My Biggest Mistake: Christina Townsend
Sunday 25 July 1993
MY BIGGEST mistake was failing to read the small print in a Leeds University syllabus before opting for my BSc subjects. It led to two of the most painful years of my life.
I was brought up in a small village in Gloucestershire and it was important for me to get away. As a youngster, I was impetuous and tended to leap into things without thinking. At the same time, I was unworldly and rather shy.
After finishing studies at my local grammar school, I decided to do psychology as I was attracted to studying human behaviour. But in the Sixties, university regulations were unbending and, in addition to my main subject of psychology, I had to take a secondary subject. The only choice open to me lay between one of the biological sciences and engineering.
As I hadn't done any of the biological sciences at school and part of me liked the idea of doing engineering, I decided to have a go. But I gave no thought as to what I was letting myself in for, and above all, I failed to spot that it would take up three-quarters of my first two years' studies at the university.
The disenchantment came pretty quickly. How I loathed my first year. The psychology syllabus was great but in engineering, I found myself attending lectures in huge halls with well over a hundred blokes. I was the only female there. Frankly, I was petrified. I felt totally isolated.
As for the subject itself, I couldn't do it - and so I hated it. I dreaded even opening books on the subject. Tackling technical drawing took the most tremendous effort. In tutorials of about 30 students, I just scraped through by the skin of my teeth. I was sure I'd fail the engineering course in that first year, but somehow I made it and that made me very pleased with myself. I began to read the books with less trepidation.
By the end of the second year, electrical engineering dominated the course more than mechanical engineering. It was more conceptual and I began to cope better, especially with electronics. And as I gained confidence, I found the subject more interesting.
Lecturers' attitudes towards me began to change when occasionally I could answer their questions. As the only female on the course, I was still the odd one out, but not in a negative way.
Nevertheless, it was still hard going and I missed out on the lighter side of these two years - years which could have been totally destructive for me. Half the experience was horrible, but the other half was something of a triumph, because I won through and gained my BSc in psychology with engineering. Strange bedfellows.
But I shall never forget the pain. It's deeply etched in my psyche and I don't ever want to experience it again.
Was it a waste?
Not entirely. Living with the discomfort of not doing well is always hard to bear - but if I hadn't gone through it, I probably would have played it safe for most of my career thereafter and would not have ended up in the job I now hold.
Unknown to me at the time, it taught me one of the fundamental lessons for leading a business. That it requires the courage to take risks, but it also calls for a detailed assessment of these risks against the benefits - and the likelihood of success.
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