What they don’t teach you in school
Disclaimer: Currently traveling in the USA so posts may be intermittent
I caught up with an old high school friend the other day and it was heartening to see the similarities with where his life has taken him compared to mine. Whilst we work in different industries, both of us have followed similar paths as neither of us was academically gifted in school but both found ways to overcome this and find career success.
Since we hadn’t seen each other since those last days of high school (nearly 18 years ago) it got me to think about what they teach us in those formative years about life and what to expect from it when we exit the school grounds. As much as I have the utmost respect for teachers (though I’m sure everyone’s experience is different), I do not think that school prepared me enough for life. On the one hand, maybe it should, especially since they teach us about so many other topics. On the other hand, maybe it is important that we learn these things ourselves as we might tend to disregard ‘life’ teachings if they were just another school subject. Either way, here’s a few things I would tell my younger self about thing I’ve learnt along the way and maybe it will be helpful for the younger readers amongst us.
Getting bad grades is not the end of the world
Getting good grades wasn’t something I worried about in early school/high school years but I certainly struggled later on in my latter high school years. We all have different learning styles and mine was more conducive to rote learning. Repetition, repetition, repetition. That was the only way for me to absorb any kind of learning material and that style of learning continues to this day. Because of these initial struggles I was limited in terms of the course options I could choose at university. I ended up selecting a generic science/arts degree which might be okay for certain types of jobs but the type I was after needed something more specific. I had a friend in those first university years who did a similar generic science/arts course alongside me and chose some easier type classes. Getting good grades in these allowed him to transfer to the architecture course he wanted to do. I on the other hand wanted to do computer science but chose computer science like courses in my first years and struggled with them. That meant that although I chose courses within the type of area I wanted to transfer to, I was not able to transfer like he did because my grades were lower. Now maybe that’s a type of loop hole that’s not available to students any longer but it certainly worked at the time and if its possible to repeat, I’d advocate others to look into it too. Additionally, there are many older age students who will go to university later in life and it shows you that there are still ways to get to do the things you want. Whilst others may get in early and be on their way, they will go into a job market with limited experience. An older age student likely has more workforce experience and coupled with a degree, this can negate the setback of being older than others.
The point here is that even if bad grades were a problem for you, it is never too late to turn things around, and even if you think it’s a setback to be starting later than others, you can always find something else to give you an advantage, like life experience.
It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up
For some people, knowing what they wanted to be when they grew up was part and parcel with childhood. This is hardly the case for the rest of us though and it certainly was not that way for me. I flip-flopped between wanting to be a pilot, an astronaut, a computer scientist and a game developer. None of those things really took flight (pardon the pun) although I did take steps towards a few of them. The work I’ve been passionate about over the last 8 years is nothing like what I originally imagined for myself. The work I’m in now is the result of building blocks. These blocks were given to me at certain times in my career and little did I know that they would eventually come together to form the beginnings of a direction. I am still gathering these building blocks in terms of my experiences and it would be ill advised of me to predict exactly where it will take me. We all have these building blocks too, they come in the form of experiences, gained and missed opportunities and through what we learn in our career journeys.
For me, these blocks looked like this:
Not knowing what to do at university after finishing high school so taking a break mid-course
Gaining valuable experience in the insurance industry as a result of the type of work I could do without a degree
Realising the limitations of a non-degree resume for the work I wanted so taking a step back to university in an accounting course
Getting into a graduate accountant job at a big 4 accounting firm thanks to my more mature age as well as insurance industry experience
Moving into an analyst role at a bank thanks to my work at PwC
Being given the opportunity to learn the world of management and software consulting thanks to my banking analyst role
Utilising those tech skills to find a place in a fintech startup and eventually be with them until our merger/demerger with a mid-tier investment bank
Everything about where I am now comes after gaining experience in the previous steps and seeing them individually would not be a reliable way of predicting where I’d end up. I’ve had many other jobs that you could add to this list which can arguably be shown to have helped me get to where I am. Likewise, you too will have roles (prior or current) which will help you in your journey. It’s okay to not know where you are going, but you need to take those first steps, wherever they will be you’ll be able to use those skills later. Each step we take gives us new skills and perspectives to learn from and whilst we might complain about how busy or tough things are in the moment, when we look back every now and then, we can see just how far we’ve traveled.
Don’t be afraid of failure
I wrote in another blog about the need to relook at how we look at failure. I think we gain a lot from it so it’s heartening to see the same sort of message echoed in a book by the great Ray Dalio, a stalwart of Wall Street. In his book ‘Principles’ he highlights portions of his life and what he’s learnt. He sees pain as a reminder that there is some important lesson to learn and would make a game out of trying to figure out what the lesson was. Additionally, he mentions in a section talking about some personal tragedy that “there is nothing to prompt learning like pain and necessity”. It’s unfortunate but it’s true. Some of the greatest things we learn come only after pain and suffering adversity.
I’ve had may share of pain and experience of failure and one of the things I’ve learnt about myself is just how creative I can be when I am so close to the edge. There’s nothing like a bit of adrenaline to help you think outside your proverbial box and even if things had turned negative in those moments at least I would have gained a strong experience and teaching moment from it.
We do not get to experience any suffering without taking a leap into the abyss of life opportunities but its important to look at these situations as win-win. We will either succeed and gain from that experience or we will lose and learn something from it. Win-win.
So for those who are unsure of what to do in this game called life, do not fret. There are many like you and these many have found success in ways that they don’t teach you at school or university. So relax, go travel, take on different jobs, learn from others, learn from yourself (especially your mistakes) and go live your lives – enjoy the ride!