Healthy competition? The Cambridge inferiority complex…

Amelia Oakley 31 May 2015

There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition, but being a competitive person in Cambridge is often a fruitless pursuit. The fact of the matter is, the place is full of super-humans, which at times makes life interesting and inspirational but more often leaves you feeling inadequate and insignificant.

Yet knowing you’re likely to lose a round of intelligence/extra-curricular Top Trumps to half the student body doesn’t deter the rest of us mortals from getting involved in the culture of competiveness that Cambridge nurtures so well.

Indeed there’s so many different topics to choose from.

  • Health; “I see your runny nose and I raise you tonsillitis and an ear infection”.
  • Disruption; “Please, my room is ten times noisier than yours”.
  • My personal favourite, lack of sleep; “I trump your 5 hours with 2 hours.” The list goes on…. 

But all these are merely rounds within the ultimate competition: who can make the most excuses.

It’s not a competition we intentionally engage in. Rather, that self-doubt which was planted the moment you realised everyone else on your corridor speaks eight languages, or has had a book published, or competed at the Olympics triggers a panicked response from our sub-conscious. We spend the year leading up to the dreaded exam results day cultivating a bank of excuses to justify a poor showing. It’s self-preservation. No one would criticise Usain Bolt for running 100m in 17 seconds with a broken leg; likewise when you scrape a 2:2 despite the chronic lack of sleep/noisy room/dreadful supervisor/man flu you ensured everyone knew you had, if anything you’ll be praised for the difficult circumstances you’ve overcome.

Cambridge may not make everyone develop a full on inferiority complex, but it certainly makes it hard not to. Here of all places, we should be encouraged to focus on ourselves, on bettering our own marks and doing the best we can. But instead, Cambridge exacerbates our tendency to judge ourselves against others. The Senate House class lists only serve to promote comparison between ourselves and the rest of the student body, but this will always give a distorted result given the ridiculously high average at Cambridge.

I’m a naturally competitive – overly competitive – person, but coming to Cambridge has prompted me to reassess my priorities. Don’t try to be the best; do your best.