In non-COVID-19 times, I speak to audiences far and wide. I am ever captivated by the richness of talents I see, which are not yet elicited. I believe an economy only thrives with a diversity of ideas and talents.

When a young person feels they miss out on opportunities because of their exam results, we risk damage to their sense of self. But we also deny the nation their unique talents. We have to ask ourselves, why so many successful entrepreneurs were once truants?

I think of school as one small piece of a complex jigsaw and exams as a momentary test. When I was expelled at 15, I was told, in a stern tone, that I may be suited to industry. Back then, the word 'industry' implied a lesser world, even though it was the bulwark of the British economy. For the record, my dismissal was not for misconduct but an apparent lack of academic prowess. In truth, I hated school. I needed to move and to think, my mind constantly hummed to the sound of music - and I saw life through a series of imagined pictures.

Down, out and up

A year later, I escaped to London from a warring household. There I found the streets paved, not with gold, but with pitfalls. I was forced to sleep on these same streets for a year.

There I slowly began to realise my strengths – resilience, adaptability, creativity, music and the ability to talk my way out of any situation. The journey since has been pockmarked with challenges but I have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and skills that conventional education would have denied me.

From bricks to biscuits and wine to steel, I have had many jobs. I busked too – all this before I set up in business at the age of 43. I lost everything in the last recession, but my earlier years had taught me to stand quickly when I tripped. I had won many business awards and been celebrated in hallowed corridors, now people talked of business failure. Never me. It was just another of life’s turns and a new path lit up.

That I now talk in schools, colleges and universities is a strange irony. You see, I have learned to engage, persuade and inspire – the very qualities my teachers lacked. I now teach these skills. Last year, I spoke at an education conference in Middlesbrough and the impact was astonishing. “You should be directing the strategy for our young people," said one educational leader. What a fascinating twist that would be.

We all have value.

My message was that we value some talents over others and leave young people labelled as failures. It is a false meritocracy that creates long-term damage to individuals and to the wider economy. We can only imagine the future, so how can we prepare people for it? What we do know is this. We will need a rich diversity of minds, talents and skills. Focus on too few and we narrow the path.

I always say to students at school, college and university to ignore adults who tell them "these are the best days of your life."

They are not.

You are at the beginning of an exciting journey and there will be twists and turns. Just stay curious, make mistakes (that’s how we learn), do your best in any job and see it not as the end, but as another step to being the best version of yourself.

Progress has and always will come from people wandering down a path less trodden. There is no wrong path. We must shout that from the rooftops.

Mike Stevenson is speaking at our Enlightened Thinking webinar The best is yet to come on Thursday 1 October – to attend, register via our website.