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How you could do better than your classmates, 10 years later?

Lila Sonnenschein L

The school system is straight forward and systematic — as students, we studied hard and listened to teachers’ instructions, and some of us got to the best classes in high school, and then best colleges. And we thought this is how life is going to continue -- there is a proper path and one correct answer to every question. 

After college, you and your classmates entered the working world. For the first few years, everyone seems to be doing the same things: starting from entry-level positions, going through the motion Monday to Friday. However, as time goes by, something strange starts to happen...

Some of us who did really well in school start to do less well in the real world. And the ones we did not expect to do well surprised us with their achievements. 

But why?

You will find the answer after finishing reading this article. =)

1. What defines you, defines your life. 

From my own experience as alumni of prestigious universities, there is one thing that I felt is an universal truth: no matter what kind of circumstances you are in or life experiences that you have been through, there is always a tendency for life to go back to the essence that defines you as a person. 

What exactly is that essence? It is the raw drive that springs from the deepest part of your soul, your real desire, that defines you as a person. 

I grew up in a typical way how kids grew up. Okay, maybe let’s discount things like occasionally skipping classes, getting into fights with certain classmates etc, things that don’t really matter 10 years later. I was a good student. 

I went to the best primary school, best middle school, best high school and then one of the top 10 colleges in the country for my undergraduate studies. After which, I continued my masters in the University of Pennsylvania, also one of the top schools in the United States. 

All along, I thought this is a perfect system. The ones who followed the game plan enjoy much brighter future than those who were “left behind”. This is also the belief of many students, who studied so hard so that they would have a leg up in any prestigious profession of their choice. 

After graduation, the ones who graduated from Ivy League colleges went to work for investment banks; the ones who graduated from domestic top colleges chose famous MNC in various fields. Of course, my primary school mates who went to 2nd or 3rd-tier colleges ended up in unknown little companies with meagre pay. And there are ones whose families own businesses went back to work for their family.   

Everything seemed to go quite according to the game plan. 

But things became a little strange, after a few years. 

Some of the classmates who were excellent in their school results and went to work for prestigious investment banks, left the hyper-competitive and cut-throat industry for less stressful ones. And many settled for a stable yet uneventful life early. 

On the other hand, some of them who were average students in school but loved to explore things, break things and stir things up, became rising stars in the professions of their choice. Some have even started their own businesses. 

The ones who took over their parents’ businesses, but who had ultimately no interest, have quitted or even sold the companies. 

There are a handful who were particularly talented and diligent in their hobbies, have become quite well-known authors. 

In our society, where internet and smartphones have brought a high degree of freedom and many choices that were previously unimaginable. What exactly has made the top students in the past average professionals today and average students top performers in their fields? 

In my opinion, the answer is the same today as 2000 years ago — Your deepest desire and drive. 

How you could do better than your classmates, 10 years later?

2. Some choices in life have nothing to do with money. 

Okay, let me make myself clear first, I’m not here to criticise anyone’s choices in life. 

The happiness in life really depends on whether you are living the life you want. Whether it is an uneventful but comfortable life, or exciting one full of ups and downs, as long as this is what you always wanted, it is worth celebrating. 

But what I realised is that in the end the life you will be living always reveals the real you that is the combination of your desire and capabilities. 

So that means even if you got a really prestigious job offer with high salary but also high pressure, if you are by nature not that ambitious or driven, neither are you in love with the industry, you will leave the job one day due to high stress level. 

If you studied programming in your undergraduate courses, but your real passion is writing. You might take up a job that is related to programming, but you would definitely use your free time to write as it is what makes you happy.  So yes, you get salary from your day job, but your life’s work is in your words. 

I have worked in the financial industry and I was asked to interview the applicants who were fresh graduate from the colleges. So I asked questions like many other alumni interviewers:

"Why do you want to work in financial industry?"

"Which particular area do you want to work in?"

"What impact do you think this career choice will have in your life?"

And I have heard the following answers again and again. 

“Finance is exciting, and it could change the world.”

“I’m good with maths. And I think Finance needs a lot of maths. So it is a good career choice for me.”

“It is a prestigious job, with good income”

“I just like it.”

Of course, once in a while, there were a few who could tell me what they knew about the industry and the events that showed them that they were suitable to work in this industry. Even though I felt the answers were not that polished, I could tell the passion and desire in them, compared to the majority of the candidates who gave very generic answers. And those few usually ended up surviving much better in this industry. 

Because no matter how much salary this prestigious job brings you, if you find no fun in doing it, and you could have the option to make (less) money elsewhere but still enough to support your lifestyle and family, you would eventually quit. You might choose a job that is your real passion, or indulge in a hobby, or spend more time with your loved ones. 

3. Know yourself

I remember there were a few summers that I spent in my auntie’s house at Vancouver. Her kids were playing with neighbour’s dogs. Sunset was a beautiful shade of red. People walk their dogs, make their dinners and go to sleep early. Life is idyllic. 

But I knew, this was not for me, at least not yet at my age. Life in the country versus life in the city. Predictability versus excitement. Slow versus fast. There is no right or wrong, but whatever that is most suitable for oneself. 

I chose a fast-paced, stressful but exciting life, as I knew the idyllic life is suffocating to my soul. 

Most students, while still in school, have no idea who they are and what kind of life they really want. Schooling is compulsory, but once it is done, it’s like jumping off a cliff -- you have the freedom to make choices, with no guidance from teachers, no exams and no right answers. This freedom is scary to a lot of us if we don’t know who we really are. 

What is my personality? What are my strengthes and weaknesses. What is a suitable career for me? What kind of lifestyle do I enjoy, or not enjoy?

All these need to be answered, and they will determine why you want to continue to strive, and what sustains your passion and responsibility in the career of your choice. And eventually it will give you your desired lifestyle and meaning of your life, or in other words, the legacy you leave behind. 

The answer to these questions are usually complex. Some may not have immediate answers. Some answers may change. This requires you to keep reflecting, asking yourself, knowing yourself. 

It’s always good to start getting to know yourself early, maybe by taking up various internships while still studying in school. From all those exposures, you will get to know yourself better. And there is not much price to pay if you decide to rule out certain career choices and considering others, as the liberty of youth always permits more trials and errors, compared with much greater responsibilities of an adult. 

How you could do better than your classmates, 10 years later?

Career Prep