Be honest, how much do you enjoy your work? If you genuinely love it and want to carry on doing what you’re doing now until retirement, or even into old age, then congratulations: you’ve obviously found what the Japanese call your ikigai, or your purpose in life. But perhaps you don’t enjoy it that much and would really like to follow your dreams.
Certainly most of the TEBI readers I’ve had dealings, particularly since the pandemic, are seeking a better balance between life and work. Some already have specific plans for the second half of their lives, while others are still in the process of working out what those plans should be.
If you’re one of those people, then our new podcast series, Second Lives, presented by JONATHAN HOLLOW, is specifically designed for you. In the first episode. Jonathan spoke to author Andrew Hallam about the pursuit of happiness and how to lead the life you really want.
In this, the second, episode he interviews ALEX DAVIS. Alex trained as an accountant and worked for many years for the family business. When the business was sold, Alex worked as a freelance consultant but felt she needed to pursue a new direction. So she decided, in her 40s, to go to university and study ancient history and literature.
It’s an inspiring story and well worth half an hour your time to listen to. Who knows? It might just inspire you to follow your dreams yourself?
TEBI would like to thank the London-based financial planning firm Mulberry Bow for collaborating with us on this series.
As well as Spotify, you’ll find The TEBI Podcast on all the major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Listen Notes, PlayerFM and Podbean.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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Jonathan Hollow: Alex, a lot of your life at the moment is about Ovid. Who was Ovid?
Alex Davis: Ovid was a Roman poet. He was a contemporary of the first emperor, Augustus, and he was a major part of the imperial regime … feeding into that idea of a glorious empire. Unfortunately, we don’t know what he did, but he upset Augustus and he was exiled to what’s now Constanța in Romania in 8 CE, and he never saw Rome again. He wasn’t allowed to return; and unfortunately, he died there 10 years later. And I’m working on the exile poetry that he sent back while he was there.
Jonathan Hollow: And what are you trying to find out about Ovid through his exile poetry?
Alex Davis: I’m doing my own philological analysis of it – my own translation. Not to produce a beautiful English translation, but in order to really understand how he was constructing the lines of poetry, and what it is he was doing. And the specifics of the grammar and the vocabulary that he was using – because published translations are simply designed to make the poetry beautiful in English. They are not designed to be grammatically true (necessarily) to the sentence. You need to pick up and read Ovid and translate it, rather than reading a published translation. Yes, of course there are published translations for Ovid’s exile poetry – 7,300-odd lines of it …
And what I’m looking at is the quite stark difference between Ovid’s work pre-exile and post-exile. He uses totally different themes and ideas post-exile, and my thesis is that he’s using his “exile” poetry to recover and also to cement his reputation, both in his own present and and for all time. Because he’s in trouble with the Imperial house. This could have left him with all his poetry being banned and burned – as one of his poems already was. So he wants to be sure that his name and his reputation lasts.
And he was successful.
It’s clear from the poetry that he never expected to return from exile because he never actually asks to come back.
Jonathan Hollow: I’d love you to pick up two or three lines of Ovid, and read them out to us. Give us a view on some of the things that attract you about his language.
Alex Davis: One of the three works that he sent back from exile is called Ibis, and it’s modelled on a Greek curse poem, and it’s 644 lines of vicious invective. So most of it is gloriously conducted insults. So, for example, I have some lines here, which I particularly enjoy:
“And may night be worse for you than day, and day worse than night.
May you always be pitiful!
May no one pity you, and may men and women rejoice at your troubles.”
Or in Latin:
Nec corpus querulo nec mens vacet aegra dolore,
Noxque die gravior sit tibi, nocte dies.
Sisque miser semper, nec sis miserabilis ulli:
Gaudeat adversis femina virque tuis.
Every day, every night gets worse and worse and worse. So, this is is very much the idea that once Ovid has cursed you, whoever it is he’s cursing is never escaping.
Jonathan Hollow: I want to return to Latin, and what it’s like to learn Latin and to become an expert in Latin, later in the interview, but for now, we’ll go backwards in time a bit. To say the least, it wasn’t inevitable that you would end up learning and teaching Latin poetry. It all started – or rather, it didn’t start – with a family business.
