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You've Got to Pay to Play

24 min read

This is a story about artistic integrity...

Chess board

He who pays the piper calls the tune. Does the piper ever get to play, for their own amusement and freedom of expression?

If you look at my life strategy, it's pretty insane. I've picked a career that uses skills that I mastered as a child, and I now find the job mind-numbingly boring, easy and soul-destroying. I've picked an industry which is essentially just keeping a running total of who owes who what: simple addition and subtraction. I've chosen maximum income, for minimum effort. My life is constrained - certain rules have to be adhered to - but I have set things up so that I can jump through the pointless hoops as effortlessly as possible.

My theory is, that if I were to mix work and pleasure, then it would break my heart whenever I had to compromise. Let's imagine my passion in life is painting. I'd like to paint 1970's sci-fi inspired futuristic cityscapes, clinging to the rocky surface of distant planets. Those paintings are very intricate; detailed. The attraction of that art, for me, is the sense of scale that's given when you paint thousands of tiny windows on the buildings, and lots of tiny people in space suits, wandering around in their futuristic world. However, there's probably only a niché market for such paintings, and they'd take hundreds of hours to paint. Commercially, I'd be far better off splattering a canvas with bright primary colours and calling it abstract modern art - it would take far less effort and would have a much broader appeal. In order to pay my rent, I'd be economically incentivised to produce crap that I hated, because it would be much more profitable.

My strategy is to earn a lot and not work very hard, so I have lots of money and spare time to pursue whatever passions I have, without compromise.

Of course, there is always compromise.

Luckily, there is a Nick Grant who is a rapper, a Nick Grant who is a photographer, a Nick Grant who is an expert in sewerage processing, a Nick Grant who is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia, a Nick Grant who's a toastmaster, a Nick Grant who's an expert in credit risk management, a Nick Grant who's a researcher in the Elementary Particle Physics department at the University of Warwick, a Nick Grant who's the CEO of Severn Trent, a Nick Grant who's a Labour Party candidate, barrister and head of legal services for Sainsbury's, a Nick Grant who's the concertmaster of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, a Nick Grant who's the strategy director for Cancer Research UK, and there's even a series of fictional Nick Grant Adventure books by Jamie Dodson.

This means that I can pretty much write whatever I want on the public Internet, under my real name, without the fear that most salary earning wage slaves would have, that our employers will discover our deepest darkest secrets, prejudicing our career progression and perhaps even jeopardising our employment.

However, ex-colleagues from places like JPMorgan and HSBC occasionally visit this site, and pick up juicy tidbits about the implosion of my life and see the thrashing of my legs, beneath the surface of the water, when I'm swanning about trying to look as serene as possible in my professional capacity. I have old bosses as friends on Facebook and following me on Twitter.

I took an insane gamble. Instead of locking down my social media to only friends who can be trusted to not gossip with anybody connected with my former employers; instead of editing and censoring myself; instead of setting up a pseudonym - a pen name - I write under my real name, with real details that leave me no plausible deniability, to say "it isn't me" and "it must be another Nick Grant".

I guess there aren't that many people who leave the privileged and highly paid world of financial services and IT, in pursuit of the risky dream of doing something more rewarding in an intangible way. Earning bucketloads of cash is all the reward you'd want, right? Why would you want to earn less money being an electrician? Why would you want to have all that stress and risk your life savings, trying to start your own company? Why would somebody who's been a steady dependable 9 to 5 worker, with decades of dedicated service under their belt, suddenly lose their mind and end up in psychiatric hospitals, drug rehab and homeless?

So many of us dream of making a big change in our lives, but when we face up to the reality of the risks, sacrifices and effort involved, we decide that maybe the timing's just not quite right... maybe we'll do it next year, or the year after. We end up boring our friends and family with our grand plans that will never be implemented: forever on the drawing board.

