A letter to year 12 students from an environmental engineering guru

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Ellen Moon from Deakin University talks about making decisions, and how you always have the ability to travel down a different path.

Ellen Moon

Ellen Moon is a lecturer in environmental engineering at Deakin University. Her research focuses on developing sustainable remediation strategies for land and water contaminated with heavy metals.

The end of high school represents a time of great possibility in your lives. But with that possibility comes the weight of making decisions. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed by the decisions I had to make in Year 12:

Would I go to university? If so, which one? To study what? Would I go travelling, get a job, or both – and for how long? Would I move out of home? Move towns or even countries? The pressure of these decisions too much – I was sure I had the ability to ruin my life if I made the wrong choice.

The first thing I want to tell you is that no single decision you make has the ability to dictate your entire future. Think of decisions like stepping stones across a river – at each point, you have the ability to choose a different path, to move forwards, sideways, backwards. You are never ‘locked in’ to a single path.

But how do you go about making decisions? People kept telling me to ‘trust my instincts’ or to ‘go with my gut feeling’. This wasn’t helpful – I didn’t want to make big decisions based on a feeling. I needed to rationalise these decisions and approach them logically.

If this resonates with you, I can highly recommend spending some time to define your values and using your knowledge of them to help you make tough decisions.

Our values are our set of internal beliefs that guide our choices and actions. Whether we realise it or not, they determine what motivates us, and what makes us happy.

Our values are also a powerful decision-making tool. By spending time to consider what your values are, and what they mean to you, you can make tough decisions based upon which option best aligns with your values, or which option moves you closer to a life that manifests those values. It is essentially a framework for exploring, explaining and rationalising your ‘gut feeling’.

A few years ago, I had the choice between staying in town and community I absolutely loved, and moving 2,000 km to a town I knew little about for a new job. My gut said ‘move’, even though most of the people I spoke to about the decision told me I should stay. When I thought hard about what was important to me, I realised security was one of my key personal values. The new job offered long-term financial security, whereas staying put meant considerable uncertainty. The new job, with its long-term nature, would also give me the opportunity to make a significant contribution in multiple ways on a team & organizational level. Contributing is one of my career values, so the alignment was also good from that perspective. I made the decision to move, and I am very happy that I did.

Defining your values might be also a way of discovering options you didn’t realise you had. For example, you might have always wanted to be a doctor. When you explore why you want to be a doctor, and the values that underpin that goal, you might find that it is helping people that drives you. Or perhaps it is a sense of contributing to your community. By acknowledging that you might be able to see other paths that could align with your values, and make you just as fulfilled.

So how do you figure out what your values are? As you might expect, the internet has a great number of resources to help you! I think this one from Mind Tools is pretty good, but a quick search will bring up other ways if that doesn’t work for you.

A few words of advice for figuring out what your values are:

  1. Make sure you are honest with yourself. Don’t identify values that you *think* you should have, or that you admire in other people, if they aren’t truly yours.
  2. You may have different values for different aspects of your life. For example, your career values will likely be different from those that underpin your sense of self.
  3. Your values may change, or re-order, as you move through different phases of your life. Don’t be afraid to re-visit this exercise regularly.

My final piece of advice is to make sure you put yourself forward for things. Opportunities rarely fall into your lap, and by far the best experiences I’ve had in my career have come because I’ve put my hands up for things, or applied for opportunities, that I thought I had very little chance of getting.

This has involved actively searching for opportunities, writing applications, and/or speaking to people of influence to explain my interests. It’s also involved overcoming self-doubt, and worries that I wasn’t good enough, or experienced enough to be competitive.

The reality is that everyone else is having the same thoughts, so often these opportunities don’t receive the amount of applications you might expect. Take control, and do what you can to secure the opportunities and experiences you want. Somebody has to get them, so why shouldn’t it be you?

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