A Summary of Life

My Facebook feed is sending me clips of Dame Edna, and in the middle of the night, I find myself laughing until I cry. I adored Barry Humphries. He had a gift for hearing the vernacular and turning it back on the audience with razor sharp wit.

But Barry Humphries was not just Dame Edna or Les Patterson or even Sandy Stone. He was a gifted writer, and his memoirs are superb. He spoke knowledgeably on many subjects and was an erudite man; well-dressed, well-travelled and well read.

He was also a keen painter who collected very particular artists. While still a schoolboy, he was known to Melbourne’s rare book dealers and was a lifelong bibliophile. He frequented antique shops with a school mate, in search of obscure collectibles. He loved classical music. Over his lifetime, he befriended unusually intelligent, eccentric, and creative people.

Given his fame and success as a comic, I was struck by something he wrote about his career in his 2002 memoir, My Life as Me.

’a career suggests the idea of evolution and progress, whereas my professional life had been as series of advances and retreats: stagnations and renewals, lulls and surges, doldrums, and typhoons. A career could be planned, but my life was the result of chance and improvisation. It was plotless.’

We are all guilty of misusing the term, Curriculum Vitae. It translates to a “summary of life.” Barry Humphries may not have finished his degree and he might have lacked an upwardly logical CV in a professional sense, but my goodness, what a summary of life. Writer, comedian, artist, reader, collector, traveller, father, husband, and genuine megastar.

I have been thinking about CVs and plotted lives lately as I read about the expected shake up at PwC. The firm is, we read, about to let go of hundreds of partners and employees in the wake of a major ethics scandal. I have been wondering about the collateral damage done to individuals who have, undoubtedly, put their heart and soul into careers within the firm. What sacrifices and compromises were made along the way in terms of leading full lives? They will have endured inductions and probation periods, various appraisal regimes and harsh utilisation targets, to survive a well-established process within consulting firms that filters talent on the way to the top of a pyramid.

Many, who joined as graduates, will clear out their desk and begin to go through a dark night of the soul. I imagine they worked hard at school to get the marks, to get into the degree, to get the attention of the graduate recruiter. And they may, if they had nothing to do with the tax leaks that threaten the firm’s reputation, be rightly feeling; this isn’t fair.

It’s unlikely that PwC will be destroyed globally (unlike Arthur Anderson post Enron), and the Australian PwC people will find other work. They are highly employable, but as Dame Edna would probably have said, there will be tears before bedtime.

Enmeshment is a term sometimes applied to people who lose the boundary between themselves as individuals and their career. This has its rewards, but it can also come at a heavy cost. Even if you retire when you choose to retire, you can go through a crisis that sounds like this: who am I if I am not this lawyer, doctor, rock star, teacher, tennis player, actor – or partner in a successful firm?

Careers in big companies need to come with some warning labels. The company is not your family. The business may go broke. The corporation can and might send you out the door, despite your best efforts. In Barry Humphries case, the critics could turn, the audiences could thin out, and your own compatriots could become unbearably humourless. Unfair things happen.

So, what is the remedy for people who find themselves ‘enmeshed’ in their working life and in a slump? Moving on to the next thing helps, but it’s better to have preventative measures in the first place.

Having a life, is such a measure. Having other interests is another one. Making and keeping friends is a good policy, as is having a social circle that is wide, varied and away from your workplace. Learning how to switch off and have fun, is vital. And if you really want to inoculate yourself from the disappointments of the workplace, have some big goals that have nothing to do with work.

We might all take note of Barry’s thoughts on careers because they can be a series of advances and retreats: stagnations and renewals, lulls and surges, doldrums, and typhoons.

Vale to a brilliant man, who for all the vicissitudes in his life, could safely list under ‘achievements’ on his Curriculum Vitae; made millions laugh.