What university really teaches you: the exam paper of the life of a 21-year-old

“University will be the best 3 years of your life”, they say. “You will learn lots, and it’s so good because you don’t need to study all the subjects you don’t care about, you just study the one you love really in-depth.”

It is an early Saturday morning, and I am on holiday in Toronto. Two weeks have passed since my last exam and there are exactly four weeks left until graduation. For the first time in a very long time, I allow myself a chance to just breathe after another manic year, and the thought that I am finally done with education is starting to sink in.

My mind drifts backs to when I first started applying to universities and courses all those years ago. Prospectus after prospectus, each one will tell you how amazing their course is and how you get to “apply the knowledge you learn in the classroom to the real world”.

You stop for a few moments to test the validity of that statement. Exam after exam later, essay after essay later, you’re wondering what actually you can apply. It’s true: having studied economics, I can (arguably) critique a little better Theresa May’s policies, or understand firms’ behaviour better.

But I try to think in more abstract terms. Because really, the degree isn’t even half of the learning you’ll do at university. Were there things you learnt, but were not necessarily taught? In which case, do you wish you were taught it? It’s so ironic that you will sit so many exam papers, testing your knowledge on the various topics, but life is the biggest – and most difficult – exam, and yet there was no question paper to sit on how to handle all its respective topics.

I turn 21 today. As my friends will know, one of my biggest life principles that I follow is:

“If you’re lucky enough to do well in life, make sure you send the elevator back down.”

My time at university is done, and I’ve had an truly amazing time. This is a post for those about to start. An ‘exam paper’ about what to expect – what you won’t be taught, but what you’ll most definitely learn. In the same way you’d prepare for a school exam, you’ll need to prepare for a life exam. Treat this as a past paper:

The past paper will be split into sections. You quickly scan your eyes down the opening questions to get a feel of the paper, and before you even start, you’ll have learnt something: that first impressions count. In the same way you’re casting a quick judgement on the overall difficulty of the paper, over the three years you will meet so many people and people will form quick judgements on you, as you will form them on others. For the impressions you set, do your best to set good ones. It is so much easier to maintain a relationship than salvage one. For the impressions you form of others, know that whilst your judgement may not always be helpful, 99% of the time it is highly accurate so trust your gut feeling. By now, you will have interacted with enough human beings to know which types you get along with and which types ring alarm bells.

The paper begins. Section A is a section dedicated wholly to the topic of yourself, because throughout these three years, you will come to see your own strengths and weaknesses. You have some tremendous weaknesses, so many things you know you are so bad at doing. But don’t use that as justification that you will never become good at it. Work on those weaknesses and invest heavily on the continuous personal development.

When a child learns to walk and falls down 50 times, he never thinks to himself: “Maybe this isn’t for me?”

You’ll also be tested heavily on your own life principles and your own personality over a critical period in your life where everyone is trying to form who they are under the influence of phenomenal social pressure. Over these three years, become someone your 10-year-old self will be proud of, and your 30-year-old self will thank you for. Become a man of integrity. Strive to be the nicest person you know, the most helpful person you know, the most hard-working person you know, the most genuine person you know. All you can ever be is a better version of you, so embrace your uniqueness because everyone else is taken.

Hence go about your ideals quietly. Treat everyone with respect because we are all human beings, doing the best with what we have. Karma is real, so be pure in your intentions and treat everyone well even if they have nothing to offer you. People care too much about reputation – the external public persona of what you show. Worry more about your character – the internal value system of who you are and what you do when no-one is looking.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The exam paper hasn’t started too well and you’re losing confidence in your ability to pass this exam, but one of the biggest things you’ll learn is to dig deep and believe in yourself. There will be so many times where you will want to quit something, but you will also know that every time you make it through, you will get one step closer and one ounce stronger. There’s always going to be moments – and people will have it at different points – where you start to think “What are you doing, just quit!” but if you keep going, you realise that when you come out of the other side, each time you get a little bit stronger and each time your sense of achievement gets that little bit greater.

So don’t quit. Have confidence that you will succeed. You’ll realise that the human spirit can do anything it sets its mind on, so believe in your abilities. If you have confidence in yourself, others will too. If you don’t, others won’t either, and this will further make you not believe in yourself. It’s a vicious circle, so feed this competence-confidence loop positively before it takes controls of you.

The exam might be going so badly that you’re wishing you didn’t do this module because you knew it was a push for you, but set challenging goals, deliberately test yourself and push your boundaries. Challenging your capabilities is what expands them. Without the struggles, you wouldn’t know your strengths. The skills you feel you are lacking in, commit to strategies to improve them. University will teach you a lot of skills, such as time management and team-work, whilst summer jobs you do in-between will undoubtedly teach you a lot about leadership and communication. But there will be some skills missing which it is down to your own initiative to fix up.

