‘If I had known what strange paths life can take you down, I would have been far less depressed at my prospects’

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Does it really matter if you don’t know what to do with your life? Perhaps not, writes legal academic and blogger Paul Bernal

Though I am now a legal academic — lecturing at the UEA Law School — if you had told me in my undergraduate days that this was where I would find myself as I approach 50 years of age I would have laughed in your face.

At that time I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was faced with the prospect of entering the employment market with such little idea what I wanted that I chose to train as a chartered accountant. If I had known then what strange and convoluted paths life can take you down, and how many times and ways your directions can change, I would have been far less depressed at my prospects.

I was a maths undergraduate who had fallen out of love with the subject and had no idea what to do. I saw fellow students who seemed very clear about what they wanted — law students who were going to be the next Rumpole, English students who saw a clear path into journalism, medical students who were going to cure cancer and so on. I didn’t have a clue — and it depressed me so much I took the first job that seemed possible.

In those days (the early 80s) that meant accountancy, particularly for someone even vaguely numerate. And yes, accountancy was pretty much every bit as boring as I expected. Mind-numbingly so. I was pretty good at it, so I progressed, but as I did I found myself getting more bored, and more worried about where I was headed — because I still had no idea what else was even possible. I just got angry. And that anger started to manifest itself at work…

But perhaps that anger was actually the key. Because after I encountered a piece of quite startling sexism from my employer (one of the biggest firms of accountants), which reached a peak when the partner involved said to me “why do you care, you’re a man?”, I decided that enough was enough.

That began a pattern that I followed with seeming regularity. I left that job, and did a series of different things, each one lasting three or four years. I worked next for Reuters (who were great), then went to live on Dartmoor trying to bring the benefits of the fledgling internet to the hippies, farmers and hoteliers of south Devon, then headed to New Zealand to work at a kind of new age health resort, before returning to the UK to become the finance director of a mental health and criminal justice charity.

That then led to the law — I went on a one-day course about the impact of the Human Rights Act on mental health services, and found myself hooked. A masters in human rights at the LSE followed that, and from that a PhD on internet privacy and law. That, in turn, led to my being recruited by the UEA. From accountancy to law in six not very simple steps.

Each move seemed a little mad at the time — and some of them really were a bit mad — but what I’ve realised since is that though I didn’t know it, and didn’t even recognise the signs, I was actually finding some kind of way in my life. In my work since I have found that every single part, even the most boring bits of accountancy that drove me close to a breakdown, has been useful. They all fit together like some kind of crazy-paving.

What I know of accountancy helped me to understand the way that internet businesses like Google work. Reuters taught me about electronic communications, my time at the mental health charity taught me a great deal about vulnerability and the role of the law in protecting people. Even my new age stuff taught me a lot — sometimes you need to find your inner peace, even at a university.

Now, I would say I’m closer to doing what I really want to do than I have been at any stage in my life — and I’ve found it without a plan. At first I thought I needed one. Now I’m quite clear that even if I had had a plan, it would have been important to be able to break with it, to follow my nose — and not to be afraid to change plans. Sometimes you don’t know what the right thing is for you until you start to do it. The thing I’ve learned, more than anything else, is that that’s OK. In fact, it’s great.

Paul Bernal is a lecturer in IT, IP and media law at the University of East Anglia (UEA). He blogs at Paul Bernal’s Blog.