What would you tell 15 year olds?

This was first published in the Huffington Post on 15th July 2014.

I was invited to speak to 60 15-year-old children about my career and how I had got to where I was today (cue stifling yawn). The more I thought about it, the more I realised that quite frankly, whilst it might be vaguely interesting, it wouldn’t be much use. Instead, I decided to share eight things I wish someone had spelt out to me when I was their age.

Work hard

I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life when I was aged 15. I didn’t really ‘get’ school. It all seemed like an enormous distraction from having a good time. Whilst I understand now the importance of hard work, the question is why? A friend of mine summed it up beautifully: “It’s about having options”. You might not know what you want to do, but if you’ve worked hard you will have far more options than someone who has not bothered. Given many of the jobs people will be doing in 10 years haven’t yet been invented, it makes sense to give yourself the best options for whatever is to emerge. The great thing is that most people don’t learn this soon enough, so if you can, you will begin to separate yourself from the competition.

Control the controllables

Being a teenager is tough enough without getting stressed about the things going on around you. One of the most useful lessons I’ve learnt from working in the arena of performance management is to control the things you can control and don’t fret about the rest. You are not responsible for the way people behave or what they decide to do, but you can control how you react and what you choose to do. With the pupils, I got them to analyse all the things that could affect their performance at school and then to identify those they could control.

Life is unfair

Get over it. At school it’s a mystery why some people are made prefects and others not or why someone is chosen to be the team captain. It can seem so unjust and unfair. At some point most people (not all) understand that life is inherently unfair. This is why the previous point is so important.

Fail your way to success

When a child learns to walk, we encourage and praise the effort made. We don’t criticise the child when it stumbles and falls, we simply pick the infant up and help them have another go. Somewhere in our education we learn to criticise people who don’t manage to do something by saying “you’re not very good at that are you?” Imagine saying that to a child learning to walk – it’s absurd. So why criticise people striving and failing when they are bit older?

So much of what we do is learnt through a series of failures from which we learn to improve. The trouble is that successful people often claim that it was simply good planning and hard work that got them where they are and conveniently forget the mistakes and failures along the way. Embrace failure and the lessons it brings. In the words of Jim Carey at a recent commencement speech, “It’s better to fail at something you love doing than fail at something you hate”.

Have a goal

Whatever that goal is – have one. Unless you know where you are going, any road will take you there, to paraphrase Alice in Wonderland. All the better if it is a really challenging goal. The evidence is clear, great goals drive high performance. 80% of an awesome goal is a lot more fun than 100% of an easy challenge.

Take responsibility

It’s your life – no-one can live it for you. This means you don’t have to agree, like or do whatever anybody is trying to get you to do. But it is worth listening to people to extract the useful insights and work out how you can apply them to your benefit. Just don’t blame other people for the decisions you have made. It’s your life.

You need a bit of luck

Whether we like it or not sometimes we get lucky, such as happening to meet someone significant. But, just as with the National Lottery, you need to be in the game to stand a chance of winning. You can give luck a helping hand by getting out there and meeting people and by being interested rather than interesting.

Give to get

I’m always amazed at the pleasure and enjoyment one gets from helping others. It’s almost like you should pay for the privilege. This is the principal reward from ‘giving to get’. More often than not, as a result of your efforts to help others, something will come back your way. In recent years I’ve taken to organising cycle trips from friends, colleagues and customers. It is immensely satisfying to see people really enjoy something you’ve created. What I didn’t anticipate are the work opportunities that have arisen or the insights I have learned from these very experienced business professionals.


I love my job. The journey to where I am today has far more to do with chance than I care to admit. The success I am currently experiencing is I believe, down to the application of these principles as best I can (although I often fail). This was my advice, what would yours be?

Dominic Irvine. Epiphanies LLP. All rights asserted