So work on them. It’s important to have the right mind-set, but without the right skill-set to match, you’re not going to get very far. So invest time in learning and improving above and beyond the degree. It’s what will separate the good from the great, and it starts with you wanting to be the best you can possibly be every single day. If you feel you are a poor public speaker, for example, throw yourself into a few presentations. Or if you feel you are a bad leader, volunteer to be the group project manager next time.

Test yourself at every opportunity because this is the time to do so. You’ll realise one of the quickest ways you will learn is just by throwing yourself in. It’s not about feeling confident, or knowing it will work out, or having the most detailed plan of how it will happen. It’s just about doing it. No matter how terrifying the situation is, I can guarantee you the short-term nerves is insignificant compared to the happiness you will feel from eventually conquering it.

You’re onto the next question which is split into parts (a), (b) and (c), and whilst you’re not sure how to answer the small 5-marker in part (a), you reckon you can tackle the bigger 20-markers in the other parts. Except you can’t really, can you, because they all lead on. You’ll realise that the small things in life are really the big things. You treat yourself right, you’ll be able to treat others right. Or the fact you’re not going to master your life in just one day – you need to relax, master the day, and just keep doing that every day. Do the little things right and the big things will take care of themselves.

You pause writing for a moment as you think you may have answered a question wrong, but you’ll come to realise that your greatest fear isn’t being wrong, or making a fool of yourself or anything like that, but your greatest fear is a fear of fear itself. The unknown. How do you behave at a wedding, for example? I don’t know, I haven’t been to one before. How do you deliver a presentation? How do you referee a football match? How do you write an invoice? One of your friends is going through a really difficult patch in life, what do you do? You will be thrown into so many unknown situations where you will not know what to do or who to go to. You don’t actually care if you look stupid, but you care if you feel stupid. In these instances, knowledge is power. Educate yourself on all possibilities by gaining more life experience. As soon as you have one such situation under your belt, even if it went terribly, you’ll know what went right and what went wrong to make a better second attempt. (Or, in this day and age, just Google it.)

And if that fails, rely on hope. Spread positive vibes and don’t be defeatist. Sometimes you’ll do something but you’re not sure if it worked. You’re scared. You’ll wish you can see more progress, but just trust that you’ll succeed. You’ll want to know that you’re on the right path, but just believe and have faith it’ll work out. It usually does.

But not always. Bad things will also still happen, and it is a test of your mental character to see how you handle it. The paradox of life is that you need to know the complete opposite to know the true feeling of something. You need less to appreciate more, bad to know good, sad to feel happy, grief to appreciate, toxic friends to know good friends, suffering to know strength, failure to know success. So when something bad happens, realise that that is a way to make you actually feel happiness when the next good thing comes round.

You’ve finished Section A, which focused on yourself, and are moving to Section B, which focuses on the other people in the rest of the world. The biggest test will be to see whether you can hold your own in a world of people desperate to fit in. Don’t aspire to be like the wrong people and don’t lose yourself in the process of trying to please others.

One of the best pieces of advice you will ever get is:

“People are people.”

For so long you will have no clue what this means, but in truth, if you boil it down, everyone is the same. The same wants. The same desire to be a part of something. To feel loved. There will be some cultural differences, but everyone has the same basic values, dreams and aspirations. Bear that in mind in every conversation you have, that the person right in front of you that you’re talking to, stripped back, is basically the same as you. It’ll open your eyes about how to treat people.

It’ll also become very clear that people gravitate towards people they’re similar to. In light of this, focus on yourself and become the type of person you want to attract, because I can guarantee you that they’ll find you.

At the same time though, it’s so important to embrace diversity. Gel with people of different cultures and appreciate everyone’s differences. People stick to what they know, yes, but make as many friends as you can from all corners of the world and this will allow you to understand a broader range of people – everyone has a beautiful life story.

And because of this, you will make some unbelievable friends, some proper soul connections of people you have connected deeply with rather than superficial light chats. In a society where real-world human connection seems to be disappearing in favour of the quick Snap or quick gif, these people will hands down be the most valuable asset you take away from university for life going forward.

You look up and see two students talking, and this will remind you of another real-world applicable lesson: people will gossip. So choose your friends wisely because you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and there are some clear no-go’s. Bin the gossipers very quickly. If they can do it to others, they can do it to you.

But it doesn’t mean you have to be completely put off by it. Leave them to it, don’t bow down, stick to your principles of integrity and loyalty and just get on with your life. People love gossip, people love drama. One of the biggest tests of university is to learn how to not give a care in the world about others’ gossip. Focus on yourself – your self-worth is not found in the opinion of other people.

