An exhibition should be more than just a series of pleasant pictures that say the same or similar things. An exhibition should carry us into a story so that we may see something more clearly, or to challenge our settled thoughts. An exhibition should be a story that unfolds as we walk from room to room, and which encourages us to take with us the impressions, ideas and the truth of what we have found. An exhibition is both the moments we spend in front of each picture and the memories that the pictures ask us to hold when we leave.
I have often said that the proudest day of my professional life was 16 February 1987. It was on this day that I became a solicitor in the jurisdiction of England and Wales. A date I am reminded of almost every day because of a small, unprepossessing and now age-faded certificate that is framed quietly in the corner of my office. The certificate is headed “In the Supreme Court” and it goes on to state, rather grandly, that:
“Whereas, upon Examination and Enquiry touching the fitness and capacity of Paul Anthony Gilbert to act as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court, I am satisfied that he is a fit and proper person so to act.”
The certificate is signed by the Master of the Rolls who at the time was Sir John Donaldson. By his elegant, elderly, hand this Law Lord of the Supreme Court, admitted me to the legal profession and into a life that just a few years before was beyond my imagining.
This piece of paper does not define me, but it signifies something almost existential about my life. The date marks the moment in time when my life changed in a far more profound way than any mere qualification date might otherwise suggest.
In the span of a working life, our first job is typically a stepping-stone to something bigger and which points in a direction that suggests greater things. In a world where we might need to pass an exam to be allowed to do our job, the qualification date is the starting gun not the medal ceremony.
Therefore, back then in February 1987, aged twenty-four and eleven months, to most observers I would have been just one more young person standing in the foothills of his career. Ahead of me men and women of great reputations and fabulous achievements, would be able to point to a whole mountain range of opportunities with their snow-capped peaks of likely achievement to come. I was just starting out with everything in front of me. Back then, I knew so little and could be rightly and easily ignored. No-one knew me at all, I had done nothing. And yet, I knew so, so clearly that this date of admission was no foothill; I knew it was already the biggest mountain I would ever have to climb. Whatever else I might do, whatever paths I might take, I would never climb anything this high ever again.
This was not a stepping-stone or a starting gun for me, this was when I stood up, put my future in my pocket, and walked into the world. I was now released from the expectations of my past and given the miracle of countless future possibilities to explore.
Looking back on the span of thirty-six years since that day in 1987, I do not judge myself as to whether I made good or bad choices. I do not wonder “what if?”, or regret what might have been; but I do feel blessed that I could choose. For many people I work with, making the right decision, especially about their careers, is all important and all consuming. It preoccupies their thinking before, during and after the decision is made. I firmly believe however, that all our decisions, especially about the roles we take, matter far less than the opportunity every new role gives us to explore, learn and grow.
It does not matter where we are, it only matters that it helps us to tell our story.
As I guide you through this exhibition, and show you the pictures I have placed here for you, it is also the case that each new role you take will offer you time to stand within it as a picture in your career. Then, when you leave, you will take the memories of each role with you, holding them with care.
At the start of my working life, and now in my sixties, I know that nothing has ever mattered to me more than to honour the freedom that I was given on 16 February 1987 to make decisions about the roles I wanted to explore.
I have shown you my admission certificate and told you how it matters so much to me, but it was nearly thirty years later that my dearest friend, Lawrence, captured a thought so beautifully about the freedom to make decisions that it is also now a picture I would like to share with you in this exhibition.
We were sitting in a hotel bar on the banks of the River Cam. The late summer sun was setting, and we had just completed an especially tiring and stressful assignment with a difficult client. Weeks of work and two days of presentations were now over. We both knew it had been a miserable time and no amount of money we might invoice would ever truly compensate for the feeling of having been used for an agenda that was not shared with us at the time. We decided in that moment never to put ourselves in this position again and we changed the direction of our business that evening with the clink of our beer glasses and a handful of dry-roasted peanuts.
I love Lawrence so much; from tatty Tesco carrier bag to now, he has been my guiding North Star. He cares so much to do the right thing, and will never let anyone down, yet he also holds tension and pressure so lightly and lets bad things gently drift away. Here we were, fed-up and a bit bruised, but Lawrence lent back in his chair, smiled and gestured that we should have another drink; as he got up to walk to the bar, he gently tapped my shoulder and said,
“Hey, you know what, no matter what, we’re all just passing through Paul, we’re all just passing through”.
A working life is a kind of miracle. Over time we have the good fortune to collect memories and experiences that help us to make sense of our past, which help us to grow in the moment, and which shift countless possible futures into our line of sight for us to contemplate and consider. Not everything will be joyful, sometimes our plans and hopes will be confounded, and sometimes we will be hurt, but like beachcombers on the shoreline of the roles and opportunities we are blessed to pass by, there is always something to collect along the way and our talent is always, now and forever, our permission to roam.
To be continued…
Take care. Paul xx