Advice to those leaving high school

My Chronicle column this month offers a bit of advice to those finishing high school this year.

Advice to those leaving high school, The Chronicle, 6 May 2014

Our family was at the National Folk Festival, watching leotard-clad Tarrabelle Murphy holding three flaming torches. As the circus performer stepped onto her partner’s shoulders to start juggling, she turned to the crowd and smilingly said ‘you know, I studied law for five years so I could do this’.

Not all of us join the circus, but the moment reminded me how different our careers are from the way we envisage them as teenagers. I wanted to be an airline pilot while I was at school, and after university ended up working as a lawyer, judge’s clerk, policy adviser, think-tank staffer and economics professor before entering politics.

As we near the middle of the year, many young Canberrans will be thinking about what they will do when they finish school. So here’s three pieces of advice that might help you out.

First, spend plenty of time thinking about what you want to do. Speak to lots of people – particularly those studying the kinds of courses or jobs you think you might like. Are they feeling emotionally fulfilled? Do they get out of bed each morning looking forward to the day? If you can, accompany them on a typical day. You’d be surprised how often people are happy to have you tag along with them. (This goes for politics too – if you’re interested in doing work experience, just send me an email.)

Second, do things that will test your limits. In a recent interview for the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, the head of hiring at Google, said that he looks for candidates who display ‘grit’. Bock argues that people should take university courses that are challenging and signal rigorous thinking. For Google, that means maths, statistics and computer science. For other career paths, it might be a different mix. Regardless, if you choose to go to university, you want to ensure that you’re making the most of those precious few years. If you can graduate thinking in a more structured way, and being more creative, you’ll stand out in the job market.

Third, recognise that you’ll never stop learning. An 18 year-old school leaver today will likely be working well into the 2060s. By that time, many will be doing jobs that don’t yet exist.  To see how radically the labour market will change over the coming half-century, we simply need to compare today’s jobs with those of fifty years ago. No-one in the 1960s was training to be a computer game engineer, a social media consultant or a Zumba instructor. To be ready for similarly radical changes in the future will require persistence, adaptability, and a willingness to learn on the job.

So if you’re a teenager on the brink of choosing a career, don’t be too daunted by the risks. Sure, there will be missteps, but as you’ll discover when you talk to the adults around you, all of us have made ours too. As any circus performer will tell you, what matters isn’t whether you make mistakes, but how you deal with them.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.


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