer for an LL.B landed in my lap. I immediately accepted it and overlooked the fact that it was from an institution recognised as a refuge for low achievers. That didn’t matter to me because I was simply grateful my dream remained on track. I eventually graduated without distinction and even managed to pass my bar exams, (after initially floundering), before facing the greatest obstacle of all – securing a pupillage.
I knew only a limited number of pupillages were available each year and that my academic record and lack of connections would count against me. Although I was invited to interviews, no offers were forthcoming. Undeterred, I pursued an unconventional route by writing to an inspirational Head of Chambers I’d heard speak at a legal conference. He invited me to tea, where I explained my burning ambition and how my academic record didn’t reflect my ability and strongly held conviction that I would make an excellent lawyer. To my delight, he offered me a pupillage but advised it would be unfunded and that I would need to finance myself. That wasn’t a problem, so I approached my bank for a professional studies loan, only to discover I needed collateral. With a heavy heart, I realised my only option was to persuade my risk-averse parents to act as guarantors, using their home as security.
By now, my parents had accepted my aspirations, but remained unconvinced of my success. They urged me to be realistic and seek a good graduate position. They also believed that neither a borrower nor lender be and were appalled that I was willing to embrace debt in order to qualify in a profession which offered no guarantee of work. However, I persisted and eventually they relented, bravely signing the paperwork. And so a year later, I achieved my childhood dream and was called to the Bar, with my family proudly in attendance. Soon afterwards, I secured a job as a criminal lawyer.
As I embarked on my legal career, I reflected on the path which had taken me from my childhood to qualification and I recognised the hand of God. At that time, my faith was still in its infancy, but I knew that it was God’s guidance and intervention, which had led me to succeed. It seems remarkable now that I chose a profession when I was only a child and it has kept me fulfilled for almost thirty years. Clearly, God knew where my talents lay and where they would be put to best use. God had been fundamental to my success and that knowledge empowered me to pursue fresh challenges, knowing God would always help me.
If my story ended there, it would be a great story. God’s divine hand pointing me towards a life far removed from the expectations with which I was raised. But, the story goes on. After a few years as a criminal lawyer, I became weary and disillusioned with the daily grind of the criminal courts and longed to change direction and practice in a new field. However, to my dismay, I realised I’d been pigeonholed and the door to new opportunities remained firmly closed. Eventually I resigned myself to the situation and made the best of it, until suddenly a prodigious opening (unsolicited), presented itself.
I was unexpectedly offered an extraordinary opportunity in the art world, at double my salary, with the prospect of international travel. My criminal law background wasn’t viewed as a hindrance, but respected as a valuable asset as I moved into a new field. I was stunned by my good fortune and embraced the role with unbridled gratitude and joy. By now a seasoned believer, I knew this role was heaven-sent and marvelled at God’s favour, which left me deeply humbled. It was a profoundly exciting time, which demonstrated yet again the power of God’s presence in my life and that all things were possible.
After a few years I left the art world and moved into the financial services industry where I held senior positions in global companies. I knew that even if I’d remained as a criminal lawyer for my entire career, it would’ve been a huge achievement. But the fact that I was able to successfully break into new industries and reinvent myself is an attestation of God’s power. No amount of hard work or personal effort could have created the kind of opportunities, which came my way when I most needed them. Only God could provide that kind of firepower. Whenever a door opened, I marched confidently through it because I knew God was with me and would equip me with the tools I needed to succeed.
Throughout my career, I understood the power of the network and watched others benefit from it, but was never tempted to follow suit. When I began my journey, I had no connections and relied solely on God. I often came across influential people who recognised my ability and promoted me, but I felt no compulsion to maintain contact for career enhancement, only friendship. Nor did I seek mentors or sponsors to help oil the wheels of progression, because I knew I had no need. After all, I had God.
Nearly thirty years on, I remain hungry for fresh challenges and continue to rely on God to inspire and guide me. He is my sponsor and benefactor and after a lifetime of experience, I can confidently say, He is the only network for me.