To my cousin,
Grade 12 is the most incredible year. You have so many choices and so many decisions to make. Your brain isn’t quite fully developed, but that hasn’t stopped the system from expecting you to make decisions that will change the course of your life. It’s important to remember and acknowledge all of the great things you’ve already done. Those activities and achievements have made you the person you are today.
The activities and achievements that you will embark on in the next few years will shape your life permanently. In our modern society, age 18-22 are some of the most important years for determining life direction. The network you develop and the ideas you surround yourself with will inevitably stay with you for life. They say that your senior year in high school is the best time in your life. It is! The best time up till now. If you make the right decisions and surround yourself with inspiring and positive role models, each year can be better than the last.
You are at a junction in your life. The people who you spend your time with will influence your thinking in ways that you probably haven’t thought a lot about.
For most people in the modern world, our lives are very similar from age 0-17. We are very privileged to have a system that guides our path in these formative years, but you should know that the ‘system’ was developed by people. People are imperfect. These people lived in a different time period than we do. They couldn’t possibly imagine the world as we have it today. You can search pictures of old cell phones, rabbit ear television sets, or even old radios. The idea of school was to educate a work force for factories.
There have been incremental improvements to the way we learn in our formative years, but the traditional lecture style is still dominant.
This results in very little differentiation between people at age 17 or 18. If you look at the most impressive person you know, they don’t look too different than the least impressive person who will graduate high school. But, if you look at the difference in people’s lives at age 30, or 40, or beyond, there are very distinct differences in outcome. All those differences start to emerge in the ‘university years’.
There are always exceptions, and the people who are willing to work the hardest can come back from poor decisions made earlier. But, if you can, why wouldn’t you decide to make the right decisions the first time?
Imagine yourself at a junction on a hiking trail, there are two roads. There are a few signs, but they’re worn down and likely out of date. You know that the landscape is changing beneath your feet, so you have to make a decision. But, you don’t know which one to make.
You don’t know the outcome. No one does.
Your goal is to make it to the top of the mountain.
You know that one path looks steeper, it looks harder, it will have many more challenges. But it ascends faster.
The other path is much more gentle. You know you can do it. You have made it this far after all. You have heard of lots of other people taking this path and they turned out ‘fine’. The world is changing beneath your feet and maybe this path is a little bit different, but at least you know something about it.
The gentle path is known for the most part. It will bring you a life that is pretty good. Probably.
You were born at a time when a lot of privileges just kind of fell into your lap.
Of course not everything was perfect. Being allergic to peanuts kind of sucks. But at least someone before you came up with a solution so you wouldn’t die every time a peanut came into contact with you.
Life is pretty good when you take a step back to appreciate all the things that have gone your way.
But now its up to you.
As you enter adulthood and face new challenges in the world, you have an opportunity to differentiate yourself.
You can be different. It isn’t the default. You aren’t going to magically fall into your greatest potential. But, you can make decisions that challenge you. You can make decisions that stretch what you think you’re capable of achieving. You are in control, for the first time ever.
The big decision that you have to make in the next year is where to study for University. Or even, if you should go to University.
There is a decision making frame work called MECE. It stands for mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive.
When thinking about decisions, your frame work should include all the possible decisions and none of the initial choices should overlap.
So the first choice you can make is: if you should attend university in the coming September?
Yes or no.
From there you could take a gap year, you could decide against university all together, you could decide to teach english in a third world country, or you could attend studies in September. You have the power. It’s a scary place to be, when you have only yourself to rely on.
This letter will continue under the assumption that you choose university.
The second choice you make is: where to study?
This is the decision that keeps many grade 12 students awake at night.
First of all, CONGRATULATIONS!
Getting into one university feels good. Getting into several feels amazing! Believe me, I know how good it feels to be ‘accepted’. I remember the anxiety that filled the halls once acceptances started rolling in.
“Did you hear so-and-so got into Queens, Western, U of T, UBC, McGill, possibly even Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, Brown, Stanford, UPenn etc.”
Other students might say…
“I’m just happy I made it into U of C”
I remember this time like it was yesterday! It was so exciting to see friends that you had grown up with move onto bigger and better things.