You’re half-way through the exam and you quickly tot up how many marks you think you have got so far with the questions you have answered. It doesn’t sound pretty, and you’re starting to hate the lecturer for setting a nasty exam. Except you’ve come to realise that nothing in life is personal. Someone hates you for no apparent reason; and what? Over the course of the three years, learn to detach what others do and your feelings. If you live off someone else’s compliments, you will die from their criticisms. Some will hate you, some will love you, but nothing is personal. Again, focus on yourself and what you do. Inner confidence is not “they’ll like me”, it’s “I’ll be fine if they don’t”.

The next few questions are multiple choice. For these, be as instinctive as you can. If life gives you a dilemma and a couple of options, don’t drown yourself in thought. Trust your gut – if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t – and hone your decision-making skills by building up as much knowledge as possible. The more decisions you make, the easier it will be to spot a terrible one. Good decisions come from using experience, but experience can only come from making bad decisions. But definitely don’t dally and don’t fret – worrying steals all your mental energy, keeps you busy doing absolutely nothing but does not allow you to make a better decision at all.

You see the student on the seat next to you powering through the exam, requesting more and more sheets of paper and you’re struggling to write even two lines. You’re worrying some more, but learn to never compare yourself against others. So what if they’re racing ahead? You can go nowhere very fast. Take your time and follow your own pace. Plan what you need to, organise your answer of how to tackle this problem and then write away. Compare only to yourself: “Is this the best possible answer I could have written?” Life is a game of you versus your former self only, so don’t over-think who you’re competing against. There is no pressure – that metaphorical student is not intending to throw down a challenge about how much you can both write. But you’re taking it that way, which means the only pressure really is the pressure you put on yourself. This will be your greatest motivation but also your greatest stress. Embrace the stress. Use it to strive for better.

“Never stop pushing yourself. Some say 8 hours of sleep is enough. Why stop there? Why not 9? Or 10? Strive for greatness.”

You’ve finished Section B and you see that Section C only requires you to answer one question from a selection of questions, which by definition means you get a choice – hooray!

Except that choice is between good grades, sleep and a social life. The more you want to achieve in life, the more sacrifices you will have to make. There will be so many distractions – you will want to work, but equally isn’t it cool to do a (totally scientific) quiz to see what your favourite flavour of crisp says about your personality? But when you realise that all that life is is the time we are afforded, then you will learn to be super disciplined with time. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything, so it is all about priorities and staying organised. (N.B. Smoky Bacon and no-nonsense, in case you were wondering.)

On top of that, arguably what is more important is learning how to manage your energy rather than your time. Time is irrelevant when you are out of energy. So don’t burn out and understand that your body needs rest instead of pushing through the day with more coffee. If you’re tired, just slow down, but don’t quit. If you can’t run, walk. If you’re that exhausted, sleep some more. But don’t give up on the dream or life ambition.

“University is a vicious cycle of staying up late to catch up on work and taking naps because you stayed up late and then being behind because you just took a nap.”

You move on to answering the next question, but you’ve made a mistake. You’ll realise you will make a ton of mistakes during these three years, beyond belief, and time and time again you think you will have learnt, but time and time again you will keep on making the same errors. Some mistakes will be written in pencil and can be easily erased, for example you do something wrong, or answer something incorrectly. Apologise, correct yourself and move on. But you will also make some more catastrophic errors of judgement, mistakes written in permanent marker and the more you try to scribble it out, the more of a mess you cause. In these instances, rip the page out. Bin it. Start again.

“I never make the same mistake twice. I make it 5 or 6 times, just to be sure.”

You’re near the end of the paper and your mind drifts back to the revision you did. You remember the next question was something you were definitely taught, but, in the rush to cram, you skipped over that topic when revising as you were running out of time. “I wish I had just one more day’s revision”, you think. Except life doesn’t work like that. In fact, do things before you think you’re ready to do them. The truth is you’re never going to be ready if you just keep waiting. You have to go seek it. In all honesty, I don’t feel ready to leave university. I keep thinking that I could probably do with one more year before adulthood. But that’s the exact moment when I know that I have to move on. You can only have so many more “one more day’s revision” or so many more “one more year at university” before life moves on, and you just have to move with it.

So embrace the unpredictable flow of life. You know that you’re not ready, but you also know that you’ll get the biggest wake-up call of your life, and then that will get you ready exceptionally quickly. Learn to not fear change. Be comfortable being uncomfortable, and conversely, know that as soon as you feel comfortable then that should make you feel very uncomfortable.

