McTernan on politics

“You only get one shot, do not miss your chance…opportunity comes
once in a lifetime.” These lines from Eminem’s Lose Yourself
brilliantly fit the theme of his film 8 Mile. Though the film is
dressed up as a gritty urban drama, it is really just an updated
version of a classic 1930s “let’s do the show right here” musical.
And, in its way, it is just as sentimental as any of those films.
The film itself is well worth seeing, and young Marshall Mathers
comes across as an attractive and hugely inventive and energetic
rapper. But his engaging fluency is ultimately deployed in support
of an assertion which, though seductive, is a lie – the idea that
we all only have one chance. This notion has been the cornerstone
of the self-help industry since the 19th century politician Samuel
Smiles, and has been packaged and re-packaged down to this day.

This matters because what was once a romantic fiction – the one
shot at fame and glory – is in danger of being entrenched in social
policy and in individual actions. Over the past 20 years, education
has become a key battleground in British politics. Central to the
debate is the notion that certain moments of transition are
determinant of future life. If you do not get into a good
university you will never prosper in a profession. But to get into
one you need to have excellent A levels, or Highers. And to get
them you will need to be in an excellent secondary school. However,
to do that you need to be in a good primary school – yet before
that is the nursery. This is why there is extraordinary competition
throughout the education system as parents jostle for what they
believe is a position that provides value throughout life.

But how true is it to experience? If most lives are any judge – not
true at all. There are few moments that feel decisive when you
actually encounter them. And in retrospect there are even fewer
that were truly significant turning points. Our lives progress in a
dynamic fashion, but they are rarely linear – far more often they
are refracted and angular. The name we give to our work lives is
telling. We talk of having a career as if it was purposeful and we
were driven. Yet the original meaning of the word “career” is not
at all deterministic – it just describes the course that you took,
the path that you followed. Remember that as a verb “careering”
means fast and uncontrolled. We make and re-make our lives
continuously. One of our greatest skills is the post hoc
rationalisation that explains precisely why the job we are doing
now is the result of a clear and unambiguous trajectory. It’s not
one shot that matters – it is the hundreds of chances we truly
have. The skill is to see them all, and the trick is to take

John McTernan is a political analyst

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