We were told we could do anything. We were told to follow our dreams. And here we are: grown up, qualified and utterly confused.
Recently, I popped into my old school to do some casual interviews among the students and teachers for a project I was working on. After rallying up a few willing participants to help me, the head of sixth form asked if, in return, I would give an assembly that day.
The proposed assembly topic: my life, what I did after school, what I am doing now. Apart from the fact that I have come to detest describing my life, having reached saturation point in the subject area after writing myriads of cover letters and job applications, I also didn't want to further this myth that "want always gets".
A few hours prior to the assembly, I met with a group of students to carry out the interviews that I came to the school for. I explained the work I was doing and answered any questions they had. One student asked me how I ended up doing what I was doing. I answered him, adding at the end that, generally speaking, a lot in life ends up being down to luck - it is important to work hard, but it also helps being in the right place at the right time, seizing opportunities, being flexible, being lucky.
After my conversation with the students, the head of year approached me and said, "Actually, don't worry about the assembly". I asked her if it was the luck comment and she replied that at the students need to be told to work hard, not to get lucky!
Young people are simultaneously fed with ideas that they can do whatever they wish in life and unemployment statistics. These contradictory aspects of a projected future remain in the abstract and so are very easy to live with up until a certain point. In an article, Tim Urban suggests that "Generation Y" are unhappy because they are overly optimistic and ambitious, which requires some sort of delusion, rooted in the now omnipresent adage, "I am Special". He puts forward the equation: Happiness = Expectations - Reality. Where the previous generations had low, or realistic expectations, the current cohort of "emerging adults" have expectations that reality is bound to fall short of.
There must be someway of motivating students to work for their exams as well as giving some practical realistic insiders into what the future may hold. A Bristol university professor and student counsellor described "fearing failure" as an unhealthy way to approach studies, and life generally. She continued to say that what life presents to you does have something to do with chance and luck, but that people create their own luck by working hard, being open-minded and positive. Not ending up where you had set yourself isn't necessarily failing, or even falling short. It's just something else. The internet is flooded with blogs and TED talks on the merits of failure and how "rock bottom" can, in fact, be an advantageous position. Rachael Sharman, a lecturer in psychology, even goes so far as to say that the avoidance of failure and attributing the word a negative connotation can have a detrimental effect on an individual, creating psychologically fragile young adults. A trickling down of these ideas into the school assembly agenda might be helpful.
Locking yourself away and studying hard can get you a top grade, but doing anything else in life requires networks, interaction and collaboration. On Radio 4 last week, Julia Hobsbawm, a businesswoman and professor, discussed ways in which we are a "networking nation". As well as studying hard, success comes from working with others, being ready to experiment, ready to fail and ready to find luck.
The trickiness lies in balancing ambition with humility; determination with openness; and hard work with good luck.