What I Wish I Knew at 18
Tl;dr: Society is made out of sectors, or poles of power: the military, politics, corporations among which stand employees and founders, NGOs, the media, the art, the state, banks, and academia. Each of these is accessible through a certain path most often than not including high-prized studies such as engineering. As such, the likelihood to reach the top of one of these depends on the quality of your studies, on the quality of your work, and on your social network.
At 18, probably like most of my peers, I was clueless.
My friends and I were about to make one of the most influential decisions of our lives. Unfortunately, the information we were given to make this decision might as well have been nothing.
I didn’t know a thing about the world nor myself. Naturally, I just did what everyone else did. I went to university.
That ended up being a big mistake.
I made this mistake because I didn’t know the criteria that should have helped me make my choice.
It’s not that I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t even know what there was to have.
One’s reality is made of what one knows based on one’s external knowledge and experience.
If you have none of these things, you should make any decision before acquiring those. Moving towards no goal is worse than not moving at all. You should first find out where you are, and where you’d like to go.
To do so, you should base your decisions on facts and empirical knowledge.
Forget about your friends, parents, and society’s advice when it comes to your own life. The only person you should listen to is yourself, and someone that has already done what you would like to achieve. Don’t take engineering advice from someone who is not an engineer.
When you are 18, everything you have done before is irrelevant (unless for very specific careers like competitive sport).
Despite what you’re being told (and often shamed for), you can’t base whatever life you imagine for yourself on what you have achieved because no one cares.
Your past choices are completely irrelevant. People will judge you on the choices you are about to make.
What you have done so far led you to the same place that the millions of other 18 years old.
Unlike what is often stated, the question is not” where would you like to go?”
That answer is easy. The real question (that I have discovered when I was 25 or so) is why do you want to go there?
Life is not made of actions, events, and adventures, but of the reasons that animate these. Humans are lazy. If we don’t have any “why” to wake up – we won’t wake up at all.
You’ll find out that most people don’t know why they’re waking up. In most cases, it is society that hands its citizens a reason to do it.
To answer all of these questions, you should know where it is possible to go and what it is possible to do.
To take your place within society, you should at least know how society works.
Here’s what I wish I had read when I was 18.
What I Wish I Knew at 18
“The world is organized in sectors, or poles of power, call it however you want.
Throughout history, the main pole of power was represented by the military.
Power meant the capacity to be physically superior and therefore coerce the other party into a desirable outcome: allegiance, seizing lands or resources, or simply total annihilation.
Today, the world is (mostly) organized around international law and while the military still holds great power, this power is (a) destructive power and (b) is not as simple to use as it once was.
Today, the military receives orders from the second pole of power: politics.
The political pole of power is tasked to create laws that organize society voted by members of the parliament (MPs) (which anyone can become.)
MPs usually first joined a political party, proved themselves worthy of responsibilities, and then were elected through elections.
They usually studied law, administration, engineering, or economics.
If they are good and lucky to some extent, some of them will become ministers or prime ministers.
Politicians are rather important as ultimately, they vote the laws that structure the organization of the country.
Officially, they have the ultimate say in things, along with the judiciary power. Practically, they’re influenced by a multitude of varied actors, such as the third pole of power, the private sector. The private sector is made out of companies, businesses, and corporations.
There is a great misconception when it comes to corporations.
A company, unlike a state, has originally started with someone’s idea, sweat, and blood.
If that person had gone look for a job instead, the company would have not existed.
When it comes to companies, you can occupy two positions.
The first one is working as an employee for the company and receive a salary. Your responsibilities are limited, you are not in charge of finding clients or making sure that the company will make money next quarter (unless that’s precisely your job).
You just do what you are being told to do. You’re not so much selling your services as you are selling your time. You work 38 hours a week, which means you agree to be available to your employer during that time and have 20 days of holidays. Your life is comfortable and quiet.
Before hiring you, companies will make sure you are capable to work for them. They will judge that on your studies (also it is becoming less and less important).
Engineering is the highest prized degree, along with computer science. Math, physics, economics, business, finance…come close.
Communication, gender studies, and art history are far from being favorably viewed. The students graduating from these are often not as smart as the people that studied engineering. Furthermore, they weren’t taught how to do anything.
Having no diploma significantly decreases your chances to get varied or high-responsibility jobs, unless you teach yourself a high-prized skill, such as computer code, for example.
The second position you can occupy within a company is founder.
As a founder, you can create pretty much anything you want (unless it requires certain diplomas, such as lawyer, architect, accountant, real estate agent, physician…).
If you become a hairdresser and want to have your own salon, you’d be the founder and CEO of your company (the salon). Your salary depends on the number of customers you get. If you do a good job and get good publicity, you will have many customers and make more money.
But when an economic crisis hits, for example, you will have fewer customers and make less money.
Being in charge is, therefore, more stressful and demands more work: you have to take care of your accounting, administration, etc.
But you have some chances to grow. If your salon is very successful, you could hire another hairdresser that’d work for you. Then another one. Then another one.
You could have 1000 hairdressers working for you, and then you’d be a millionaire. That’s the idea behind entrepreneurship. It’s hard but in no way impossible.
Companies, when they are really rich, finance NGO’s.
NGO’s act a little bit like the media. They are the moral compass of society and help make society better.
