Who says you can’t?

“Wanted: Experienced male window-dresser. 20+, full clean driving licence. Must be prepared to travel.”

Back in the days when one could advertise for precisely the staff member you wanted without the risk of appearing politically incorrect, that was the advert that caught my eye. To be fair, at just 16, with examination results still months away and no possibility of staying in education, I was looking at anything and everything, applying for jobs as varied as dental nurse and milkmaid. In spite of the expectations a Grammar School education might have raised, the family couldn’t afford for me to stay on at school. I needed a job. Any job. Even then, I was aware that probabilities were a numbers game; the more I applied for, the more chance I had of getting at least as far as an interview.

By this time, I had only a couple of months left at school… and so did everyone else leaving that year. I needed to get in early. Even so, “I can’t apply for that…what a pity.” “Why not?” Asked my mother. “You won’t get it, but you can always apply.” I wrote the letter, in spite of the fact I was an inexperienced female, far too young, who had never travelled and who would be ineligible for a driving licence for another two years. It couldn’t hurt. The letter was posted, along with the daily sheaf of others and promptly forgotten about. Until they called me in for interview.

I can even remember the brown, birds-eye tweed suit that I wore… nicely tailored but smelling of wet dog whenever it rained. I took a seat in the reception area with half a dozen professional and arty young men and felt ridiculous. They exchanged experiences, talking about their training and previous positions. I’d worked in a butcher’s after school since I was twelve. I shouldn’t have come.

I was the last to be shown to the office of the owner of the business. I’d done my research as best I could in those pre-internet days. He and his brother had started on the market stalls a couple of decades before and now owned several chains of menswear stores across the north and drove a Rolls Royce apiece. I felt very small and out of place as he faced me across the big desk and folded his hands. He looked at me in silence for a while. Me, the little brown mouse who wouldn’t say boo to the proverbial goose… I shrank inside, wishing fervently that I hadn’t been this stupid.

He read the advert out loud, pausing to look at me with raised brows with every requirement I failed to meet. Which was all of them. He smoothed the sheet of paper and pinned me with his eyes. “What have you got to say for yourself? Why should I hire you?”

I will never know where it came from or why… neither confidence nor arrogance were any part of the timid creature in tweed. To call me a mouse was unfair… mice have a certain amount of audacity.

I held out my hand… “Give me a pen and paper and I’ll show you.”

I spent the rest of the interview answering a barrage of questions and piling up sketch after sketch of fashion designs. He looked at the last one as I placed it on the pile. “I can’t offer you the job, I’m afraid.” It was no surprise really. Only getting an interview at all had been a surprise. I stood to leave. “But I’ll create one for you…”

I sat back down, open mouthed, as he outlined his plans. Then left the building on winged feet. I would work with the teams, train fully and travel alone to deal with the window crises in each shop as they arose. And for the next few years he worked my socks off… I ended up training the new window dressers as they came in… had a lot of fun and became a darned good window dresser.

So why the sudden memories? Well, I picked up a book of poetry from the shelf and read Keats for a while. John Keats is one of the best loved English poets and was a leading figure in the second generation of the Romantic movement. Almost everyone will recognise his work, even if they do not know its source, and Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci has a particular resonance at present as we work on the April workshop.


So where’s the connection between one of the great poets and a schoolgirl luckier than she could imagine? Well, Keats was doing something he ‘shouldn’t’ too.

Born to the family of an ostler turned innkeeper and trained to become a surgeon, Keats’ passion lay in poetry. He should have been a doctor. He was, by all accounts, good at it. And anyway, he was way too young at that point to have anything to say that was worth reading. Great writers need to live before they can write… experiencing the world and its emotions, growing from childhood to adulthood and beyond. While all writers seem to start scribbling when young, there is a general acceptance that it is only in later life that the great œuvres will flow from their pen. It is a common dictum that one should not seriously write when ‘too young’… writers should have lived something to say.

Keats, acquiring his apothecary’s licence, quit medicine to write. Lacking a paying career, he struggled financially all his life, unaware, it seems, of the legacies left to him that would have eased his situation. In 1816 Leigh Hunt agreed to publish one of his poems in a magazine. Other works followed, securing Keats’ place in literary history. He died in 1821. Aged just 25. Far too young to be a ‘real’ poet… or so young writers are now told. About the same age as Wilfred Owen, in fact. Arthur Rimbaud stopped writing at 21.

So who says you ‘can’t’?

We live in a world of ‘ought to’, where expectations are piled upon us, if not by those closest to us, then by our society itself which sets the tram lines we conform to with little thought most of the time. The expectations of others, though, are not what holds us back. We choose to meet those expectations… or to try our best…or not, as the case may be.

We expect a certain normality of ourselves, often without realising that ‘normality’ is unique to each one of us. In effect, we accept the confines of barriers that no-one has actually imposed upon us, simply because we are aware of what we think we ‘ought’ to do and be. What truly holds us back are the constricting and limiting expectations that we draw around ourselves. We decide what we cannot do… yet it is only when we overstep those lines we have drawn in the sand that we find out what we can do.

