Misconceptions of University Students
I love meeting passionate university students.
Anyone willing to reach out, ask questions and start their own projects is the kind of person I like to work with and learn from.
For these people, I’m happy to be completely honest and vulnerable – talking about the important considerations that can improve their next decade.
Sometimes that’s through encouragement, redirection, alternative perspectives or a friendly warning about the dangers ahead.
The following points are all from conversations I’ve had in the past three months.
Don’t be the noun, do the verb
In the book Keep Going, Austin Kleon talks about our tendency to try to “be the noun”
e.g. I want to be a writer, so I need a Moleskine notebook and go to writing conventions.
I want to be a musician, so I should start building a following on Instagram.
I want to be a graphic designer, so I’ll join some online forums.
A better option is to “do the verb”
e.g. I write a new post each week.
I record new music each week.
I create new logos and websites for new businesses.
While our minds have set ideas about what writers, musicians and graphic designers look like, the most important thing we can do is the verb itself – write, play, design.
The noun without the verb is pretentious and unsatisfying.
Do the verb and the nouns will follow.
Learning a process vs achieving a result
University assignments are largely useless, if you’re measuring value by what you produce.
However, if you measure value by what processes you learn, then these rubbish assignments can give you invaluable practice and experience.
e.g. you build awful financials, but learn how to use Excel.
Your group flubs the pitch, but you learn how to present to a crowd.
Your idea sucked so you changed it, it still isn’t perfect but you learned how to pivot.
The principle here is that your grades don’t transfer into the real world, but your skills do.
Nobody will ask to see your assignments; they will ask what you know how to do.
That means a crap project can be of great value, while coasting in a group assignment can give you a high score and no lasting benefit.
Building muscles in multiple areas
You are not that good at predicting the future.
Yes, you might have some ideas about what interests you in the long term - and these ideas are probably right – but they are conditional.
Yes, you want to work in filmmaking, but in which part of the industry?
Do you want to make your own productions, work in the local TV industry, or be one of the hundreds of VFX artists who work on a Marvel film?
How do you know?
What if you’re wrong?
Those are very different days at work, all under the same umbrella of filmmaking.
The work probably requires you to be good at budgeting, hiring, negotiating, photography, advertising and time management.
All learnable skills, all transferrable skills.
By building muscles in multiple areas, you’ll make yourself better at your main job, and potentially discover new avenues that aren’t available to purists.
To say that “I don’t need to learn that” may be an expensive dismissal.
Better yet, you might find that you love this field and derive joy from the work.
“I am not creative”
Someone said this about themselves the other day and it annoyed me.
Negative self-talk seems normal, until you think about how you’d respond to someone else saying it.
Imagine if someone else said you were not a creative person.
Imagine how creative you’d get in planning a response.
Creativity is not a fixed attribute; it is a muscle that can be trained.
There will be very few jobs available for non-creative people in the future, so it’s a lucrative skill to develop.
I suspect the confusion here comes from associating “creative” with “artistic”.
You might not write poems or make sculptures, but creativity is much deeper than that.
Creativity is in comedy, graphic design, writing, photography, videography, cooking, industrial design, social media management, engineering, business modelling and IT.
It’s about solving new problems and solving old problems in new ways.
It’s about understanding how things are today, then finding ways to change people’s minds and therefore their behaviours.
What’s your argument against creativity?
Why would you be content with not being a creative person?
Maria vs Jaime
One student, Maria told me about her group project, which recently pivoted the business they’re building.
Maria seemed detached, since their unofficial group leader Jaime had a real drive and skin-in-the-game that made her the strongest voice.
She knew Jaime would realistically get more done, whereas Maria was more contemplative.
I asked her “who do you want to be in the future, Maria or Jaime?”
She paused for a while, then said “…I think 50/50”
That’s probably the perfect answer.
Maria is very well thought out, and finds the determination and ownership of Jaime to be a little off-putting.
That doesn’t mean she can’t take some of Jaime’s better aspects and embrace them as her own.
Her future teammates, colleagues and employees won’t know who Jaime was, and Maria will just seem like a motivated and well thought out leader.
