My lucky break was not finishing my education. It’s probably hard for an outsider to see the upside in having your home situation implode just when school starts to get serious, to go to work for a boss doing some menial job in your teens, no diploma, no future as far as anybody could see. But this helped me in so many ways that I really should be grateful for it.
For one, the guys that I worked with in the mailroom were a pretty rough bunch, but they also were very fair and wouldn’t play favorites just because I was a scrawny kid. On my first day there - which I was pretty sure would be my last - I held them all up. Those guys were ridiculously strong, they made it look so easy. It doesn’t help when the mailbags that you need to haul around and sort weigh more than you do. But rather than doing my work for me or helping me directly the men in the mailroom helped me in a completely different way. They simply stood by chitchatting waiting patiently for me to finish my part of the shift. One memorable moment was when I really was about to give up when the shift boss (a guy that was maybe 5’ tall but also just as wide) told me: “You don’t have to move that bag in one go” hinting that if I opened the bag to do it in pieces that would be fine by him as long as it got done. Those bags were so heavy that at times I was convinced they were pranking me by having one nailed to the floorboards.
Not a bad word, no insults. When I was finally done and the last bag was in the truck to be brought to the trainstation they all said their goodbyes and did it all over again the next day. Little by little I got faster, I really owed them that much. Running mail was the easy bit for me, hauling around bags and keeping up definitely was not. It took me 6 months to get to the point where I could say I managed to keep up with the rest, I was never threatened with being fired for being slow or anything, simply the pressure of knowing that everybody is waiting for you was enough to push me. I earned just enough for a bit of food left over after paying rent once I moved to a one-room appartment in Amsterdam. 700 guilders of income, 500 guilders of rent, 200 guilders to live off. It seemed quite luxurious in one way but in another it was very depressing, not being able to save enough for new gear and especially not enough for buying books. Fortunately public libraries were stocked well with books on all kinds of subjects, and my library card saw some pretty intensive use.
So not completing my education (aside from a typing diploma and grade school, later augmented with a driving license) was in a way a lucky break. It gave me a very strong motivation to claw my way out of the situation I was in, it gave me a bunch of ersatz parents that taught me the value of honest hard work and many other things besides. I got to know most of them outside of work as well, repairing their hi-fi gear and televisions, and I got to see how a bank worked from the inside. Being a mail runner has one huge advantage over any other job which is that you get to know everybody, from the board of directors all the way to the print shop. Little by little I started to figure out by traffic analysis how the various departments interacted with each other.
I really can’t help it. Give me any piece of machinery, a computer program or a corporation and I have to figure out how it works. Nothing vexes me more than to have something that I can’t understand or figure out. On my desk a very dog eared ‘Essentials of Genetics’ by Klug & Cummings (thanks Marcela!), a book on the construction of lattice grids (Makowski), a book on heat pumps and Stirling engines and yet another on fuzzy logic. By not finishing school I never had a hard line that told me that I was ‘done’ with my education, so instead of relaxing after getting my diploma I just kept on reading and learning as much as I could. It simply never stopped, there was no ‘now I’m educated’ feeling. Rather the opposite, with every bit of knowledge you acquire you only realize all the more how much is still missing and blank. And working for a bank gave me lots of opportunities for learning. They had a course (‘NIBE’) which taught you lots more than what you could infer from moving mail from one department to another, so I worked my way (unoficially) through the course books.
And instead of hating it (like most people doing those courses) I just loved it. Every job I do I see as a paid opportunity to educate myself just a little bit further. What more could you wish for, learn and gain bits and pieces of knowledge, insight into how the world works and get paid for it to boot.
This life probably isn’t for everybody. The levels of uncertainty (other than the website income there is not much in terms of steady earnings), the lack of a safety-net (a car accident or getting ill would be a real problem) and the continuous pressure to perform have definitely taken their toll over the years, both in terms of stress and in terms of personal relationships that I have messed up. And yet, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I can’t imagine any other life that would give you so many opportunities to learn about so many different subjects. Another piece of luck is that I never spent a whole lot of time learning things that didn’t interest me or that did not have practical use. That kept my appetite at a healthy hungry level rather than to turn it into a dislike of learning, like I saw in so many of my school mates and co-workers.
Learning is an addiction, and I’m hooked on knowledge and I really need that next hit. So if you have any interesting books or knowledge that you intend to keep to yourself better not invite me :)