Passionate intensity

The best careers advice? Follow your enthusiasms, says Kevin Fong

November 10, 2011

So there I am at a very nice dinner event somewhere in university land. I’m sandwiched between the great and the good; knights of the realm and other assorted gong-holders. To my left is Extraordinary Vice-Chancellor; to my right is Titan of the Financial Sector.

We sit around, setting the world to rights but in a remarkably structured way. It’s not the kind of after-dinner conversation I’m used to, in which the loudest, most drunken person spews forth while others cower, principally from the spittle. The conversation is chaired brilliantly by one of the colossi in the room. There is a healthy mix of pragmatic industrialists, idealists and educators, all of them interested in the future of our country and our students, all understanding that they are one and the same.

The debate begins. I feel like I’m at the intellectual equivalent of Fight Club and I’ve turned up under-trained. The subject under discussion is how best to equip our children and thereby our country for the future with the educational tools at our disposal.

I am rather enjoying the discussion when Brilliant Chairman, rather unexpectedly, passes the ball to me. By this stage I have sipped rather too much from my wine glass, hiding behind it in an attempt to prevent what has just happened from happening. If there’s one golden rule of sitting around with clever people, it’s this: don’t drink and opine.

I open my mouth to speak and out comes a string of only barely coherent words. There is a point to the statement, but neither I nor anybody else around the table can work out what it is. I shut up. There is an uncomfortable silence. I feel like I’m in the six-yard box at the World Cup final against Germany with the goalkeeper off his line and the defence nowhere in sight … having just kicked the ball over the bar.

Brilliant Chairman moves the conversation on and internally I do a bit of self-flagellation. The subject of careers advice comes around, specifically how bad it seems to be. This I remember well from school.

Cue me in the civic centre, punching information about my loves and hates into a 1980s computer terminal. The thrust of my entries was that I wanted to do something that helped people, that money wasn’t the most important thing and that I liked talking to people and doing practical things. After a few seconds of processing, the computer informed me that I should think about becoming a PE instructor for the armed forces.

Later, at university, as I neared another fork in the road of my life, I embarked upon a similar exercise at the college careers office. This time the questions were deeper and I had a few more qualifications to help refine the search. A more advanced computer decided that the best job for me would be as an operational scientist at an atomic weapons facility.

Now perhaps those algorithms were right all along and my segue into medicine was a zig when I should have zagged. But I doubt it.

When it comes to advice, it should come as no surprise that you are better off getting it from people rather than computers. But then you are left with the question: who should give it and what should it be?

The issue goes round and round the table. Captain of Industry (actually he’s more like Admiral of Industry) thinks we should get businesspeople into our schools to provide it. He emphasises vocational career tracks and the direct demands for relevant skills made by business and industry. The educationalists and teachers around the table are less sure. But everyone agrees that not all paths have to lead to higher education.

The best careers advice my sixth-form teachers gave me was that I should turn up to more lectures and stop getting distracted by the girl I sat next to in maths. I didn’t listen to that, and so anything else they could add was kind of by the by. I was a pretty delinquent sixth-former, but even if I had been a model student, I’m not sure how useful their career advice would have proved. That’s not necessarily because they were rubbish at giving it, but because at the age of 16 I didn’t have the first bloody clue what I wanted out of life. (Those answers you punch into careers-advice software are just responses you give so that the computer will think you’re a nice person.)

I’m still daydreaming about this when Extraordinary Vice-Chancellor pipes up. He’s not sure about the Admiral’s emphasis on the vocational track. He advises that people should do something they have a passion for because things and aspirations change. He cites the surprisingly impressive employment record of history students at his university post-graduation. They, it seems, leave university equipped with skills in critical thinking and the ability to communicate. These skills, coupled with their proven ability to apply themselves and their extracurricular enrichments, give them access to a wide range of careers. They are, in some respects, the physics graduates of the humanities world (although with less of a predilection for thrash metal).

The advice about following your passions was never given to me. It’s not the basis of a coherent strategy for rebuilding our economy: I fear it will take a lot more than good careers guidance to achieve that. But Extraordinary Vice-Chancellor sounds like he probably followed that advice himself - and it seems to have worked out OK for him.

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