My very favourite novel (Looking for Alibrandi) starts with a line, which, to its protagonist, seems like a universal truth. I can’t quote directly because I don’t have the book with me, but it’s something along the lines of ‘your final year of school is when your life either shoots through the roof or goes flushing down the toilet’. That line has always resonated with me. It resonated with me as a teenager, because I acutely felt that pressure and it seemed, at times, like the only thing that was true. It continues to resonate with me, because I remember that pressure very well, and I’ve since discovered that it’s a lie.
Today I want to talk about failure, or meeting (failing to meet) your expectations. I do this for three reasons. One, A level results are coming out soon, and I’m sure that among all the excitement, there’ll be considerable deflation and potentially worse. Two, high achieving university students (particularly law students) are particularly prone to thinking that they’re failing. And three, a recent encounter I’ve had on Twitter, showing I have my own thinking to do in this area.
Despite the order I’ve put these in, I’m going to start with the final thing I listed above, because it’s easier to speak from the specific and personal, and then generalise.
Some of you may be aware that there’s been a protracted kerfuffle on social media surrounding a BBC cartoon and the wider issue of ethnic diversity in Roman Britain. I have very little dog in this fight – I’m a Hellenist through and through, if I still count as part of that community – except to the extent that I support honest historical scholarship, I think using ancient history to support modern political prejudice is ridiculous, and am appalled by the way that academics can be treated by some of the wider public. (Moderation note: I am not qualified to discuss, and am not going to get into, ethnic diversity in Roman Britain. Any comments attempting to get into it will be deleted. If you’re interested, please see some resources on the topic here and here.)
Professor Mary Beard, of the University of Cambridge, has been quite vocal on this topic on Twitter, and, for her efforts, has been subjected to ridicule and much worse. Who needs experts, eh? Despite the fact that I joined Twitter in my capacity as a law student/ aspiring lawyer, I am afraid I can’t help myself, and so I’ve engaged a bit in the discussion, mostly to support some of the bigger players. I’ve sent a number of replies to Professor Beard. A few days ago, I said “As a failed ancient history PhD student, thank you for standing up for honest scholarship.” To my astonishment (and, I won’t lie, delight, despite the fact she told me off), Professor Beard responded. “Never say “failed” again!!!!”
While I am prone to self-deprecation (warning: understatement alert), that had not been my intent in this instance. For those who are not aware, I attempted a PhD in ancient history. For a variety of reasons I’m not going to get into, it didn’t work out. With apologies to Professor Beard, I am a failed PhD student: I attempted a PhD, and I failed. Not self-deprecating, merely factual (although I can see that my delivery could be improved).
And, oh my goodness, failure was the least of it. I thought my life was over. I’d spent almost all of my adult life working for this, moved quite literally to the other side of the world to do this, had nothing else in mind that I could do or be. To be told I couldn’t do this any more was crushing, soul destroying. My dream, my passion, almost the offspring I was attempting to create in the form of my thesis (others who’ve attempted a PhD will understand), was destroyed, that door closed likely permanently. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me – I’m fine (in some ways my life has been on a near constant upward trajectory since then) – but I do want to point out that, despite my academic successes, I absolutely understand high stakes failure.
But, what happened surrounding that failure, that loss? Because it’s very rare that failure happens in an utter vacuum. For me, I gained several qualifications along the way, had an awful lot of intellectual training, and (as a friend pointed out to me) have gained considerable specialised knowledge, perhaps even expertise. I’ve also grown considerably as a person (the person I was back when I started the PhD is almost unrecognisable), found a home in the UK, and much more besides. I wish it hadn’t been so protracted or so painful, but it was hardly for nothing. Even if it is failure, it’s not just negative. My PhD attempt wasn’t a loss: I’ve gained so much, even if I didn’t get to wear the fancy gown etc (I am being tongue in cheek: that really is the least of what I wanted here).
But, enough about me (this is more personal than I really intended my blog to get). How does this apply to other students, both those contemplating university and those getting through it?
To those completing their secondary education: if you don’t get the results you were expecting or needed, there are so many other ways. I won’t lie, from what I’ve seen, progressing through as a conventional student is by far the easiest way to go (although it, too, is not without its challenges). But life hands you lots of chances, and you’re hardly alone if you need to rethink, retrain, come back to education later (or not: higher education is not for everyone, and that’s OK). I’m not the only student who started in my cohort who was over 25, and am not the oldest, even though I was 30 when I started (even if we exclude the student who’s even more of an academic outlier than I am). I know this may be in contradiction to the narrative you’ve been fed for so long, but please know that your whole life is not determined by some exams you sat at 17 or 18. You’ll probably be OK.
To those who are finding university more difficult than they expected: it’s OK. Really. If you’re a 2.1 student who hoped to be a first student (insert other grade classifications here), you’re still on your way to getting a degree, probably a respectable one, and you can do a lot with that. (NB: for non-British and particularly North American readers, 2.1 is the second best degree classification and is not a very poor GPA.) And, good heavens, you are not failing and you have not failed, you’re just not doing as well as you’d hoped to. Capitalise on what you’ve learned, the opportunities you have, bolster your CV, play up your strengths. A 2.1 student is not a failure by any stretch of the imagination (this is a thing I’ve seen, equating a 2.1 with failing). University is difficult, anyone who’s attempted it knows this. Don’t be so hard on yourself: take the lessons, take the skills you’ve learned, your personal development, and work with them. Even if your grades are lower, the same thing applies. I won’t lie, the higher your grades (combined with other personal attributes, it’s not all about the grades), the more straightforward your life will probably be in the short term (graduation, job hunting, etc). But no experience is for nothing. You’ll almost certainly be OK.
To those who are contemplating dropping out, or have done so: it’s OK, and you will be OK. Yes, really. As said above, you can return to education later if you want to. You can make something of your life in another way. You’ve learned and grown from this experience, even if it’s been painful and expensive. Well done for looking after yourself. Again, no experience is for nothing.
I’m left at the end of this reflection, set in motion by Professor Beard, wondering what failure actually means. I mean sure, it’s the absence of success, potentially the closing of doors (temporarily or permanently). But it’s not an absolute negative, not necessarily permanent loss. There are positives to be had, there. I think the lesson to be taken away here, is, don’t panic. Look to the positive. Look to rebuild. You might well find yourself better off for having been through this, no matter how awful it might have been at the time. I know I am better off, even though I’ve decided with not a little regret that I will never be a professional historian.
As always, please do comment: I’d love to hear your thoughts.