Solitaire

20 11 2008

I spoke at a UBC Marketing Association event last night, and I always find these experiences particularly rewarding.  Perhaps because it takes me back to when I was in university and all of the anxieties and pressures that go with it.  It’s such an exciting time and such an uncertain time.  Every new batch of students has to confront the same questions that plagued the grads before them.  What do I want to do with my career?  Will I get a job?  How do I get a job?

In fact, what I find so interesting (at least in retrospect) about this time in a person’s life, is how solitary it really is.  Sure, you meet tons of new people and you are likely involved in a number of group activities, from class projects to student groups to dorm-mates to house parties.  But when you zero in on those years spent in post-secondary school, you also see the countless hours spent in your room, reading.  Or in the library, studying.  Or at the lecture hall, notetaking.   You may have approached these tasks with a group of friends, but ultimately it all comes down to you.  Why can’t I get this?  Am I going to know this in time for the exam?  What should I write my paper on?  Am I going to pass or fail?

And it goes beyond that.  Despite being amongst vast social networks, nobody is really quite like anybody else.  Everyone is trying to figure out how to carve out their career path and understand what their future entails.  Some students are mired in debt and wondering if they can stand another box of Mr. Noodle for dinner while another is financially secure but wonders if mom and dad are happy with their career choice.  It’s just one giant community of people having fun on the outside but lost and insecure on the inside.  The symbolic moment for me was leaving the lecture hall and walking past a Starbucks.  The place was packed, but nobody was conversing, everybody either lost in their textbook or staring blankly into the abyss.  The Starbucks near my house (sorry, make that the 4 Starbucks near my house) is bustling – young parents in the only ‘date’ they get nowadays, old friends gossiping back and forth, and activist groups conducting a brainstorming session – all while 2 or 3 dogs wait outside tied up to the parking meters and a homeless man tries to stay warm.  Both locales are full, but there’s an emptiness at one.

I don’t mean to paint a negative picture here.  That was one of the greatest times in my life and should be for everyone who has experienced campus life.  In fact, I think it’s absolutely necessary for people to go through.  You need to be insecure and unsure.  You need to have hundreds of questions and zero answers.  It helps form who you are when the big stuff like family and career come.  It builds character and forces you to make decisions about your values and the type of person you want to be.  Inevitably you come out of it a much more secure, confident and whole person.

When I give these lectures, I am always confronted afterward by a mass of students wanting to talk to me about jobs and career choices and decisions I made along the way.  And I always take the time to answer them all, to offer advice and just lend some assurance.  People always thank me for coming and for the advice and I always say the same thing: ‘no problem.  I’m happy to help.’

And I think it’s because I see myself in these students.  I see that kid that came out of school with no clue about how the working world works.  I see that kid that thought a yellow brick road was awaiting him upon graduation, that employers were climbing over each other to offer a job to.  I see that kid that struggled with attending class and writing papers and public speaking and didn’t really know what he stood for.  Ultimately, amongst all of these students with varying ambitions and goals and frailties and questions, I see one solitary figure that I haven’t seen in about 7 years.

Me.

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