Insight on Demand | Graduate challenges | a personal perspective
At the age of 22, I was disillusioned.
Having recently graduated, things hadn’t gone so right in the past couple of years and it was simply a case of reality catching up with me.
At the age of 16, of course, the future looked incredibly starry and things were much simpler back then. Having just completed GCSEs with pretty much straight As, most of my teachers and parents were telling me that I should be considering a career in either journalism or law and my whole life seemed conveniently mapped out for me by virtue of the first ‘serious’ exams I had taken, which serve to place your level of success in future life.
Subsequent to this, I took my A levels, and there was certainly evidence of a loss of focus by this point. I didn’t quite hit the ‘straight-A full house’ of my GCSEs and I attracted a degree of disdain from teachers and to an extent parents too. That said since I was hitting the ‘tricky’ years that teenagers do, with all the distractions of life outside academic study on the outskirts of London, I sensed a degree of acceptance that it was all part of growing up and I was deemed, at least, ‘rounded’. This boded well in terms of my ability to socially interact, which, of course, is an important quality in day to day life.
So, I scraped into Law at one of the better UK institutions. I wasn’t quite sure what took me there, to be honest, to this day. I recall my father mentioning that lawyers get paid well and it would be great to have a lawyer in the family, plus it would guarantee future success, since being in law was a passport to so many professional fields; it was a nice safe option. As a result, without any real personal insight or connection with the sector, I attended my first lectures on the topic. Then, of course, came the social distractions of life away from home, with that unforgettable sense of hypnotic, ecstatic freedom that comes from realising there’s literally no-one telling you what to do, who to hang out with and what time to come home. To cut a long story very short, in my case, chaos ensued. I came out of 4 years of ‘study’ having missed the mark to get accepted into the top legal institutions and was riddled with debt…
Consequently, I felt rather a disappointment to all my key stakeholders at the time. I couldn’t have looked my teachers, from earlier school days, in the eye at the time, since I hadn’t lived up to the expectations that were set in stone when I was the 16-year-old golden child. I don’t believe my father thought much of me either. Whilst I did secure a stint with a provincial law firm, it was short lived and when, inevitably, it didn’t work out, I walked home, packed my case and took a train down to London. I didn’t apply to any other law firm, I closed the chapter on that part of my life and never looked back.
And the fact is, there’s no sob story in evidence here because, in my honest view, things happen for a reason, but there is a very important point to all of this I would like to make. Furthermore, I believe this story and ensuing points relate to a very large and increasing proportion of young people coming through the modern education system:
Our lives get mapped out for us WAY too early…
We are also led to believe a fallacy that exams are the only gateway to success in life. They are definitely important and they can certainly open doors, but there are far too many examples of people being incredibly successful without exam success to suggest they are the only way to reaching your professional goals.
The fact is, working life tests us in so many different ways that school and university examinations have no bearing on People skills, communication skills, politics, negotiation, stakeholder management, giving and taking feedback. How many of these are covered in a typical A level or University syllabus? Granted in micro-biochemistry, it may be possible to be successful and make the next big patent discovery without too much of the above, but I have to go to this extreme to find the exception!
My message here is not to undermine the role of education at all. My actual view is quite the opposite, as quality education broadens the mind and develops ways of organising your thinking that will serve you well in professional (and personal) life. Of course, being knowledgeable and armed with the correct skills, which only academic study can ensure is in place, is also vital for many fields, so there are practical considerations too.
However, I am saying it’s not the 'be all and end all' and I do believe far too much emphasis is placed on young people having clarity on exactly the direction their career should take at too young an age. The upshot is, if things do go off track, as they often do, young lives can be crushed under the weight of expectation and that’s simply not good at all. In fact, it can be tragic, because the reality is, life is a very long journey and different people blossom at different times of their life, often many times over, based on finding a connection and meaning in what they do.
This should have been the message shared with me at the time of my period of disillusionment, though the more powerful journey was discovering the truth myself.