Wonderful, you can recite Milton's 'Paradise Lost' backwards... But can you enter a high intensity work environment and meet demands? Unbelievable, you know the two hundred and thirty-five-point four times table in French. But can you persuade a potential client that you are the company they should partner with? Remarkable, you can perform Beethoven's 5th Symphony through lyrical dance. But can you comply to fast approaching deadlines. Admittedly, there may be some degree of hyperbole there, but the reality is, so much of what our modern education system, and beyond, deploys into our minds, is often useless when it comes to the working world. Granted, a lot of what we learn in school and further education is crucial to the development of key abilities, for example basic maths, literacy and oratory skills, while specialist qualifications can give niche knowledge and skills that give us a clear edge. But ultimately academic pursuits are not the be- all and end- all when it comes to your professional profile.
This is by no means an indictment of academia and the value of education- I will not be calling for a ‘Fahrenheit 451’ style mass burning of books. Rather, it is an attempt to debunk the belief of so many, that solid education alone can take you places. Schools, colleges, universities and professional education institutions, all offer opportunities and building blocks, from which excellence can be achieved- but work experience is arguably the defining statement, from which one can truly succeed.
“Nothing ever becomes real 'til it is experienced.”
In the most simplistic terms, we seem to have grown obsessed with knowing “stuff” (articulate, I know.) Useless slices of information that we learn, for no true prevail. To this, we discredit the importance of experience, believing knowledge to be the forefather of all excellence and achievement- forgetting that we can’t actually achieve anything, if we don’t experience. The above quote, coming from one of the most revered English poets, John Keats, vindicates this. As such, there is no point living a life, enthralled with knowledge, if we refrain from applying that knowledge. Knowledge is the currency for experience, it is used to guide and enable our whole lives- to learn but not to experience is congruent to filling a car full of petrol, only to never start the engine; to climb the heights of Everest, only to reach the top and refuse to admire the view. In many respects, experience is the fun part- the chance to enact all that you have learnt.
Work experience offers the perfect opportunity to make every piece of knowledge or qualification you store real, in following with the metaphor of Keats. In a sense, Keats thinking relates directly to any professional’s CV. The words you write on your application, to describe yourself and detail the qualifications you have, are not real, without sound industry experience to back them up. What is “I’m an approachable and hardworking person” to an employer, if you have no experience to validate it. Worse still the use of the prevalent and ambiguous line, where one will describe themselves as a “people person.” Has anyone actually stopped to ask what that really means or did one person start using it and, in true British fashion, we all followed suit, too polite to question? From my perspective, being a people person could mean anything from someone who is unbearably annoying and won’t shut up, to someone who actually has no discernible skills and needed to fill the empty space on their application. To return to the point, work experience speaks for itself, when approaching a new role. Not only will it allow the employer to understand your capabilities, but it will validate and ‘make real’ the word you write on the application page.
One should also consider the changing attitudes of employers. While qualifications and academic knowledge will always hold value, the opportunities and routes available to reach a career goal have evolved exponentially, in recent years. Many employers are now beginning to consider the individual, rather than simply creating an unreliable portrait based solely upon the qualifications that the individual holds. With the recent growth of apprenticeship schemes (in part, thank to recent initiatives, such as the apprenticeship levy) employers have essentially been forced to consider candidates whom may come from a non- academic background- but whom rather have a background of industry-based experience and on the job expertise. This fact by no means renders academic acclaim worthless, in fact, in some cases, it inflates the worth of a qualification, but it has certainly opened the eyes of employers.
“In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn.”
This quote by the renowned American writer, Octavia E Butler, introduces another vital chasm of experience- failure. While attempting to not fall into the bear trap that is claiming “hitting rock bottom is the best thing that can happen to you”, failure must be credited for its vital part in teaching us. From an early age, failure and negative response are vital to our development, with fundamental research by psychologists, such as B.F. Skinner, highlighting the necessity for humans to undergo negative experience, in order to develop appropriate and successful responses to different situations. Work experience provides the canvas, upon which to flourish as a professional, but equally, it provides the opportunity to fail; the opportunity to fall short. In doing this, we are able to better ourselves, through realizing what it is that we are doing wrong and improve upon this.
While trying not to sound like a cruel caricature of the Dalai Lama, it is through failing and mistakes that we realise the most about ourselves; how versatile we are, how strong we are, perhaps for some, at what point they should stop drinking. Failure is something that cannot be artificially produced, you cannot choose when or how you experience it. Failure offers a cruel spontaneity, yet in that, lies its beauty. It forces us to adapt, to think fast and to face challenges that are not optimally primed for our individual abilities and characteristics.
Work experience can also go a long way in depicting to you the basic etiquette and procedure of a working environment, explaining what is expected and more importantly, what is not expected. While I would not endorse entering your place of work with a baseball bat and destroying all in site, before assaulting your boss, if that’s what it takes for you to learn not to do it again, so be it. Second thoughts, do not enter you place of work with a baseball bat, do not destroy anything and do not assault your boss- I don’t want to be implicated in any legal complications.
“Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
Until we are all replaced by robotically advanced copies of ourselves, you may also find other humans, while experiencing the working world. While some of these people will be absolute fruit cakes (try to avoid these ones) many will be rich, unique personalities, whom can teach you everything that a volume can’t. By learning from these people, you are, as such, absorbing their own experiences, to create your own. These people can become the backbone of your own professional experience, should you listen and retain what they have to say. Industry professionals provide chiselled, unfiltered insight, into whatever profession you sit, or wish to enter. By using their know- how and own experience, you can begin to understand the realities of the profession and how to better your prospects.
The above quote from Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, said by the character Slim, perhaps highlights one of our main issues- we are all petrified of each other. Whether it’s the awkward train journey home, where you spend an hour avoiding eye contact with every other miserable working pilgrim, or our newfound obsession with replacing humans with talking machines, we seem to have a weird fear of each other. Work experience enables, or perhaps forces, us to interact with different people and realise that human beings won’t in fact, contrary to popular belief, eat you alive.
With these people will also come the opportunity to make key contacts, which may help you later in life. That line does sound like I’m talking about making friends with corrupt officials, again- not advisable. I’m talking about senior members of your chosen profession, who may provide the golden pathway into a role. Knowing a professional, who knows a professional, could just secure you a role, a ripple effect of sorts. Work experience is actually like a massive networking event, where you actually get paid to attend! The impressions you make will not be forgotten, so make sure you actually make an impression, make them remember you- just don’t do anything too weird to ensure that…
An Apology for the Quotations
I’m sure you will have appreciated my pretentious use of relevant quotations, and they weren’t actually included simply to promulgate that I have a limited knowledge about literary quotations (or perhaps that I simply have access to google, the cynics among you will say.) The quotations formed the basis for my piece and in doing so, they demonstrated the crux of my point. These quotations alone appear as artisan prattle, individuals whom have inflated their self-worth to the point where they see themselves as some sort of rough and ready deity, and hence their words must follow suit. In essence, most would look at these quotes alone and view them as the lines self- diagnosed ‘life- coaches’ will throw at you, in order to “cleanse your life of negativity.” But in fact, these quotes formed the foundation of my piece, they introduced and guided my points. Hence, my point is, alone these quotations, these pieces of knowledge, were worthless, laughable indications of attempted grandiose- but it was what I did with the quotations that made them take place, which made them seem a little less pointless. Academic knowledge is brilliant, opportunity opening and enlightening, but it is what you do with that knowledge that gives it its true value…