Where school failed me
The current scope of school subjects is very narrow relative to the number of career possibilities that exist. This is especially true for the 21st century student who, regardless of their geographical location in edge-of-the-earth New Zealand, will enter a global, connected, and varied job market. School as I knew it fell well short of preparing me to make a living in a world of such limitless possibility. Indeed, even if I had known this kind of world existed, how could I ever hope to contribute meaningfully to it?
Career is not the same as contribution
Sadly, “career” was a word more commonly heard during my high school days than “contribution” — what you were going to “do” when you grew up seemed more important than who you were going to “be”, and our future careers were so strongly tied to our school subjects that it was hard to see the possibilities beyond them. Most of us now know that the formula for success in life is much more complicated than “career choice = pharmacist = subject choice = chemistry”, but how can we teach young people to have work goals beyond a respectable job with adequate remuneration? How can we help to develop them as complete, confident, contributing citizens?
The year of the YES experience opened my eyes
It is only now, at the age of 28 and through witnessing the confidence of peers ten years my junior that I feel I am beginning to see the power in a year of YES.
To clarify, this is not about “The Year of Yes” as advocated in the memoir of author Maria Headley, who resolves, for an entire year, to say “yes” to every man that asks her out on a date (hilarity ensues). No, we’re not venturing into Carrie Bradshaw and Mr Big territory here. However, both my and Headley’s “Years of Yeses” do share one common theme: The power of possibility.
My year of YES (Young Enterprise Scheme) began in March 2013 when I first acted in a supporting role to Judith Tatom, regional coordinator for the Canterbury YES programme. Since then, I have seen what young people are capable of when someone says: “It is possible.” That statement was a seed from which little companies sprang forth — some are now saplings with a year’s worth of growth on them. In years to come these saplings could grow, cross-pollenate, drop their own seeds, and create entrepreneurial forests in abundance comparable to pre-colonisation Aotearoa. In other words (and before I leave the horticultural metaphor behind entirely): Cultivating entrepreneurship and confidence at a young age could cause widespread shifts in our future economies, societies, and communities.
Real-life skills at school can show a life-student possibilities and give permission to succeed
These companies, or “demonstrations in possibility”, could have an exponential impact on the number of people in society who feel able and encouraged to lead, voice their ideas, earn a living working from their passions, and contribute to a whole greater than themselves. Some of the companies I witnessed in 2013 had a very strong social or community focus: A team from St Margaret’s College started Surrounded by Love, a not-for-profit that supported the families of cancer sufferers; a team from Christchurch Girls’ High petitioned for free WiFi on city buses; another from Christchurch Boys’ High sold seeds and planters made from used wooden pallets to encourage people to grow their own food and recycle; Nothink Ltd from Hornby High developed a specialised pen-grip for sufferers of a rare condition which made holding certain objects difficult; and the New Plymouth Girls’ High team, Exposure, (overall winners for 2013) partnered with the Cancer Foundation to develop and sell UV sensitive wrist bands, which changed colour to let the wearer know when they needed to apply more sunscreen.
Often, teenagers are painted as a selfish and unruly bunch — hormonally insane, consumed by their immediate worlds, and probably not the first members of society you’d expect to, well, care. But many of these students already had a strong sense of “what was needed” and a willingness to “make it work”. All they needed was permission to succeed.
Companies that were more profit-driven still necessitated the same teamwork, commitment, knowledge of ethical practice, and most importantly, a belief in the worthwhile-ness of their product or service. Some companies fizzled, or “fast failed” in time to reinvent themselves, others continued to grow and thrive well past submitting their annual report for judging; but no one could complete the scheme without having learned valuable life lessons that just can’t be taught in Spanish or accounting class.
Why not learn some life-skills earlier than after we’re twenty one?
I feel I had a good education, from a good school, with good teachers, and good peers, but in retrospect, I can see there were things missing; things I would come across much later in life and say “Oh! How useful! If only I’d known that all along”. I would realise I had been inexplicitly told throughout my education journey not to think for myself until at least my third year of University. Fortunately, I was encouraged by some less precious first-year professors to take some risks and posit ideas at 100 level — but why not earlier? Why not always? And certainly, why not before the age of 21 when, as the tradition goes, we are finally handed the keys to an as-yet-unknown adult world? What does one do with a key that is given without the knowledge of all the possibilities it is designed to unlock? Just hang it on the wall?
The Young Enterprise Scheme is more than playing shop
The Young Enterprise Scheme is much more than just kids “playing shop” and mimicking their elders. It requires them to participate in the same world as the grown-ups. It is one way we can cultivate in our young people the kinds of life skills that school, family, and community can struggle to provide: How to get to work on time, willpower, emotional control — there are no school subjects specifically designed to teach these. After a year of YES, skills forged in the pursuit of a shared goal will prove more valuable than the products or companies themselves.
2014 is the YES year of Possibility and We can
I recently attended Enterprise Day, the first event in the 2014 YES calendar for participating secondary students throughout the country. It is when the first round of mentorship, coaching sessions, and start-up presentations take place. The word I most relished hearing from students at the end of this day was “can”. A close cousin of “possibility”, the word “can” was repeated as if the students had just happened upon something miraculous: “We can do this”, they said, “we can actually create a company. We can take our idea and turn it into something bigger”.
What is most exciting for me this year, is not imagining what kinds of products and services the class of 2014 will bring to the Dragons’ Den (although they are always impressive); it is imagining who these YES participants might become after this powerful lesson in possibility.
We can provide these early possibilities
The world as we experience it is expanding, and it is so easy to feel small and insignificant. We need to bolster our young people with small wins early on in their lives, so that they feel empowered to contribute later. We need to provide “fast fail” opportunities and demonstrate how to bounce back. We need to teach them, and allow them, to think beyond the confines of their classrooms and schools.
A year of YES addresses these needs in a unique, practical, and comprehensive way. It’s creating a braver, better New Zealand by teaching its young people just how valuable, powerful, and clever they really are.
Examples, links, and further information
- Jonny Wilson, Academy Director, Good Time Music Academy — YES alumni profile
- Catherine Etuata, Niuean businesswoman —YES alumni profile
- Nine Enterprise Schemes from the Young Enterprise Trust
- Exposure — National YES Winners 2013
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