Asides,  post-OU

A lucky man

Now that I’m coming to the end of a a substantial phase of my career, which while not exactly earth-shaking, has been successful on the terms I would wish it to be, I thought it would be instructive to reflect on the role of luck in this. This is not an exercise in false modesty, where I’m hoping you’ll respond “no it’s because you’re amazing Martin” (let’s agree that I’m amazing), but in any success however moderate, there is an element of chance. “Luck” is probably the wrong term, it’s more something like “a beneficial confluence of personality, time and context”, but “luck” is a convenient shorthand. I think there is a general tendency to dismiss the role of different aspects of luck because people don’t want to downplay their own agency and hard work. I get that, but if we look at that broader interpretation of a combination of your own traits and the context then it doesn’t reduce it all to some happenstance that you were powerless to resist. So I thought I would consider the different forms of good fortune that have cropped up.

Luck of birth – firstly that any individual one of us exists is a miracle of statistical freakery, but let’s not dwell on that. More systemically being born a white man in Northern Europe, while not in a privileged connected family, means I haven’t had to contend to with society actively working against me. It’s difficult to quantify this from the inside perspective however, but it has to be acknowledged

Luck of timing – With regards to technology Douglas Adams suggested that:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

This is probably the area of greatest fortune I had. I came into employment in higher ed just as the web was breaking, I was young enough to be excited by it, and there was no real established expertise in this field. If I had been 10 years older I may have dismissed it, or if I had entered the field 10 years later then it would have been a more established practice. But in the early days a little knowledge can take you a long way and from that you gain momentum.

Luck of employment – I didn’t set out to work for the OU. I needed a job, and would have taken anything as my casual employment at the University of Teesside was coming to an end. It transpired that the OU was a perfect fit for me – I’m a better writer than speaker, so crafting written course materials suited me, and the social mission of the OU was something I could identify with. As a distance ed university they were also the ideal place to be as online learning took off, related to the previous point.

Luck of social value – I think higher ed was a natural fit for me, but there is also an element of good fortune in that my chosen sector is something that means a lot to people. There are other very valuable jobs in society that we don’t attach such emotional and social value to – remember during the pandemic when everyone suddenly appreciated the real value that the waste disposal teams do for us all the time? Yet we don’t see this as readily. But whether it’s creating courses that bring people into higher education, or Masters courses that allow them to develop their interests, or supervise researchers through their PhD, it is a privilege to be involved in a sector that has such an impact on people’s lives. Footballers often justify their enormous salaries by pointing to their hard work and talent – which is true, but they don’t work harder or have more talent than, say, an Olympic judo athlete. But they are lucky in that our society rewards footballers more highly. While you don’t quite get those financial rewards in higher ed, you do get to be in a profession that can change people’s lives for the better. That’s lucky.

Luck of funding – I was fortunate to grow up when you didn’t have to pay for university tuition fees. As a first generation to university, I’m not sure I would have gone if it had meant taking on a debt. I also dropped out of my first year, only to start again the following summer on a different degree. If I had been generating debt during this time I’m not sure I would have been free to explore this phase. Similarly when it came to doing a Masters, I was on an EU funded scheme at Kingston Uni, which not only paid the tuition fees but allowed us to sign on at the same time. Then after a period of unemployment during the recession I got a job at Teesside as a research assistant on an EU funded project, which allowed me to register as a PhD student. This account will probably make Daily Mail readers combust, but it’s how you facilitate “levelling up”. I simply wouldn’t have done those studies if I’d had to fund the fees.

Luck of exploration – I mentioned that I was allowed to drop out and then restart undergrad study, as I explored what it was that I wanted to do. But also at the OU I was lucky enough to explore many different, often futile avenues. I did an experiment with the first online tutor group, I played around with blogs, I developed an online profile. I didn’t have to state deliverables for these or complete monthly reports. I was allowed to explore and often those explorations led to more meaningful outcomes. But often they didn’t. My sense is that degree of freedom is less readily available in higher ed now.

With each of these elements, they are “lucky” in that they meshed with my interests and personality – they wouldn’t necessarily be fortunate for someone else, who would have a different set. Partly I think composing such a list is useful vaccine against becoming one of those older people who criticise younger people for not doing things the way they did. Timing and context play a big factor in whatever you do. Anyway, speaking of vaccination here is everyone’s second favourite Mancunian anti-vaxxer giving us a belter of a tune.

One Comment

  • Dr Anthony Basiel

    Thanks for sharing your life reflections, Martin. I think serindipity is how I would express your journey. You have taken the chance encounter at times and turned it into an advantage.
    My story has some overlaps. But, I am still keen to research and work on projects. Please do see my website at and email
    to explore collaboration opportunities. Cheers Anthony

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