Alex Davis: I didn’t particularly enjoy school. I was a reasonable student and I wanted to do well, but certainly my secondary school wasn’t as encouraging as one would’ve hoped at that time. We’re dealing with a slightly different world – this was 1992. There were no student ambassadors. It was very hard to get a handle on exactly what university was like and I didn’t know anyone else who’d gone, so it was a really closed book to me. So, I decided it wasn’t for me. There seemed to be no redeeming features for it at that point.
Jonathan Hollow: And because there was a family business, I guess there was a pressure or an expectation that that would be a place for you to go?
Alex Davis: By the time I left school, my parents’ business had grown. We had about ten or eleven employees, I think, at that point. Both my brother and I had spent a lot of time as kids kind of doing some work in the holidays and helping out. We cleaned the buildings for years every evening – and that gave us a bit of an income, but it also gave us a really good idea of what was going on and how the business worked. I don’t know whether it was an expectation that we would go in, but at the time I was finishing my A-levels, my mother’s parents were getting quite elderly, they needed a bit more help. So my mum stepped back – she was company secretary and accountant – and I learned the the job of Accounts Assistant at that point whilst doing it, and I also attended college in Dover evening release to study accountancy as a formal qualification, as an NVQ.
Jonathan Hollow: Were there any other ambitions or expectations in the air?
Alex Davis: I think eventually the expectation became that both my brother and I – he’s a salesman and an engineer – that we would take over a lot more responsibility as my parents and our Technical Director, Richard, stepped back as time went on. So, it was a gradual thing. My parents were also also getting much older. They wanted to retire completely, which is quite understandable – who wouldn’t? One day, they came in and said, “Right, we need to have a director’s meeting.” The four of us sat down, my dad said, “I think it’s time we sold our business, and this is the reason why,” and I burst into tears. Life was very stable. We had a good income, we were successful. Everything was going very smoothly and all of a sudden …
Ah. Now what on earth happens?
Jonathan Hollow: The business was then sold, and I think you did some additional consultancy work for it for a while.
Alex Davis: Yes, I did.
Jonathan Hollow: But one day, it was behind you. This thing that had occupied so much of your life for all your career really, was not there anymore. Tell us about how you felt after you’d had that longer period to process the change.
Alex Davis: We worked very, very hard to sell it to the right people; and in that 18 months, I had a chance to think, “Okay, what am I going to do now?” I’ve always worked effectively in a management position, even though I wasn’t technically management when I started. What’s that going to be like? Do I want to work for somebody else in this business? Do I want to see somebody making changes to it, and have to fight all the time to go – “No, I don’t think that’s a very… oh no, it’s not my responsibility any more.”
Personally, I’d also met my partner Owen; and he is a senior lecturer at Kent. And so I knew a lot more about university than I had done before. I’d visited the campus a few times, come to the theatre and things like that, so I knew it was a beautiful place to be and I’d started to think, “Well, maybe I’ll do this now. Maybe I’ll go to university. I’ll invest a bit of the money we’re going to get for our shares and actually go,” and – with a bit of advice from his colleague who’s an admissions officer for the university – I discovered an adult learning qualification called “Access to Higher Education diploma”, and I’d registered for that. By the time we actually sold it and did some consultancy and I stepped back as some new owners wanted, I was really excited about making that change.
Jonathan Hollow: And what was then your route between then, and starting to study at the University of Kent?
Alex Davis: I took this Access to Higher Education diploma, which is a level three qualification, equivalent to three A-levels, and I took that full-time at Canterbury College for a year. That gave me the qualifications I needed to apply to university, and a lot of support and help in that university application process – not least of which coming from the university themselves, which is where I first met one of the ladies I now work for in our outreach team. And I started at the University of Kent in September 2016, as a full-time undergraduate in Classical Studies.
Jonathan Hollow: We’re going to delve a bit more into your working world at the University of Kent, as well as your world of study, but I just have a couple of questions about money. As I understand it at the moment, you are earning not very much money – perhaps an amount that many people might find it difficult to live on, but you obviously have a very fulfilling life. I’m just curious about your present relationship to money. If you don’t need money to live on, are there other reasons why you need it? Do you need it for validation? Would you do what you currently do for no money at all?
