With my own graduation scarily close, it’s time to continue with my ‘Life After Uni’ series. Today, I’m handing This Northern Gal over to Sam who wants to talk to you about ‘Accepting Pooh’…
At university I had the most poisonous mixture of ambition with boredom.
In the 3rd year of a Theology degree I realised that I wasn’t interested in the course itself or any of the career opportunities it could offer me. This was particularly depressing in my situation. When I was 17 I moved to Scotland with my parents and went straight to school to do my Highers. I was ambitious, I had big dreams and I wasn’t entirely able to speak English. Half way through the year we had our prelims and I studied day and night for them, I wasn’t going to let my lack of fluency get in the way.
I sat in for my English prelim. The exercise in front of us offered a couple of articles and asked some questions on each one, and then some others contrasting both. I start reading through the articles and the first one is about healthy eating. It discusses Winnie the Pooh and its possibly detrimental influence on kids, as it encourages binge and unbalanced eating. Staring at the last line of the article I only had one thought:
Who on earth is Winnie the Pooh?
His books and cartoons were around in Brazil under a slightly different name, but somehow sitting there I did not make that connection. I panicked. All my insecurities about not fitting in here and failing at my big life ambitions set a familiar kind of fire in my brain. I barely made it through the other article. Looking at context clues for who they might be talking about, I wasn’t thinking straight anymore. I failed the prelim.
A few weeks later, a teacher from an after school English support I was doing came up to me and gently suggested I drop Higher English. I told him I couldn’t, it was part of my plan to finish it, I had to finish. So he told me if I insisted in staying, he wouldn’t help me in class. My need for extra support took too much time from other students who also needed help.
That moment put a face to the feeling of inadequacy for me. During my mismatched undergrad, the very idea of changing courses was in some way proving that condescending voice. I had to stick to my plan and I had to be a high achiever, otherwise that voice from my English Higher will be right, vindicated.
The problem with this particular kind of ambition is that it prioritises drive over thoughtfulness. Suddenly, my own narrativisation of life meant I was stuck to a course I didn’t enjoy, because trying to find something more appropriate would be a failure, a waste of time. It is that irony of trying to make things work out so much that they eventually stop working.
I knew someone who, at the time, was by far the most committed student I had ever come across. He didn’t miss a single class, did all of the required reading and aced his way through uni. When we had to write our fourth year dissertations he worked harder than anyone else, so hard in fact that for a 10,000 word dissertation, his Appendix was 50,000 words long. He was so concerned about writing the perfect dissertation that he tried to fit about half a PhD thesis at the end of his undergrad work. The markers did not take to this well, he graduated with a third class degree.
This real life cautionary tale speaks to that obsession with control. The illusion that one can fully control outcomes, at a certain point, starts working against itself. Most of my learning since university has been about welcoming the unknown, making a safe-ish space for chaos. Knowing when to stick and when to quit.
This friend of mine, today, is doing some incredible work. His dissertation failure didn’t get in the way of that. In fact, it taught him a better lesson than the top marks could ever have.
Life post-uni for me has had a fair share of failures and disappointments, but for the first time, embracing these moments well seems less detrimental than the alternative.
Sam is a documentary filmmaker based in Dundee. You can find him @SidlingBears or listen to his podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/everythingmixtape