Roads not travelled
19 February 2007
Famous Australians on the career plans they left behind.
: "I’d probably [be] ... trying to pound law into other people’s heads.”
: "I wanted to be God; I wanted to be the dictator."
: "I was lucky I didn't wipe out my platoon."
: "My parents were, for the most part, quite appalled by all of this."
Occupation: AFI award-winning film director of Look Both Ways.
Would have been: at-home country mother with four children, or waitress, swimming teacher, hospital ward assistant, cook, cleaner …
"I’ve done many jobs in my time, as have most people struggling in the arts, and I may have continued with any of them if I hadn't been sacked or bored. And given the continuing perilous state of my career, I may well have to be doing one of those jobs again.
I waited tables at an Italian place in Carlton, many years ago. I was never good at the smiling at customers bit, and bad at dodging when the cooks hurled saucepans. I think I lasted about six months. I taught swimming at the Harold Holt Memorial Pool, which still cracks me up, disrespectful though it is.
I was a ward assistant at [the now defunct] Larundel Psychiatric Hospital in Melbourne, which was the bottom of the job hierarchy. When I moved to NSW, I got a promotion and was a cleaner. I cleaned at many varied aged care facilities. Once I was a cook, which doesn't say much for the state of our aged care in this country.
I was a sandwich hand, a life model, a school caretaker. I taught people with disabilities, people who were unemployed. I became quite employable at one stage teaching life skills, which people who know me find amusing. But I could perhaps think more positively of the life I didn’t have as a farmer with four kids [Watt and her husband, actor William McInnes, have two children.] I think I fantasise about being an at-home country mother, despite my lack of sewing, cooking and gardening skills. I’d have four kids, because I think you get better at it as you go along."
Would have been: film editor
“I had wanted to be a writer, and when it came time to choose subjects at Sydney University, the obvious thing to me seemed to be to study English literature. By the end of four years of learning to be a critic and talking about themes – basically to tear a piece of writing apart down to its molecular structure – I was incapable of writing a single sentence and I couldn’t bear to read anything but the trashiest thrillers.
So I gave up on this long-cherished dream, and I was terribly lucky that I got a holiday job at Film Australia, which made documentary films, still does. It was the de facto film school then. I loved this world because noone in it had ever read Henry James or Virginia Woolf, and they were making stories in a completely different way. Out of instinct, basically.
I felt free because I had not read any theory or analysis about film. I watched all that French auteur stuff, but I sucked in through my pores, rather than in my brain. I was determined not to make the same mistake again and kill the pleasure.
But I eventually realised that I didn’t want to be a team player. Film is by its very nature a collaborative thing. I wanted to be God; I wanted to be the dictator. And that’s when I started to think: 'Maybe I should have another go at this writing business.'”
Occupation: TV presenter and journalist
Would have been: photographer
"I must have been 15 when I saw
, a documentary on [war photojournalist] Neil Davis’s life – not to be confused with the ABC parody of public affairs programs.
Photography was a real passion of mine for a while. At university I studied archaeology, philosophy and art, but I also did some photography courses, to see if I had an eye. I spent many years happily working as an assistant with various photographers, lugging around very unpleasantly large and heavy light boxes. You learn so much; the world of photography is beautiful.
I ended up working with an Israeli photojournalist who’d worked for [Germany’s]
magazine. He was a spectacular photographer. He’d photographed [the late Palestinian leader] Arafat and [the late Israeli politician] Golda Meir and lived in Australia for a while. I ended up assisting him on a number of fashion shoots He taught me a lot about photographing real people, as opposed to setting up photos. It’s all about noticing how light touches a subject, whether it’s a landscape or still-life.
I would have loved to have been a photographer, had the writing not taken over. [Robson entered journalism via magazines, becoming assistant editor and features writer for
magazine, before joining Seven News as a reporter in 1990.] The peak of my photography came in 1993 when I was working in TV news and went to Vietnam, which I saw through the lens of my camera. When you commit yourself to taking photos you remove yourself from a situation and just see the light and pictures. It’s a lovely escape. I’d love to do it again [as a career], but I just don’t get the time to spend on it anymore."
