Saturday 3 September 2011

Decision tangles aren't just for the young, everyone needs some guidance

I met two young guys this week who are deep in the throes of decision making dilemmas. One had managed to whittle his career decision making down to three options; whilst the other had become seriously ill after drowning under the weight of being blind to his significant career attributes, not knowing what he is equipped to achieve or what he is here to do.

Put mildly, the guy with 3 options is still looking at hugely diverse options from professional sport, a career in media technology and an entrepreneurial start-up; the other just incapable of deciphering a way forward and utterly waylaid by the not knowing.

MPs in England and many policy-makers seem to believe that as a society we equip our young people with the decision making powers necessary to tackle the hugely portentous choices that we inevitably bump into throughout the course of our lives.

Please feel free to correct me, but throughout the whole passage of my education I cannot recollect a single exercise in a classroom that went anywhere near teaching me how to evaluate my options and decide. Decision making is a critical life skill, a survival skill, that we seem to believe is learnt through some kind of osmosis.

In the harsh light of reality, this process of osmosis is what some people call 'The University of Hard Knocks' or 'The University of Life' when what we are really trying to say is that the only way to truly learn the skill of decision making is through repeated failure and the build-up of some helpful layers of scar tissue.

Fair enough, making mistakes is a fantastically effective way of learning what not to do in the future. I think this approach works quite well in the realms of learning to ride bicycles, but with a decision as impactful as a career path, why should we encourage young people to stake their psychological wellbeing on such an unpredictable, high risk strategy? We ought to remember how much of our identity is built upon what we choose to call ourselves in the workplace, how our career connects all of the dots between mortgage, grocery shopping, holidays, cars and pension plans. Without a well-considered career plan and the resilience to navigate change, who are we?

I've been there to help the 26,27,28 year-olds pick-up the pieces of shattered dreams and misspent years banging their heads off brick walls whilst the blood is trickling off the end of their noses. I've done it just this week and my heart really bled for this tremendously capable, kind and sincere young guy who had invested his all down the wrong track, only to have it explode in his face years later, just at the time when many of his peers are gaining real traction on their lives. Yet our Government officials seem to think our young people don’t need career guidance.

When you do talk to young people ahead of these pivotal decisions and/or just after the potentially misspent years, it seems to me the errors were caused by ill-fitting expectations. Parental pressure, peer pressure, societal pressure can heat up a decision just enough to distort reality. This is bad enough. But there is an equally sinister side to cocked-up dreams of fast cars, sun-kissed beaches and the good life, the incredibly exaggerated expectations of the young person.

Now that we have created a culture where every young person seems to believe the only viable route to the good life is to grab a degree, anything short of this lofty aspiration now smacks of failure. When in the harsh light of the economic reality - at the time of writing - a degree is possibly the last career option I would advocate unless the chooser is committed to expanding their education further along a very specific route with well-defined goals in mind.

More dangerous again in the league table of miss-matched expectations - and this is not going win me any popularity stakes - is that so many young people I meet want the big pay cheque, the fast car and all the trappings of wealth and responsibility without doing 'the filing', 'tea making', or any of ‘the grunt' required. It is as if they're on a fantastic snakes and ladders board and all of the throws of the career dice land them on ladders which take them very smoothly, effortlessly and swiftly to the loftiest heights of their chosen career trajectory. This na├»ve outlook really can cause damage, the pieces of which are very hard for anyone to pick up.

Being the possessor of great potential is a huge responsibility which requires fantastic decision making powers, deft management, total commitment, but above all, the patience to turn the potential energy into well-targeted kinetic energy. And this only really comes from the investment of time, the accrual of time-tested experience and hard-earned respect - self respect goes hand-in-hand with, and is dependent upon, the respect of others.

A life time of opportunity and fulfilment is a very difficult journey to short circuit. The extra time invested can only help hone our decision making capabilities in the long term. It seems it is only the weak and perpetually insecure who are afraid of asking for help.

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