Have you ever looked at someone in a position of power and wondered what sets them apart from their peers? What methods did they employ to achieve their goals? What is the secret behind their success? Fatima Ul-Haq, a project manager professional and the newest member of the UTM Alumni Association, addressed some of these questions and others in her Backpack to Briefcase seminar on leadership.

Rather than provide students with a cookie-cutter recipe for success, Ul-Haq decided to guide her presentation with lessons she has come to learn throughout her own academic career. Her lessons are also derived from the mistakes she has made and how she has recovered from them.

Ul-Haq stressed the personal responsibility students have in creating their own opportunities. She insisted, “You define everything for yourself. And if you want it, you can get it.”

She started by discussing the value of determining your own assumptions about life, rather than simply adopting existing ones. The UTM alumni also explained the reasoning behind her own personal philosophy, which focuses on the value of collaboration over competition. She notes that society seems to stress the narrative of “dog-eat-dog” while failing to understand the importance of balance. Ul-Haq recognized that competition is a necessary part of society, but she prefers to help her peers rather than throw them under the bus. She noted that everyone adopts different strategies and it is up to you to determine what works best in your situation.

Ul-Haq then talked about having faith in your own abilities and expanding the goals you want to achieve. She emphasized that those who succeed don’t get where they are because they’re intrinsically better or more intelligent. “Many times, success is about asking questions, building bridges, and creating your own opportunities,” she said. She further stressed the importance of networking.

The project management professional also noted the importance of getting involved and gaining experience, especially if you’re planning on applying for grad school. “As someone who hires and fires people,” Ul-Haq noted that she’d much rather have a well-rounded employee who is capable of doing more than only studying. She highly recommended students to work a part-time job while in school, as it teaches valuable skills that are transferable to the labour market. Ul-Haq dispelled the idea that there is “not enough time” by providing a breakdown of her own undergrad schedule and how she managed to keep up with school, a job, and extracurricular activities while still maintaining a 4.0 average.

Although Ul-Haq’s presentation focused on the student’s ability to achieve the impossible, she emphasized the importance of setting the right goals, ones that won’t discourage you if not met. By setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound, evaluative, and readjusted goals, or “SMARTER” for short, students can determine exactly what they want to achieve. If the goals are not met, they can simply evaluate and readjust them.

Ul-Haq comforted students she explained,  “You may not always have the answers and you may not know what you want to be […] but it’s good to develop certain skills now so you’ll be prepared for the quarter-life crisis you’ll likely experience after graduation.”

One major idea to keep in mind when progressing through your undergraduate degree and beyond, Ul-Haq said, is that “the biggest barrier to being successful is yourself.”