Lucy Kellaway: Why nobody should say ‘I useta be a somebody’

Trading on past career triumphs seems a little sad – unless they’re sporting triumphs

Two men are ploughing up and down a swimming pool in downtown Los Angeles. As they rest between laps, one of them announces that he is 90 years old. Then he puffs out his small chest and says: "I used to be a judge." The other man was the American journalist Michael Kinsley, who tells the story in his new book Old Age: A Beginner's Guide.

The point of the tale is its pathos. What the old man did by referring to his former importance was to compound the impression he was trying to dispel: that he was past it.The story raises the more general question: is it ever okay to trade on past career triumphs? And if so, for how long before it becomes pathetic?

There seem to be different rules for different people. If you are as famous as Bill Clinton, you can go on wallowing in former glory more or less indefinitely. So long as you are a decent speaker, people will go on paying to hear you discuss your previous greatness many decades after the event. Otherwise the time limit is so short as to be non-existent.

Rest of the world

As a general principle, the rest of the world stops caring for any achievement the minute it slips from the present to the past. The very day you leave a job, the invitations stop coming. Not just because people fear your experience will quickly become out of date, but because if you are no longer in the job, all attention switches at once to your replacement. Despite this, people go on clinging to past successes as a signalling device. Whether this is a good idea depends on two things: is it relevant, and is it dignified?


If someone makes a lot of their past, it suggests their present is not up to much

To the second question the answer is invariably that it is not. In his Twitter profile, George Osborne quite properly does not say that he used to be Britain's chancellor of the exchequer. Jack Welch declines to mention in his that he used to be the feared and revered boss of General Electric. Only David Cameron introduces himself by what he was: the former UK prime minister. He would look more dignified if he had held his peace. In his case, we already know what he used to do, and do not need to have it pointed out to us.

Previous careers

With people whose previous careers have escaped us, being told of them will not impress us. When I meet someone at a party who announces they are ex-BBC or ex-McKinsey, my spirits always sink. Ditto when reading Twitter profiles in which valuable characters are wasted saying that someone was a former Deloitte consultant or ex-Google. You could say this information was relevant. These organisations have competitive selection processes and so if someone got through them, it must be an enduring point in their favour.

I am not so sure. Lots of mediocre people make it into great organisations, where they do badly and leave. And they tend to be the ones to wear their previous employers’ badges most assiduously. In the end it is no different from the ex-judge in his bathing trunks. If someone makes a lot of their past, it suggests their present is not up to much. Our traditional notion of a career is that it is a steady upwards path – which means there should be no need to mention a previous job as the current one ought to be bigger and better. When Cameron was prime minister he did not need to go around reminding everyone that he used to be a PR man.


Even though most careers (Cameron’s included) no longer end on an up note, we still find any falling-off a bit pathetic. The only exception is with athletes. Biology dictates that they are already past it by the time the rest of us hit our prime, and so we forgive them for it. If the ex-judge in the pool had declared that he had once won an Olympic medal, I doubt if his fellow swimmer would have sensed any pathos at all. As for me, I have made a promise to myself. After next September when I have left journalism and am a trainee maths teacher, I will never tell people at parties that I used to be an FT columnist. Keeping this promise will be easy: in my new job I will be so tired I may never go to a party ever again.

There is a more serious point to all this. If our achievements count for so very little when they are in the past, it is perhaps not wise to revere them quite so heartily in the present.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017