I was reading my good friend Francis' blog (Life's SOS) today, and his entry entitled "What do you do with a BA in English?" reflected on how certain university degrees may not be as effective in preparing young people for the real world. While there may be some validity in that, the idealist in me wants to believe it is not necessarily so. Fundamentally I think that a good university degree should bestow on an undergraduate two key things: thinking skills and deeper understanding of self. The actual content of the degree, although important and useful, is only number 3 on the list.
This reminds me of a Commencement Address recently delivered by bestselling author J. K. Rowling to new Harvard graduates. I was quite taken by this address, which was entitled "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination". You can read or view Rowling's complete address here, but for now I'd like to highlight one small part of it where she talks about her university days:
"(My parents) had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.
I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom."
Yet this remarkable lady survived various life challenges and created one of the most successful book and movie series ever, about the adventures of boy wizard Harry Potter. Who (apart from perhaps herself) could have predicted that her Classics undergraduate study would have provided such a fertile foundation for her future career? But it was quite a struggle before she attained success. Indeed her "rags to riches" story - going from living on welfare to multi-millionaire status within five years - was almost as famous as her fictional works.
I urge you to read or listen to her inspiring speech as she gives very good advice on failure and imagination.
A few excerpts ... first on the benefits of failure ...
"... failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me ... rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."
... and on the power of imagination ...
"If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."
I think most parents tend to nudge their offspring towards traditionally safe, professional disciplines. When I was young (and I think to a large extent even today), the common response of Asian parents when asked by their offspring what course they should pursue at university went like "Ah boy/Ah girl, you can do anything you like as long as it's medicine, law, engineering or accountancy!" Parents invariably have their children's best interests at heart and believe this to be the path to stability, security and ultimately happiness. Yet I cannot help but feel that their children's futures might be better served if they were given the flexibility and support needed to pursue what they are really, really interested in and seem to have an inclination for. When one pursues one's passion, the results can be astounding ...