Occupation: television presenter and
Dancing with the Stars
Would have been: racing car driver
“I just love to push cars to the limit. At seven years of age I got my first little motor bike, and I was learning to jump over things. I was driving tractors from the age of 12. And I started watching Bathurst tapes: I used to borrow the steering wheel off our ute on our sheep farm at Ariah Park, north-west of Wagga, and sit in front of the telly and I’d turn all the corners with Brockie [Peter Brock] or Dick Johnson.
I loved Johnson’s knockabout larrikinism. He was the underdog. I went on with racing car driving as a hobby while I chased my showbusiness career. Funnily enough, Dick Johnson tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘How about it, mate, do you want to step up to the mark?’ And now I drive for him in the V8 Supercar junior series."
Would have been: painter.
“I really enjoy painting, but not much these days. I guess when I was single, footloose and fancy-free, [he married Amelia in 2003] I had plenty of downtime to explore those kinds of things. I’ve got three blank canvases in my cupboard and a box of oil paints that have probably dried up.
I’ve only completed three pieces of art that I thought were any good in my entire life. One’s the Running Man logo for my management company. My mum Brigid was a painter. She’d be painting until all hours of the morning, listening to Mozart, so growing up in Balmain was a very eclectic lifestyle, with lots of characters and lots of colour. She died when I was 15. It devastated me. I think it’s something that still devastates me. I think it’s where all the sadness comes from in my music.”
Occupation: Australian Workers’ Union national secretary
Would have been: merchant marine or soldier.
“When I was at school, I thought about going to sea, because Dad [the late Bill Shorten] had been in the merchant marines. He seemed to have some fun when he was at sea for 19 years, travelling all through Asia and Africa.
In my first year at university I joined the army reserves, a Monash University regiment. The military and me were never designed to be in the same box. I think you’ve got to be quite athletic. When we were doing infantry tactics, I tended to get up a little slower than everyone else.
I realised I wasn’t going to be the greatest soldier in Australia when we were doing grenade practice. Everyone else was pretty good at lobbing their grenades. I was lucky I didn’t wipe out my own platoon with it. I bounced my grenade, rather than throwing it through the air.
I also tend to question orders. I think I gave a bit of backchat when we were doing our basic infantrymen’s qualifications. I realised I wasn’t very good at it; it certainly did breed in me admiration for people in the defence forces. From driving tanks to throwing grenades, there are better people than me who do it. To do such a job real justice, I knew I'd have to devote all my time and energies to it. But there were too many other things I wanted to do while at university, so we parted ways.”
Occupation: world champion surfer.
Would have been: stockbroker.
“When I was a kid I was good with money, really good at saving it. One of my dad’s friends was a stockbroker and I was interested in following the stock market. My dad [Neil] would pack me a lunch, but he would always give me $2 lunch money in case I wanted something from the canteen, and I always brought $1 home. I always only spent the dollar!
Dad had introduced me to surfing when I was four, but I really didn’t choose surfing as a profession until I was about 15 or 16. And now I’m thinking if I wasn’t a pro-surfer I would be an event organiser. I’m now trying to create the richest event in women’s surfing history. With my foundation [Layne Beachley’s Reach for the Stars] I give as much support as I can, monetarily and morally, for girls to achieve their dreams. I think for me it’s just a matter of giving back.”
Occupation: Medical researcher who developed a vaccine for papilloma virus, which is linked to cervical cancer; 2006 Australian of the Year
Would have been: ski instructor
“As a student, I enjoyed the outdoor life, the party life, and the lack of responsibility that went with skiing.
When I was 20 I nearly got thrown out of medical school because I spent too much time skiing. I was first in trouble with the professor of surgery because I was three days late back after the start of term, and my only excuse was skiing. I managed to redeem myself by winning the surgery prize. I was then in trouble with the professor of psychiatry, for a similar reason.
I'd not have been a very good ski instructor I think; I'd have disappeared every time the snow was good to try it out. I might just do that yet.”
Occupation: Federal Liberal MP
Would have been: architect
“I was very good at art at school and I wanted to be an architect. I see architecture as one of the great achievements of mankind, where you can be very creative and stand back and say, ‘I built that, I did that.’ My dad was an engineer and my two brothers too, so it was a family thing, but Dad was very much against me going into engineering. He thought architecture was more feminine.
I really admire Le Corbusier, the Swiss-born French architect who first looked at how people moved and lived in the built spaces that engineers and builders could erect. Instead of scientific principles to dictate residents’ living conditions in crowded cities, he looked at urban planning and home design.
