I recall memorising the timeline of human prehistory when I was twelve - Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic - from the fresh first pages of my history textbook. It was past midnight, and their quirky names numbed my tongue and befuddled my brain. Nevertheless, I forcibly committed them to memory, motivated by the promise that hard work at school will one day pay off.
Before I knew it, I had an impressive string of A's, enough gold certificates to bust my ring binders at their spines and a scholarship to go to a top A-levels college in Malaysia, where I could do it all again.
My mom encouraged me throughout my schooling years saying, "Study hard, get into a good university, and your life is set."
Admittedly, I had no idea what it meant to have my life "set" - in my head, studying hard would lead me into a black box where I would re-emerge as a successful 30-something who would be shaking up the world and making bank. And so it was quite a rude awakening for me when I realised how little 20 years of formal education had equipped me to tackle the next stage of my life: finding a job.
For someone who thought he had figured out the formula for success in life, having achieved so much academic success, the rejections I received in my inbox from companies I was sure would want to hire me were particularly painful and frustrating. For the first time in my life, I learnt that the laws of physics that apply in the controlled environment of the classroom do not always apply in real life. And boy, was that a hard pill to swallow.
I learnt that few employers value academic excellence if it comes at the expense of being well-rounded. I learnt that luck is very real. I learnt that the best people for a job do not always get the job. But most of all, I learnt that so-called "soft skills" - leadership, communication, teamwork, inter alia - skills that our education system does not emphasise enough, seem more valuable than the technical skills schools focus on arming us with. It turns out that in the professional world, employers often value the ability to manage a difficult individual or to lead a team through a crisis more than the ability to crack calculus or to regurgitate the precise definitions of technical terms. Imagine that.
So even though I could call myself an Oxbridge graduate, I found myself in the awkward position of having to prioritise skills I had learnt outside my curriculum and indeed outside any formal education I had ever received, over the more technical knowledge I was taught to master, in order to secure a job I thought my education would prepare me for.
Youth unemployment is frighteningly high in many parts of the world right now in spite of the fact that global universities are churning out graduates with the efficiency of a production line. What this might suggest is that there is a real mismatch between what employers look for, what graduates are equipped with and what the system provides.
Straight out of Oxbridge, I thought I would be picking job offers like choosing cereal in a supermarket aisle. I know many other top students with the same level of arrogance. After all, wasn't the point of education to prepare us for the working world? Being academically brilliant surely meant that we would be brilliant in employment too, right?
And when you actually stop and think about it, it is pretty obvious how ridiculous such a conclusion really sounds. But good students often have laser-like focus and will find themselves caught up in their formulaic approach to success, believing that it will translate seamlessly into the working world.
It is important for all students, especially the academically inclined, to never get lost in that dangerous playground. We need to invest in ourselves using more than just the pages of textbooks and rely on more than just a good university name. Spend lots of time with people you like. Spend more time with people you don't like. Take the plunge and lead a team. Scare yourself and be uncomfortable. And please make use of your university's careers service.
People rely too much on education being the silver bullet to every conceivable problem. But education is only one part of the solution. You need to rely on yourself as much as you do on your education. Because the most essential skills that employers look for are bizarrely often not what traditional education can equip us with. Perhaps it is because they cannot be taught. They must be learned.