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Enhance Your Career Prospects by Taking Charge of Your Education

Part III

Monday, Feb 26, 2007

"We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons." (Anonymous)

How Can I Fight the System?

Human nature and behaviour is greatly influenced by environment and life circumstances. While we do not control a great deal of life events and circumstances, we do have the power to choose the way we interpret and respond to these challenges. And that makes all the difference. Two individuals encountered with similar events may take diametrically different course of action and consequently get different results. The human mind is often the most underestimated commodity in our life. In reality, it is the most powerful yet unappreciated resource.

While we may not be able to cure the system, but with the right frame of mind, we can manage the problem, making the right choices and achieving better results despite the inherent shortcomings of the system. In essence we need to focus and make the best of what we have, than whining about what we don't. Cursing the problem will not cure it!

Early Realization, Assumptions and Decision

Realization and acceptance of a problem is the fist step towards its solution. An early realization also minimizes the risks and cost of the solution. Assumptions are "perceived facts", conscious or subconscious that guide our thinking, decisions and actions. Subconscious assumptions are "hidden" and influence our behaviour "under cover". Facing great challenges, with wrong assumptions can be self-defeating. Being more aware of your assumptions and challenging the ones that do not seem logical or appropriate is thus difficult yet an important success factor.

Do Not Rely on External Factors

As you start a professional (or educational) program (e.g. MBA, BCS etc.), have a dialogue with yourself. Tell yourself that you recognize that our education system is not ideal, and that you may not expect great faculty, facilities etc. from the institution. Recognize that because of the institutional shortcomings, you cannot let the outcome of the program rest on the institution alone as that could jeopardize your career and life prospects and ruin your (or your parent's) investment. Recognize that the primary responsibility and initiative for your education and career rests with you and not with anyone else. Clearly visualize the consequences of your indifference and inaction in some distant future. And finally, make a decision that you will take charge of your education and do whatever it takes as a student to realize your educational and career objectives. Know it for a fact that your decision today, will determine what you become tomorrow.

Starting with humble expectations about the system would either boost or help maintain your motivation during your stay at college or university. If your experience is better than your expectation, your motivation would enhance and you will assume a more positive frame of mind. If the experience is as bad as your expectation, it would not do you much harm as you are already "prepared" for it. In fact it may elevate your self-confidence and self-esteem making yourself look "wiser" than the rest of the lot (who generally begin idealistically and end pessimistically and hopelessly).

Always Aim High

It must be noted however that while having minimal expectations and dependence on external factors is important for success, having humble expectations about your learning outcome, career, life (or yourself) in general can be disastrous. We MUST aim high and have faith in ourselves. Having meaningful goals and dreams is what drives people in worst circumstances and helps ordinary people attain extraordinary feats.

Know What You Want and Set Your Goals

Start by defining your educational goals. There are numerous ways of doing this. Think of what you want to become, in terms of knowledge, thoughts, feelings or behaviour. For instance, if you are studying Psychology, one of your study goals could be to overcome some of your psychological shortcomings - fear, emotional outbursts etc. For Economics, it could be overcoming your spendthrift behviour and making decisions more thoughtfully and rationally etc. etc. We must realize that education after all is not merely about "getting a job" or "becoming rich". It is also about becoming a better person. The fruits of education are not limited to the confines of corporations. Education is an outstanding opportunity that equips us for dealing with the challenges of life more effectively and efficiently.

Alternatively, you may set your goals based on what you want to do or achieve in a career. Doing that effectively however would require you to find out more about the desired job or role. What does it take to be successful in that position? Which competencies are relevant to that role? What are the key challenges associated with that position?

For example, if your aim is to become a successful accountant, you must be aware that preparing and analyzing financial statements is a routine and critical function of an accountant. With this in mind, when you study Accounting as a subject, you must strive hard to fully grasp the concepts and skills related to the preparation and interpretation of financial statements. You know now that poor knowledge or skills in this area would lead you to embarrassment at work and minimize your prospects in Accounting. So as a student, you "don't have a choice" but to do your level best in acquiring this knowledge. Such visualization of consequences is critical to your success, both as a student and as a professional.

A student who is driven by such career choice is more focused and energized by this sense of purpose. He knows what he wants and is prepared to do whatever it takes to get it!

Successfully establishing the link between education and career helps you see things more clearly. Learning can suddenly become more meaningful and "relevant". It raises interest and motivation, especially in areas that are perceived to be linked to success in career.

This clarity may also enable you to "see" how your choices and actions as a student impact your future, guiding your behaviour in line with your goals or aspirations and keeping you from wasting your energies on irrelevant distractions that howsoever attractive at the time, are immaterial in the long run.

