I first moved to Sheffield in 2005 for university. Sheffield was two hours away, which felt like a decent enough distance from my life at home. I had come on the train to the open day the year before with some friends, gone to a few pubs, and gone home again.
When I got home my Mum had asked me about the course facilities. “Uh, I think they’re okay,” I replied.
“And how about the accommodation?” she followed up.
“We didn’t go,” I admitted. Apparently we were having such fun in the pub it had slipped our minds to check out the digs. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I said.
So the following September I arrived in Sheffield with a car full of stuff I didn’t need. Marketing magazines I had accumulated on placement year and not had time to read.
First year of university is perhaps the only time you’re ever thrown in with a large number of people who also know nobody. It’s the ultimate opportunity to start again and be someone else, if you want to. Except that very few people actually do that, or keep it up for long.
I slowly came to the realisation at uni that I actually didn’t like a lot of students. Perhaps I had changed after my year working, but I thought many needed to grow up a bit. Or sometimes a lot.
I’ve since reflected that the main thing you get at university is a period of growing up time, rather than a degree. You’re forced to live with people you’ve only just met, which is a valuable growing up experience in itself. The degree is the by-product.
When you go to university you’re initially indiscriminate about who you make friends with. Everyone then ends up in one of two groups. You either end up in the ‘giant clique’ group where all the cool kids hang out and go to dinner together. Or you end up like me with a handful of friends who have seemingly nothing in common except you.
I’ve never had a big circle of friends, at any point in my life. I’m more the sort of person who has a handful of friends I actually know. I operate my business now in the same way. I’m a quirky, under-the-radar person to follow. I’m here to tell you how I think things really are, not peddle the magic solution everyone is allegedly looking for.
And you know what? If there are only 20,000 people in the world who really resonate with my message, I’m fine with that. I’m not here to build a huge superficial following.
When I think back to university I find myself distinguishing between my course and my non-course experience. I loved the experience, so much so that I now live in Sheffield, and classify as an ‘adopted Yorkshireman’. An accolade which isn’t bestowed lightly.
I feel mostly ambivalent about my degree. Which should come as no shock, when we force 18-year olds to make career-framing decisions. I did a business degree, for no other reason than I liked business studies at school. My degree opened some doors to me, but if I had my time again I would study literature, or history.
I hated the accounting modules, and funnily enough I hated the marketing modules. Unless your goal was to work as a marketing minion for a big stupid company, the marketing modules were completely devoid of critical thinking and introspection. I expressed these opinions in exams, and received low scores for it. With the benefit of hindsight, I stand by what I wrote.
I enjoyed the consulting module. I’ve kept hold of a book from that time, called Soft Systems Methodology in Action. Which sounds dull, but illustrates how most business systems problems are cultural rather than technological. I’m sometimes tempted to send a copy to people thinking of buying Infusionsoft, Hubspot, or some other system.
Another book I still have from that time is called Information for Innovation, by one of our lecturers Stuart Macdonald. Macdonald would talk endlessly about how he believed innovation happens in practice: through informal networks, collaboration and exchange. He believed patenting was stupid, and that bigger companies were more likely to waste large sums of money on management consultants.
I’d rate my biggest achievement at university as scoring 99% on an essay in his module. The writing method I followed then was the same as it is now. I researched everything I could, surrounded myself in a nest of paper, and planned the structure of the essay. I do the same thing now when planning an email sequence.
Looking back, the reason I enjoyed the innovation and consulting modules is because they were multi-disciplinary. The more insight you could pull in from different fields, the better.
I came out of university a little less black and white. I knew I probably wanted to do or create something that didn’t exist as a conventional job. But I didn’t yet know what that was.
Writing about a broad period of time such as university can be tricky, because there are a lot of stories you could include. The main thing I wanted to illustrate here was the change in perspective I came away with at the end.
I’ve deliberately mentioned two books that still sit on my bookshelf. The books you keep are a good representation of your perspective, beliefs and experience. Writing about them is a good way to share your perspective on things. Especially if they’re off-the-radar choices, or from a different field altogether.
The point of a core email sequence is to illustrate the things that make you different, not push them under a rug.