I’ve had a few conversations with people recently about options, specifically choosing GCSE subjects. Although my son is still a year or so away from his decisions, he’s already starting to talk about it. It can feel like a very difficult and weighty decision, so we’ve shared three simple principles with him in an effort to take the pressure off, and I thought I’d pass them on. They can also be reassuring post-decision if the moment has already passed, and they’re not just useful for helping the young people around you, they can be useful at other transition moments too.
Principle 1 – You’re more likely to be successful if you follow your interests
“Do what you love” might sound a bit clichéd or unrealistic in the modern competitive world, but there’s no reason why you can’t be successful and happy. Becoming the best you can be at anything takes time and concerted effort. Being intrinsically motivated to do something, i.e. doing it just for the love of it, because you’re simply fascinated and you gain satisfaction from doing it without the need for external rewards, is likely to mean that you will put in additional effort and you won’t resent doing so. That additional effort is important throughout life, but particularly at times when the volume and intensity of work required is high, e.g. when you have to study for exams.
Principle 2 – there are no right or wrong decisions
I confess, I’ve cribbed this one from Susan Jeffers, author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. We can often feel paralysed by indecision because we’re caught between two or more options and we don’t want to ‘make a mistake’ and ‘choose the wrong path’. In that situation, when our thinking is just going round in circles, a slightly different perspective might be helpful: every decision comes with its own set of “goodies” and, of course, its own set of challenges. Often what seems like a right choice now can feel like a wrong choice later, and vice versa. It’s all about perspective and whether you choose to dwell on the downsides or pull out the positives from your experiences. If you make a choice now and do a U-turn later, that’s OK; I guarantee there will be good things you can draw from the experience.
Principle 3 – no matter what you hear or read, this isn’t a ‘forever’ decision
When I think back to when I chose my GCSEs and A-levels, I remember feeling how important it was because this was going to set me on the career path for my entire life. If you really think about it though, that’s a crazy concept. Let’s assume that the students who are choosing their GCSEs right now are going to live to around 90 years old, that means that we are expecting that what they choose at the age of 16 is going to be what they have to do for the next 60+ years of their lives. Given how much we and our priorities can change over time, and the impact that these things have on what we feel motivated to do, a ‘forever’ decision begins to feel a little unrealistic. We also have a limited view of all the myriad of possible careers there are available, so we are probably making a decision based on an already restricted view of what the true options are. If that’s not enough to make us, at least, slightly downgrade the gravitas that the situation seems to carry, how about the thought that most of the jobs today’s students will eventually be employed in probably don’t even exist yet.
There are people who decide on their career path at the age of 16 and stay in that same career for the rest of their lives, and are very happy. However, I’ve met just as many who started in one career and ended up in something slightly, or even entirely, different. If you discover you weren’t interested in engineering/architecture/music production (insert anything here) after all, that’s fine; you can change direction. Sure, it might be tricky, it might take you a little longer to find where you feel you belong, but that’s OK. Who says you have to get it right first time?