Not surprisingly, the recent release of GCSE and A-level results has made me reminisce slightly about my teenage years. Even though at the time I’m sure there was angst, stress, drama and worry, one can’t help but look back at those years now through a jaded haze. How young we were, how few responsibilities we had! The prospect of Real Life seemed far away, the university years acting as a drunken debauched buffer in between school and moving permanently out of the parental home. Having been privately educated in a school where failure simply wasn’t an option, I completely bought into the idea that I’d cruise through the next stages of life. The possibilities were endless, and we were all destined to achieve great things. We’d had the best education possible, nothing was beyond our reach, and there was an unspoken guarantee that we’d all be wildly wealthy and successful within a few short years.
Oh, how naïve we were.
Looking back on it now, I can’t help but feel more than a bit frustrated by the fact that those of us who weren’t going to be doctors or lawyers were given minimal advice on how to go about choosing a career path. Anyone who did a Morrisby Test will know that while they’re entertaining to do (how many backwards S’s can you write in thirty seconds etc.) and the results certainly make for good reading, there was practically no follow-up afterwards. I remember that according to Morrisby my strongest career paths were television presenting, interior design and music production. ‘No no no’, said the school, ‘you’ll stick with languages. After all, you wouldn’t want to waste the last however many years of your education, would you?’
It seems ridiculous that these days you need to decide on what you wanted to do before you even know who you are. In all of my applications for writing-orientated jobs and internships, the minute they found out that I’d only started the journalism and blogging thing in my final year of university, DECLINED was swiftly stamped on my application. Apparently I should have been writing for the school magazine from the age of 15, and spent every summer making tea and coffee at the offices of my local newspaper. Why did no one tell me this at the time? BECAUSE I WAS FIFTEEN AND HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WANTED TO DO WITH MY LIFE!!! Actually, that’s a lie; I wanted to be a fashion designer. Yet another career choice that was quickly snuffed out by the establishment. But my point is, what teenager really does know what the life plan is? They’ve got far more pressing concerns to deal with: puberty, teenage romance, discovering alcohol and worrying about what to wear for the end-of-term dance.
And even now, nearly a decade later, I still haven’t really figured it out, although I do draw some comfort from the knowledge that I’m not the only one. A few university friends are nearly halfway through the 3-year slog at a Big 4 practice. They know they don’t want to be accountants until retirement age, and they know that upon qualification in 18 months’ time, they’ll leave and do something else. They just don’t quite know what that will be. I certainly don’t see myself being a PA forever, but it will do quite nicely for now. In the last two years I’ve met countless people who have studied law at university and are now in jobs that have nothing to do with their degree. I know of at least one person from my school that started out studying medicine at Oxford, and is now a surf instructor in Australia.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging any of these people. That would firstly be grossly hypocritical, and secondly just plain bigoted. I’m merely trying to illustrate the fact that even though you can have a plan of what your life might look like when you start university, there’s a huge likelihood that the reality will be quite different.
Maybe we won’t figure it out until we’re in our thirties, maybe I’ll never figure it out. Perhaps I should concentrate on what I do have: a job that pays enough to cover rent, travel and an enjoyment of London life; somewhere to live with people I care about; and my family and friends. The lack of a larger purpose in life doesn’t really seem so bad when you think about it. I do sometimes get the feeling that we’re all in a great big hurry to conquer life and achieve something. If you look at the continental Europeans, they have a far more laissez faire attitude towards the whole thing. Many of them study until at least the age of 25, by which time they will have had enough experience and time to grow up to make a more informed decision on what their career will be. Maybe all that cheese and wine makes them sluggish, but then maybe they’re on to something as well…
If I were to give my 16-year-old self some advice, it would be this: go through the next few years with a completely open mind. If you fail in what you set out to achieve, then find a new goal. If you achieve that goal but find that it’s not everything you hoped for, there will always be something else you enjoy.
I realise this may sound a bit touchy-feely and not really in line with the more cynical views that I’ve been known to hold, but let’s face it: life is hard enough without beating yourself up over exaggerated failings and downfalls. We’re still young, we still have energy, we still have the mental capacity to learn new things and adapt to new environments. After all, everyone needs a bit of variety in their lives. The last few years have seen me go from wannabe fashion designer to drugs-and-alcohol-loving waste of space to language student to wannabe stylist to wannabe fashion journalist to ski bum to recruiter to PA. Did I plan all of this? Don’t be stupid.
My best friend put it very succinctly a couple of months ago: people always say that your teens are the troubled years, but it’s actually your early twenties. Great.