You’re at the end of the exam paper! You’re pleased to finish but the overwhelming feeling is one of relief, one of “well it could have been a lot worse”. You’re grateful for the things that did happen – the topics that did come up – but even more so, subconsciously, you’re even more grateful for the things that did not happen – the topics that did not come up. You could have easily fallen into the wrong crowd, lost your moral compass, done things you forever regretted, gone off the rails, or lost your sanity with the degree. So whilst a lot of celebration will be on the positives that did happen, appreciate the negatives that did not happen, and equally be forever grateful. It’ll be an amazing three years.

My mind comes back to the present moment. You’re done! You’re at the end of the exam paper, and you realise that university really did teach you a lot and you actually have been able to apply a lot into the real world, just as the prospectuses promised, but not quite in the same way. You will have achieved a lot, become a lot, done a lot, and your pre-university self would have been very proud of the post-university self that came out.

But whilst this particular ‘exam’ has finished, it’s now time to prepare for the next stage of my life and my next exam paper.

Except life has no practice run, and I have no map to know how to navigate graduate life and adulthood. I try to study for it by getting the notes from adult friends. I ask for advice, and someone helpfully tells me that:

“A big part of adulting is unlearning the rubbish you were taught by people who didn’t have a clue what they were doing either.”

And that’s the thing. In this sense, you’re pleased you can’t revise for it, or take a copy of anyone’s notes. Everyone’s question paper is different. It’s a clean slate for you. Write your own path.

My degree graduation may well be in four weeks, but the real graduation is from childhood to adulthood and to leave behind the student life bubble.

Mature, but not yet an adult.

Running out of time, but my whole life is ahead.

I’m terrified, but I can’t wait.

I don’t have a clue, but I’ll figure it out.

I’m not ready, but that’s exactly why I am ready.

Happy 21st.

***

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A letter to my 10-year-old self

I write this as I pack what seems like 18 suitcases, 45 carrier bags and 6 car-full’s worth of stuff ready to head to London for a 10-week internship. I move in tomorrow, I start on Monday. Whilst I am super excited to immerse myself into the world of work, it does sound remarkably grown up!

I turn 20 today. As the reality of that sinks in, I realise just how fast the teenage years have gone past, and how scary to think that my age no longer starts with a ‘1’. In this time, I have learnt so much, changed so much and grown so so much. Of course the 10-year-old me was still me at heart, but I am not the same person I was even last year when I wrote my previous posts let alone when I was 10.

And so I thought: if I could go back in time and write a letter to my 10-year-old self, what messages would I pass on? Any key life decisions, any big regrets? Here goes:

“Dear Martin,

You turn 10 today!

You’re probably not very aware of the world quite yet. Your Chelsea side have just won back-to-back league titles, you do know that! (10 years down the line they would also only just manage to scrape into the top half of the table, but maybe I should refrain myself from telling you that to not kill your joy.)  You’re in the last few weeks of Year 5, about to take the 11+ in September. Soon enough you will start – and finish – secondary school, before going on to university. You will have many highs and many lows in every dimension: academically, socially, mentally, physically, professionally. Maybe to start with, you probably won’t know how to cope with the lows. You might give yourself a little cry, you might throw a tantrum. But I have some advice for you:

Never be put off by the lows in life. The lows are what make you you; the struggle is part of the story. They teach you something you didn’t know about yourself, and that’s the only way you’re ever going to grow. Learning is a journey and you’ll find that the endeavour in trying – and failing – is more important than obtaining any arbitrary pre-set goal. So turn negative thoughts into positive ones. Realise you will get through 100% of your bad days. Everything that comes into your life is here to teach you a lesson and won’t go until it has taught you it. Be ready to learn, however brutal the lesson.

In your more junior years, you won’t be too smart. You will scrape by with more Cs and Ds than As or A*s. They say intelligence is a gene and considering your parents don’t have a GCSE between them, you might even pity yourself.

But the one thing you can always control – arguably the only thing anyone can ever control – is how hard you work. You will realise as you grow up that sheer persistence, discipline and hard work will get you further than anything nature or genetics had planned. You will realise that it is so important to be tenacious, to be consistent, to grind out the tough days when you have no motivation. Work damn hard at everything: academic work, job/internship work, but work on yourself, your body, your mind, your skill set (soft and technical) – just keep expanding your productive potential because you can never learn too much. Whether you’re liked or not is not yours to control, whether you were born with clever genes or not is not yours to control. Your mind-set and work ethic is the only force you’ve got. Thankfully it’s probably the most powerful force you should ever need.

And truly, it is your mind-set and attitude which you need to cultivate through these formative years. Because, you know, life will start to put you through some soul-crushing moments. You might not be sure how you will ever cope. Ironically enough, the soul always finds a way to heal; it is the mind you need to silence. As soon as a bad thing happens, human nature instinctively thinks of the worst possible thing that could happen, and the negative energies self-perpetuate. In these instances, don’t stop to think. Life doesn’t stop, so just plough on. Head down, keep going.