When somebody is mad enough to unshackle themselves from the golden handcuffs and give something a proper go, it's big news. There are hundreds, if not thousands of bored office-working drones, who are fascinated to know the details of the trials and tribulations of anybody who had the guts to follow through on a plan to retrain in a completely different field, or start a business. When you quit your soul-destroying job, you're the underdog; David taking on Goliath - your former colleagues want to live your exciting life, vicariously. Former colleagues are rooting for you to succeed. Former colleagues want to know if you fail spectacularly, to re-affirm that they made the right decision, staying in their nice safe boring jobs.

Bootstrapping means taking on projects where you're not beholden to somebody for the funding. The whole point of me doing a job I hate, is that it's provided the dosh to do whatever I want without having to kiss ass, kowtow and do things in a way that they approve of. The whole point of founding my businesses with my own money, was so that I could run things exactly how I wanted, without investors and lenders breathing down my neck and making stupid suggestions about my business plan.

When it comes to a personal memoir type project, where I'm pouring my guts out, I'm somewhat burning the bridge back to the straight-laced world of boring jobs for boring people with boring lives. I have a CV that says I've worked for various companies and I have various qualifications. People who get salaried jobs by sending off their CV and going for interviews, are not allowed to have exciting lives where they do things that don't neatly fit into boxes. The world that provides my income has a strict rule: fit in or fuck off.

So, I made a decision. I decided FUCK IT. I decided that I would just write whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I would be myself, I wouldn't censor, I wouldn't edit and waste time considering what the drones of the corporate world of wage slavery would think about my unorthodox life.

And so, with practice, my passion and - dare I say - my skill, is to document my innermost thoughts and feelings, publicly. It might not be art and it might not be commercial, but it sure as hell isn't compromised. I have moments of fear, where I think that I need to hide my blog, put a sticking plaster over the semicolon tattoo behind my ear, find out just precisely what my former colleagues are prepared to say about me: put them on the spot and say "look, do you judge me on the good work that you saw, or on the secret life that I chose to reveal to you?"

It drove me paranoid and crazy, trying to maintain a squeaky clean perfect professional image, whilst also dealing with all sorts of awful things in my private life. It exhausted me to the point where I lost my mind, covering up the fact that life outside the office was chaotic and unstable, and I didn't want anybody to know that I was just about surviving in grotty student flats, hostels, hotels and friends' sofas. I didn't want anybody to know that my engine had run out of petrol and was running on fumes. I didn't want anybody to know that I had no margin for error, no safety buffer: my finances were on the brink of total disaster.

Why should anybody know these things? If I get stuff fixed up and pick up where I left off, then who would be any the wiser? What people don't know can't hurt them, can it?

However, it hurt me. It hurt me every time a friend thought it was hilarious to tell my ex JPMorgan colleagues things that considerably damaged my reputation. It hurt me every time the grape vine managed to spread gossip about my attempts to find job satisfaction. "I heard you're an electrician now!" a colleague from HSBC who I hadn't spoken to for 6 years, said to me when we connected on LinkedIn. How the fuck do people find this stuff out?

"Oh you were in The Priory... like some kind of rock star. So cool!"

Not cool. That kind of stuff colours people's opinion of you. They make assumptions and whisper behind your back. "Shall we invite Nick to the pub at lunchtime?" somebody says. "No, better not... he's a recovering alcoholic, isn't he?" [I'm not, by the way]

What I write is repetitive. I have no idea what chapter of my life you're going to walk in on. I have no idea what I'm going to be writing about when you dip into my private world. So, I cover the same theme over and over again: I am me.

I'm no longer the straight-laced perfect employee with the immaculate CV. What are those gaps in my employment history? Well, in the context of me being your wage slave, that's none of your fucking business. You don't pay me enough to bribe me to act a certain way and to gag me. You don't pay me enough for me to compromise my integrity, my identity.

I've suffered enough boredom and I've been patient for long enough to have earned the right to be myself; the right to be creative; the right to express myself without hesitation; the right to not have to wear a mask; the right to not live in fear of negative judgement.

