When Cham Tang screwed up his high school exams for the second year running, he thought his life might be over.
Two decades later, he's a self-made millionaire running one of Australia's fastest growing businesses, and the perfect illustration of why university isn't always the best option for everyone - and can even be a total waste of time and money.
But deciding to skip university wasn't easy for the Sydney teenager. As a student at Fort Street High School in the city's inner west, Cham was forced to watch his peers excitedly preparing for university. He had to tell them he had no idea what he wanted out of life.
"Once I could think for myself, I started thinking, 'What's the point of all these subjects?'" he told news.com.au. "I just slacked off.
"I remember telling my maths teacher, 'The only thing learning differentials will set me up for is a career as a maths teacher'. It didn't go down that well."
Cham was a smart kid, but he scored just 49.45 the first time he took his leaving exams and 51.90 on his second try a year later. He admits his results were a shock, but it made him start to realise a degree might not be for him.
His parents, however, desperately wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, and kept mentioning the children of family friends who were entering higher education with grand plans for their stellar careers.
Having immigrated to Australia at just three months of age, Cham says he faced an added cultural pressure to do well thanks to his Asian heritage.
"I mainly felt lost," he said. "I thought, I don't have a uni degree. I have to face the big, bad world by myself. I had to make some big life decisions.
"You also get ostracised a bit. 'Which uni are you going to? I'm going to the Centrelink office'. There's an unwritten judgment."
Instead of university, Cham tried his hand at a series of different jobs. He took an administrative role at NAB, followed by a job at a casino, a stint as a personal trainer and a period selling Tony Robbins seminars.
In every job, Cham says, he was "learning something". At the bank, the noticed that he didn't have enough role models or opportunity to progress. Gradually, he recognised business was where his passion lay, and he began to have the idea for his company, Authentic Education, which helps young entrepreneurs realise their dreams.
If you definitely want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you have to go to university. But if you want to run a start-up, it's definitely not the right path.
The firm he founded with Benjamin J. Harvey in 2009 was named one of Australia's fastest growing companies last year and made $3 million in revenue.
The 38-year-old has no regrets in skipping the university track. "I wouldn't have had the freedom to explore different opportunities," he said. "You aren't locked in for three years with HECS debt."
He has friends who committed to studying IT and accounting and slowly discovered it wasn't for them. Many tried it for a few years after university and then had to start all over again, or accept a lifetime in an unfulfilling job.
"I compare it to finding love," he said. "Most people don't decide straight away at 18, before even dating the person, that's who you want to be with for life. It's the same with a career."
Cham eventually did go to university as a mature aged student and studied IT - but only once he really knew what he wanted.
He says high students should carefully consider their future before they rush into an expensive degree.
"If you definitely want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you have to go to university. But if you want to run a start-up, it's definitely not the right path."
With new school leavers awaiting their university entrance marks, Cham thinks it's the perfect moment "to reflect on whether your chosen degree will truly make you happy" or if you're just doing what's expected of you.
High school students are under more pressure than ever, and stress levels are at an all-time high. Couple this with the fact that degrees are becoming devalued and millennials want careers with purpose and you have a strong argument for thinking outside the box.
"One of the strongest forces in human nature is known as future belonging, the ability to see yourself in the future as part of a specific group of people or part of a certain identity," said Cham.
"Students predominantly choose their degrees based on their scores and rarely on their future belonging. After a few months of studying something chosen purely because of the entrance mark, the non-conscious mind works out the image this person holds for the future is not going to be attained via this degree and so the motivation to complete study is lost for good.
"Take the time to work out what really lights you up."
HOW TO FIND YOUR PASSION:
• Remember that finding your passion is like finding true love. It rarely happens at first sight.
• Don't confine yourself to one type. You don't really know what you'll love (or not love) unless you experience it yourself first-hand. So be open to dating different career choices. This can even include starting a business.
• Be a serial monogamist. Stick with the same career for a minimum of three months before you decide it's not for you.
• Learn from each decision. After each choice, ask yourself "What worked?" and "What didn't work?" so you make a better decision next time as you get closer to finding the career that inspires you.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON'T GET THE GRADES YOU WANT:
• Realise your career is a marathon, not a sprint. So if you're not off to a fast start, don't sweat it. It's not about where you begin, it's where you end up that counts the most.
• See the benefits in not getting the mark you want. You get real world work experience (and get paid!) much faster. You get to try different careers instead of being locked into one path for the next three years at university. It's character building. We learn much more from our challenges than our successes.
• Start brainstorming your other opportunities. Successful people spend 20 per cent of their time on the problem, and 80 per cent on the solution. So focus on what your options are moving forward. Could you apply for a different uni or a different course? Could you try a different career you're passionate about? Could you aim to reapply as a mature age student in a few years' time? Write down all your ideas and take action on the best one.