You will meet some fantastic people along the way. Be nice to everyone and build as many connections as you can. Treat everyone as a friend until they give you a reason not to. Smile as much as you can to everyone you can – it brightens life up! At the end of the day, everyone is the same, fighting the same battles, making the best with what they have. Bear that in mind.

But not necessarily everyone is nice back obviously. As you progress through your teenage years, take responsibility for who you are and don’t let anyone define you. In a society which tells you to never be alone, let me assure you there’s nothing more lonely than being with the wrong group of people. So form good inner principles before the social conditioning starts. Don’t worry about attracting the right people. You learn that you attract who you are yourself: the popular surround themselves with the popular, the sporty around the sporty, the positive around the positive. Focus on yourself and you’ll realise you don’t need to impress anyone but the right connections will be made.

Focusing on yourself is really important. Get into habits and start learning about what you can improve yourself on. Habits are the cornerstone to success – it will continue the momentum even after the initial motivation dies. In a world with so many unpredictables, make as many things as you can as predictable as possible, so get into a routine and don’t waste time because it’s the most precious gift you have. Wake up early, eat well, sleep well. Don’t check social media aimlessly – only check when you’re doing less brain-intensive tasks like walking. So what if you walk into a pole or accidentally ‘Like’ someone’s photo from 253 weeks ago? It’s better than getting you distracted during brain-intensive tasks like revising. (Have fun explaining though.)

To be honest, you probably don’t have a phone yet Martin and social media isn’t even a thing so that won’t mean much to you, but know that you will go through a massively technology-heavy decade. One thing I would advise in hindsight is to live more through your eyes than through a screen. Bond more with nature, read more books.

But I guess that’s not a regret because life is all about adapting to your environment, and the world has moved this way. It will continue to move: a 10-year-old reading this now will live through a very different teenage life to how I lived it, as I lived a very different teenage life to my parents. Adaptability and evolving are fundamental transitions to go through in this decade, and make sure you do. Every time life gets harder, it’s because you’ve levelled up. And every next level of your life will demand a different version of you.

So don’t rest on your laurels. Good A-Levels present you with the opportunity to study at a good university, but only that – it does not guarantee you a good degree. Good application forms present you with the opportunity to have an interview, but you need to nail that to get the job. So stay humble and don’t think the world owes you anything. Many times you will think you’re some sort of big fish. You’re not even a fish.At every stage you will get a reality check. You think you are smart – there is someone smarter. You think you have social skills sorted – there will be a situation that terrifies you. Got professionalism down? There’s always another level. There’s alwayssomething to strive for.

So never stop trying to better yourself. The best progress is always the progress you can’t see happening, so whilst you live in the short-term, always think long-term. It’s very difficult to just actionably do one thing that makes you happy or set for life – it’s a culmination of the small things over the years so lay the foundations now and you will forever be one step ahead. Even if it doesn’t look like the end goal is nearing, trust in the process because it’s most likely working its magic right now without you knowing. But don’t try too hard because life becomes too forced, too tense, too unhappy. Believe in the small steps, believe in the 1% gains and some time in the future, take a step back to see the bigger picture – you will be amazed at the progress.

But despite telling you to focus on yourself, it won’t stop you constantly comparing yourself to others: why does this person have this, why does that person have that? Technology won’t help this one bit, but know that the biggest person you’re competing against is yourself. The introverted you versus the extroverted you, the lazy you versus the hard-working you, the generous you versus the selfish you. It’s ironic that in life – a game – with so many players, and the one you battle with most is yourself.

And that’s the thing: life is a never-ending series of mini-battles with yourself so make sure you keep the balance. Of head versus heart. Of work versus play. Of sleep. Of calories. Of giving up or trying again. Of giving someone a second chance or not. Of caring too much or letting go. Of over-planning or being spontaneous. Of saying yes to as many opportunities as you can versus being realistic about how much time you have.

But above all, be confident with yourself. Life is a confidence thing. If you have confidence, the barriers between something you can do, and something you think you cannot, blur. Push your boundaries and you will thrive, but you need to believe in yourself first. If you can believe in Santa for however many years, promise me that you’ll believe in yourself as you get older.

“A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch but on its own wings.”

So just throw yourself into it. Try out as many things as you can; if an opportunity presents itself that you’re scared you may not be able to do, say yes – then learn how to do it. Never pass up the opportunity to improve yourself, and by committing to it, you force yourself to learn rather than passing it up with another excuse. Excuses will always be there for you, opportunities won’t. (Your future self will thank you greatly.)

