The ‘If you don’t go to university now, you’ll never go’ fallacy.

Fotolia_52154419_Subscription_Monthly_M.jpgI think people of my generation – (children of baby boomers) have a suffered a fallacy regarding university education, that has been pushed on to us by our parents.

The fallacy is the idea that one must go to university immediately out of highschool, and failure to do otherwise is indicative of low social status or a character flaw.

For my, and the generation ten years younger than me, university often treated as a rite of passage, a place where one discovers themselves, more than it is treated as an objective career move.

As a result, you have a situation where a lot of students are going to university, without having a plan for what they’re going to do when they finish.

A lot of people have the attitude – ‘I’ll graduate, then do my OE, and then get a job’. I think – ‘why not just skip straight to the OE?’.

In my opinion – this is a very expensive, and not very effective, rite of passage.

I think it is far more effective, for one to discover themselves while working and travelling. Working a hospitality job, or menial labour job, while living away from home, provides the opportunities to discover oneself – paying rent, working with new people, making new friends, partying etc.

Similarly, travel provides a lot of opportunities for personal growth. Learning to deal with unfamiliar situations, seeing the world and assessing what your values are, meeting people of different cultures, and of course, partying.

I think the attitude arises from the baby boomer generation where careers tended to be a lot more single tracked and long term. One would start a profession and stick with it for life.

Career paths are no longer so static, and it’s now much more normal to switch career track mid-life.

I think also for the baby boomer generation, a university degree held much more social value. These days – with any reasonably intelligent person going to university, a university degree is no longer an indication of notable intelligence – it’s just surprising if an apparently educated person doesn’t have a university degree, but not a mark against them.

My advice, for teenagers considering their next steps after finishing high school, or their parents, is to consider your options. Don’t accept university as the default – because it’s an expensive choice. At approximately $10,000 for a year’s university education in New Zealand, that $10,000 could spent spending the year travelling.

Consider instead – working full time and saving money, moving to Australia and working seasonal work there, taking a one year TESOL course and then the following years teaching English overseas. There’s a wide range of alternative options.

Of course, this advice doesn’t apply to everyone – some young people are particularly motivated and have a clear direction – and I don’t mean to stifle their progress.

But for the others of us who want to experience life first – there’s plenty of time to decide what you want to do for a career – and you’d going to discover that simply by experiencing life – and you don’t university to do that.

Three times I wished I’d quit.

Further to this previous post I wrote, here are three examples that come to mind, when I think of ‘times I wish I’d quit’.

A philosophy paper in my third year of university.

The paper was some kind of ethics paper. In practise it was a lot about semantics. In retrospect I can appreciate the point it was making more now, at the time I found it frustrating.

The reason I regret not dropping the paper is because what it entailed not doing. The reason I was doing the paper, was in order to complete my degree that year. But I didn’t have a plan for the year following completing. My alterative plan was to do a student exchange and complete my degree overseas. By not quitting I removed that clear objective, and lost focus in my life in general.

A group project at university.

In the final year of my computer science degree, I was involved with a group project producing an Android application. I wasn’t in a good space at the time of starting the project, and didn’t get into what I think was a particularly good group. About one quarter of the year through, I had a fall out with another member about a coding issue, and it lead to a clique against me, where I was seen as doing more harm than good. At this point I could have withdrawn the paper, but I kept in it. Ultimately I burned out, and stopped contributing. At the end of the year the project was a bug riddled disaster (but not my code!), and it was my only C grade of the degree.

My first job early on. 

My first ‘real job’ out of university, I was put on a performance management within six months of starting. The reasons stated were ‘being disorganised’ and ‘asking too many questions without seeking to solve problems myself first’.

Despite being promised that the PIP wouldn’t interfere with my pay review mid year – that’s exactly what happened.

I’d promised myself that if I didn’t get a payrise at mid year, I’d find a new job. But the Team Leader promised an interim pay review at the end of the year (which happened), and advice others gave me that I should stick around for a year.

I regret second guessing myself, and my advice for anyone in a similar situation is that there isn’t really any coming back from performance management – even if they trust you, you’ll end up resenting them for it.

