Ever since graduation in May, countless people have asked (most more out of courtesy than anything else), “Which university are you enrolling in?” The moment I tell them I’m not going to university, their reaction is usually one of exasperation (as in, “I keep telling you not to buck the trend and you won’t listen!”) or one of perplexity (“Like.. why? Just why?”).
Since securing my full-time job, I’ve gotten a more well-rounded perspective on this dilemma. While I will never be able to vouch 100% for whether university is the way to go or not, it differs based on character, preference and work ethic (I’ll go into details later) and of course, whether it will pay off or not, only time will tell. I’m still waiting to prove myself right. Thought it’d be nice to chronicle my thoughts at this point in time though, so that in a decade when I’m 30, in best case scenario I can thank myself for having foresight, and in worst case scenario I have concrete proof to beat myself up over. Haha!
First of all, let me explain why I didn’t choose to go to university.
I was never particularly strong in academics
That’s not to say I don’t like learning. I love learning. And it’s also not that I was bad at it. I did learn a lot in my schoolgoing years.. but I only did well academically in the subjects I was already good at. Subjects like History and Literature that were easier for me — simply because that was what I had been exposed to since young- garnered results that were a stark contrast against my Math, Physics and Chemistry scores. I’m not saying that I was right to give up on these — but to master them I would have taken way more than the 2 years I had to prepare for GCE O’s. So yes, it was a mismatch between my capabilities and what the education system could accomodate. That doesn’t make for academic success, and I ended up facing quite the struggle through high school. My years in polytechnic were slightly easier because the subjects, though mathematical in nature, tended to have real-life application, so it was easier to grasp.. I still barely passed. Not proud, just being very realistic about what I am good at and what I am not. Not being good at something doesn’t give you an excuse to give up on it, but it mandates that you must double, triple or quadruple the time and effort you put into it — multiples of your time and effort, not someone else’s time and effort. I could spend triple the time G.H. Hardy or Srinivasa Ramanujan spent on mathematics and I will still never be an authority in it because I don’t have that natural inclination. Everyone has vastly different inclinations, strengths and personality traits, and I simply couldn’t multiply the time and effort I was already putting into those subjects.
I knew what I wanted to do
By the end of polytechnic, I already knew more or less that I wanted to do something that led me to either deal with language, or people. Sounds broad, but I had very concrete parameters: I wanted to work for startups, I needed a job that would give me autonomy and freedom, I wanted to work in tech. That basically left me with the choices of being copywriter, freelance translator or working in people ops. In the end, I chose people ops because it fell smack into the career sweet spot, but even then I had to iterate my initial ideas a bit to fit market conditions and available opportunities. If I had been any less sure, I would have gone to university for a general degree so that I have at least a safety net.
I had family commitments and didn’t want to incur debt
I am the only daughter, and if local universities weren’t an option, I would have to go overseas. Yes, I’d come back during summer, but the idea of being far away with my parents and grandparents alone here made me uncomfortable. Furthermore, overseas universities were expensive and I haven’t taken pocket money in a long, long while — wasn’t about to start asking for money for university. Looking at the subjects I wanted to major in, like history, literature, linguistics.. there was a high chance I wouldn’t earn much. To excel in any field, you have to be the top 1%.. and I didn’t have the confidence that I could do it. For me to incur debt for university and end up struggling to pay it off seems very off-putting to me.
Armed with these reasons, I finally decided not to do a degree. It wasn’t easy, I mean, everyone around me is doing a degree — it made me wonder who I thought I was to buck the trend. The stakes were raised and suddenly I realized this could either be the best or worst decision of my life. In my second-going-third year of poly, I started working with 2359 Media, and when I left school I knew that this was an opportunity for me. I eventually pursued opportunities elsewhere before coming back, but had I not known that this door was open, it would have been difficult for me to decide to join the workforce instead. I also felt that starting work early would allow me to accumulate the expertise needed to be ready for bigger opportunities when they came by — opportunities that may not have been suitable for a fresh graduate. Since I already knew what I wanted to do, why not?
There are certain traits that I think anyone who is attempting to move ahead without university should have. Mind you, these are not necessarily good traits, just traits that I think are necessary for someone who’s intending to walk the uncharted path. Just like how traits like persistence (and I don’t have any) is needed to be great at academics, risk appetite is important in walking the uncharted path. Then again, you could say persistence is also needed to go off the beaten trail — it all comes down to how you frame it.
