By Jake Bailey
Would you trust your teenager to parallel park your car while blindfolded?
Probably not. Yet teens are trusted to manoeuvre their way to a decision about what they'll do with the rest of their lives. In reality, that teen is probably as good as blindfolded, distracted by other important considerations like how to best explain to the teacher that their assignment isn't complete, or where they'll crash after this weekend's party. I say it not with condescension, but from personal experience.
At school, I was a pretty decent student. My academic results were bolstered by my absolute incompetence in most sports, meaning I had a lot of extra time to spend on homework compared to most. My grades meant I could "Pass Go" to university, and in retrospect, I never considered otherwise. I don't know why. Maybe someone told a distracted me that's what I should do.
Another thing about teenagers is we overestimate our ability. When I was diagnosed with cancer a few months prior to the end of high school, my plans didn't budge. I recall thinking how lucky it was that my cancer had been diagnosed near the start of the Christmas break, so that I could have my treatment over the holidays and still start at university in February as planned. Looking back, I'm a little alarmed that not even stage four cancer was enough to make me re-evaluate my plans.
Fortunately, by then I had made a speech and some people who thought it was a pretty decent speech had asked me to come and speak some more. Initially, I did it because of the novelty in all honesty - the idea of being asked to go and address people 30 years my senior about life experience, while definitely an honour, was also hilariously unusual.
It didn't take more than one or two speeches for me to figure out that public speaking was my passion, and that making a difference to the lives of others is what makes me tick.
My point is not that teenagers should get into public speaking as a career. It's that I had gone all the way through my teenage years without discovering my passion. My school had done its job of giving me the opportunities to try many different things, and yet I still hadn't realised that public speaking was something that really captured my interest.
This may seem like a pretty inconsequential discovery, but it raised a question for me - how many other teenagers go through school, and into university, selecting their future career with a minimum of serious consideration and support?
I know it happens a fair bit. Of my mates who have gone to university, more than a handful have changed courses, or dropped out within the first year. And good on them too - the realisation that the path they had chosen for themselves wasn't the right one can't have been easy, but it's certainly wiser than continuing down that wrong path. An F. Scott Fitzgerald quote comes to mind - "I hope you live a life you're proud of, and if you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start over".
If you don't know what you want to do, then whatever you do, don't just go to university for the hell of it.
However, that's still a year of their life and thousands of dollars later than it has to be. The statistics agree too - the university completion rate in New Zealand is about 60 per cent, one of the lowest in the OECD. Nearly half of the people who go to university don't finish their degree as planned, and yet secondary education goals steer students towards university attendance.
I want this column to encourage the high school students out there currently trying to plan their future to remember that there are more options open to you than ever before.
Don't stumble into your future. Think it through with the energy your future deserves. There are online questionnaires that can help you find out what jobs are a good match for your interests and skills. Go and talk with your careers adviser at school. If you hate sitting behind a desk all day because you're hands-on, then maybe an apprenticeship is for you.
Polytechnics are offering a wider range of courses than ever before. There will be jobs in your future that haven't even been invented yet.
Absolutely, there are some jobs that will require a degree - no amount of life experience will get you admitted to the bar, or into a hospital to treat patients. But ask yourself (1) if this idea is really your passion, and (2) if a university degree would enhance that passion.
If you don't know what you want to do, then whatever you do, don't just go to university for the hell of it. Take a gap year. Not a lazy gap year but one focused on deciding what's next. Travel. Or work to save money, and then travel. Go and see the world. Say yes to every opportunity you get. Use LinkedIn. Meet people who know and have done more than you, and ask them questions. Read lots until you know what interests you. Discover what matters to you most.
If the answer requires a university degree, then go for it! But if it doesn't, maybe think twice. If it hadn't have been for the off chance, I would have been a third of the way through a conjoint degree in commerce and law by now. I probably would have still been happy, but I doubt I would have been as satisfied.
I want to encourage parents, family members, and educators to expose the next generation to options. Provide them with a plethora of ideas, knowing they might roll their eyes at you. A simple "Hey, have you considered this?" may just open those rolling eyes. Support them if they choose to swim against the stream. For some, that will be going to university, for others, not. Both are equally confronting.
My great uncle was the first of my family to finish tertiary study, and he went on to change countless lives as a world leader in the field of nephrology, just because he was brave enough to stand apart from the crowd and go to uni.
At the end of the day I'm grateful my mind was opened to other possibilities, albeit by luck. Young people, in fact all people, will achieve more and be more mentally healthy if we are doing what we love. The world can truly be your oyster and that is a damn exciting thing. Take control.