Alex Davis: I think that the first thing to do is to deal with the fact that I am in a very lucky position. We were paid for our shares. I was paid good money for consultancy for three months, and I was paid effectively to go away; and my partner works full-time, so we were placed in a lucky position. Would I do outreach work for the fun of it? Yes, I would (but please don’t tell the outreach department that)! But it’s important to have an income, I think, and important to have that idea of a job … and everybody should be paid for the job that they do.
And as students in particular, having a stable income, but which also fits in with one’s timetable and everything is so important, which is why working for the university makes so much sense, because that’s an employer who understands you also have a degree to worry about.
Jonathan Hollow: You were obviously earning a much higher salary before and, to some extent, a high salary can be a bit of a trap. I mean, if there are people listening to this and thinking, “Gosh, I’m not sure I could leap off this into a new life,” have you got any thoughts or reflections from your own experience that would be relevant to those people?
Alex Davis: I think it’s easy to look back and say: yes, it was time to make a change. I’d been in business for 22 years, full-time – and a lot longer than that, in parts, as a kid.
But it’s sometimes easy to not see any further than what we’re going to do next week, what we’re going to do today, and what the job has for us.
I think I’m the personification of “it’s never too late”. I am a trained financial accountant and now I study Latin poetry. This is not the 1800s anymore. We’re not living in a Dickens novel. If you become a lawyer at 17, you don’t have to still be a lawyer when you’re 70.
If you decide, for whatever reason, that this world doesn’t agree with you: well, go and do something else! Life’s too short to stay doing something that doesn’t necessarily make you happy, even if you are earning a small fortune doing it.
Looking back, I probably should have made a break earlier than that.
Jonathan Hollow: You touched on this a little bit earlier, but I’d love you to expand on it – about the skills that you brought from running a business and being in the world of business, to being a student and a doctoral student.
Alex Davis: As you know, we have deadlines for our assignments. We have preparatory work to do for our classes and, particularly as a PhD student, there’s no timetable. You have to motivate yourself to get that work done, because it matters, and because you’ve committed to do it.
So I’ve not had a problem with organising my time, making sure I’ve got a to-do list, making sure I know what’s coming up ahead of me. I’ve not missed a deadline, I’ve not missed a class – simply because I spent 20-odd years working with organisations who didn’t have any wiggle room with deadlines.
So you learn that stuff. You can’t run a business without it.
Jonathan Hollow: About half your time is on your studies, I believe, and about half is broadly outreach work. You are clearly very enthusiastic about it in its own right and probably because of your own personal experiences with it.
Alex Davis: Yes, without question. I know how much it helped me, along with visit days to the university, orientating ourselves, getting sample lectures, sample seminars, talks about how it worked, all of which enabled me to arrive here feeling confident. So what we’re doing is demystifying the process, dragging the ivory towers down a little bit, and saying, “Look, this is what university’s like. This is how you apply. This is what it’s good for. This is how cool it is. This is why it’s different to school. This is how it’s the same as school or college,” and what we’re saying is – if you want to go – great! Go. We’re not selling higher education, we’re certainly not selling the University of Kent.
I’ve seen one sentence, either from myself or one of my colleagues, change the way a student looks. They suddenly get that it’s their choice. They can do what they like. Their path through their lives is not set by what school wants, or maybe what their parents want, or what whoever in their lives wants. They don’t have to do what their mates are going to do. They get to choose, and the whole planet opens out in front of them.
The systems are in place, so we enable students basically to make the right choice for them at that point. And also say to them, “Look, even if you make a choice now and you go down this path. If, in two years time, or ten years time or 20 years time, you change your mind and think, actually, no, I want to do something else. Well, then go and do something else!” But it is just astonishing to watch it happen in real time.
Jonathan Hollow: And does it ever take you outside your comfort zone?
Alex Davis: I remember arriving at a school to give a talk to some parents for a sixth-form open evening, and the member of staff who I was meeting at the school, she said to me, “Oh, great. Glad you’re here. That’s lovely. We’ve got about 200 parents and students, so not too big an audience there. That’s alright, isn’t it?”