Stereotypes vs Character
I get that you have a certain set of expectations you have for yourself.
Some of these are uplifting (“I am good at maths”) and others are limiting (“I am not funny”).
What I’ve seen first-hand amongst my friends is that these stereotypes and descriptors are impermanent.
Your friend might be two years away from having a brand new attribute, like a hobby, talent, profession or portfolio.
These are apparent when you look back at old photos and social media posts.
What’s less obvious is that they may continue to add “strings to their bow”, creating new strengths and skills out of seemingly nowhere.
And what’s almost impossible to comprehend is that the same applies to you; by next Christmas you could have a new ability – like producing music or photographing weddings.
Character is more permanent.
If someone was manipulative or kind to you five years ago, chances are that they’re still that sort of person today.
This should massively influence your choice of employer, colleague, friend and partner.
Create things in secret
A big part of creating things is the habit of showing your work, even though you’ll never feel like it’s entirely ready.
This fear puts people off, they don’t want to show the world their first attempt at something.
You have another option – create things in secret.
We get a similar chemical release in our brains from talking about what we intend to do as we do from actually doing it.
e.g. tell people you will take up martial arts or lose weight generates the feeling of satisfaction, and you’re less likely to follow through on the claim.
For this reason, when you take up something new, tell nobody for the first three months.
No hype, no pressure, no expectation.
Just make things for three months.
This has the benefit of “knocking the rust off”, so by the time you’re showing people what you’ve made you have a better idea of how you like to work.
Back Catalogues vs Masterpieces
The thing to start creating in secret is a back catalogue, not a masterpiece.
The two goals of a back catalogue are quantity and experimentation, making lots of things without locking yourself into anything too specific.
The aim here is to find your authentic voice, as well as practicing the fundamentals of your craft.
Once you have the fundamentals down, it’s easier to take risks and add in new influences.
It also builds the habit of turning ideas into tangible works, something our brains don’t like us doing (Steven Pressfield calls this The Resistance).
It might be the 100th piece of work that is vaguely good, and the 150th that is the masterpiece.
Fine, so be it.
In this case, the aim is to smash through those first 100, without fear or an expectation of brilliance.
Setting the task of building a back catalogue is less daunting and more fun – you’ll be surprised by what you fall in love with.
You might be looking for two pairs of shoes
I used to do this frustrating thing every few months:
I’d tell myself that what I really needed was better work shoes – pointy black leather ones with some cushioning inside.
So on a Saturday I would go around to all of the shoe stores and try on different pairs, without liking any of them.
Like many things in life, there are three options and you can pick any two;
stylish, comfortable, affordable.
It’s a draining process, and most men hate shoe shopping for this reason.
I’d be walking around the shopping centre with low blood sugar and no new shoes.
Then it would hit me; maybe I’m not looking for one magical pair of shoes that might not exist.
I’m looking for two pairs of shoes – one set of dress shoes, one set of black Nikes.
I told myself that the perfect shoe exists, then was frustrated by the “compromised” options that weren’t that nice, weren’t that comfortable and weren’t that cheap.
Perhaps your situation has the same challenge – you’re actually in the market for two specialised solutions, rather than hunting for a mythical single solution.
Acquiring Items vs Confidence
As I was shopping for two pairs of shoes, something hit me.
I was nervous about some upcoming workshops I was running on Impact Investment.
I needed nice shoes to look professional, knowing that the participants would all be quite a bit older than me, and would have no idea who I was.
New shoes will solve the problem – or so I told myself.
Then as I walked around the shops I thought of my co-facilitator, who is a great presenter with lots of good stories.
This guy showed up to the last workshops in shorts, a t shirt and boat shoes, and the participants loved everything he had to say.
He had confidence – brilliant stories and insights, and the ability to handle tricky questions with grace.
…who cares what shoes he wears?
…why do I think these people will care about my shoes?
I instantly saw the problem in a new light – I didn’t need shoes, I needed confidence.
Not self-belief, I needed to work on my material and my slides so that I spoke with authority, and had something valuable to say.
You can’t find that at a mall, so I went home and worked on my content.
