Knowing who I am and what I value help me make better decisions.
One evening this past week, I was invited to speak at a senior school careers night. I shared with students, parents and friends what I learned in nearly 30 years of my career – from a Chemical Engineering graduate to a business transformation leader today. I shared how I chose my first degree, how the opportunities came and how I made decisions.
The sun has just dipped over the horizon. Darkness was just a few minutes away as a family member drove me to the senior high school campus. On an ordinary day, there should be very few students in school by now. They would be home, getting ready for dinner, checking their social media pages, chatting with friends, playing computer games or nose-deep in their books.
But this was a special day – their annual Business Academy was about to begin.
Outside the main hall were large inviting displays from colleges and universities, all trying to catch the attention of eager students, with parents tagging along. I can feel the energy and excitement in the crowd. A number of the senior school students, members of the Business Academy, were looking smart in suits, greeting visitors and guests.
I was one of a number of guest speakers they invited for this special day in the year.
“Good evening, Ms Harkness. Thank you for coming.” One of the students of the organising group led me to a circle of empty chairs set around a table.
Well, empty except for one other guest speaker ahead of me. He stretched his hand out to greet me and exclaimed, “Did you know all of this is being managed by the students themselves? I am impressed!”
“Yes, I am, too. Great practice for when they eventually enter the business world.”
We ran three sessions in the main hall. The students had a lot of questions.
“How do I choose which course to take after high school?”
“What did you do to prepare for your career?”
“What if I do not know what I like to do?”
“What if I like to do many things? Which one do I choose?”
“How did you get to where you are now?”
“How did you deal with difficulties?”
I stared at my computer screen. It is still empty of words. I am supposed to be preparing for the careers night talk in three days. What can I share with the students? Each journey is unique. Describing what I went through does not seem enough. Distilling lessons from experiences that were unique to me does not satisfy long-term, though it may tap some curious nerve.
What can I share that they can take with them through life, not just for their career?
The memories came back.
Why did I choose Chemical Engineering as my first degree, not Journalism? (I loved to write — poems, short stories, investigative articles and reports. Then, I imagined myself a journalist who would cover significant moments in history!)
I loved to write, but I loved Chemistry and Maths more. I was more interested in exploring applications of the sciences and how they can improve people’s lives. The times I pored over my books and conducted experiments in the laboratory were immensely satisfying.
Why Chemical Engineering and not a Bachelor of Music major in Piano? (I dreamed of being a concert pianist. Literally, I would wake up from night-time dreams where I figured as the top-billed pianist playing in the country’s well-known Cultural Centre. It was frustrating to wake up and find it was just another dream!)
I loved music (and I still do), but (a smile came as I reminisced) I was not that talented. I could entertain my family with my playing, but I knew that I did not bring justice to the difficult passages. I was definitely better at Chemistry and Maths than playing the piano.
But other than knowing what I loved to do and where I was good at, my parents, elders and significant community leaders also taught me that life was more than just about me and my needs.
My father would have loved for me to pursue medicine (Biology and the study of the human body was also a favourite subject of mine), but the financial outlay was out of my family’s reach. My parents wanted me to choose a course that was within our means; to be assured that they would be able to see me through to complete it.
Besides, the country needed more scientists and engineers. The government was even providing financial assistance to the brightest in the country. My education in a specialised science high school was already courtesy of the national government.
It is remarkable how this simple lesson continues to be useful even today.
The three circles of passion, competence and needs do not perfectly coincide in real life. A strong sense of values helps frame, pinpoint and anchor decisions.
Have you consciously used your value system to anchor your decisions?