There was a time, not so long ago, when your life was set by the family you were born into and the education you got by the time you were about sixteen. If you left school with no exams, that was pretty much it, you’d never get the chance to go back and change the path your life was on. Instead, you’d be stuck in some sort of low-end job, or on unemployment benefit, for the rest of your life regardless of how intelligent you were or why you never got the grades you were capable of.
Things are very different these days. There might not be jobs for life any more, but the flip side of this is that it’s now much easier to go back and catch up on what you missed out on, for what ever reason, the first time (or even the second or third time) round. If you leave school with no qualifications it’s not nearly as much of an issue as it once was and you can always go back and do them later. When I was in grad school, it was surprising the number of my fellow students who didn’t get into higher education until well after they’d left school. If fact, amongst my peer group this was almost the norm rather than the exception, and as a group we were by far the better for this diversity of life experience.
I’ve always been struck by the fact that the more mature students might not have got the grades to get in the first time round, but they usually do much better when they eventually make it to university. Part of this was because they wanted it more and weren’t just there to kill time until they worked out what they really wanted to do with their lives, part of it was that being a bit older they knew how to work more efficiently, and part of it was that they could bring outside experience to things that those who’d come straight from school just couldn’t.
My own life has been far from the linear progression that would be considered a normal career path. Yet, I think I am the better person for it. Yes, I moved straight from school to university and graduated on time, but then I took a series of detours. Rather than move directly onto a PhD (the logical next choice for someone who, at that time, wanted nothing more than to become a university lecturer), I did other things. I tried to make it as a photographer, but never managed to get anywhere. After that, I spent a rather fun few years working as a professional juggler. I even worked at the Edinburgh festival fringe one summer (now there was an experience!). I started a masters degree at Liverpool University that, for various reasons, never got beyond the first term. I then worked as a magician for a while, which gave me the money I needed to spend time doing fieldwork on an obscure whale species in the Bahamas. It was only some seven years after I graduated that I finally started my doctorate, and I did much better because of the time I’d spend doing other things.
Did I ever become the university lecturer I dreamed of when I was younger? Yes, briefly. It wasn’t as I imagined and I quickly found out it wasn’t what I wanted to do after all. Instead, I chose to leave academia. I spent some time working as an extra on a movie (and was lucky enough to be part of a major Hollywood stunt – something to tick off my bucket list!), and then I’ve finally became the professional writer that I probably always wanted to be (even though I didn’t really know this for the first fifteen or twenty years after I left high school). At first, this was mostly technical and academic pieces, but recently I’ve taken the rather radical step of shifting from factual writing to writing novels. Who knows if I’ll ever make a career out of it, but at least I’ll know I’ve tried.
I think the lesson here is that life does not necessarily progress in straight lines, and sometimes takes some very odd turns. Very little is set in stone these days, and that can be good as well as bad. It can take you time to work out what you want to do in life, and you may even find that you achieve your aims only to realise it’s not what you thought it would be. Either way, if you miss out on things the first time round, whether they are exams or opportunities, it’s not necessarily the end of the world, no matter what anyone tells you (and especially your parents and your peers!). You can always go back and try again, or have a go at something altogether different, because these days nothing in life is forever. If you really want, you can always change the way things are. It may not be easy, but it’s always possible.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.