And learn to enjoy the little things in life, because one day you will look back and realise they were the big things. Don’t take yourself too seriously because life is actually quite funny, but always take responsibility for your own happiness; it’s a fragile thing that should not be delegated to someone or something else. Why do you need other people to make you happy? What are you lacking in that getting someone’s validation will fulfil in you? Just love yourself. The most important relationship you have is with yourself. Everything happening in your life results from the way you treat yourself, through thoughts, words and actions. Cultivate that self-worth.

I want to finish the letter with this: you will have a great decade pal. One always does better than they think they are, so never lose the faith and just keep digging. Trust your instinct, stay disciplined, don’t over-think life and just learn to love yourself. Fight for everything you believe in. If the door does not open, keep knocking. Smash the door down if you have to. Persistence will get you it, consistency will keep you it.  You will also make many big decisions. Trust your decision-making. Whenever you make a decision, realise it will always be the right one, because you will make it become the right one. Never look back and ponder “what if?”; once you’ve made the decision, go all out with so much passion to make it become the right one. Be proud of yourself. Be confident. You’ll do so much better than you ever thought.

“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” ~ Winnie the Pooh

Happy 10th, kid.

Love,

Martin”

Rarely does life permit you time to just stop and think. Birthdays are a good chance too. I am going to label the last decade as ‘the Decade of Foundation’. The moral compass has been set, the basic life learning there. I think my 20s will be the Decade of Evolvement, and it’s going to be huge. Whilst I’m at it, I hope my 30s will be a Decade of Promise, my 40s of Achievement, my 50s of Fulfilment, and my 60s the Decade for Me.

But enough thinking for one day. Best get packing now.

“What do you want from life?”

I go to the hairdressers once every few weeks. We start with the usual hellos, the polite small talk: “How are you?”, “Terrible weather today, isn’t it?”. Then you have the business talk: “Please take a seat”, “How much would you like taken off?”. It should end there. I should sit in awkward silence as she cuts my hair, perhaps continuing the odd small talk, making comments about how the passing cars outside the window are loud, how the music on the radio is soothing. Then I should pay, make a light-hearted joke (where I tend to be the only one laughing), and then wish them a good day as I leave. I like small talk; it is quick, efficient, and actually rather entertaining.

But the reality is very different. We cut the small talk. We go deep: “How is your life getting on?”, “What is your course like?”, “What do you want to do as a job?”, “What do you want from life?”. I might return the gesture: “How are your children progressing?”, “You have done this job for 32 years, have you ever thought of a change in life direction?”. Whilst I do not know this woman really closely (oh gosh, I do not even know her name!), I answer openly and truthfully in an effort to prolong the conversation, and so too does she.

And it gets me thinking. The first two she asks me are easy to answer: I know how my life is getting on, I know how the course is. The last two require more thought. What do I want to do as a job? And then the big one: what do I want from life?

I turn 19 today. Physically I feel young; mentally I feel experienced. I am in a good place. I sit and I think and I type. Job? Life? These are big decisions, which we all always think about, but I have never actually gotten round to writing them down before.

So “what do I want to do as a job?”. My career plans have changed immeasurably over my life so far. My first recollection of a job I wanted was in when I was 8. I recall finishing a really dull lesson, and I proclaimed I wanted to be a teacher. It was such a boring lesson — I felt uninterested, I felt I was not learning — so I wanted to put things right, to correct the education system and do it better for the next generation. How noble! I thought it was a good personality fit too: I like people, I am a good listener, I can feel passionate about the subject I am talking about and I can convey that.

Then came the classic teenage-boy dream of being a footballer. Again, I thought this was a good fit: I could be strong in a tackle, I was quite good at reading the game. There, life sorted: I was going to be the next John Terry (minus all the personal shenanigans if I may swiftly add, rest assured that that is not my style).

And now, the realistic me wants to go into the financial services. I like it, I can make a life out of it. It likes me, and I firmly believe you have to go where the love is in life; I am a deeply loyal guy.

But who knows where I may dabble in the future? In a world with such opportunity, I no longer think it is possible to stay in a job for 32 years any more. I like writing: some sort of economics journalist? I like numbers: some sort of statistician? I like making an impact on people: a (non-lying) politician? I truly do not know. But I am almost thankful I do not know. It is this intrigue that keeps the hunger there, the spontaneity that keeps the drive going. Variety is the spice of life.

That second question is even harder to answer: “what do I want from life?”. Like, actually actually want? A job is necessary to get through life, a means to an end. Of course, it is never an end in itself; no-one ever wishes they worked harder when they are dying. Can you imagine someone on their death-bed going “oh I wish, I really really wish, that back on that day in 1970, I really really wish I worked 30 minutes more over-time”? Can you seriously imagine? No. Damningly, some people actually wish they did not work as much. You wish you lived more. Loved more. Felt more. Experienced more. Saw more. Travelled more.

So what about me: deep down, what do I want?