Never Compromise on Motivation

Treat your motivation for learning as "sacred". If you persistently lack motivation, rest assured that you are destined to fail unless you do something about it. Motivation is a great guide of a student or professional. Lack of motivation is a symptom which screams aloud that something is wrong. It suggests that you are either doing what you do not want or not doing what you want. It is a warning that you are "off target".

Be more aware about your motivation and act when it warns you. When you feel unmotivated, stop and reflect on possible causes. Do something about it, recharge your batteries and move on.

Motivation is a complex system and has several dimensions. While its elaboration is beyond the scope of this article, I would like to point out an aspect that could help generate interest in your studies. I have observed many students approaching a subject with an assumption that it is "irrelevant". For instance, a student of Human Resource Management may view Accounting as irrelevant to HR. This small assumption is enough to make you "bitter" (because you are being "forced" to do something that you don't want or "need"), pay less attention, work less, and in the end perform poorly. Try to find the missing link between subjects and "see" how they fit within the larger whole of the system. Finding meaning and purpose behind a topic significantly helps generate interest. And if you are unable to do that independently, don't feel shy to seek help. You may be surprised to see the level of interlinking and interdependence of so many subjects, especially in a business context.

Feel, Think and Act like a Professional

A common observation is that many people think, feel and act like "students", throughout their professional studies and even after graduating as they seek to enter the corporate world. They seem to forget an important fact that organizations do not hire "students" - they hire professionals who are capable of solving and addressing organizational problems and challenges. Yes, recruiters do not expect new entrants to be experts. But they also do not expect "shaking" people who are not sure of themselves, are not willing to take on responsibility, or face a challenge independently.

The day you join a professional program (Medicine, Accounting, MBA etc.), try to feel, think and act like a professional. Yes, do not treat yourself like a "student", lest you want others to do the same. It is important to feel good about yourself and also to feel the professional responsibility. This is an attitudinal change that could prove critical in future. Those who make this transition early on, quickly reap the fruits. Those who "wait" are often seen feeling and being treated like students (like a learner driver) in organizations during the earlier months and years of their career.

Students in the more advanced countries are often engaged in research that paves the way for breakthroughs in science, technology and other areas. It is much easier for them to make this transition of mindset. It may be harder but not impossible for our students. A few small steps could help making it happen. For example, becoming member of a professional association or society, subscribing to online news and resources related to your field, participating in local events, public conferences or seminars, and maintaining contact with friends, relatives, or others pertaining to the profession. This professional awareness further helps relate study material with real life problems and enhances comprehension and motivation to learn.

For clarity, here are a few signs of a person who perceives or acts as a "mere" student:

Review and Tap your Resources

Most human beings are born with enormous resources (sociopsychological). In addition, there are other untapped resources that go waste due to lack of awareness or simple inaction. In the wake of the inherent problems with our education system in Pakistan, as discussed earlier, effective utilization of available resources becomes crucial.

Teachers

A very good example of underutilized resources (especially in our culture) is teacher. Many students keep distance from their teachers (apart from classroom settings). Few students ever discuss anything with their teachers other than the specific material (or problems) discussed in the class or described in textbooks. They seldom seek help or advice for other issues. Many teachers can provide good advice and support to students in addressing many of their issues or frustrations. A person may not be a good teacher, but may prove to be a good coach.

Informational Resources

Lack of teaching facilities or resources is not as big an issue today as it used to be, thanks to technology. If you are eager to learn, chances are that what you seek is available on the internet, and in many cases, free of cost. Further, information is available in so many forms (text, pictures, diagrams, audio, video) and levels that it can well serve any specific learning style and context. Some sites even offer audio lectures by experts on many subjects.

In addition to free resources of course, there are other great knowledge resources on the Net that can be tapped with a little bit of "investment". This includes membership of internationally acclaimed professional associations such as www.shrm.org, www.pmi.org, www.apa.org and other information portals.

And of course we have earth's largest bookstore available at our disposal - www.amazon.com. Well if you don't afford that alone, have you ever discussed the option with your friends? Don't you afford that as a group? Team up and get whatever you want!

And finally, there are discussion forums on almost any topic where you can post your problem or question and get answers from professional experts, worldwide. You may even find emails to academicians, professors, practitioners etc. around the world, and ask questions. Many of them would be more eager to respond and help than some of your own teachers.

Networking

If you get stuck, seek help from your social network - friends, relatives, neighbours, acquaintances etc. And of course, don't forget your eFriends (friends made on the internet). Your network can be as large as the globe.