What happens if and when the worlds collide? Well, I've set the challenge: it's up to other people to decide whether to judge me on what they see in the office versus what they discover through my candour, in a totally unrelated context.

I'd love to make it into print. I have a penchant for debate, and strong views about government and society. At some point, my ambitions to be an author and to get involved in politics are going to be realised. Every word I write on the public Internet makes me more discoverable to somebody, somewhere, on some topic or other. If I simply wanted a book deal or to raise my profile, I could compromise and conform; I could channel my energy into being commercial and popular.

What does it mean to be authentic? You think it's some fucking option that we all have? You think it's a fucking lifestyle choice?

To be authentic is a risk and it's a privilege. You could lose friends and fall out with your family. You could lose your job. How are you going to find your true voice? The voice that speaks with childlike honesty; fearlessness; tapping into your live stream of thoughts, rather than the lines you've memorised; the act you've learned to play. It takes practice, to be able to express what you feel, rather than say what you think people want to hear. Many of us are disciplined to engage our brains before our mouths: to hesitate, withhold and communicate in a manner that conforms to social norms. We are coached and bullied into hiding our unique outlook and personality.

If I make myself unemployable, I'll be forced to try and monetise the things that I have a natural aptitude for. At the moment, writing is effortless, but I could push myself to write with more purpose, spend time editing and reconnect with some literary agents I started conversations with last year.

If I find myself barred from the land of boring jobs and immaculate CVs, then my energy - my creative output - will have to be expressed in ways that come naturally to me, not just easily. In a way, I'll be unbounded; unleashed; unchained. Of course, it invites hypomania to come and destabilise everything, but at least my crazy projects usually result in cold hard cash in my pocket and something else to add to my portfolio.

I'm scared. I can't play the game any more. I have a contract - ink dried on paper - and I can do the job with my eyes closed. I've been in hospital enough times with kidney problems to know when I'm in trouble, and to know when I can look after myself. I can't humour everybody with this "my health comes first" bullshit anymore. I'm the guy who's pissed copious amounts of blood on more than one occasion, and done the calculations: how long have I got before total organ failure will kill me? I'm the guy who knows when I'm in deep shit, and when I can take a calculated risk.

What scares me more than anything is going through all the same old shit I've been doing since I was a teenager. What scares me more than anything is playing the same fucking games, wearing the stupid fucking mask, and acting and speaking the lines I've learnt and spoken a zillion times before.

I've got a fairly simple plan: conform and comply just enough to get what I want out of some rich fucking banks who I don't give two shits about. The last thing I want to be doing in the world is help some dinosaur of a bank run a simple software project at snail's pace, but they're going to pay me a king's ransom to do it, and it gives me a tiny taste of freedom... I put up, shut up, suffer the boredom, and the reward for my patience is that I keep a bit of integrity; a bit of dignity; a bit of identity.

Maybe I should do this job or that job, people suggest. Wouldn't I be great as a carpet salesman, or a tyre fitter? Isn't my natural calling in life to be a supply chain analyst or a fork lift truck driver?

Maybe it's the mission of the company that I need to get right. Selling people financial products they don't need or want, and profiting on the margin between the borrowing rate and the lending rate, using fractional reserve banking, is hardly going to give you a warm fuzzy feeling, is it? Perhaps I should work for a charity that's managed to help a handful of individuals and a large number of donors to feel better about how disgustingly wealthy they are and ignore the fact that the gap between the rich and poor is growing. Perhaps I should simply find my place in the whole fucked up mess, where I can delude myself into thinking I'm making a positive difference.

But, I've seen too much. I know too much. I know that things are rotten to the core and it sickens me to emotionally involve myself, when everybody wants you to just STFU, keep your head down, do what you're told, not rock the boat and don't for god's sake solve any problems at the root cause.