To be popular? Absolutely not; I prefer to be respected by a few than just ‘known’ to many people.

To be understood by people? Not as much as I want to understand other people.

To be successful? Measured in terms of what though: salary, status, popularity?

All of these are great. It is super fun interacting with people, knowing what makes them tick. Everyone has a story. As for the last point, to be successful is equally desired, though with salary, status and popularity often brings too much responsibility and stress. So whilst people love to have success on the face of it, do we factor in the potential long-term burden it could bring?

But here comes the big one, the one with no long-term negatives:

To be happy and healthy. Always the number one, and poignantly always the one people neglect and take for granted.

‘Happy’ is one of the biggest words ever (not really actually, it is only five characters long). Joking aside, it is utterly packed with emotion. I want to feel content with every day of my life. That I am making progress. That I am better today than I was yesterday. That I met more people, experienced more of the world, truly lived more.

Everyone can feign happiness. Put a smile on, take a photo, broadcast it everywhere on Facebook and everyone thinks you are loving life. Maybe you are; if so, that is fantastic. Truly, I am happy if you are happy. But what are you happy about? Happy you have a drink in your hand, happy to feel popular for that one night? Sure, I love a glass of wine and I love to know I have friends too. But, deep down, I feel we should all strive for happiness within ourselves.

I have not got the perfect life. No way. Some have it a lot better than me, for sure, but my goodness do some have it a lot worse. I will very happily make do with what I have got. I have seen some (many) miserable people in the world. I do not like it. I do not want to be one. Right now, I feel deep down very content with life. Day-by-day, of course, you do not see much change. Year-by-year, birthday-by-birthday, I can see great strides. I was never so immature, but looking back, I do not like the 7-year-old me, the 11-year-old me, the 15-year-old me. For now though, I like the 19-year-old me. For now, I feel satisfied with life, a deep-rooted contentment.

So, what do I want in life? I want to feel happy with myself forever. I want the 21-year-old me to be happy with me, I want the 60-year-old me to be happy with me.Deeply, innately happy. I want to feel happy with my life decisions, with my career path, with my network of friends. With every passing day, I want to like the progress I have made. I want to like me forever. This is something I wish for everyone.

(As in, I wish everyone likes themselves forever too, not as in I wish everyone likesme, but if you do like me then I welcome that news also.)

My hair is nearly cut, our conversation over for another few weeks. She makes one final remark: “Promise me”, she says, “Come back in 10 years’ time, and let me know how much of that life and career plan you actually followed, or if you took a totally new path.” For sure, things will change. The 9-year-old me is very different to the 19-year-old me. The 19-year-old me will no doubt be very different to the 29-year-old me. But Martin please, please, above all else: do not lose the happiness and the health.

So before I wish myself another good, happy and healthy year, what is the moral of the story? I have three. First: life is unpredictable, beautifully so, do not be scared by this unpredictability and just embrace the excitement that it brings. Second: strive for happiness, not shallow happiness, but deep-rooted contentment within your body and your mind. This should be the most important thing for everybody, because without it you cannot possibly achieve any of your other life goals.

And the third? That hairdressers are pretty damn good people to talk to.

What First Year at University taught me

September 29th, 2014 sticks vividly in my mind. Day One, Term One, Year One. It was the Freshers’ Welcoming Fair. Nando’s had a stall where you spun their fortune wheel and could potentially win a free quarter chicken voucher (free food!). I spun it. Unbeknown to me at the time, it came at a cost: I had to do a chicken dance in front of fellow Freshers. In the spirit of things, I did it. I do not regret it. Whilst I cannot call it the highlight of my life, it would set the tone for what would be a beautifully unpredictable year. Every emotion possible was felt: courage vs. shyness, happiness vs. loneliness, achievement vs. stress.

September 29th, 2014 was also the day I created a new Word document. I titled it “Messages To Live By”. I knew university life was going to be tough and testing. Very fun too, mind. It was sure going to teach me a lot, and I wanted to capture my thoughts and feelings throughout the year and write them down as they happened. As First Year draws to a close, I have built up many pages of bullet points of notes of what First Year at Uni taught me. I wanted to share some of them, maybe out of motivation if anyone is reading this and soon to embark on their university studies, maybe also to motivate myself.