The problem with looking any past decisions and thinking ‘I wish I’d … instead’, is that you can suffer a ‘smooth sailing fallacy’, where the alternative path is seen as problem free. Chances are, any path you take is going to pathed with bumps and challenges. That said – there are some paths I’ve taken (certain papers at university for example) that have been relatively smooth sailing, and generally a success story.

To counter-balance these examples here’s an example of a time that I’d quit, and wish I had:

Looking for work in Australia.

When I was 19, I moved to Australia with $500 in my pocket. The money was all gone within a week, I left the last ~$150 in someone’s car I’d hitchhiked with.

I was staying in Northern NSW, and going to ‘doof’ (outdoor dance parties) every weekend, and otherwise surviving on soup kitchens.

I took a trip north to Queensland to look for work picking fruit there. I made it as far north as Bundaberg, before attempting to head inland to Gayndah, where there was orange picking work.

For two afternoons (I was sleeping in heavily), I tried hitch hiking, with no success. On the third day, I packed up and hitched back to NSW, where at least there were soup kitchens.

I wished I’d stuck with the hitchhiking, it would have prolonged my stay in Australia, and possibly have drastically altered the life path I took.

Quitting is underrated.

I think there’s an often unhelpful cultural attitude that stigmatises quitting.

Quitting is seen as indicative of a bad work ethic, or laziness, or a lack of grit. Quitting is seen as worse than failure – at least someone who fails has the follow through to see the thing through to the end.

The attitude that is encouraged for facing a difficult situation is to grit up, to grin and bear it, or to be creative in finding a solution to the problem. There’s the promise that going through the hardship will more rewarding in terms of practical experience and character building, than quitting would.

There’s a fear that if one quits now, they’ll develop a habit of quitting, and quit whenever things become more difficult, or they’re put beyond their comfort zone.

I agree that there’s something to be said for persevering in the face of challenge, but only if the project as a whole is worthwhile.

When the main reason for carrying on, is the value of perseverance or avoiding being a quitter, then it’s time to quit.

The risk of continuing with something that you’re not getting value out of, is that the stress of carrying on can spill over into the rest of your life. For example, if you’re in a job that you hate, they you may be preoccupied with the job when you’re at home too. Or on the other hand, if you’re in a bad relationship, that may affect your performance at work.

I think people are most motivated when there’s a big picture goal, that they value, and they can see how what they’re doing is helping achieve that goal.

When it’s apparent that what they’re doing doesn’t achieve that big picture goal, or that the value of what they’re doing is several layers abstracted from that goal, one’s whole life can start feeling meaningless.

The danger is when there appears to be no end in sight, and the thought is ‘Even if I do my best work now, my situation is going to be the same in six months, one year’s time’.

Doing good work involves grit and discipline. It require concerted effort. If that effort is, at least in the person’s mind, not going to have any real reward, it’s reasonable to see how one might instead opt for shortcuts or immediate gratification.

I would propose a model of stress tolerances, whereby each individual has a certain ability to tolerate stress – whether that’s dealing with difficult people, learning new technologies, getting their head around logical problems, being bored, and so on.

It makes sense that people should prioritise their ability to deal with stress, to those activities that provide the most value to them. Activities that are not providing much value, should be abandoned, in an act of simplifying their life.

I’ve recently simplified my life in a few ways:

  • I broke the lease on the apartment I was renting, so I’m no longer responsible for chasing flatmates up for rent, finding new flatmates, and paying bills.
  • I found a new job, and quit my current job which I felt no sense of recognition in.
  • I quit drinking alcohol.

As a result, I feel like I’m floating. I feel much much better, and I can see the value in the things that I am doing.

I still have activities that provide stress, or warrant the application of grit.  Writing this blog for example, requires a concerted effort to sit down and write the words. Exercising requires grit to get out and start doing it. But these are both activities that I can clearly see the value of, especially in a context of a job where my career with be progressing, and living situation where I can relax.

In conclusion, my advice for people is to look at their life, and question what things are in it that are providing unnecessary stress. Remove them. After that, you can do the mindfulness and meditation tricks and deal with the things that you really value.