Sunday, 11 September 2011

Advice I Should Not Have Taken

In the song, 'Ironic' (2004) by Alanis Morissette one lyric is 'It's the good advice that you just didn't take'.  I have not really been aware of anything like that in my life.  It is possibly because my parents went out of their way not to advise me one way or another.  When I was deciding which university to study at they gave no positive advice, simply whenever I had made a choice they would undermine it with criticisms of the option I had taken.  They would make no positive suggestions want to entirely avoid giving me anything that I could blame them for.  Ironically I blame them for not giving me any advice and leaving me at as loss as what to do and sure, because of all their undermining, that any option I took would turn out to be the wrong one. 

When I see graduates coming into jobs now and people claim they are directionless and lacking knowledge of their options, I laugh.  When I was a pupil and then a student I received no guidance.  The best I got was a leaflet from the careers centre about the possibility of teaching, no other support.  These days students have fully equipped centres with banks of staff whether in school, university or even high street advice centres (though I know funding is being cut back), they can get placements and internships even during their school and university holidays and advice and practice in everything from completing CVs to doing interviews.  People say it is now more competitive now, but still, unemployment is nowhere near the level it was in the 1980s, it is just now that young people can draw upon.  Consequently, I had to work out where I was going with my life very much for myself in an almost vacuum of advice.  It did lead to me making grave errors such as the first flat I bought and not taking up the offer to buy the flat I had been renting because I was unaware of the money I could have been loaned.  It meant me making tens of useless job applications which took me many hours and quite a lot of money (these were the days when employers demanded 4-8 copies of your application), but the style of CV had changed.  Even when employer I was working for part-time told me my CV was no good, they could offer no advice on how I should alter it in order to secure a full-time job.  At least these days you can turn to the internet for advice on this kind of thing.

Thus, in my life, I received very little advice.  I suppose a lot of people, especially employers, simply assume that the 'right' people 'just know' this stuff.  To a great degree that is where my parents let me down and, as I have noted before, I had quite a lot of useless teachers, some to whom it seemed offering advice to young people was an anathema.  I remember one teacher in particular who seemed to think we should all get the worst because we would not comply with her 1950s view of the world.  She laughed when tens of people at my sixth form college got caught out by a scam offering reduced prices trips to Russia, which had been promoted through the college itself.  She could not contain herself in class, cackling over the misfortune of those who had lost money, saying it had been entirely obvious that it was a scam from the start.  She seemed to delight in the fact that more of the undeserving youth who she deigned to teach had been punished for their apparent fecklessness.

Anyway, in my nearly advice-free life there were just a few pieces of advice which were advocated strongly to me that I regret having taking.  I guess if I had received more advice, perhaps all or a large portion of it would have been as bad as this lot and I may have suffered more.  These were enough that now, on the rare occasions when I receive advice, I tend to ignore it, suspecting it will cost me time, effort or money and leave me worse off than before.  These are in chronological order:

An ISIC card is only useful if you are booking flights
I see that the ISIC (International Student Identity Card) is still in existence.  Back in the 1980s when at university I decided to travel around West Germany and Austria in order to improve my German.  That, of course, was a wasted exercise given that I can hardly speak a word of German these days, but that was a mistake I made for myself.  I went to buy my Inter-Rail ticket (I see these still exist too), which allowed you to travel all over Europe for free in those days, if you were under the age of 26, the continental age at which you stop being deemed a student, in the UK it was either 21 or 24, but you still could travel up to 26 across mainland Europe, even through the Iron Curtain still in existence at the time. 

I asked about getting hold of an ISIC, which in those days you got through travel agencies as you could not buy stuff online.  I asked for the various forms, but the young woman in the travel agency, which was one based on a university campus, said to me that I had no need for it because I was not buying aeroplane tickets.  Foolishly I took her word for it, partly because she made me feel such an idiot even requesting the forms.  Almost immediately when I arrived in Aachen, the first stop on my tour, I realised what a mistake it had been not to press her for the forms.  Everywhere I went especially museums and other sights asked for an ISIC card to get reduced entrance.  I do not know how much more money I spent not having one.  It also opened me up to ridicule in Heidelberg when going into the museum with a couple of students I had met, when I had to pay full price.  For the sake of some ill-informed person at the campus travel agency, I ended up spending a lot more.  I never used that travel agency again.

You should read a good quality newspaper every day
This was a strong piece of advice given to me on a number of occasions by a lecturer who I believed was trustworthy, though as time passed, I quickly found was an idiot.  It is ironic that he gave this advice, which I have heard that Oxford dons typically give to their students, because he was one of these revolutionary left-wing men who seemed to believe that the harshness of the Thatcherite regime was going to trigger a genuine revolution in the UK and so they wrecked the Labour Party and pressed policies intended to make the ordinary people suffer more so that they would be compelled to rise up.  I realised how deluded he was eventually when I heard him speaking about the Baader-Meinhof Gang as being genuine revolutionaries, whereas it is apparent to everyone that they were spoilt, wealthy psychopaths with no real political agenda, simply an enjoyment of being terrorists and the luxury trappings which came with it.  I was surprised to find eight years later that he was still working as a lecturer, though from what I can find now he seems to have disappeared into deserved obscurity.