Whilst these messages of course have more meaning to me, the underlying tone should be understandable to everyone. They do work in chronological order throughout the year; the first few about settling in, the last about exams and revision. Here goes:

  • Never lose self-confidence. Do not creep into arrogance, but always trust intrinsically your decision-making. If it does not work out in the first instance, trust that you can sort it out at the second attempt. Or third. Or fourth. Just never accept defeat.
  • The world keeps spinning. You adapt or die. You stop for one second and you will be left behind.
  • Never take things personally. If you get rejected, it is not an indication of you being rubbish. Do not kill yourself over it — there are so many external factors for which you cannot control, i.e. luck.
  • If you get an opportunity, just take it. Have that 20 seconds of utter mad confidence and just do it. After all, the biggest regrets in life are always the things you never got round to doing. And if you do not take the opportunity and another one does not present itself to you again, you will forever torment yourself. Spare yourself the “oh if only I did this back then…” moments and just do it.
  • Always smile and be enthusiastic. Wish people a good day. People love happy people.
  • Write everything down. Like this. Then self-analyse afterwards. Personal development is key.
  • Work hard, but definitely know how to play a bit too (even if you do not play hard). You need those social skills picked up from social environments. Go for coffees rather than alcohol, if you want. But know how to interact with people, rather than computer screens and phones. People are people, and they equally like to chat.
  • Do not over-analyse hard work for success. Yes, success needs hard work, but do not draw too big a causation between the two and think your success was all down to your hard work alone. Ultimately a lot of people play a part in your successes — and failures — and there is so much luck involved. Success must not go to the head, and failure must not attack the heart.
  • Get to know people and their life stories. Meet someone who is older, younger, from a different social class, whose first language is not English. Open your eyes, the world is so big.
  • Do not make decisions when very happy or when very sad. Even if you think you are still in a rational state of mind, you are not.
  • Try to stay young. When you are grown up, holidays are no longer fun/existent — you work a lot for your degree, and then you work a lot for internships. It is sometimes tough to be at this middle child-adult stage in life but try to mentally stay young and enjoy life whilst you make the transition. But, definitely make sure you do make the transition to a more professional adult with more responsibility.
  • At times you will feel hopeless. Helpless. You feel your fate has been decided and it does not look good. Dig deep. Even if it is looking bad, do not let your mind believe it is. Do not wallow in self-pity. It only self-perpetuates the situation.
  • Peer pressure is huge and, at times, overwhelming. Try to get on top of it; bow down where it might actually help you to develop (always of your own accord), but never lose your values and know your boundaries.
  • There is no longer two distinct parts to life called “work” and “play”. It is all your living. Many times you will spend weekdays playing, and many more times will you spend weekends working. Be very flexible.
  • People are as shy, maybe even shyer, than you. Do not kill yourself if you bump into an acquaintance and awkwardly look down and then regret you did not say hi. But equally, they probably did the same because they are similarly shy, so try to make the first move to help everyone out.
  • The best thing about the human spirit is we always find a way. The geniuses will find the new best innovative way to do it. The lazy of us will find the new shortest way to do it. But however it is done, we always get there.
  • You will feel so out of your depth at times. What is this place? What is this course? Who are these faces? And then things will click: yes, I finally understood that lecture! And then, on closer inspection, you actually realise that maybe you really did not. You will to-and-fro between feeling you have got the hang of it, and from feeling unnervingly out of your comfort zone. And, you know what, that is fine. Things always work out in the end.

As I look back on my year, I look back with immense pride. In truth, I am very tired. I attacked the year from Day One with tremendous vigour, and after nine months of zero rest I am fully deserving of my break. The opportunities afforded to me have been vast and appreciated. I had the pleasure to listen to lecturers and guest lecturers who are at the top of their field. I interned at companies I never thought I had the calibre to intern at. I pushed my own boundaries, my own skill-sets, my own mental capacity. I engaged actively in all the extra-curriculars university life has to offer, but never over-promised to the detriment of my degree. I was very, very disciplined with my time but I was emotionally stable to cope when the going got tough. These have to be my two biggest strengths. I met people from different backgrounds, cultures and social classes who gave me a much more matured look on the world. You live life for the memories and moments you share with others: the coffee chats, the good conversations with good people. I sacrificed my social life a bit (a lot) but I established my priorities and stuck to them. You cannot have it all. I know what I want in life, and clubbing the night away intoxicated is not going to lead me to it.

I knew university life was going to be tough and testing. Very fun too, mind. It was sure going to teach me a lot. It has taught me a lot, academically, professionally and socially. For sure, there are people more academically-gifted than me, more socially at ease than me, more professional than me. But you cannot possibly have self-development without self-acceptance. It gives me room to learn. I will never stop learning. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

I guess I should conclude by addressing the title I started with: what has First Year at Uni taught me? It has taught me to dig deep. To embrace change. To stay ahead of the game. To be super-disciplined with time. To always be in control of myself, of my mind, of my emotions, of my work-load, of my susceptibility to peer pressure. I have learnt some negative traits about myself along the way, for sure. This will be worked on. But I have also learnt that I am incredibly resilient, a self-disciplined individual and one who can stay at peace mentally when stressful moments arise. And for that I am very happy with myself and my year.

Roll on Year Two.