With lots of young 'uns starting university on Monday, at least in the Southern Hemisphere, and another round of graduations almost upon us, I'm feeling a little sentimental*. Here, in no particular order, is a list of the three things I wish someone had thought to mention to me when I was a Law student, many years ago.
THING I WISH I'D KNOWN #1 : THESE ARE NOT THE BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIVES
This statement is made with the best of intentions but frankly, I would like to gather up every person who tells youngsters that they are in the middle of the 'best days of their lives' and bang their collective heads together. And then make like Kirby J and, with the greatest of respect, dissent.
These 'best days' are, in fact, just days – they can be good and they can be bad. Just like Every. Single. Day throughout your life. Your life is really not on some inevitable downward trajectory from here, which is what this statement suggests. The people who are telling you this are quite possibly remembering a freedom from obligation, which seems so glorious in retrospect. There is a lot to love about your young years (shoulder pads!! the Cold War!! My WHAM t-shirt!!!) but there are also things to not love quite so much; the lack of certainty, the lack of power and the roller coaster that life in your late teens and early twenties can be.
So, next time someone sprouts this annoying line at you, agree wholeheartedly. Ask them how the mortgage is going then tell them how much you love being SO FREE. That you’re considering a face tattoo, before taking in a spot of nude paragliding in Guatemala before the start of Semester 2. That should shut them right up.
THING I WISH I'D KNOWN#2: SUCCESS LOOKS DIFFERENT TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE
It was either Gandhi or Judy Garland (SO easy to mix those two up) that said, ‘better to be a first rate version of yourself than a second rate version of someone else’. It’s really easy to get caught up in the dominant idea of what you should and shouldn’t be aiming for and what 'success' looks like. Those ideas are pervasive, seductive and generally get a chorus of approving ‘oohs and aahs’ from those annoying friends of your parents. But 'success' is actually a pretty personal concept.
I like Alain de Boton's thinking on this. As he said in his 2009 TED talk about success, “A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own.”
Spend time thinking about this; What are you good at? What do you love to do? What matters to you? And then make sure the life you lead contains a goodly proportion of those things. Ultimately, it's what 'success' means to you that counts.
THING I WISH I'D KNOWN #3: NOTHING IS EVER WASTED
There are very few truly wrong decisions in life. Everything you do or try is a source of information; information about what is ultimately best for your 'right life'. It's really easy to stress about taking a wrong turn but the things you do, the relationships you have and the jobs you try that do or don’t work out are all wonderful pieces of intelligence that help steer you in the right direction.
If I hadn’t have spent time in private practice in a commercial law firm, for instance, I would not now know that severing my own arm and using it to flag down a passing taxi to take me to a hospital so it could be re-attached is INFINITELY preferable to ever returning to that world. And I’m STILL glad I did it for a couple of years.
It’s impossible to know everything or have all the answers before you start. So don’t be afraid to start somewhere. Make the best decision you can with the information you have and the opportunities that are before you. Then give it your best shot but feel free to move on if it’s really not making sense to you. In everything you do, you will meet people, learn skills and take away knowledge that will help you in the future. And that’s true even if you just learn who or what you never want to cross paths with again (Shoulder pads. The Cold War. Although I did keep my WHAM t-shirt.)
Happy new semester and congratulations to all the new graduates!
*This post is adapted from an article I wrote for the Blackstone Society's Alternative Careers Handbook a few years back.