The Consult Centre has invited business professionals to write a guest blog. This week, Jane Thomas talks about 'The Accidental Expert'. Jane is a writer, photographer and creator of unique bicycle tours (see her website Books & Bicycles)
The Accidental Expert
Hong Kong seemed far enough away and the job came with excellent hours apparently designed for slotting in the nights out that a 20-something needs: from 4pm for four hours, five days a week? My flight was booked moments after signing on the dotted line.
Anyone who graduates with a Masters in 18th century women's poetry has a somewhat limited range of options, and tutoring the rich kids of an arbitrary Asian city seemed like an acceptable way to fritter away a year.
It turns out that the friends I made while dragon-boating – take 20 people, cram them into a ludicrously heavy boat and arm them with an oar that has the equivalent merits of a toothpick – were going to change the course of my life, not the job that saw me passing drawn out, stifling hours in the company of Austen and Dickens.
I became an expert in writing for the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) industry by sharing sunscreen and sweat with someone who happened to work for Asia's largest educational publisher: they needed writers, she said, and I joked that I could probably conjure up something acceptable.
They gave me a trial, and that was it. I was in.
The thing is, the whole time I have been involved in this industry I have battled against it. I don't want to be an expert in writing teacher resources. It's something I can do efficiently and effectively, but it isn't necessarily what I want to be doing with my life.
And I think this happens to many people: we start down a path, full of good intentions and eager enthusiasm, and find ourselves 10 years later pigeon-holed into the accidental role of 'expert'. It is incredibly difficult to escape, because somehow all contacts have become related to that industry, all our understanding of work is through that one lens.
It's easy to convince ourselves that we are nothing more than our job title, but it is only in the last few months I have come to realise that rebranding doesn't necessarily mean abandoning everything of my past. I have been a writer for years, occasionally straying beyond the confines of EFL but never quite confident enough to risk everything for an uncertain alternative.
Writing a story for my niece during the first lockdown has somehow, impossibly, culminated in me publishing a fully illustrated children's book (I always thought my first book would be something very Serious and Important, Terribly Noble and, consequently, Totally Impenetrable) and it turns out I can leverage my EFL past to my advantage.
Creating fantastic teaching materials to go alongside my book are something that will, fingers crossed, set me apart a little from the competition: I can ease from one world into another by making use of skills I never intended but have accidentally acquired over the years.
I guess that's the trick, really. Switch to a job that makes us want to get up in the morning. We take the parts of our old life that we are good at – whether we like it or not – and we use them to create a unique combination.
I have an editor friend who often receives extremely niche books to work with: a love story to the number 67 bus and its route; the art of making origami dinosaurs; forgotten Cornish fishing traditions. And while each of those is unimaginably tedious to edit, they are packed with precious information for when she creates characters in the books she writes.
If we look at what we're doing from a sideways angle, possibly with a gin or two on board, we realise that it can be manipulated and used and made into something else.
We may become experts in something entirely by accident, but it is the combination of those skills and our ideas that make us unique – and presenting something unique is, surely, what will give us the greatest chance of success.