Like everything else that is occurring in the world at the moment, young people are receiving their GCSE results, A Level results or degrees in the next few weeks without the usual signifiers of mid-August to mark such an occasion.
The stock local newspaper photo of blonde A graders jumping for joy, results paper clung in victory, or crowds of graduates in black gowns throwing their caps triumphantly into the air on a campus beauty spot, bubbling with optimism and excitement, wondering what the future holds. These are all absent.
In a large number of cases, those receiving results or degrees have not been able to take their exams at all. Some have been downgraded significantly. And on top of all that, they are now making decisions on a future which just a year ago seemed unthinkable, and is now a rather scary reality for most.
I have been giving this a lot of thought over the last week. Regardless of global issues, I always think of it every August, because that was me over 10 years ago, both when I recieved my GCSEs and A Levels, which I had quite the protracted route through, and then when I graduated from university.
The picture you see at the top of this blog is me, taken on my graduation day, not in the heat of August, but instead in the wintry depths of November 2012, at a coffee shop near the cathedral in St Albans where my graduation ceremony was taking place. 2012 was a time, that you might remember, was during the midst of a double dip recession on top of the one caused by the global financial crash in 2008 (when I took a year out after A Levels).
I love this picture. Apart from the fact it was my graduation day, a day I didn’t think would come at all, it was also one of the happiest days of my life. I had finally obtained a degree I had poured my heart and soul into for three of the best years of my short life so far. I frequently say that wearing my cap and gown on that day was the closest I have ever felt to how a bride feels when she wears her wedding dress. I didn’t want to take it off.
But in the background of all of this, I can also see the look in my eyes. The look of ‘What’s next?’ Because I genuinely had no clue at that point. For the first time in my life, I had no guidebook taking me onto my next great mission or venture.
Only now in the last year or so do I feel like I’m now in a position where I have made progress into the field I’m in (writing) and that I’m good at. With this in mind, I wanted to take time to reflect, and give my 23 year old self, as I was back in 2012, some advice that I hope can uplift and offer reassurance to anybody who is currently in the same boat I was in all those years ago.
1. You’ll go through a period of regret. I don’t mean that in a glib way, but you’ll very briefly regret doing the degree you did. You’ll feel this way because of certain comments made by people at social functions and networking opportunities you attended, or mindless ‘courses’ that you were sent on, when you mentioned graduating to certain people, and telling them what you were hoping to do or achieve.
You’ll get people telling you you did a non-degree, or that every waiter and their mother has a degree these days, or that their cousin’s daughter’s niece got a 1st in their degree at Exeter, and are now on an extended grad scheme for a blue chip tech firm in the City that offers strategic data support to SMEs in the Thames Valley with a £5k Christmas bonus and company Mercedes SLK.
You’ll wish that you had taken a degree with prospects of a “guaranteed job”. For a while, the framed picture of you on your graduation day, taken by your dad, hung above your bed, will feel like it’s mocking and torturing you.
Rest assured though, you have worked damn hard for that degree and to get to where you’ve got, so don’t let anybody tell you it’s not worth it. And yes, there will be the period of regret. But it’s completely natural to feel like that. It won’t last. You’ll look at it again with pride.
2. The path you had in mind might not be the one you stick with. Despite telling everybody that’s what you were doing, that it was the absolute dead set path for you, you may discover that said path wasn’t actually the right one at all.
It seemed like a fail safe one, but after doing some professional experience and shadowing in that area (and witnessing some behaviour you wish you’d never seen), you may force yourself a bit further down that path by trying to tell yourself it won’t all be like that.
You’ll meet somebody closely connected with your past, months after your experience, who gives you the wake up call you need. It is all like that. It’s not for you. But you’ll learn this then rather than when it’s too late and that counts for a lot.
And guess what? It’s absolutely OK if the path’s not right for you. It’s OK to get a little bit lost. If the path is right, congratulations. But be sure it’s one that you know instinctively is going to be right for you in the long run.
3. You’ll learn to downscale your expectations, even though they were pretty low to begin with. You’ll find yourself applying for and chasing after any opportunity, however ill suited to it you are, because of desperation.
Desperation you strive to hide, because of society’s general feeling, because of the pressures heaped upon you, and especially by the media – a dangerous beast at the worst of times, more so in a crisis, as we are all witnessing yet again – trying to rope you in with absolutely everybody else like you who is struggling to progress in their career because it makes good copy and has a better agenda to push and sensationalise.
The newspapers and TV shows will be filled with stories and programming, highlighting how awful and bad and ungrateful these people like you are, that may, in many cases, have to rely on a welfare system that is supposed to be there to support them if they have difficulties that are largely a result of external circumstances rather than their own doing. As a result, you’ll become fearful of news bulletins and the TV being on at certain times of the evening, and become uncomfortable discussing such matters with anybody other than those who need to know.
You will find yourself saying yes to a lot of things just to avoid getting yourself in trouble that you were never really in to begin with, but because doing anything else will make you seem lazy, entitled, selfish, stubborn or difficult.
But guess what? You are none of these things. You are unique and have a gift to offer the world, even if you don’t know it yet. And the circumstances you’re in now, as difficult as they feel, will not last forever. Nor should it define who you are. Keep informed, of course, but DO NOT BUY INTO MEDIA HYPE.
