Steve Townsley’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all worked down the pit, so it’s somehow not surprising that this grammar school boy got to university by being sponsored by the Coal Board. What is perhaps more surprising is that although Steve spent his early career with the Coal Board, spending over 11 years working as an engineer at various mines across south Yorkshire, he ended his corporate career in a Texan company that supplied 60 million dozen burger buns annually to MacDonalds.
Steve and I were close colleagues and good friends back in the early 1990s at the Rowntrees HQ in York, when Steve was Head of Health and Safety for the division, and he would admit even then that his conscientiousness and drive to do a good job and prove himself led to his working excessive hours and becoming very familiar with stress. As he started each new job in his successful career he found the first few months invigorating and that he got an intoxicating buzz from work. But then the physical toll of living away from home, global travel and excessive hours would kick in and the pressure would have a detrimental impact on his life. “I asked myself who I was trying to impress”, he tells me thoughtfully, “And I came to realise that how I was leading my life was a selfish desire to show myself that I was good enough to get where I did”. I ask Steve about the impact all this work had on his family, and he tells me that his wife Trisha spent 30 years packing up her job as a teacher whenever it was time for him to move jobs, and followed him wherever he went, until his last position when she stayed put with the family. In his last corporate role Steve was based in Manchester, and only managed to squeeze in weekends at home when he wasn’t travelling abroad. “It was 14 hours a day and relentless pressure for 2 years”, he remembers, ” And I knew I ought to leave, but somehow didn’t do it.”
And then one of those life events that can have such a big impact on us happened, and Steve’s mother died. “That was it. I just decided to spend more time at home, with my family, doing the things I wanted to do”, he tells me firmly. “I told my MD In the States that it wasn’t about money, it was about lifestyle. And if I carried on as I was I’d die. I’d die rich, but what was the point of that?”
I am curious about how someone who I’d known for 20 years as a human dynamo could just finish work, but Steve quickly puts me stratight. “I knew I couldn’t go from 100 mph to 5 mph in one go, and that I’d need to do down a step at a time. First I did some consulting, but soon found myself creeping back up in terms of hours and travel, and I knew that to be really successful I’d have to do it 7 days a week”. I ask him if he had to be successful in everyting he did, and that this drove everything else in his life. “Not exactly”, he tells me slowly; “I’d have liked to put something back into the profession. In the last few jobs I did I’d always enjoyed the coaching side and I got a real kick out of developing people. I wanted to carry on getting that sense of personal fulfillment withoout it being over-stressful. So I applied to be a lecturer.” “Did you have any luck?”, I ask him, thinking that some of the lecturers I know wouldn’t describe their profession as stress-free. “No”, he tells me ruefully, “Not even an interview. They don’t want 50-somethings in that field”.
I am curious about this “in-between step” – how it happened and whether it is giving Steve the satisfaction he was looking for. “Trisha wanted to have a Bed and Breakfast, and York is a great place to do that”, he tells me. “With my business head on I recognised we had a big house, that the kids all lived away from home, and it cost us £30,000 a year just to live in it. So why didn’t we turn our home into an asset.” I laugh as Steve tells me what happened next. “We sold up”, he tells me excitedly, “And bought an existing business that needed a lot of work doing to it. I’ve done up every room, revamped all the bathrooms, and had an extension built with a new kitchen. And now the Bloomsbury Guesthouse comes second out of all the B&Bs in York on Trip Advisor”. I laugh again as this sounds to me closer to the 100 mph pace that Steve is so familiar with. He understands my amusement and tells me ruefully, “You’re right. We’ve been here 3 years and I’ve had problems letting go of the institutional mindset. I work like a project manager, and refurbishing gives you a sense of purpose. I suppose I’ve gone from 100 mph to 50 mph”.
“So do you have the life you really want?”, I ask him; “Is this Prime Time Living for you?” Steve is thoughtful as he replies; “Domestically I have got the work/life balance I want. I see my grandchildren, Sophia and Lucia, more than I did my own kids. I take them to school, to the park and to museums, and I love it”. Then with a slightly rueful smile, as if he is expecting a sharp come-back, he tells me, “And I’ve gone and done the classic middle-aged bloke thing and bought myself a motorbike. And I really love that too.”
Then he adds, “But I am still working out the next step, something for me and Trish to do for the next 30 years. We’ve just done our yearly plan, working out what we want to do next.”. He looks at me a bit sadly, I think, and says; “Trish feels a bit frustrated that we are not exploiting the opportunities that we do have. Compared to my previous life, this is great. But I feel there is a selfishness about my life now. I do want to have more fun in our life, and more importantly, I want to be able to enjoy it for what it is. And I do still want to give something back; I just haven’t worked out how to do it yet”.
We carry on chatting as Steve shows me pictures of his children and grand-children, and I feel for my old friend. He has helped me recognise that Prime Time Living doesn’t come easily to everyone, and for some of us it takes an overhaul of a lifetime’s routines and behaviours before we can take the opportunity that this next phase of our life can offer.
Steve’s Prime Time Tips are:
- If you can afford to, don’t let money be the sole driver of when you decide to leave work
- Together with your partner, make a yearly plan about what you want to achieve next
- Learn to enjoy what you have and the life you have got
- Take time to have fun – even if you aren’t very good at it at the start!
- Work out how you can give something back