‘You need sleeping pills’, said my doctor

The Three Exams

Years ago, when I was cramming for my final VCE exams, I went to see my doctor.

I confessed to the old quack that I was stressed — wound up like a lacker band — and was having trouble sleeping.

He just started chuckling, and then pulled out his prescription pad:

“You need sleeping pills”, he said matter-of-factly.

Now, in hindsight, that was very bad advice.

Those pills were like horse tranquilisers. The first time I took one, I woke up 10 hours later with my face superglued to my textbook by my own drool. And to counteract the fogginess I began scoffing No-Doz caffeine tablets (one down from speed, one up from Red Bull). Seriously, my final year of school was like Charlie Sheen’s final season of Two and a Half Men.

Still, the good doctor gave me some wise advice that I’ve never forgotten:

“These high school exams aren’t nearly as important as you think. You’ll have much bigger ones in the future.”

The doc was dead right.

It was only as I got older that I realised that the really important exams ‒ the ones that will change your life forever ‒ don’t have a date, a time, or a room number. (And because of that, most people not only don’t study for them … they snooze through them, again and again.)

And given students across the country are sitting down to do their final exams this week, I thought I’d take you through them. The first life exam is finding a career you enjoy. The second, is to choose to become financially secure. The third, to invest in your family and friends. You’ll sit these three exams over the next decade (and beyond). Here’s how to ace them.

Your Career

The average Aussie teenager will have 17 different jobs, and five careers, in their lifetime, according to the Foundation for Young Australians.

Fair dinkum!

My first job out of uni was working on building sites with a joker called ‘Wolfy’ … who would (unsuccessfully) wolf-whistle at women who walked by. (True story: the day the Australian Stock Exchange called to tell me I’d secured a graduate position, I thought it was old Wolfy playing a trick on me, so I told them to bugger off.)

Anyway, while it’s very important to sidestep the working wolves, you don’t want to keep changing career like Australia changes prime ministers. Otherwise, you’ll never make a dent in the universe.

The smartest method I’ve found to think about such an overwhelming topic (what do I want to be when I grow up?) is to set aside an afternoon and do a thinking exercise that author Arun Abey calls ‘the three circles’:

“What am I deeply interested in?”

“How can I work, over many years, to become truly great at it?”

“How can I make enough money from doing it?”

Your killer career is found at the intersection of these three circles.

Your Financial Security

There are trophy degrees that will guarantee you a good income: medicine, engineering, finance, law. However, there’s no guarantee you’ll turn that good income into long-term wealth, and it’s certainly no guarantee that you won’t end up being ‘completely disengaged with your job’, as 70% of Australians apparently are, according to Gallup research.

Yet committing to being financially strong ‒ no matter what level your income ‒ will change the course of your life.
You’ll sit some form of this exam many times over your life: it starts the moment you get the letter from your bank saying “Congratulations, here’s your credit card!”, or when your employer automatically enrols you into their default high fee super fund.

The solution is to tell the bank you don’t do credit cards. And to tell your boss to put your super into a a low-cost super fund you’ve chosen yourself — then tick the ‘high growth option’ and let compound interest work its magic.

I like to think of compound interest like I do surfing. You put in a bit of effort paddling at the start, but when you catch a giant wave it carries you along without any effort. Which means that, instead of mucking around in the slushy waves later on in life, you get to lean back enjoy the ride.

Your Family and Friends

I’m totally unqualified to offer this advice, but I’ll give it anyway.

When you’re a teenager you think your friends will be around forever, because they always have been. However, unless you make a point of investing time in your friends, they’ll slowly drop away.

What does this have to do with money? Nothing. But it has everything to do with your long-term happiness. Wellbeing studies show that the happiest people are those with strong social bonds. Investing in your relationships, (especially your family) has the biggest payoff of all.

So there you have it. Sit these three exams and you may not receive a certificate in the mail, or attend a fancy ceremony when you ‘pass’ them. Yet the payoff is real. Because you won’t be one of those people who aces their ATAR exam and then snoozes through the exams that really matter ‒ and wake up 30 years from now and realise they’ve received an ‘F’.

Tread Your Own Path!