Writing's the only time I can let rip and not get bogged down by the wilful ignorance and DGAF attitude of those around me. I'm not saying I'm superior and I've got all the answers, but I'm saying that when I get a hunch and I set out to prove my point, I've got plenty of examples of things I've done that have worked, when I'm free from constraints and naysayers.

I love this quote:

"People who say it can't be done should not interrupt those who are doing it"

Somebody's gotta be positive. Somebody's gotta do the math, calculate the risks and take a chance. Somebody has to be brave and stick to their guns. Somebody has to persevere through the setbacks. Somebody has to keep going when the way ahead looks blocked, to figure out how to overcome the obstacles.

I also love this quote:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat" -- Theodore Roosevelt

I feel gagged. I feel cheated out of the opportunity to demonstrate the best of my abilities; to tap into my creativity and problem solving skills. I feel jealous of those people with inherited wealth, trust funds and other advantages that allow them to dispense with the wearisome world of bullshit jobs, and instead they can flounce around reading interesting things, writing, debating & discussing, composing, painting, drawing, sculpting and generally expressing themselves.

To have those prizes just out of reach, because of the demands of societal conformity, is agonising to the point where it makes me want to give up. I've worked hard enough for long enough that I should be in a different position. I'm left miming the same actions that I've done a thousand times before, in order to keep the money flowing, the rent paid and the food on the table, which is like some kind of psychological torture.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but I knew I would get a contract fairly quickly, and I know that I will be able to run the project really well, very easily. I've seen it all before; done it all before. I can see all the way to the end: no surprises. Because it's all just a means to an end, it makes it that much harder. I've got nothing to prove, and the fact that I'm employed to solve the same old problems in the same old way, time & time again, simply proves that they might as well just give me the money and not bother with the project, if they're not going to listen to the experts who know how to build better systems than these follies; these white elephants.

I've got this easy money contract all lined up. I know what the hell is going on with my kidneys. I've been in hospital enough times with rhabdomyolysis to know when the numbers say I'm fucked, and when the numbers say I've dodged another bullet and I'm fine & dandy. I know when I'm in big trouble and in desperate need of assistance, and I know when my tough little body is patched up and working again.

It's been agonising, to string this client; this consultancy; this agent along, while I've been in limbo: who could have predicted that it'd take nearly 15 hours of dialysis before my kidneys rebooted? Was I ever worried about my life, my health? You're asking the wrong question. You'd have thought that if you pissed absolute jet black liquid and you couldn't feel your foot or your calf, you'd be straight over to A&E, but it doesn't work like that if you're already at the limit of what you can take.

I phoned my client and said I wasn't going to make the 30 minute induction and I was too sick to start work that week. Chances are, that was the end of that: they'd just cancel the contract.

Things in my life are either there to be endured, they're an adventure, something good that's happening, or I've had enough and I'm going to self destruct.

Being in hospital again has been part adventure - I've never had dialysis before - partly something good, in terms of her seeing first hand the shit that I've been through a bunch of times. But there's the actual boring work that has to be endured if I still have a contract by the time I get discharged. There's the self destruct threat, because I've solved all these problems before. Everything's been overcome, so far as I can see. My client will wait until Monday for me to start work, my blood tests are stable and my kidneys are definitely working.

I had no control over whether the client would wait for me to get well. I had no control over when my kidneys would reboot. To discharge myself would have been suicide, so it didn't matter whether I lost the contract or not.

Nobody can see that the recent acute kidney failure is not the root cause of the problem here. Why did I let the problem get so bad? Why am I not afraid of a catastrophic chain of life-changing or life-ending events? My kidneys are working AND the client says I can start work on Monday, but why would I trust my knowledge, experience and the blood test data, and discharge myself, when I could just get another job in a few weeks or months? Why don't I avoid all risk, act like a sensible normal person, and just do everything I'm told?