For me, landing that job taught me more than just how to dress a window. It taught me to have confidence in my own instincts, to stand up for the things I thought were right, to defend a principle and most importantly, to believe I could do more than I believed and be things I ‘shouldn’t’ be. I have often wondered if the academic route I ‘should’ have taken would have taught me half as much.

Next time you feel you can’t do something, don’t ask yourself, ‘why not’… just ask yourself, ‘who says?’ The answer is probably very close to hand…

51 thoughts on “Who says you can’t?

  1. Hey Sue! I followed over from Barb’s. Excellent post. I enjoyed it greatly.I’ve actually felt that way myself and numerous times have looked back and shook my head at what I had accomplished – simply because I didn’t pay attention to expectations. I bought my first tractor-trailer and started my own business at 21 – the youngest allowed by law to haul international between Canada and the US. I moved out of home and had my own apartment at 19 – renting a van and moving myself. At 14 I had numerous aquariums and it became difficult to gradually turn down their lights at night so the fish wouldn’t panic and jump out. So I wired 6 aquariums through-out the house all into a master panel beside my bed where I could read and turn the lights off and dim them slowly, There were many positions left on the panel, so i wired up a burglar alarm for the house that ran on magnetic switches on doors and windows. I also wired outside lights to come on with a timer or proximity detector. At 42 I decided I wanted to do a Masters degree and went back to university while working full time. Two years later I had a Masters.

    Looking back I can’t believe I did any of those – I’d be hard pressed to do any of them now. Like you say Sue, there really is no limit to what you can accomplish when you decide to go for it.


    1. We can probably all look back at things we managed to do… big things and outwardly small ones… and wonder how on earth we managed that! Things we would never have thought we could accomplish… yet we still doubt ourselves when we think about what we might be able to do in the future…
      We’re an odd lot 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by, Paul.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. many’s the time doubts have crept in and had to be ushered away. Going way back to as far as can remember and the sense my brother was the bright clever one. I didn’t actually make a promise to myself to do better academically to sow ‘them’ but that is what I did. Not that they were wrong; he has a wider intellect than I do but the spur was what I needed.


  3. Great post Sue. At the age of 72 it just proves to me for the umpteenth time that my dad was right. “Nothing is impossible, improbable maybe, but never impossible.” We were raised on that saying and; “if you want something bad enough you will work for it.” I have come to the conclusion that growing up “poor” wasn’t so bad after all.


  4. Jaye should be answering this question, but I got here first. She is the best ‘winger’ in the business, best I have ever met anyway. ‘Never’ is not in her vacabulary. Neither is ‘you can’t’. She will tackle anything, no matter how difficult and will usually succeed in achieving what she set out to do. The best inspiration anyone could ever want…


  5. Wow, very entertaining and deeply inspiring. The final lines really hit home. I’ve grown into ‘should’, it was never so present when I was younger, and perhaps I need to send that word packing again, and invite ‘could’ round for a cuppa… H xxx


  6. Brilliant, Sue. I’ve become more positive in my attitude over recent year but still tend to hang on to ‘should’ and its cousin ‘must’. I am going to work on getting rid of them both.


  7. Reblogged this on BART Station Bard and commented:
    I’m on the other side of this one. I should have done this gap year business when I was young, before I had adult responsibilities. By now, I should be settled in my career and serve my time till retirement.

    I have never been age appropriate. I’ll fly too close to the sun and taste the golden apples of the Otherworld, thank you. As I’ve often said, if you don’t ask, they can’t say yes.


  8. If there were a way, I’d like to submit your post to every Human Resources manager out there.

    ” What to Really Look For In An Interview Candidate.”

    Your creativity sparked when you were quite young, Sue. Brilliant. ❤️


        1. As junior management I used to do the triage of the applicants prior to calls for interview. That was eye-opening too 🙂 Not just from the applicants, though… the managerial requirements were both stringent and rather snobbish. I hated discarding many of the applications on those criteria.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. One of my favourite poems and poets. Keats’ story is tragic in several ways — from soon after his father died and his mother remarried a scoundrel. At the end, he died (of TB, caught from his brother whom he nursed) thinking he had accomplished absolutely nothing of worth, and didn’t become well-known until roughly a century later. But as you point out, despite his challenging circumstances, he tried. He really tried. An inspiration, as is this entire post. Thank you.


    1. It is indeed a tragic tale… and perhaps illustrates the old saying that the brightest flames burn quickest. The sadness for me is that he thought he had left no legacy to the world… yet he is now one of the best loved poets. But he followed his own inner star… and maybe that is the best gift we can give ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love your moxie, Sue. Your pluck landed you a wonderful opportunity and is inspiring. More of us should do as you and John Keats did. At times, I felt I was out of my element when I pursued reporting jobs in radio and the newspaper. I was fortunate to given the opportunities to shine. Wonderful experiences.


  11. So very well put, Sue, and I wonder how many of us needed to hear this today. Thank you for the remarkable encouragement and compass.

    Blessings for your prosperity in everything,


  12. Excellent post – what resonated with me most was the memory of how hard ANY research was before the internet – I remember going to the library to research companies, too – and books I was writing…!


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