Young girl playing a guitar.
Image: © Africa Studio/

CAO choices and careers: Follow your dreams with 100pc passion

28 Jan 2019

It is close to decision-time for thousands of young people. Whatever choice you make, pursue careers you will be passionate about, recommends John Kennedy.

I believe in coincidences and fate, but I am also pragmatic enough to stop believing that the universe will provide when I look at a hefty electricity or motor tax bill that needs to be paid on time. Careers are the same, they involve some dreaming but are underpinned by reality, dedication and ambition.

At the weekend, two things happened in quick succession that made me think of all those schoolkids who will be making choices about their CAO (Central Applications Office) applications for college and university courses this week (the deadline is 1 February) and, post-Leaving Cert, taking other journeys that will define the people they will become in the years ahead.

It was while having a coffee with my sister and talking about where life brought us that she revealed how returning to do a university degree after having her children opened up a lot more doors for her. She suddenly leaned over to my eldest niece and said firmly to her that whatever course she chooses, make sure it is something she will absolutely love.

An hour or so later, I overhead two fathers talking about their kids, careers and the CAO deadline. One said: “Whatever they choose to study now could be redundant in 15 years anyway. And that’s why I tell them that whatever they study or decide to do, follow it through with 100pc passion. Give it everything you have.”

‘The engineering aptitude for building a bridge is not far removed from designing and building a 10nm chip’

My late father said something similar to me and when I convinced him that it was journalism I wanted to pursue, he marched me over to the office of the local newspaper editor where, on a sunny spring evening, I was given every reason under the sun why it was a questionable career choice. I convinced the editor to give me work experience after I did my Leaving Cert. I haven’t looked back since.

Everyone’s life is different. There is no real game plan or instruction book to follow, but the twists and turns of life in those post-school days can have a real lasting impact, good and bad.

A lot can happen in the 20 or so years after you fill in a CAO form, secure points and take your course. I know lots of friends who, through the CAO lottery, ended up in courses they were only vaguely interested in, took them anyway, bitterly regretted it and spent years pigeonholed in jobs they never wanted, becoming people they never wanted to be. Others excelled because of the experience. Not everyone went on to pursue actual careers in the courses they took.

I have friends who took the safe, desirable jobs in the civil service or the bank and eventually dropped out to do something else. Others stayed the course and loved it.

I have friends who had a handful of different types of jobs before going back to college or joining the police or the army. A lot of ex-army officers often emerge as brilliant entrepreneurs.

And then there is the lost generation of students who dutifully went to college only to graduate in a post-boom Ireland with nothing for them except possible emigration. Many of them took whatever jobs they could take. Life took over, babies were born and now they are shouldering responsibilities having had little opportunity to channel what they learned.

Choose your future

As we constantly hear, many of us will have a number of careers in our life time. And 17 or 18 is often too young to make a choice that will define you forever. Passion for what you can do and belief in what you are capable of – that’s what gets you through.

A few weeks ago, during an Inspirefest event at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. I was inspired by teenager Ciara-Beth Griffin, whose experience of growing up with high-functioning autism led her to create the award-winning app Mi Contact. Griffin pointed out that some of her peers don’t necessarily want to just rush into the CAO points race right away and would prefer to take a year or two trying their hand at something they could be passionate about, like starting a business.

Another avenue could be to at least choose training or education in areas that could open a broader avenue of choices down the line. There is a realisation as well that a grounding in mechanical, electrical and electronics skills are a good investment in the future and apprenticeships are making a long overdue return. Companies such as Eir and Intel are spearheading this revival of the technicians’ apprenticeship.

Last weekend, Engineers Ireland called for sixth-year students to choose engineering at third level, predicting that over 6,000 new jobs will be created in the engineering sector and warning that the number of students studying engineering will need to be much larger to meet employers’ future need for graduates. Engineering is one of those Swiss army knife professions that could take you in any direction and make you suitable for any purpose. The engineering aptitude for building a bridge is not far removed from designing and building a 10nm chip or a 10-storey building.

Also last weekend, an Ipsos MRBI survey commissioned by Science Foundation Ireland, revealed that 30pc of school students said doing something they are passionate about is the most important factor in choosing a career, in contrast to 13pc who would prefer a career that pays well.

The survey revealed that 58pc of students under the age of 18 would consider a STEM career. This figure falls to 49pc for 16 to 17-year-olds but rises to 62pc for those aged between 14 and 15. Just 8pc of respondents had an idea of what they wanted to do after school: of those, 85pc plan on doing a third-level course or degree while 15pc plan on taking up full-time work.

I am with the majority on this one. Find something you are passionate about, at least give it a shot. Or choose courses that at least allow you to branch out in other directions. Many music legends of the 20th century met at university or art school. Coincidence?

Maybe you want to be an architect, an engineer, a computer scientist, an entrepreneur or a teacher, or maybe you want to be a musician, photographer, a poet or a writer. Whatever you do, do your best at it. Give it socks. So do that course, start that business, start up a band. A good aptitude for maths? Maybe you could be a data scientist. A good athlete and scholar? Maybe you could go for a scholarship.

Just try it. And, when you look back, smile fondly at what you learnt, cherish the experiences and the friends you made. Because that’s life. That is living.

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John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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