As long as you’re being as proactive as you can – note, proactive, not striving – and taking any sensible routes in you can – even if it means doing stuff you love voluntarily or for free for a bit – then the step on the ladder you’ve been waiting for will happen, and quicker than you expect.
4. You’ll spend so much time being preoccupied by your friends and former coursemates, and their activities on social media. You’ll see them get into glittering careers, progressing, travelling the world, succeeding, finding love, starting families and making homes. You’ll be happy for them, but you will also constantly compare yourself to them. You’ll feel less than them.
You will have a period for about two years where even the smallest achievement or step of progress you make isn’t celebrated by yourself, because it seems insignifcant or pales into contrast with how fabulous someone else has it. You’ll eventually learn that social media is a dangerous thing, in that some people are better at holding their shit together than others on a public forum. It is, and always will be, a glorified card trick.
And another thing. Celebrate each achievement you make or goal you accomplish. We are only on this planet for a finite amount of time. Even if it’s just quietly with a treat night for yourself. Life affords us a lot of struggles and hardships, but it also offers us moments of fun and relaxation. So embrace them and more importantly enjoy them.
5. You’ll eventually get your foot on a ladder. And I say ‘a ladder’, because it’s the first one that gives you a chance. You’ll gratefully accept the opportunity, scrambling to sign the contract without really reading it, and at first all will seem lovely. You’ll talk about how well you’re doing to all you meet. Everything will be new and exciting and you won’t question it at all. But things will change. The honeymoon period will end. You’ll notice but not acknowledge that you were promised opportunities that never arrived, but hey, you won’t complain about it. Everyone loves what you do right now. You’re, professionally speaking, firing on all cylinders. Anything’s better than where you were, right? Why rock the boat?
But yet so blindly happy are you to be in any opportunity, even as a protemps measure, you get comfortable. A little too comfortable. You’ll be misled into thinking this is a secure way of life now. You’ll realise that you should have moved on from it and kept yourself active 18 months too late. It is perhaps the toughest lesson you learn, but it teaches you that nothing is dead set and nothing is certain.
Unfortunately, you have to find this out for yourself. I’ll not sugar coat it when I say that your mental health will take a battering as a result of this period of your life. You will lose trust of your own instincts for a while. Things and situations that you thought you could depend on will end, in some cases abruptly, and people you saw as good working partners who you got on well with will suddenly not be there anymore or will let you down. You will be viewed, professionally, as ‘washed up’, ‘damaged goods’ or a write-off.
But – and I hope this is true for most people reading this – there is backup. Your support network of family and friends and professional contacts that you’ll encounter and acquire are there, and will help you slowly come to terms with what’s happened. They’ll make you realise your worth and build your confidence again, even in the smallest but most considered ways. And they will make you realise that this was just a blip, or a bump in the road, and that this is not the end of your story by any means.
6. You’ll figure it out. Not today, maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not even in a week. But you will figure out what it is you’re meant to do soon enough. You’ll realise that you’re not defined by what people think of you or what box you should neatly be put into, or indeed that you are, in certain people’s words, ‘a square peg in a round hole’.
In time, you’ll discover what your truth and your purpose is. Your truth will only ever be as big as you allow it to be, but once you know what your purpose is, you will never lose sight of it, and you will make it a defining feature of everything you do.
And once you know what your purpose is, once you build that for yourself, you will run with it. You will have objectives in place. You will go and you will fly without anyone telling you to. You’ll learn what it is to measure progress and define success, not by your career status, your bank balance or by who you are partnered or not partnered with.
You will learn to be wholly and unapologetically you, what qualities and gifts you have to offer, how kind you are to others, how mindful you are in your thoughts, your words and your actions, and how resilient you can be when the going gets tough.
The human brain is amazing, and especially in times of crisis, even when it feels hard to, feeding it messages of positivity or encouragement will, with time, make your mindset and how you view the world one of the strongest tools at your disposal.
7. You’ll eventually be open to new opportunities. Whatever part of your life and whatever field that takes, you’ll be open to saying yes. You’ll be open to embracing new paths and trying new things that will enrich and deepen your purpose.
Rather than saying ‘What if this goes wrong?’ or ‘What if I fail?’, you’ll say ‘How about…?’ or ‘Let’s try’. You’ll see problems as opportunities, you’ll be more measured in your approach and will learn to make mistakes but not fear doing so.
You’ll also learn that, far from people not liking you for it, that when it is needed, it’s also OK to say no, or that you’re not comfortable with certain things. People will respect you and value what you say and feel more seriously.
You’ll also find the things, however small or big, silly or ridiculous they are, that enhance or bring joy or happiness to your life. Do more of that. Do more that lifts your soul or brings a smile to your face. Life is there to be enjoyed.
And one more thing – the steps you take today, right now, will move you forward. Maybe not in a way you can even envisage at present, but progress is not in a direct straight line. Progress is, metaphorically speaking, the Hampton Court Maze of life. But whatever steps you take, however many dead ends or wrong turns you make, eventually you’ll get to the centre. You’ve got this.