And inside I’m shrieking, but I’m wearing the University of Kent T- shirt.
So on the outside: I went, “Yeah, that’s absolutely fine, no problems at all.” Then they put us all on the stage and then they said, “Oh, this is Alex. She’s from the University of Kent, she’s going to talk to you about about that,” and I got up and I walked across the stage to the lectern, and I took a deep breath, and I gave the talk. Massively outside my comfort zone!
But sometimes you give a talk, and you talk to one particular student and you think, “Yeah, you’d be great.” And I’ve said to students, “You should come. If you come to Kent, sign up to be an ambassador, you’d be a fantastic ambassador. You’re going to make a great student. Go for it. Best of luck.”
And you arrive at the training for the new ambassadors and somebody taps you on the shoulder, and you turn round and there’s that student. And they’re now a fellow ambassador as a student, and they say: “You are the reason I’m here. You’re the reason I’m an ambassador.”
I can never find words to explain what it’s like, but it makes me tearful in a happy way, again, that I’ve made a difference. So the times at which I’m thinking, “Oh goodness, 200 people!” are vastly outweighed by the times I go, “Yes, I love this job!”
Jonathan Hollow: That sounds like the most amazing … what I would call … outer life. I’d like now to turn back to your kind of inner life and your study, and just probe that a little bit more. I mean, Latin itself: so much of it is hugely important to our history and civilisation. Can you give me a few impressions about learning this strange language?
Alex Davis: Latin functions, as you know, very differently to how English functions. The endings of the words change according to the function of the word in the sentence. The sentence “Alex eats cake” can be written in Latin as “Cake, Alex eats”, and it doesn’t matter because the ending of the words are changing according to whether the subject, object – whatever.
So, it can be quite mathematical really in trying to decode it.
And you see how many words are from those Latin words. And indeed … in French, in Spanish, and in particularly Italian … how much of a debt our language, and those other romance languages, those other European languages, owe to the Romans and to Latin. And Latin leans on Greek in a lot of places as well.
Latin is so much more than a dead language. Because in a very real sense, it’s not dead. We’re speaking it all the time.
Jonathan Hollow: I’m interested in the contrast between when you were working for the family business – I suppose in many ways the business was the thing, and you were serving it. You were helping it to function. But now you are “Alex Davis, the scholar”, and your opinions are the thing. You are becoming an expert on Ovid, and people want to know what you think. So it’s a very different framing of you and the ego, I suppose. So I’m just curious: do you feel like you are a different person? Are you becoming a different person?
Alex Davis: Yes, I am different since I’ve been a student because, as you say, I have much more agency over the way my life unfolds now.
Not that I regret the time I spent in business – not at all. It was immensely valuable, lots of fun, and it’s a time I look back on with great fondness, and it was certainly extremely valuable in what I do now.
But now, I decide. I decide which jobs I apply for. I decide what my angle is on Ovid’s poetry. I decide what I’m going to do every day, and am I going to be on campus, am I not? Am I going to work on my PhD? Am I going to meet up with the Mature Students’ Society?
(I’m the student rep for the postgrad research students in Classics – so that involves a lot of meetings, and engagements with students, and talking to them, and passing on and representing them at the university level.)
And all of these things are really fulfilling. I know all this might sound a little bit like, “Oh my gosh, she thinks everything’s great,” but do you know what? I do! I’ve had the chance to shape what I want to study and when. I made the choice to stay for a Master’s, I made the choice to stay for a PhD.
I discovered a career that I didn’t know existed until I started at Canterbury College. I didn’t know outreach was a thing, and indeed – when I did my A-levels – it wasn’t a thing. There wasn’t that ability for anybody to do that work – that work didn’t exist, to the best of my knowledge.
So I’ve made those choices, I’ve made deliberate choices, and that makes my world much happier. My voice is appreciated and I am recognised. Just on Friday, I had the lovely news that I’ve been shortlisted for an award from a National Education Opportunities Network – NEON. The university’s outreach department submitted a nomination for me as their National Student of the Year award, and I have been shortlisted for it.
