Anyone who knows me will know that I enjoy stand-up comedy. I constantly quote my favourite comedians’ routines or adopt the techniques and patterns found in stand-up into my own way of speaking. I even advocate for its study in order to make you better at networking and interacting with people overall. One of the first stand-up specials I stumbled across was Eddie Murphy’s Raw. Murphy may have been best known by those in my generation as the Donkey in Shrek, but he was a superstar in the 1980s thanks to the success of his stand-up. One of the main focuses of Raw is the new way men and women interacted during the 1980s, largely due to the rise of feminism and materialism. In the following clip from Raw, Murphy repeats the phrase (from the 1986 Janet Jackson song of the same name) “What have you done for me lately?”
This ideology may seem quite entitled, but let’s replace the man and woman in this scenario with a university student and the economy. The largest problem facing millions of university graduates is the issue of finding employment and repaying student debt. One of the terms floated by the media is “underemployment”, or the notion that given their university degree, a recent graduate is overqualified to be working at Starbucks or serving at a restaurant. The problem with this scenario is our definition of “qualified”. A university graduate may certainly be more intelligent in certain areas than a non-graduate, but does that necessarily equal more qualified?
The economy is not (at least directly) a function of intelligence, it is a function of worker output and efficiency. The intrinsic value of many university degrees relative to the job market is simply not that high. Simply put, the knowledge gained in many university degrees nowadays has no value in an economic sense because that knowledge cannot create economically valuable products. Education, in a holistic sense, is certainly valued on other levels aside from the economical, but what was the point in investing in a university education in the first place then? You don’t need a university to teach you how to read and write; the most revered writers of our time did all of that thinking on their own accord and were inspired by the experiences of their own lives, not the lessons learned in lecture. This is not to say that attending university is a waste of time -we are not yet at a point in society where we can ignore university en masse- but the approach towards the university education and what happens afterwards still needs to change.
Let’s return to the analogy of the recent graduate and the economy. “What have you done for me lately?” is the question constantly being asked of the recent graduate by the economy. She is quite the nagging bitch, but the fact remains: if you want to be seen as valuable and desired by the economy, you need to produce things for her. Knowledge can be a commodity, but it is of no use to the world if it remains stuck in your head. That knowledge needs to be applied to create products or services of value for the economy to reward you with her attention and satisfaction.
Education as a Lego Set
The fact is, most university graduates are simply consumers of the commodity of knowledge purchased from their university. A typical university graduate crying the pains of underemployment is like buying a set of Lego, building the thing that the instructions told you what to build, and then expecting to win a Lego building contest.
You paid for the education, you were given the same set of pieces as everyone else, but what you create from that set of pieces and how you do it is up to you. The problem is that most people are expecting to be rewarded for doing the bare minimum requirement of “success”, i.e. following instructions. You won’t look like a failure, but you also won’t stand out that well, either. This isn’t to say that in order to succeed you simply need to deviate from the instructions; it is one way of succeeding in winning the Lego contest. You may get first prize with your effort, but the judges also may not particularly like your Lego creation, and you may finish last.
“But the contest is rigged!” you exclaim. At first glance, perhaps. There are others that were born as more creative Lego builders or whose parents are friends with one of the Lego contest judges. There may be those whose set was actually missing a few pieces by accident, or others may have stolen few extra pieces when an unfortunate contestant wasn’t looking. But there are also factors that are totally within your control. Maybe before the contest you read up on the latest Lego building techniques in case you feared your creativity wouldn’t be strong enough. Maybe you volunteered at a school teaching children there how to build basic Lego structures and the parents of one of those children is a Lego contest judge. Perhaps you tutored fellow students who were struggling with their Lego building abilities and that in turn helped give you new perspectives on Lego building.
You may point to the fact that not every school was given the same set of Lego, and that all those kids from Harvard got the deluxe expansion set with 45 new pieces in it. Simply having more pieces is not the whole answer; it is how well you construct them and demonstrate your abilities to the judges that will assist you. Sure, more of the judges might have went to Harvard – after all, that is where many great Lego builders of the past have graduated from – but being great at Lego building is something they take great pride in, so they can still respect someone whose hard work both outside and inside the Lego contest demonstrates their desire to succeed. To ignore or discount this situation is equally as arrogant, though, because the Lego building institution you got accepted into still does speak volumes about the character of your Lego building abilities and potential.
When the contest is over and the results are in, you should not get angry at anybody if you don’t win, including yourself. Do not blame the system as being biased, do not blame yourself for building a worthless structure instead of playing it safe and sticking to the instructions; focus on attending different contests with different contestants and judges. No two judges are the same: although they look for similar elements in contestants’ Lego structures, what you built today that got you last place may get you first place tomorrow. No two contests have the same makeup of contestants: new contestants are entering all the time, and over time you will gain more Lego building experience and learn new Lego building techniques. It is not always the most qualified Lego builder that wins the contest: sometimes you just have to build the right structure for the right panel of judges.
Consider that maybe you’re competing against Lego builders who are truly more talented than you and who simply want to win more. It may be time to swallow your pride and switch to an easier contest if you are starting to get discouraged. On the flip side, if you always finish second or third in each contest simply by following the instructions but are happy doing so, who cares? It might not be as glamorous or lucrative as deviating from the norm, but the risk of losing far outweighs that chance of winning. At the end of the day, you bought your Lego set because you enjoyed playing with Lego, or at least enjoyed the thought of winning something by playing with it.
However, if you find yourself consistently failing whether you have followed the instructions or not, then strongly consider adapting your approach to Lego building or trade in your set altogether. Sometimes the pieces in the set just aren’t the right fit for you, and other pieces may resonate more strongly with you. Don’t blame the system for stacking the odds against you, because you can only build a creation as strong as the pieces in the set combined with how much work you’ve done inside and outside the contest to assist in your good fortune.
While it may be true that the average level of Lego building skill has increased over the years, as has the cost of purchasing a Lego set, that does not make you better than those who are not as good at building Lego as you are, or who cannot afford to buy a set. Being able to purchase a Lego set also does not entitle you to winning a Lego building contest. The judges are expecting you to follow the instructions, but are hoping that you do not. It is here where you will truly learn the most. Following instructions does not allow for self-learning and a gain of knowledge or real experience; deviating from them does. What good would handing out all of the tips and tricks of the Lego building trade do for the nature of the Lego contest? True merit and happiness is gained by working to discover those secrets for yourself.
As a student, it is paramount that you recognize that knowledge is a common commodity nowadays; this is the reason why a university degree is not as valuable as it was in our parents’ generation. Our society’s ability to access infinite amounts of knowledge with the click of a button or the tap of a screen is almost universal, and much of what we learned in school can be read using a search engine. The value of going to university is the skills you learn along the way: critical thinking, reading, writing, group collaboration, and presenting are all valuable skills learned throughout a typical undergraduate degree, but most students fail to apply them in ways to produce anything meaningful. The strength of a university graduate is found in how they apply the knowledge they have gained in conjunction with the skills they have learned as part of their university degree.