I was going to study architecture in Sydney, but my parents moved us to Brisbane. Studying architecture would have taken me six years, but I ended up in law because my parents preferred law and for me it was only four years. I should have done architecture.”
Occupation: fashion designer
Would have been: marine biologist or veterinarian.
“I don’t know if I would have made it, but I wanted to become a vet. I’ve always had a menagerie of pets. When we were in Africa, I had rabbits, tortoises, chickens, dogs, cats; all the little baby animals that got orphaned. I was brought up on a yacht, mostly between Africa, Australia and New Zealand. I had my parrots, and I’d always befriend a little seal cub or something and look after it. In New Zealand I had goats and horses, sheep, dogs, cats, everything.
“My ambition was never to be a fashion designer. Far from it. I still manage to find orphaned animals. I’ve got three cats. I had three dogs, now it’s down to one; I managed to find homes for the others. I get the ducks from the park; they somehow see my place as a bit of a sanctuary. Probably because I feed them.”
Would have been: Activist.
“When I was in high school in Connecticut and later at university, I was completely devoted to the notion of going into professional activism. When I was 12, I marched against the Vietnam war. When I was 14, I took part in the first Earth Day activities. I was going to work for Ralph Nader [the US attorney and political activist.] I was always passionate about human rights and social justice and the environment. My parents were, for the most part, quite appalled by all of this.
In the end, I didn’t get sick of activism so much as activists: everything had to be black and white. The world of writing allows for so many more shades of grey. Activists used to drive me crazy because they just love meetings. I hate meetings. I used to place a limit of one hour on meetings when I chaired them, which drove everyone crazy.”
Occupation: television presenter
Would have been: zookeeper
“I would like to think I’d be a zookeeper. A friend of mine has just left his job to study animal husbandry and he’s become the coolest person I know.
We had a lot of pets in the house when I was growing up: a dog, a cat, guinea pigs. We tried mice. And Mexican walking fish, but that wasn’t a success. We had a lamb with the not very imaginative name, Sam. That’s what happens when you allow children to name their pets.
“I used to breed cockatoos and galahs. My father and I erected an aviary over our old sandpit. I kept two of them, twins: Ronny and Reggie, after the infamous Kray twins, the London mobsters. The dog used to sit there barking at the birds, so the first thing the birds learned to do was bark.”
Occupation: Baptist minister, World Vision chief executive.
Would have been: teacher, rock star diplomat, United Nations secretary-general.
“As a kid I wanted to be a teacher, like my parents. I had a teacher in grade six, Frank Moore, who had a huge influence on me: he would read stories of unsolved mysteries, and he kept this spear with which he would prod you if you were naughty or talking. He was so playful and he made learning come alive.
After studying law, I thought: ‘I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.’ I did a diploma of education and funnily enough six weeks in the classroom convinced me law was a very good idea. I was mainly managing discipline for a whole lot of kids who didn’t want to learn. I thought: ‘Do I want to spend my life shouting at kids?’
When I was 13 or 14 I’d wanted to be a rock star, but never seriously. I had two disabilities: I played piano badly and I didn’t sing very well. But I’ve more recently connected with that idea of the rock star when watching Bono. He’s cashing that celebrity currency for good. I would say Bono’s the greatest communicator I’ve ever heard. He connects poetry, music, moral passion and economic justice to make a potent mix.
The more serious ambition of later days has been to head the UN. I’d love to have a go at Kofi Annan’s job. I still believe the future for international justice and defeating the war on terror is international cooperation. I still believe the UN is the best chance we’ve got of achieving that. I would hammer the cause of people in extreme poverty.
Of course, American unilateralism is looking just a little bit sad and sorry after Iraq. In Kofi’s job, you would say to America: ‘Look, you’ve spent $300 billion on war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine if you’d spent $300 billion saying we’re going to get Arab nations out of poverty. Wouldn’t we have a much safer world?’”
Occupation: theatre and film director.
Would have been: choreographer or actor.
“I was 17 at Homebush Boys' High in August 1972 and the great Aboriginal [theatre] director Brian Syron had come to the school as adjudicator for the NSW High Schools' Drama Competition. I was directing my first play,
Toad of Toad Hall
. I had also designed and done the choreography for the dance drama sequences I had inserted to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. After the performance, Brian sat with me in an empty classroom and said, ‘If you’d like to be a director, I believe you have the talent.’ That was all I needed.
