Mark Maxwell is a Dublin-based Career Guidance Counsellor who works predominantly with the college student demographic. His recently-released book, “Death, My Guidance Counsellor” outlines his philosophy to finding a career that one can be excited about, detailing his own struggles with this journey, which saw him move from investment banking to Google, to entrepreneurship and world travel. The journey – and book – have been made slightly more interesting by the fact that Mark has been living with Sudden Death Syndrome since dropping dead at age 18 while travelling in New Zealand.
Recalling the day he died, along with his own perspectives at the time, with a sense of learned wisdom and reflection, Mark Maxwell describes to me what he remembers from the time leading up to his death, as well as the incident itself.
“One day, we were travelling around New-Zealand. We just started this three-week tour of New Zealand over Christmas, while the Australian schools were on holiday. I went for a quick snooze on the bus, and I started snoring really loudly. The lads thought I was taking the piss, or trying to embarrass them, but when they turned around – my respiratory system couldn’t support my frame, so – my body was just kind of folding inwards. My face was fully blue. and they said “oh shit, something’s wrong here”. They stopped the bus, they carried me off, and they gave me CPR on the side of the road. They kept going for about ten minutes, and there was no breath. The ambulance came along then, and they started giving me external defibrillator shocks. They gave me six of them, and there was still no breath. They put me in the ambulance and gave me six more of them on the way to the hospital. That was, like, way over the legal limit, but I weighed about 120 Kilos back then, so they said “Okay, he can handle it. Give him a few more shocks”. Towards the end of that, they started getting a breath, so they brought me to the hospital and put me into a coma straight away. I think it was about four days into the coma, things just started looking a lot better. Then, two days after that, after six days in total, I came out of the coma. I was still very foggy, like. I couldn’t walk and I could barely talk or think”.
The succeeding months would prove to be some of the most difficult Mark had ever faced. His physical recovery involved having a pacemaker installed in his chest and saying goodbye to his beloved sport of rugby – the sole driving force which had spurred on his passion and dedication throughout his youth. The incident also left Mark brain-damaged and suffering from short-term memory loss. All of this still excludes the trauma and deep emotional anguish any person – let alone an eighteen-year-old kid – would experience after such a truly horrific episode. However, with a positive mindset, along with some small but powerful steps towards the possibility of a brighter future, Mark began to plod his way steadily – determinedly – to recovery. It began with quitting alcohol, taking up a few new sports (as the high-impact intensity of rugby was now off the table) and focusing on keeping fit. Mark also spent seven hours a day – those same seven he once spent training his body for the rugby pitch – into learning Spanish, which mark describes as being like “resistance training for the mind”, eventually helping him in getting back his short-term memory.
When asked about how all of this had culminated in him entering the field of guidance counselling, Mark sounds certain that his current career stems largely from what happened on that day in New Zealand.
“ Half of [the decision to go into guidance counselling] came from having a close proximity to death. Just that sudden realisation that, hang on, life is short. You do need to make the most of it. It’s about finding what it is that lights your fire. Society is going to tell you what to do, but that might not be what lights the fire; and your friends might have something that lights theirs, but it mightn’t be the same thing that lights yours. You actually need to become an independent thinker, go off and find whatever it is that’s going to light yours”.
When questioned about what separates his methods of guidance counselling from the conventional templates we are all too used to seeing in the Irish education system, Mark raises a few good points:
“If someone tells me that they want to be a Barrister, I say “Cool. My friend is a Barrister. Here’s what they tell me it’s like. Here’s how much money they get paid in years one, two, three, four, five. This is what they spend their days doing. Here are some of the problems that they face”. Another thing would be that, I used to walk out of the career guidance counsellor’s office either half asleep, or possibly demotivated. So what I do is I motivate a lot. A huge part of my job is encouraging these young people to go out and show the world what they’ve got. There’s a culture in Ireland of “stick to the chosen path and you’ll be fine”; basically, be as invisible as you can and stay out of trouble. Whereas, I want these guys to – and this is a chapter in the book – live from the inside out. Instead of looking out at the world and seeing where you can squeeze in and not get in anyone’s way, I want them to look inside themselves, see what they find in there, and see how they can go out and share that with the world. So, it’s kind of like career guidance on its head, to be honest. It’s very driven, not by what the options are out there, but by what this person actually wants to achieve”.
In his book, Mark ponders over whether there is some bigger reasoning behind the incident in New Zealand, and his subsequent diagnosis with SADS. One possible explanation he acknowledges is that perhaps it was a test – a test to see if he could abandon his former dreams of professional rugby stardom and craft a new life for himself. I was curious to get Mark’s opinion on young people who are dead-set on a particular path in life – college students who have a twenty-year career plan and a pension on their minds before they even get handed a diploma. It’s never made sense to me, and Mark revealed a similar outlook on the matter:
“Yeah, that’s a scenario I face every now and then. One of the quotes I heard that changed me the most is “The wisest person is the person who knows they know nothing” or “You know nothing until you know you know nothing”. If you go around looking at the world and thinking that you have it all figured out, you’re not gonna get as much out of it as you would if you looked at it the opposite way. So, these people should be going around with an open mind and trying to learn whatever they can, rather than build walls around their minds and not let anything else in”.
When I bring up the subject of supposedly ‘unstable’ and ‘unemployable’ college courses, and whether students should go for their dream course or career despite it being somewhat of a risky field, Mark is eager to answer me with a parable-esque personal anecdote.
“Here’s the thing I learned: The challenge that companies are faced with when hiring graduates isn’t a skills challenge. An accounting firm isn’t hiring you because you did Accounting in college – they’ll take a few weeks to bring you up to speed on it. This is my phrase, and it’s pretty much what [companies] have told me, in one sentence: companies interview children, and hire adults. So, they get 800 applicants for a job. Most of them are children who are just there because their parents told them to be there or whatever. They don’t think for themselves. They hire the ones who are adults. They hire the ones who walk in and say “This is why I did this course, I don’t care what you think about it, but this is why I did it. This is what I enjoyed the most about it. This is why I have this interview, because I enjoyed that thing” – the ones who are thinking proactively for themselves. So, when you go off and you study something like English and Politics, sure, it’s not a direct career path to anything; but if you go and engage with that course material, and show up to an interview and say “I’m really into what I’m doing, and I think I might be into what you guys are doing as well” – that’s so much more valuable than someone who has the ‘right degree’ who’s just sleepwalking through life and going with the flow”.
On the pressure young people put on themselves to achieve wild and unrealistic goals in their twenties, Mark has some brilliant advice to offer:
“Most people start stuff in their thirties, but for some reason, we’re all obsessed with doing it in our twenties. So, I kind of break life into three acts. Act One is ‘Search’; Act Two is ‘Paint Your Masterpiece’ and Act Three is ‘Admire it and Pass it Along’. So, people in their twenties, college students – they’re still in the ‘Search’ act. They’re meant to be going around; asking questions; exploring the world and figuring out what they’re interested in – establishing the canvass that they’re going to paint their masterpiece on, and the tools that they’re going to use to do it. So, stop focusing on that stuff. Go out and search – search hard – for the things that are going to equip you to paint your masterpiece. Find a canvass that you are passionate enough about to paint it on. So, that’s what I’d recommend: go out there and find the tools, find the canvass, and forget about painting – for the moment”.