I remember thinking to myself at this time, how incredible or unattainable these achievements seemed. Up until that point, we were all basically the same. There might have been a high test score here and there, but never something so big that it could change your life.
When most students think about where to study, they tend to check the rankings, the school website, maybe they’re even lucky enough to go visit campus either on a school sponsored visit or with their parents.
Visiting the campus and getting a ‘feel’ for the university is a great way to make the decision, but it’s impossible to actually capture the four or five year university experience in a few days.
There’s so many variables that are involved with the university ‘experience’. The people you’ll meet, the ideas that you’ll be introduced to, the clubs you’ll join, the causes you’ll hear about, the sports, the buildings themselves, the food, and of course the classes (what you’re actually at university for).
The reason that I list classes last, is because they’re often the least memorable part about university. Your current classes in high school will probably be the least memorable part of high school so why should university be any different?
The truth about the differences in institutions are that Canadian universities are largely the same. You will receive a good education if you seek it out. There are undeniable differences in the way people ‘view’ certain university brands, just as there are differences in the way people view clothing brands or car brands. Your degree is a ‘brand’ like every other brand in the world.
The experience you’ll have at your institution is up to you. It’s up to you to decide what people, ideas, and activities you surround yourself with. These are the building blocks of the memories you will make and of the character you will build. Not the ‘brand’ that you graduate with.
The third choice you make is: what to study?
What you choose to study is important. But from our conversations, the difference between engineering, engineering and business, business, and science is not overly influencing. Does your degree determine how much money you will make?
Is that important?
To a certain extent, most definitely!
But, it shouldn’t be as big a factor as you think. Learning and knowing how to do a ‘thing’ for a company is a very small part of LIFE. Modern society is set up so that we spend a whole lot of time doing this ‘thing’ for a company, but when we lay on our deathbed we probably don’t care about it at all.
I find it difficult to imagine that very many people wish they studied a different subject on their deathbed. It seems almost funny to think about.
Whatever you choose will be fine in the grand scheme of things. If I can offer any advice: the choice you make should be a choice that you make with the intention to push your limits. You can achieve more than you think, a great way to do that is to force yourself to get uncomfortable.
What matters more than your choice of degree?
The people, the ideas, and the activities.
This time in your life is about development and change. It’s about who you were when you first walked onto campus and the person you’ll be when you finally toss your graduation hat up.
This change happens once.
Never in your life will you experience so much change. Both in your friends, and the person that you will become.
Make this decision with your priorities in mind. Think about your family, think about your friends, think about you. But most importantly think about how you’ll spend your time.
Four or five years sounds like a long time. If you think about your experience thus far, you haven’t spent four or five years in one school since you were 12.
You will soon find out that four or five years goes by faster than you can imagine. Some people speed through that time doing nothing other than attending class and riding the train. Others might toss in a sport or two. But the people who grow the most and remember their time most fondly are the people who push themselves to try new things, meet new people and expose themselves to new ideas.
Both you and I grew up in fairly similar circumstances. We went on nice vacations with our family, we enjoyed golf, curling, and whatever other sport we wanted, we had the opportunity to play video games, and essentially do whatever we wanted in the confines of reason.
These privileges are not everyone’s privileges. You will meet people both above and below you in the economic spectrum and you will find that it affects some things in big ways, but the most important things aren’t related to how much money someone’s family had.
It’s about being open to new experiences, being friendly and being willing to help others out with no expectation of anything in return.
These are the people that shine in university and in life. They make the world a better place, and it doesn’t matter where they came from or which university they studied at, or even if they studied at university. But more often than not, it does matter how they spent their ‘university years’.
Finally, take time to focus on the present. No matter what stage in life you are at, we all need reminding to simply be happy with how things are today. Grade 12 is a unique time that signals the end of an era. It’s the closing of your entire life up until this point. You are crossing a chasm, and you will never return to this metaphorical side again. Be kind to everyone. Don’t leave things that should be said, unsaid. Tell the people that matter to you that you appreciate them. And go outside your comfort zone to make memories with friends you might never be close with again!
So go forth, find new experiences, be great and make your mark on the world!
There really is no time like the present.