I think I feel angered by this advice as it also highlights how I misjudged the man who was not as intelligent or insightful as I believed, so I feel doubly the fool for having heeded his words.  I did precisely what he had advised and in my 3rd year of university, every day would buy 'The Guardian' newspaper and sit reading it until it was finished.  Not only must this have cost a lot of money that could have been spent more wisely, but it used up a lot of time as I was simply sat reading right through each morning, so stripping me of 3-4 hours each day, so at least 15-20 hours per week, every week, that I could have spent studying, or at least, doing some activity such as being in a club, that would have got me contacts and/or experience that would have been useful for getting a job.  I was too stupid to see the damage I was doing to my degree by following this advice and with hindsight, it is unsurprising, that having lost so much study time in my final year, my grades were far worse than predicted.  There is no consolation.  I cannot recount a single story that I read in all those newspapers and even a slightly better view of the news was of no benefit to my study of history.  One lesson I learnt too late, is that with any habit you develop, you need to stop at times and really think about whether it is in your best interests no matter who advised you to do it.

You should try to go to the works cafe each day
This useless piece of advice came from my father over the last 15 years and he still repeats it every time I start a new job.  These days I ignore him, but back in the 2000s, partly because I received so little advice from him, I paid attention to him.  Consequently, every day I would go down to the cafe and buy a coffee and a biscuit and sit there staring out of the window.  My father seems convinced that useful networking opportunities arise if you are in the works cafe and are seen to be out and about by colleagues, but this never happened.  I also tried some of the smaller outlets at the site, to no avail.  Perhaps it is my unusual personal appearance that makes that fail.  I never got to talk to anyone apart from the cafe staff and even that became harder the longer I was there as the middle-aged English people were replaced by young Polish women whose grasp of English was insufficient to chat with customers.  The habit I developed was detrimental for my job, as I tried going at different times in an attempt to run into different people with whom I might network.  I always seemed to be away from my desk at the time some senior colleague or my manager would come to see me.  My line manager's opinion of me deteriorated from him holding me in high esteem when I started to the extent he saw me as a liability and advised me to leave the industry by the end.  Obviously a lot of that had to do with personality clashes, but me being off drinking coffee and eating biscuits when he 'dropped by' did not help.

The main issue was how much money I spent engaging in this wasted activity.  I calculated how much I spent over the 4 years I was at a particular company and it came to over £2000 (€2280; US$3220) which whilst it did not mean I was rich, but if I had not spent that money it could have put me in a stronger position, given that my redundancy pay after 4 years was only £1700.  Saving £500 per year would have been enough to pay for a short holiday or to buy something for the house, but no, it simply went into the till at the works cafe for absolutely no benefit for me.  I guess, charitably, my father's view was shaped by behaviour in an age before email and mobile phones which by providing better connectivity have reduced face-to-face meetings.  I do suspect, however, that even in the 1970s, my father was sat in the cafe at his works, alone, hoping that someone of use would come in that he could network with.  As regular readers know my father has quite a hostile opinion of me, though it was better back in the early 2000s, yet, I can only think he gave this advice a little to spite me or take me down a peg when I started my new job.

Only buy a car from someone you know
This was another costly mistake.  The car I had, a Nissan Micra, proved too small when I also began transporting around the woman in my house and her son.  Thus, the woman suggested I bought a Renault Megane Scenic (this was produced before the Megane and the Scenic designations for Renault cars was separated out into two distinct vehicles), in 2006, from a couple we knew quite well, who were about to have a baby and emigrate to Ireland (this was a time when its economy was still thriving).  The car was £1500 which seemed a good price as these people carrier vehicles retain their value.  I should have been suspicious at that stage: never buy anything which is less than the 'going rate' in newspapers and on websites, even if it is from friends.  I drove the car around and it seemed to work well enough.  However, I should have checked with someone with more expertise as there were things that needed repairing which are difficult for even a skilled amateur to do, let alone someone with as little expertise as me.  Anyway, over the next 11 months before the compressors went in the big end and the car became undrivable, I spent £2300 on repairs to the vehicle.  The largest single cost was the heater, which cost £500 to extricate and replace; a new key because only one came with the car cost £139.  I tried driving without the heater, but my feet get cold enough as it is and it was very unpleasant.  I learnt the lesson that even if you buy a car in the summer you should check all the winter features too. 

As with the previous two situations, I should have baled out from the activity and got rid of the car long before it broke down.  I doubt I would have got more than a small fraction of my money back if I had sold it in a few months' time, but I certainly should have got rid of it the moment the repair bill began to even come close to the price of the car.  I certainly should not have been persuaded to buy from people I know.  They have returned from Ireland now it is in economic meltdown and one owns a shop in my town. I have to hold back from going around there and bawling at them for having cheated me so badly.  Clearly both me and the woman who lives in my house liked the couple more than they liked us and it seems that they only developed the connection so that they could foist their heap of a car on us that they knew they could not get rid of, so this was an extended confidence trick.  I knew enough about cars to spot a bad one, but this had a whole host of issues that I could not spot immediately.  If I had held onto the Micra for six months more and saved my money, I could have had a £1000 or so more and bought a better quality second hand car that would ultimately have cost me less.  When it comes to car sales, the one piece of advice someone could have given me, was do not even trust your friends.

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