This week my not so little brother came to me with a couple of questions – late night ponderings about whether he’d chosen the right subject to study because he was finding it boring and whether he really ought to be at uni. I like to think that I offered him some pretty decent advice about what to do. It struck me that this had been me only a few years ago, slowly trudging through the British education system, every day having a little bit more life sucked out of me in the hope that I might pass a few exams.
I remember teachers telling me that uni would be the best few years of my life, which is in hindsight a terrible thing to tell an 18 year old ‘hey, these next three years are going to be pretty sweet, but after that, your life is going to be on a steady downhill slope. Have a good one.’ You can imagine then, upon being told this time and time again, that when I arrived at uni, started my lectures and settled in to life there, how dismayed I was that it wasn’t going to get any better, because quite frankly, I didn’t really enjoy it, especially at the beginning.
Those dictations about your life are fed to you time and time again. We’re constantly being fed a string of ideas about how we should be spending our time and reacting to certain things… ‘Oh first year is the best because it doesn’t count and you can just go out all the time’. ‘Make the most out of uni because once you enter the ‘real’ world, things get pretty boring’.
I truly disliked the first year of uni. I made great friends, no doubt, but I felt like I was falling into a circle of people that had a very different attitude towards life than I did, and that’s perfectly okay, but it wasn’t how I necessarily saw my day to day life heading. I chose my subject because I love books and I love language, and my first year sucked the joy out of it – 6 compulsory modules trolling through monotonous literature because it ought to be read if you’re a literature student, and introductions to theories that were often much too pompous for me to waste my energy on. But I stuck at it with a fake smile and the readily prepared answer to the question ‘how is uni?’, ‘I love it. It’s amazing. My course is fantastic’, because that was what everyone else was saying.
By half way through second year I started to find my feet a little. I stopped trying to fit in with the people that wanted to go out all the time because that’s not really me 3 times a week. I got a position writing for the music magazine and spent my evenings at gigs. I joined a hiking society and I met people who loved to be outside whatever the weather. By third year I’d go so far as to say I started to enjoy uni. I was reading books that interested me, learning about slavery and reading black literature, writing a dissertation on my favourite book and favourite playwright.
But, were they the best three years of my life? No. I was always counting down the seconds until the end and I was out of there within minutes of my final hand in date. Those last few months when all my friends were worrying about getting on to a graduate scheme or finding a job, I was pretty zen about the idea that my life no longer had to be jumping through the hoops of education. That lack of knowing what you’re going to do with your life terrifies a lot of people, I get it, but I prefer to see it as a endless span of opportunities – anything could happen.
Sure there is a long list of things you should do after uni. You should get a good job in the city. You should find your own place. You should climb the job ladder. You are expected to have a well versed answer to the terrifying question that is ‘what are you going to do with the rest of your life?’ Time and time again I see articles on social media about how much you should be earning based on your degree by a certain point in your life. The UK, and I’m sure a lot of countries, have arranged a series of checkpoints for you to hit at particular points in your life and if you’re not there then you’re probably frowned upon in society and have a couple of people vocally worrying about you whilst shaking their heads at your life choices. Don’t tut them too much.
So when I graduated, my next move was to Hong Kong and I can hand on heart say that in the first year after leaving university, in fact in those first few months, I had more fun than the past 21 years of my life put together. I’ve spent the last two years seeing life from a different lens, traveling to countries that I’d only read about in stories and meeting people that I would have never encountered if I had chosen to be tangled up in the competitive job market of London. There’s nothing wrong with that I might add, I have to admit that now and again the thought of having a place in London surrounded by my friends and a two hour train ride from home is a tempting thing, but I know that for me the novelty would wear off within a few weeks, at least at this point in my life.
I now live in a country that I honestly didn’t know the location of before I even got to this side of the world and I’m learning languages that really give my brain a workout. Life here is amazing and steeped in culture and adventure. Every week I have something new to eat, I see a new place and I can manage a slightly longer conversation in Chinese. I’m not jumping through anybody’s hoops anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret going to university. Every stage of life teaches you something valuable. It taught me how to look after myself. It taught me not to drink vodka. It taught me that I really bloody love Samuel Beckett and countless other writers that I might not have discovered by myself. And it taught me that I didn’t have to like what everyone else liked. Without sounding too much like a self help book, the 21st century looks a lot different from the last one. We have amazing opportunities to travel and explore and try things that our grandparents wouldn’t have even dreamed of, why spend it following the same well trodden path that society has paved. Sure the jobs might be a little different, our roles might have changed a little, but ultimately, it’s get educated, get paid, pay taxes and dwindle as the next generation takes your place.
I for one don’t plan on telling my grandchildren about this excellent promotion I got at work when I was 25, but rather the volcanoes and mountains I’ve climbed, or the time a poisonous dragon climbed over my legs whilst I sat alone on a beach in Borneo or the time I ended up on a pirate ship in the middle of the South China sea. There’s plenty of time for me to jump back on the bandwagon if I ever want to, but for now it’s more enjoyable for me to make my own tracks in the world.
I suppose that was a very roundabout way to come to the conclusion that life should be lived in a follow your heart fashion rather than a follow the crowd one.