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Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Lessons Learned: A Decade Since High School

Recently, I was invited back to my high school to give a talk about my career path. It was a very lovely offer and I relished the opportunity to give back to the community. I had many difficulties getting to where I am now, and I wanted to help the next generation be as successful as possible. If you're interested in the experience, and what I have to say, please, keep reading!

My high school, Renfrew Collegiate Institute (RCI), has changed quite a lot since I graduated there almost a decade ago but, then again, so have I. The school has been remodeled, some teachers have moved on, but as I walked down the hallway, things were still very familiar. 

I graduated from RCI in 2006 and, during my time there, I excelled academically, athletically, and was involved in many extracurricular activities. Knowing that good grades would help ensure my future, I worked hard and ended up earning awards in every subject I had taken. 

I was lucky in that I have always known what I wanted to do, but I was not lucky insofar as I very rarely had any guidance to help me secure my future. When I was in high school, the only people I knew who had pursued post-secondary education were either teachers or trades-people, and unfortunately their advice was not relevant to my situation. The internet wasn't as developed as it is now, and the guidance teachers had no guidance.

Therefore, I was very glad to have this chance to help, to offer what guidance I could, so that the next generation would have better chances of success.

Here are my main points, forged from experience.

"Things are only impossible until they're not."

Coming from the small town of Renfrew, with its quaint, rural community and perspective, the idea of working in the space industry was nonsense. It not only seems like a foolish idea, but an impossible one. People didn't just branch out like that, they didn't go far from home, and they certainly didn't pursue such silly dreams past the age of 5. 

However, I was supported by my parents. They never once questioned my dreams. They pointed out some harsh realities, which we'll discuss in a moment, but they never once made me think that my dreams were impossible.

In fact, I was so certain of my goal that it was only as I got older that I realized other people seriously doubted me. Backhanded compliments, disbelief, ignorant questioning of my career, even losing friendships, these are all things I have had to deal with as I've continued my journey and the nature of their comments has made me realize that people have had doubts from the beginning, and I was only hearing them now.

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the captain of the Enterprise tells his crew that "Things are only impossible until they are not." It may sound silly, but it is a fact, and the certainty of this fact can be very motivating.

There are many ways to achieve success: hard work, luck, connections, timing, but for me, determination has been my greatest strength. I have been determined to achieve my goals, and I have not let obstacles, even big ones, stop me. I have approached every challenge with a positive mindset, a belief that I would get through it, be better for it, and that I would reach my goals.

I did not let family background, financial issues, the amount of work involved, or the sheer odds against success stop me or even slow me down. Most things worth doing are difficult, and most things worth doing require a lot of hard work and determination.

Visualize your goal

This piece of advice is probably obvious to the point of tedious, but it is an important one, and I think people fail to understand how important it is.

The first part of this advice is to understand your goal. What do you want? Are you sure that it is what you want? For example, when I was younger, working in the space industry was my goal, but it wasn't exactly what I wanted. I wanted to become an engineer, a space engineer, to help design things for space. So, my goal went from work in the space industry to become a space engineer, and this change helped me more concretely define my goal, which helped me understand what I needed to do to achieve it.

The second part literally involves visualization. My second year of university was a dark time for me. I had performed poorly on a few classes, and the tedious workload was making me quite depressed. I knew I wanted to be a space engineer, but I couldn't see a way out of the pit in which I felt trapped. So I looked up from my desk, pushed my chair out, and decided it was time for a change in scenery.

I cleared my desk, and the cork-board behind it, and put up pictures of real and fictional examples of space engineering. Rockets, spaceships, astronauts, and characters from Star Trek, all looking down at me whenever I sat at my desk. I moved Marvin the Martian to one side of my computer and Captain Jean-Luc Picard to the other, both looking at me, both telling me to get back to work. 

When I sat at my desk, all I could see were things which motivated me. I could see my future ahead and I felt the stern eyes of Marvin keeping me focused on the work of the present. If you visualize your goal, if you put up a reminder of it, you're more likely to achieve it, more likely to work toward it. 

This had a rather pleasant, unexpected result. Now, all the classes I had thought tedious were seen as important. Not because the school mandated it, but because I realized that a good space engineer would require those skills, and this inspired me to work harder.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes

I understand the importance of self-esteem, the prevalence of self-doubt, and the advantages of a positive reputation better than most, so I understand why the above underlined, emboldened statement may seem wrong to you.