There's a delicate chain here: I was lucky that my client has waited this long for me to get well, I was lucky that my kidneys recovered quickly, I'm lucky that I have a job that's easy money, I'm lucky that I don't have to suffer more agents and interviews, I'm lucky that I've got a financial lifeline that fixes my cashflow, I'm lucky that this contract keeps me within touching distance of the day when things are stable again, and I have the opportunity to think about doing something rewarding, challenging, creative and everything else I need as the antidote to 20 years of office boredom.

The ticking time bomb exploded, but it was unseen. I couldn't hang on any longer. I couldn't take any more delays and setbacks. My patience for being depressed, stressed and running out of runway, without success at securing a job (that I didn't really want anyway) had expired. I'd been strung along too long. Christmas and New Year slowed everything down and stopped progress, so the agony was drawn out longer than I could take.

Somebody's going to end up not getting what they want.

The doctors want to discharge me with blood tests that show my kidneys are clearing the remaining backlog of toxic crap out of my blood on their own. They want me to have an operation to have a dialysis line put in my jugular vein. They want to do more observation, without dialysis, to know how my kidneys are doing without any assistance.

Her and our friends want me to follow the doctor's advice, and treat my health as if my life hangs by a thread. They care about me. They don't care about my client. They know that there will be other jobs.

I want good quality sleep in my own bed for a couple of nights. I want to try on my ankle splint and get used to getting around on crutches. I want to make a plan for how I'm going to get to work during the tube strike. I want to figure out my medications so I'm not fuzzy-headed and sleepy during the day. I need to not have to start all over again. I need to balance the small risk that my kidneys might take a long time to clear the backlog of creatinine, against the big risk that I can't be out of work any longer, and I can't face starting the job hunt all over again, without depression and stress destroying me.

Yeah, I'm going to feel shit. I was always going to feel shit. I'm going to wish I was more well rested. I'm going to wish things worked out differently. I'm going to wish I could just press the fast forward button and be 6 months further through the year, and everything's gone exactly how I know it's going to go, but I don't have to suffer the boredom, the monotony and the ridiculous deja-vu of solving the same problems in the same way, over and over again.

What's the alternative? I can't cut & run. I can't switch career. I can't chase some stupid pipe dream.

Some people think I'm a know-it-all. Some people think I'm reckless and stupid. Some people think the answer to all my problems is to do the things I've tried before: regular salaried jobs, doctor's advice, safe & sensible behaviour, conformity to the norm.

All I can tell you is, I can make dumb decisions and get myself into deadly situations, but I'm also a bit of an expert in recovering from some very harrowing shit.

It's a bit unfair to ask people who care about me - both loved ones and professionals - to allow me to take what they see as an unnecessary risk, but the flip side is a complex web of psychological risks and consequences that are almost too hard to explain.

If I seem impatient, foolish, arrogant, entitled or somehow like I deserve different treatment and life opportunities to everybody else, all I can say is this: at some point you can't keep trying anymore, you give up and you slip away. At some point, it doesn't seem worth the struggle and the stress, just to line somebody else's pockets and allow them the freedom to pursue their artistic creative ambitions and generally waft around having a lovely time.

If I get what I want, start my job tired and in pain, work for at least 6 months, bored out of my mind and upset that I wasn't well rested and properly prepared; but at least the cashflow hole is plugged, my stress starts to go down, I start to relax about the purse strings, I can show my love and appreciation for the people who I care about and who care about me, I can start to improve my work:life balance and I can start to dream about longer-term ambitions, without torturing myself because things are so far out of reach.

If you think I expect this to happen overnight, you're wrong. I'm forecasting 6 months to stabilise, 6 more months to build up a healthy safety cushion, and another year before I can even dare to dream and start to think about a less soul-destroying life.

As I wrote before, I've got some amazing pieces of the puzzle in place - more love and support than I've ever had in my adult life - but I still can't afford to have other important things slip away for the sake of an acceptably small risk and some short-term pain, discomfort, exhaustion and a bit of extra stress. There is no perfect solution.

There is one thing that nobody can take away from me right at the moment: I'm a penniless writer.