I was working on a major newspaper that was in a state of transition. Building up my team, I recruited a young man from Pakistan, in his early 20s. His background made him respectful towards the ‘old guard’, especially his elders, including one of the middle managers who were on the way out.

Fast forward a big chunk of time. My young assistant was now running his own business, a creative studio in London’s West End, and living in a fashionable area in South London. One evening he called for a minicab, and the driver who turned up was the very same man he used to treat with great respect.

He told me:

“I was embarrassed. I didn’t know how to handle it. Here was a man I used to call sir, now reduced to driving a minicab.”

As one who had once lost everything in a failed business venture, I was a bit more understanding. I told him about a poem I had studied as part of my English Literature syllabus at university. It was The Melon Seller, by Robert Browning.

The poem tells how Ferishtah, who was studying to be a dervish, was walking through the marketplace in Ispahan, Iran, when he came across a well-remembered face. Could it be, he wondered in amazement, that this is the former Prime Minister, a man who once had enormous power and prestige, a man who had sat beside the rulers of other nations, now reduced to selling melons, “sliced for readier sale”?

He asked the melon seller about his reaction to such contrasting fortunes. The man, with his personal dignity still intact, replied: “Should I complain about my loss, or should I thank God for granting me 12 years at the top?” Then, dismissing the young man, he said, “Or buy a slice or go to school.”

Do business with me in my present circumstances, or get on with your life.

My young assistant had to think about the parable, because his background culture had conditioned him to defining people by the jobs they did. In the Far East, with its caste systems, there is not the same dignity of labour as in the West.

The lesson of the poem is that you do what you have to do to meet your current circumstances. When I published my own newspaper (which failed), I hired a van every Friday and personally delivered bundles of my papers to 300 outlets around London. Helping me was a young musical student (ironically, from Iran). We treated it as an adventure and became increasingly adept at the deliveries, aiming to finish earlier every week.

Neither of us was embarrassed about the ‘menial’ job we were doing every Friday. That job did not define either of us. What mattered more was to do the job well. And THAT is what defines a person — not what they do but how they do it.

As Alexander Pope wrote,

“Honour and shame from no condition rise;
Act well your part – there all the honour lies.”