How I Learned More From a Student's Question Than Any Book or Class

by Chris Johnston 3 years ago in student

Why EQ Outweighs IQ

How I Learned More From a Student's Question Than Any Book or Class
A Wonderful Class of Students Alongside Senior Leaders from Nestle UK

A Nostalgic Trip

Last week I had the overwhelming honour, and honest pleasure of attending a lecture at my not-so-distant, beloved University of Sussex. However, I was no longer a student of the University. No, not at all — I had been invited as a guest, as a presenter, as a role model. On the way down to the University (approximately a 4-hour train journey from my current place of work), my brain was filled with excitement. Not only was I getting to return to a nostalgic environment – one where I truly grew from a boy to a man, but I was being given the opportunity to meet the new cohort of students who were currently studying on the course that I had just graduated from. The pleasure was furthered as I was attending this lecture alongside some fabulous role models of mine. David Hix (Supply Chain Director, UK&I), Matt Beddoe (Head of Procurement UK&I), Robin Sundaram (Head of Responsible Sourcing and Milk Buyer) and Ana-Maria Velicia (Head of Commercial Procurement). To say the least, I was excited, but perhaps a more accurate description, utterly terrified!

The Lecture Begins

The lecture took the format of each professional, including myself (despite being early in my career, I assure you I am a professional), giving a 15-minute overview of their career to date. I sat back and listened to some utterly fascinating stories, learning more and more about the people I admire. Occasionally, I would look out into the crowd and watch how every student sat with pen in hand, writing almost word for word the utter gold-dust professional advice that was spewing out of these wonderful minds. I personally spoke about how I developed during the course that these students were currently enrolled on, and gave my advice as to how they could maximise their chances of turning their unique passions into rewarding early careers.

I could write about the stories that were shared in this room for pages upon pages, but that is for another time, in a different article. But, hopefully I have built up the scene adequately at this point.

The Big Surprise

Following the story-telling and general advice giving, the floor was opened, giving students the opportunity to direct questions at one or more professionals at the front of the room. Some wonderful questions were asked that truly demonstrated the uniqueness and talent that numerous students held. Questions covered the specific, i.e. "How do you determine optimal stock in a volatile market?", to the much more general, i.e. "What would you say is the most important characteristic for an individual to develop when aiming for an executive-level career?"

These were all fantastic questions.

However, the question that lingered with me (and truthfully concerned me up until today) was one I think everyone had least expected.

“How can we succeed in an interview, in our career, and in life, when we as millennials are so scared of failing?”


Emotional intelligence is finally becoming recognised as being as important, if not more important than IQ. This question demonstrates just that. There we were, a room full of intelligent individuals. Over 100 years of experience sitting at the front of the room. Utter silence in the room. Nobody expected this question. This is one of those rare questions that teaches more to the person being questioned, than the person asking the question.

Let’s break down this question...

Negatively Loaded

What first hurts me about this question is that it was naturally negatively loaded – “how can we succeed.” It always worries me when I hear somebody asks another person how they can be successful. I doubt Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Will Smith, etc., ever asked anybody this question. No, instead they worked out what was important to them, established a set of values that they would never breach, and they acted. They certainly didn’t ask for permission so that one day somebody else could take credit for their success.

Now I understand the question. I understand that not everybody has their whole game plan figured out. What I suppose troubled me the most was the self-doubt that was loaded within the tone of this person’s voice. It felt like they had already decided they couldn’t be successful alone, and that they needed someone’s help to even give them a chance to be so.

Self-doubt is a horrible thing, and in my opinion, is the single strongest reason a person won’t be successful. I know from my relatively short life so far that when I am on a roll and things are going well, I feel unstoppable — everything seems to go right for me. However, as soon as I make a mistake, or something goes wrong, a TON of other things seem to go wrong in quick succession. How can this be? Does bad luck and failure naturally come in clumps? No, of course not. However, when something goes wrong, or we fail at something, our mind-state changes. We start doubting our abilities, or our right to happiness and success. I completely empathise that being successful can seem like an esoteric, privileged, often unattainable objective to many of us, especially if in our current situation it seems so far away. But, in a very short amount of time, success can shine on us in many forms.

Have self-belief. Be persistent. Stay focused. No matter what your definition of success, be it financial, spending more time with your family, or making a career out of a hobby — you can achieve it. You just need to persist and believe that you do deserve the goals and objectives you have.

Stop Blaming Your Situation

The second part of this question allures to the possibility that for some reason millennials are more scared of failure than any other generation. This concerns me for many reasons. Firstly, I don’t think it is true. I think all generations have at some point faced the fear of failure. Therefore, the reason that this aspect of the question concerns me, is that we are ALREADY COMING UP WITH EXCUSES! "Our generation was the hardest!" … Was it? Continually, I see articles about how millennials are at a disadvantage! But I really do not think this is true. You can dwell in self-pity, or you can used your disadvantages as a motivator to propel you toward success.

However, despite criticising this excuse, I do at the same time sympathise. The millennial generation certainly has a unique disadvantage when it comes to fear, and that is that our social success is paraded 24/7 on social media. I remember my Grandad once told me he never attended school reunions, because truly the only people that went were the ones who had been successful, and would look for every opportunity to boast about their new car, house, job, or wife (certainly a generational thing whereby a man would boast a wife as their property!) Today, however, social media is a 24/7 school reunion, and this can certainly cause the new generation to have greater fear of failure in some means — as we are constantly measured against one another.

So, although I appear to criticise this question, I am not so much critiquing the person asking the question, but instead highlighting my concern that such a young person appeared to have already sort of given up. This is the saddest part of it all — I am 100 percent sure that this person was not the only one thinking the same question.

My Answer

I don’t know if I’m anywhere near qualified enough to answer such a challenging question. But, I felt an obligation to clear up that just because we are of the millennial generation does not mean that we have greater amounts of fear, or any reason to be in such self-doubt.

My answer: “The only reason you will not be successful is because you don’t want to be. If you are sitting in this University, you have the education, and if you are confident enough to ask a sophisticated question in front of business leaders such as the supply chain director of Nestle (which you have just done), then the only reason you won’t be successful is because you don’t want to. At times, you will have a little voice in the back of your head and you will panic. People who aren’t successful succumb to this voice, and this voice becomes their excuse. However, the successful people in this room will realise that panic and fear are temporary, and you need to just fight that urge, that voice in your head that is telling you to give up or back out. It is so much more satisfying when you can look back with no regrets of bailing out on an opportunity. It is so much more satisfying when you don’t have to reminisce on a memory and think — I wonder.”

What would your answer have been?

Chris Johnston
Chris Johnston
Read next: The Unconventional College Life
Chris Johnston
A young, passionate and career hungry individual that wants to share the highs and lows of my journey with the internet.

See all posts by Chris Johnston