“Sometimes however when I'm cutting shapes [dancing] on the dance floor in a moment of inspired abandon after an opening night somewhere I think back wistfully to the
Dance of the Wild Wooders
Toad of Toad Hall
] and regret not taking the plunge into choreography. Then I watch choreographers Kate Champion or Stephen Page at work and somehow I'm able to cope with any regrets.
I did audition for NIDA as an actor at the end of that year  and fortunately my lack of acting talent was obvious even then. I did a speech from Endgame in my fruitiest voice and an improvisation about eating a car. A voice within me was saying ‘No, this is not for you.’ “
Occupation: media buyer.
Would have been: radio announcer.
“In 1958, in the Victorian country town of Stawell, 150 miles (241 kilometres) north-west of the big city, when I was 14 or 15, I thought to myself, ‘How do I get to the big city, and the rest of the world?’ I used to listen to ABC radio, but also the Melbourne radio station 3DB, which had a link station in the Wimmera. And I would listen to the stars of radio.
“They used to broadcast the test cricket from England, and they ran all the big dramas. I could also pick up 2UE from Sydney at night because of the bounce of the AM signal. I would listen to the dance orchestras in Sydney and think they were incredible. I thought, ‘That’s it, I’ll be a radio announcer. That’s how I’ll get to the big city.’
“I sent off about 20 applications to become a panel operator. But I didn’t get a job. Then in 1959 I saw a job as an office boy in advertising agency, Briggs and James, in La Trobe Street in Melbourne. I didn’t know quite what an advertising agency was, but thought it must mean writing radio ads. The building had previously been a brothel, and a heroin den, and now it was my home. It was an incredible life, and I never left. But I do get to appear with various stars of radio now when I’m being interviewed, on an unpaid basis.”
Occupation: AFI award-winning actress
Would have been: primary school teacher or zoo keeper
“I was actually looking into teaching career before I even considered acting. I believe schoolteachers are invaluable and I love kids, particularly in primary school. I think in days to come it’s still an avenue I’d like to explore.
But if I was looking for another dream job it would be as a zoo keeper because I love animals so much and can’t imagine anything better than being able to work with them all day long.”
Occupation: television presenter and filmmaker
Would have been: detective or archaeologist.
“If I hadn’t become a television presenter, I would have still been working in advertising. I did radio and TV and print. I used to write advertising brochures for Mazda. I’d get manuals from Japan that had been translated into bad English by Japanese people and then I’d have to write them up as brochures. I wrote a jingle for SeaWorld. I’d sing the lyrics with a musician who would write the music. ‘SeaWorld, the most amazing world of all’: hard to remember the exact lyrics, but it was pretty dynamic.
But when I was really young, I was tossing up whether I’d become a detective or an archaeologist. I got two books from the Lucky Book Club. I think they were called
How to Be a Detective
and another called
How to Be a Spy
. How to stand behind trees and how to put little mirrors under your sunglasses so you could look backwards while you were looking forwards. The books weren’t quite up to Mossad or ASIO standard. Recently I was reading a book about the Israeli Secret Service, about Mossad, and I got quite excited, going back to that time in my head. I suspended disbelief that I was a television presenter. I thought, ‘I could do this.’
The archaeology thing was Indiana Jones-
Raiders of the Lost Ark
-related, when I was in grade six or whatever. I was a bit of a dress-up kid, so I think I wore my Dad’s old hat around school for a couple of weeks.”
Occupation: television interviewer / Would have been: Who can say?
“The God's honest truth is I never had ANY career in mind – not even this one.”
Occupation: industrial lawyer turned federal Labor deputy leader.
Would have been: teacher or lawyer.
“I used to think I wanted to be a school teacher. There was an English teacher at Mitcham Primary [in Adelaide], who was a real stickler for standards and grammar and punctuation but who was also very kindly. I thought teachers were good; I thought it would be a rewarding job, seeing the eyes of young people light up with new information. I got talked out of that ambition for good or for ill by a school friend’s mother, who said, ‘No, you’re really good at arguing and debating, you should try law.’ If I hadn’t been pre-selected for the seat of Lalor and run successfully in the 1998 election, I’d probably still be somewhere in and around the law; public sector law perhaps. Maybe giving tutorials, trying to pound law into other people’s heads.”