Most NGOs rely on funds provided by states, companies, or rich people. They are not wealthy but own considerable power of influence over politicians and companies.
NGOs intervene in environmental care, rights, freedom, economic development, healthcare, social services, and more.
They closely work with the media.
The media is another very powerful pole of power. For simplicity, we will restrict the media to the news: websites, newspapers, radio, and TV. They influence society and its shaping and help people make sense of the world. At least officially. In practice, it’s more complicated.
Media work closely with all the other poles of power within society because of their considerable power of influence: the audience.
Companies pay media to advertise their services and politicians behave kindly with the media to have their voice heard by the people.
The power of the media is so big it can force presidents to quit or help them get elected. The media destroy or make lives.
They share their influence with another pole of power, their sister pole of power: the arts.
The pole of power “art” is extremely polarized: people working there are whether very poor or very rich.
The role of art, broadly, is to entertain people: that’s music, art, movies, and books.
It is an extremely competitive sector, maybe the one where education is the least required as you’ll be judged almost only on your skills.
Anyone can start producing art quite easily. This makes it an overcrowded market with low chances of success.
As such, most art loses money and is therefore financed by the state, our next pole of power.
If you work for the state, it means you will eventually become a civil servant.
The principle is similar to working for a company, albeit less stressful most of the time and with fewer chances to get fired. Since the state does not pursue any financial interest, it is difficult to estimate employees’ performances. Salaries are lower in the public sector than in the private sector.
The diversity of jobs you can occupy is impressive, and the competition is rather fierce.
Overall, these poles work with and are connected to each other through some sort of fuel that in itself, represents one of the greatest sources of power/potential: money. Money is the central pole of power, controlled by financial institutions. They are still companies but work differently.
What most people don’t know is that money is artificial. The central bank prints it then lands it to normal banks for a fee, which to companies, people, and the government.
Money is completely artificial. It has value because we all agree it has value. If you were the only person on earth, you’d probably burn money to keep warm during the night.
The amount of money there is is close to infinite. A country could decide to print more money if needed, which may devalue its value, but let’s keep things simple.
Without money, the world stops functioning. Money is the common language of today’s world. It facilitates the exchange of goods and services which creates wealth on which society is based.
This is the reason why governments always save failing banks from bankruptcy. A failure to do so would paralyze the economy.
If Mrs. Smith does not make a salary anymore, she won’t come to the hair salon to get a haircut. If you stop making a salary out of Mrs. Smith’s hair, you won’t be able to buy your food at the supermarket, which won’t be able to pay its employees and the circle is endless.
Money is the real fuel of the economic machine, and therefore, of the world.
The only way not to need money is to become completely independent and having the means to produce and make your clothes, energy, and food.
The last pole of power is where knowledge is made: the academic institutions. Academia is based on experiences and research to advance progress and knowledge in all fields.
Researchers publish their findings in academic papers, all assembled in academic journals.
These scientists are at the forefront of human progress in all domains.
The people working in academia or research are among the best in their fields.
They study a bachelor’s, a master’s, a Ph.D., and sometimes, a post-doc. If you enjoy searching and learning (by yourself, it is a rather lonely activity), it is a career you might consider.
Overall, that’s how society works. Whatever you do, you’ll end up in one of these poles of power. Choose carefully which one attracts you the most.
There are no good or bad answers. It all depends on what you want to do. People will try to influence you. People will try to scare you. Don’t listen to them.
Most of these poles are accessible after studies. The more difficult a study program is, the higher the chances you will have to enter one of these sectors.
The more efforts you invest now, the nicer your life will be later.
As such, you can go and study communication or art history if you’d like to, but that will considerably lower your chances to reach the pinnacle of your potential.
Ultimately, it all starts with one question.
What would you like your life to be like and why?
Why is important. Why is the meaning of our lives. Why is why we wake up in the morning.
Would you like to have a family? Would you rather work for a company that sends you around the globe? Or maybe having your floral shop in a small village?
Would you like to work in the very competitive financial industry? Or you want to be a doctor and help people get better? Or a chef? Or would you rather be a writer and entertain people?
The diversity of options makes it no easy to choose. It’s normal not to know what to go for.
You need time and experience, which is why I advocate for one year of backpacking before entering university. You’ll have a glimpse of what independence feels like. You will meet other people, learn a foreign language, and get to know yourself a bit better.
If you decide to study, you’ll increase your chances by choosing a high-prized degree that will ensure you’ll be treated as an intelligent person.
However, at the end of the day, it all comes down to what you can do practically for others. When you get paid, it is to solve a problem. Not because you have a nice diploma.”
That is what I wish I had read.
Bear in mind this explanation is very simple yet gives an overall idea of how the world works if you were born in a developed country.
I also wish I had learned that university is different depending on where you study.
Studying in Belgium or Hungary means it is very hard, based on memorization capacity with little to no attention to research and academic papers, with a high number of class hours per week and two “block periods” per year during which students study 12 hours a day every day for 6 weeks to get 13/20 at their exam.
Studying in the Netherlands means it is based on research where you are taught to think instead of memorizing.
The Bottom Line
While taking action for your future might be scary due to the world being a crazy place, you are going to have to choose at some point.
And an informed choice is and will always be better than an ignorant one.