We don't like to be wrong. We don't even like to be thought of as wrong. And we don't life to take chances. Some of us do, but most of us don't.

Most students develop a rather negative habit early into their studies: they shy away from attention and refuse to answer or ask questions. We have all seen this, many of us have been part of it. A teacher asks a question, and everyone in the room avoids eye-contact and waits. We wait for someone else to answer, or we wait for the teacher to move on.

When I started university, I was intimidated. I shouldn't have been, I went in with an exceptional grade point average and I loved the classroom setting. But, the professors had so much more education and experience than me, how could I say anything without appearing to be completely foolish to them? I was just getting started, I was much more likely to be wrong than right and answering or asking questions would just annoy the professor and the other students, right?

Wrong. I realized that the opposite was true, that most questions posed by professors aren't rhetorical; the professors want them to be answered. Plus, since the professors were so smart, anything I said would likely appear to be foolish, even the right answer. With this in mind, I suddenly became free of my shyness, I was liberated of my own self-doubt. So what if I was wrong? At least I tried. 

And that's when things became really exciting! By answering questions, and asking a few of my own, I began to understand the material more fully. My questions often involved extra clarification of a point, or turning the situation on its side and examining it. Because of my new-found bravery in the classroom, I did more than learn the surface matter of my courses, I examined from every angle, in-depth, and I became much more knowledgeable. My efforts changed from bravery to confidence, from doubt to certainty. And the professors, now thankful for the attentive student, began to take notice.

Risks are important. When the chances of success are not 100%, it means that victory will be that much more appreciated, that much more rewarding. Risks also help us to evaluate our options and allow us to make decisions which will most benefit us and those around us. If you never try, you may never fail, but you will also never succeed. As Captain Kirk famously told a fellow captain, someone whose hesitation was unsubstantiated, "Risk is part of the game if you want to sit in that chair."

Actively reach out

Perhaps the fact that I had so little advice and guidance for pursuing my field inspired me to try even harder to reach out. Whatever the reason, I have found that actively reaching out to people has been very rewarding.

When my research brought my attention to someone interesting, someone who may have advice or connections which could help me, I have taken the opportunity to reach out to those people. It is not easy, starting a conversation with a stranger. It is difficult to know what to say, how to ask your questions appropriately, but the effort is almost always worth the time it takes.

In the first place, letter and email writing, phone etiquette, and appropriate online messaging are extremely important communication skills to develop and reaching out allows you to practice those skills. Secondly, and most importantly, the effort is not made by most and so you will get noticed. Maybe not by everyone to whom you contact, but those who do notice you will be more likely to offer advice or connect you with the people, ideas, and opportunities you seek.

Here is one great example: After I had learned about the International Space University, and its exciting Masters program, I researched the school's faculty. I found two professors, one of them the Dean, who had written some interesting books on Artificial Gravity. I contacted the school and asked if it would be possible to obtain electronic copies of the books and perhaps speak with the professors. The Dean contacted me, shared the book, and thanked me for my enthusiasm. I asked her a few questions about the program, received some advice as to how to apply, and worked hard to follow her advice and make my application exemplary.

Reaching out not only opened my eyes to new possibilities, but helped me earn the opportunities I have had, including acceptance into my Masters program.

Encourage others 

It would be most ungrateful if you expected help in this world without giving help to others. Not only that, but your own personal chances of success and happiness may decrease if you did not make a habit out of encouraging the dreams and goals of others.

Dreams are a precious thing, all too easily crushed by the misfortunes of life and the dismissal of others. Many are too unwilling to share their dream, or even pursue them, because they think the odds are stacked against them and they fear the mockery of others.

I am not saying that every dream needs to be encouraged. Often the ideas we have are fleeting, and not worth pursuing. But, when someone has given a lot of thought and effort toward pursuing their dreams, to achieving their goals, we should help them in any way that we can. This effort actually takes much less work than we realize and can be important for us and our own dreams.

Helping people achieve their goals is not only good for them, but it helps us make contacts, promote success around us, and generally means that others will make an effort to help us in the future. 

A little encouragement goes a long way.


And that's my advice for now. The talk at the high school went very well and I think I did a fine job of explaining the challenges and opportunities which lie ahead. My road hasn't been easy, but it has been rewarding. I hope reading this advice has helped you to consider your own goals and helps you move in the direction you choose.

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