What story are you telling yourself about possessions turning you into a successful professional?
Do you need items, or do you need to put in the work so that you crush your presentation?
What’s really holding you up?
I see a lot of people tell themselves a story along the lines of:
“I am trying to____ but I can’t because_____ hasn’t responded to my email”, or
“I want to____but I can’t because someone else has borrowed my power cord”, or
“I can’t meet with____because my new business cards haven’t arrived because my friend who designed them was late”
We tell stories about these roadblocks, single issues that stop us in our tracks.
I don’t think these are actually true, I think if you were really motivated then you’d either find a solution or work on a different part of the problem while you waited.
I think you’d use the downtime to sketch out drafts of new ideas, build lists, contact other people, research new tools, prepare social media posts or get ready for the following week.
Do you know the next 50 things you need to do to advance your project?
If not, build the list on your phone’s notes app – you can do this wherever you are.
Some of the tasks will be practical, some will be philosophical.
Some are short term, some are long term.
Some can be done in your downtime, some require your creative inspiration, some require talented collaborators.
The process of building the list is as valuable as the list itself, and might highlight how little there is stopping you from levelling up.
You get to take valuable lessons from failed projects
In the same way that work produced in your university assignments is disposable, the early work of your career isn’t the measure of your success.
Your clients might not use your work.
Your suggestions might be overruled.
Your customers might go out of business.
Frustrating as that is, you still get to level up.
A lot of my early clients ignored my advice (as they were entitled to do), and some of their companies no longer exist (not necessarily a causal link).
I may not have them on my resume, but they taught me about how to spot problems and make good recommendations, to the benefit of all future clients who came after them.
A few years later I spent 18 months working on a project in Indonesia that was never funded, the parent company exited the province we were working in.
All that time, all that work, all those nights in a mining camp – not for nothing.
I get to take all the templates, lessons, mistakes and insights, and use them to make my next projects stronger.
If you do the same, you’re guaranteed to make progress, even if the circumstances don’t work out like you’d initially hoped.
International Development vs Business
The field I work in is the intersection of business and development, which is not something that is specifically taught at university.
That means it attracts graduate students who have a major and an interest, e.g. a major in business and a sense of compassion, or a major in international development and a business brain.
To my surprise, there is a trend – the ones with a business background are easier to employ.
I am not suggesting that I like this trend, just that it seems to be accurate.
My sense is that the commercial/project management part of any role is the boring, non-negotiable bit, so that’s where skills are essential.
A good project manager can learn about development faster than an academic can learn how to build a business plan.
If you want to get a job in this industry, I’d study the commercial side first – you’ll learn a lot about development when you’re out in the field, not in a lecture theatre.
Fancy Restaurants, Dull People
Some jobs have high status perks, like lunch at expensive restaurants or a marquee at the races.
These things sound fantastic – experiences that are memorable and signify success in your career.
There’s one drawback that you learn the hard way; you have to go to every fancy lunch at a table full of mortgage brokers, bankers, accountants, bureaucrats and sociopaths.
You’d been picturing these locations with you and your friends, having completed a great project, but instead you get the people who make your job miserable.
In that moment, you won’t want the scallops or the wine, you’ll want to do something you’re passionate about.
Your mental health is non-negotiable
I’ve previously gone into this in more detail, but it’s a common theme in my conversations with students.
During a recent Q&A someone asked me if, given the opportunity, I would do my time in my previous roles again.
Before I realised it, I’d blurted out “Absolutely not”.
People are surprised by this, we often hear others say “Oh I wouldn’t change a thing” about the hardships and difficulties.
I regret staying in previous roles, because they harmed my mental health.
As it happened, things improved thanks to a great support team and some luck.
That does not mean the risk was worth it.
Yes, good things came from these times, but they are consolation prizes.
I resent the jobs, and I resent my own decision making – accepting the work for the wrong reason and staying longer than I should have.
You’re not just trading away your work weeks, these roles affect your nights, weekends and holidays too.
To say “I’d do it all again” is to misunderstand the gamble I made, and overlooks how lucky I’ve been.