What’s your unfair advantage in life? I wish someone had asked me this question before I went to university. While mentoring a young cousin to help him choose between joining LUMS or IBA recently, I realised that we keep asking ourselves the wrong questions. We begin conversations about education and careers by talking about our disadvantages: lack of jobs, no scope for passion-based careers and limited family resources, which give no room for experimentation and mistakes.
This reminded me about a career conversation I had with my best friend when I was 15. We had to start selecting subjects for A-levels and our discussion went like this: people always fall sick, even in a recession, so let’s become doctors because this way we’ll always have a job. Our initial conclusion: let’s take Biology in A-levels. In hindsight, this was probably the dumbest way to select A-Level subjects. The irony is that there was no one guiding us to think differently or help us ask the right questions. And we were one of the lucky ones in class, whose parents allowed us to make academic/career decisions on our own.
How different would life be if we asked ourselves the right questions at the right time in life: what are my strengths (versus what are my weaknesses)? What makes me special (versus how can I fit in or appear ‘normal’)? What’s my unfair advantage (versus my unfair disadvantage)? Unfair advantage, in a Pakistani context, sounds like using a source or your parent’s money to buy yourself things, so let me clarify that I’m referring to the use of the term in a start-up business context where investors ask an entrepreneur what’s their unfair advantage in terms of skill or knowledge, which gives them an edge over others. You can be a charismatic speaker. A brilliant cricketer or mountain climber. An articulate writer. An artist. A person who thinks differently. Whatever your unfair advantage, let’s stop burying it under the crushing burden of our unfair disadvantages.
Many young (and not so young) people I talk to, argue that they have no unfair advantage in life. I vehemently disagree. In the real world, unlike in Hollywood movies, superman doesn’t run around wearing his underwear on top of his pants. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to recognise the supermen (and women) all around us. For example, the typical Pakistani father, who puts in 12-hour work days, sacrificing his health, happiness and peace of mind to give his son opportunities he never had, is a superman. The mother, who puts in a 10-hour work day, returning home in time to cook the piping hot rotis that her husband demands for dinner, while listening to taunts from her mother-in-law for working late, which she only does to earn enough to send her two daughters to a good school versus an okay school, is a supermom too. Just like we don’t recognise and celebrate superheroes around us, we don’t recognise the superheroes (or unfair advantages) within us, until someone points them out.
If you’re waiting for the president to personally come to your house and tell you you’re special and that the country needs you to get over yourself and contribute to society in whatever capacity you can, this is unlikely to happen. But if you’re privileged enough to get a university education — not just at LUMS or IBA, but any university in the country — you have a responsibility to not just graduate with a degree, but also have the confidence and courage to find your unfair advantage and how you’re going to use it to help people around you. How do you find your unfair advantage? By seeking new experiences at your university beyond the classroom. By joining as many extracurricular societies as you can. By meeting as many new people as you can and learning as much as you can from them. By learning from observing people at the top of their field instead of just memorising dates in a history book.
What matters, then, is not necessarily which university you go to (unless you want to study a very technical subject), but what you choose to do once you’re at the university. Are you there to get an education or just a degree? The phrase parhay likhay jahil in our society is rooted in this misunderstanding of what education really is. In the final analysis, the quality of our life always catches up to the quality of our thinking. If we keep thinking about worst-case scenarios, we are more likely to live out the worst possible trajectory of our life. On the other hand, if we start thinking about better-case scenarios, we will eventually strike the surprising reservoir of confidence and courage buried deep under our fears.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2015.
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