Jonathan Hollow: You clearly love being part of an academic community, at all levels. You are part of the faculty, all the way to people who aren’t even students at the university yet. So I’m interested in the pleasures and the satisfactions of that. Maybe you could say, describe that a little and then contrast that with the kind of core part of your study – which is alone with books at a desk. This has its own pleasures, I guess.
Alex Davis: I find, with research, that some of the best ideas I have come after I write some things – then I get up and I walk away and I meet some friends for a cup of coffee. Or I go and give a talk over in one of the other buildings or something to some students from a local school. And I’m walking back from that to my office, and suddenly that lightning bolt of research hits your head, and you go, “Ah! That’s a really good way to think about it! That’s the point. That’s what he’s doing. That’s how Ovid’s thinking about that. Oh, that is such an interesting word he uses.”
So, I need that time away from it: to chat to other people, to find out about what they’re interested in, to engage with that community on campus – and indeed off in other places – as well as having that time to work.
That’s one of the reasons why my PhD is part-time, because then I’ve got time to devote to other things, and also that separation to not feel like I have to work on it all day, every day. I can afford to do things that make me happy as well, and bring in some money, but also to have time to devote to it as well. And, again, that gives a bit of variety.
Jonathan Hollow: A big theme of this series is kind of making plans and changing plans, and I’m just interested in your thinking about this – particularly when you are mentoring young people and encouraging them to apply to university, or maybe to make an active choice not to go to university. Are you encouraging them to have a career plan or a life plan?
Alex Davis: It’s neither, really! What it’s really about is: each qualification you do in an education system, or each choice you make in your life, is a stepping stone to the next one.
If you don’t know what your path is – that’s fine. I didn’t decide what I wanted to do when I grew up until I was about 43 years old.
When you’re younger, most people don’t know what they want do. So at that point, make the right choice for right now. Choose GCSEs you’re good at and that you enjoy, and that are fairly well rounded. Then, when you get to the next level, make your level three qualification decision. Do I have to a B-Tech? Do I do IB? Do I go to college and do a T-level, or something much more practical? Do I stay and do A-levels? What is it I like to do? So make those choices and make that a stepping stone to the next thing.
So, I think it’s less of making a career plan or a life plan, but more about inspiring people and saying, “It’s okay not to know.”
There are jobs now that didn’t exist 20 years ago. So things move quickly. Make a choice. See what comes out of it and, maybe, while you’re studying classics, you’ll suddenly discover there’s a job over there you didn’t know existed that makes you really, really happy – and that’s what it is you want to do.
Jonathan Hollow: And when you are doing that outreach, do you think it’s part of your role to spur ambition?
Alex Davis: Yes, absolutely. But ambition doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. It’s making it okay for ambition to mean whatever it means to you.
If you want to go on and own a huge great company – if you want to be Steve Jobs, that’s brilliant. But actually, if what you want to do is be really happy and enjoy your schooling and enjoy your life and you don’t want to earn billions of pounds, that’s equally fine. And not everybody is the same, because it would be really dull if we were.
Jonathan Hollow: Thank you. That’s been absolutely fascinating, Alex, and thank you for – as ever – wearing your heart on your sleeve. And I’m sure that’s part of the reason why you’re such a brilliant outreach ambassador.
Alex Davis: Thank you.
Jonathan Hollow: I do hope you get that award.
Alex Davis: The best thing has already happened: that my employer cares enough about the work I do. And one of the reasons is that I’ve been at the university for a long time. I’ve been here for seven years nearly, already. So I’ve had a chance to build up a body of work – which, if you’re only here for three years as an undergraduate, you don’t get a chance to do. But to be nominated is astonishing. To be shortlisted is even more astonishing. That’s fantastic. We’re going to go to the House of Commons for the award ceremony on the 9th of May, and if I get it – wonderful, that’s great! And if I don’t, I’m already happy. So that’s alright!
Jonathan Hollow: So that was Alex Davis. Since we recorded this interview, she won the national award she had been entered for – NEON Student of the Year – for her amazing outreach work on behalf of higher education. I’m sure you’ll agree that, with her unstoppable enthusiasm for her ambassador work, the award is richly deserved.
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