Your social network is not confined to your personal acquaintances. It includes the network(s) of your network - the social network of people you know. This makes the network much more diverse and wide than we generally think.

Social network can help in a variety of ways. For instance it can help you choosing a subject for the next semester, getting help on an academic problem, finding the right organization for internship, arranging an interview with a manager, finding an appropriate book or online resource, getting career advice or coaching or having a general pep talk.

And don't forget, your network may also include some of the greatest professionals and teachers around. So look out and don't feel shy!

Don't Just Sit There, Speak Up!

Stop fearing! Fear is the most effective self-inflicting stopper on personal and professional growth. While a little fear can drive efforts leading to success, excess of it can make success impossible. And the fear that I would like to talk about here is the fear to speak and question. It is worth mentioning here that fear of public speaking is a universal phenomenon and is recognized as one of the top fears in the world - greater than the fear of death and fear of snakes.

Unfortunately in our culture students in general are not just shy about presenting in public, they have reservations about asking questions, giving comments or feedback, criticism on a topic (even when urged), class discussion or participation of any sort.

Students fear "looking like a fool", or being criticized or snubbed by the fellow students or teacher. In my experience those who laugh at you are generally the ones who have no clue about the topic of discussion. They make fun of their own ignorance.

Class participation is a vital element of learning. Learning is not about a static transfer of information from one mind to another. It is rather an active process greatly facilitated by learner interaction and engagement.

Class participation is an excellent opportunity for playing around with your ideas, speaking your heart out, expressing (and selling) your self, testing your assumptions and knowledge, correcting others' misassumptions and above all, getting over your inhibitions which keep you from learning and growing. It also develops listening skills and the ability to discuss things rationally. Another fruit of participation is the ability to criticize and be criticized gracefully. This proves to be a very important competency in both our personal and professional life. Students who do not acquire these skills at school, learn it the hard way at work!

And finally, active class participation makes the class more interesting. It can significantly enhance both student and teacher motivation and widen up the scope of learning.

Partner with Your Teacher

Have you taught or participated in a "dull" class? Have you ever felt the frustration of a teacher faced with an uncooperative, uninterested, quiet and boring audience? It's a teacher's nightmare!

Teachers like students are humans and are equally influenced by their environment. If students suffer because of the inadequacies of the education system, teachers are another victim. If students dream of inspiring, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and supportive faculty, teachers too look for similar qualities in students - attentive, responsive, motivated, studious, participative etc. It makes their job much easier and helps achieving their professional goals. For this reason teachers are fairly quick in spotting such students and often enter into a mutually beneficial relationship. So team up with your teachers and make your class a success.

Keep Reviewing Your Progress

Don't wait till the end, keep reviewing your progress from time to time. The best time to think, plan and revise your strategy is the start, mid and end of semester. Identify risks, hurdles and weaknesses as early as possible and then focus on these to address the challenge utilizing all possible resources at your disposal.

Invest on Your Self-development

We often look out for success. But the key to success primarily lies within not without. Your heart and mind are your greatest resources. Being more aware and having a deeper understanding about yourself and your internal resources can provide you a leverage that no alternative can ever offer. To this end, Internet is your best friend. Some of the content on self-development is so powerful that it can even change your life.

Self-development is a lifelong endeavour. But if you start early, it could effectively address some of the issues mentioned in the earlier part of the article regarding personal characteristics e.g. self-awareness, attitude, motivation, etc. etc.

Don't Wait for the Shock

Many of us as students see organizations as distant objects, almost beyond our reach and thus perceive ourselves to be unprepared till we graduate and become part of one. We also do not realize that we have had organizational experience since childhood. And if we raise this sensitivity during studies, we could have ample opportunities for acquiring more knowledge about organizational culture, politics, functioning, etc. that can sharpen our understanding about the world to follow. This understanding proves to be critical in the years to come. So next time you enter your college, supermarket, gas station, hospital, airport or a bank, be aware that you are already part of the corporate world. You are one of the key stakeholders of the corporate world - a valued customer. Your enhanced sensitivity and understanding about this corporate environment could be mutually beneficial to your employer and your own career.

Have Faith in Yourself and Give it Your Best Shot

In the end it is important to remember that success is impossible to achieve or maintain without positive self-image. So have faith in yourself when you go out and begin your career. If things don't turn out to be the way you wanted, don't lose hope. Some of the most successful people around did not achieve it in the first go. High aims must be supported by matching persistence and hard work. So keep trying, reviewing and adjusting your strategies.

See also:

Part I - Introduction

Part II - Examining Organizational Needs

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"Down in their hearts, wise men know this truth: the only way to help yourself is to help others."

[Elbert Hubbard]