Independence & Initiative
Of all the traits that I notice have helped me in my journey, these two are probably the biggest of them all. I grouped them together because in my mind, the instances in which I exercise them are similar. For example, when you’re out on your own, knowledge doesn’t rain down on you like it does when you’re in school. Nope, the other way round, knowledge becomes a scarcity, something you thirst for and seek on your own. It wasn’t until I started working that I realized how quickly you deteriorate if you don’t go out actively seeking knowledge. Once you get caught in the minute details of everyday life, it’s easy to go days and weeks without ever learning something new. This is where independence and initiative come in — you have the initiative to seek new knowledge proactively, and the independence to follow through without spoonfeeding. This of course involves a certain amount of drive, grit, persistence, resilience.. you get my drift.
Laziness & Resourcefulness
A while back, I was running a Mission to Mars exercise past my developers, and one of my close friends Kien mentioned being lazy as a quality, which I thought would make a lot of sense when coupled with another quality — resourcefulness. If you’re lazy, you tend to want to accomplish max. impact with min. effort. That’s not to say you find the easy way out. It means that you look at what your maximum impact can potentially be, and you figure out a way to get to that with minimum effort. That in itself requires a lot of strategizing and resourcefulness, I think, because it demands that you make use of what you already have and not reinvent the wheel, and ensures that you take the path of least resistance. In today’s context, pretty much the only advantage I have over my university-going friends would be the 3–4 years headstart I have — so time is of the essence. While it also affords you a little more time to fail, I try to make each moment count by pursuing what could potentially bring maximum impact, instead of spreading myself too thin.
Drive & Direction
It’s no use having drive without direction. I think that if you don’t know what a) you’re good at, b) you’re passionate about and c) can make you money, don’t try to figure it out in the workforce. You will bumble around in an environment that is not as forgiving as school, and mistakes are much more expensive out here. Do all the exploring in school — once you’re in the workforce you may not concretely know what you want, but at least know the answers to those questions, then all that’s left to figure out would be where they intersect. That would be your career sweet spot — the place you should try to get to as fast as possible and stay as long as possible.
Having said all that, there are things I observed and think is important if you’re also choosing not to do a degree:
Be prepared: You WILL need to work your ass off
Actually, I would say this applies whether or not you have a degree. Everyone is working hard and everyone has an extra edge. Excellence is the new yardstick. Working hard is no longer a value-add, it’s an expectation and a basic requirement. If you want to go places, be prepared to work like your life depends on it, and bring your full self to work. That’s not to say you have to forgo work-life balance, but do go above and beyond, do be aggressive about your learning. Better still, assimilate yourself into the practice of work-life integration. That is probably all the advantage you can afford.
A good boss is everything
There is very little that is better than finding a mentor who is willing to spend time, effort and maybe even go the extra mile to make you a rockstar in your field. Find those mentors. Once you have a mentor, be coachable — listen to advice, be discerning, learn and apply what you’ve learnt. Having a mentor is like adding a couple of years’ of unofficial experience to your portfolio. Coupled with a thirst for learning and good work ethic, a mentor could be the most important person you meet in your entire career. You could potentially encounter many mentors in your entire career: skill mentors, career mentors, life mentors.. you decide what you want to see in your mentor. Is it good work ethic? Integrity? Strong business acumen? Above all, make sure your mentor is invested in your success, ie. willing to go above and beyond to help you succeed. A bit like Merlin to King Arthur. Like 诸葛亮.
The doubt will never go away
Occasionally you have a bad day at work, and you come home to be confronted by your friends’ photos — they’re having fun in hall, enjoying their co-curricular activities, participating in hall pageants.. and then you wonder why you’re making this so hard for yourself and if you’re even going to end up okay. The doubt never goes away. Some companies will always pay based on your certifications. Some people will never think much of you if you don’t have a degree. I tell myself that I don’t want to work for people who evaluate my aptitude based on a measly piece of paper that everyone else also has. I always try to remember my initial convictions and tell myself that as long as there is no concrete evidence that I should derail, I should keep on this till I am the top 1%. But I must admit, there are days that are harder than some. I eventually snap out of it by telling myself that given those circumstances, the knowledge I had at that time and the frame of mind I was in, I made the best choice I could possibly have. Then again, fly or falter, it is a route I chose, and on some level I believe that I will make it eventually — or at least come out okay on the other end.
— — — — — — —
It’s been almost a year since I stepped into the work force, and while there are days where I only make it through by chanting, “This too, shall pass.” I am doing what I love doing now, and I am committed to making this work. I don’t dread going to work — in fact, I hate Fridays — and I deeply believe that what I do is meaningful, valuable and will leave lasting impact. What more can I ask for? Now all that’s left is to make it work.
Only time will tell if I will make it or not.