In defence of not giving it your all

Joanna Taylor 24 May 2016

Last Monday, the Union (in what may have been their first tolerable event of term) debated the motion "THW rather get a life than a first". I say “may” because I wasn’t actually there – I thought I could honour the sentiment better through action than words, and so instead spent the evening illegally streaming Game of Thrones and drinking overpriced IPA at The Maypole. In fact, this term may have been my most enjoyable to date.

This Easter, I have actively decided to prioritise sanity above success. Fittingly, I am writing this from a lakeside bench under the blazing sun, stuffed silly on free sweets from my college JCR’s welfare initiative. I float between coffee houses and my bed, and have frittered the majority of my maintenance loan on summer dresses and a ukulele, which (in the absence of revision) I have plenty of time to practise. I have seen the inside of the UL approximately once, and only because I had it on good authority that lunch would be their famous Southern Fried Chicken and sweet potato fries.

It sounds self-indulgent, I know. Well, I’ve never subscribed to ideologies which suggest I should deny myself something that could make me happy (be that good food, good wine, or a good shag) without an excellent reason, and a First doesn’t qualify. Realistically, it may be many more years before I am able to live with such frivolity. There are no demands on my time, I have no responsibilities, and at least a reasonable amount of disposable income. In a few short months my freedom will be claimed by the inevitable horror of finals, then employment, and then the cold grasp of death. I intend to make the most of the time I have left. 

Somewhere between essay crises last Lent I had a deeply formative revelation. What was I beating myself up for, or working towards? I had no idea. Looking back on my almost 2 years here, I realised I remembered the stress of each missed deadline or lecture far, far more than the specific academic topic. That which had seemed so all-consuming at the time had never proved to be anything more than a minor chip on the windscreen of my Cambridge career.

We are always so, so quick to reduce Cambridge to the hell of endless reading lists. When you can learn to divorce the workload from the city and its people, it becomes an incredible place to be young. I want to spend my time here making memories, not mind-maps. I am surrounded by interesting, diverse people and I would not be doing myself justice to shut myself away from all these experiences for the sake of a percentage mark that will, in all honesty, account for literally nothing in the grand scheme of things.

I realise I’m not exactly making myself a sympathetic figure here, but last year I got a First and no real good came of it. It didn’t help me secure an amazing summer internship, or suddenly transform Cambridge into a hazy calendar of gowned meals and topical discussions with notable academics. The most obvious change, actually, was the sudden crippling sense of expectation to repeat my performance.

When my mental health plummeted and I couldn’t keep up, no-one took my struggles seriously because I had “done so well last year”. I’m sure I could get those grades again if I were so inclined, but why on earth would I want to? Speaking from experience, please believe me when I say that the horror of thirteen hour days barred into the UL are categorically not worth it. 

It’s been deliciously liberating to accept my mediocrity. Everyone here is frighteningly intelligent – I will never be the best, and so have decided to just stop trying. I’d rather be average, well-fed, well-rested, and (most importantly) happy. I’m a second year – my grade this year counts for literally nothing, and I have nothing to prove. Hard-line academic work is like jogging: sure you advance, but my god at what cost? I’ll pick seeing the sun rise behind King’s chapel over the grey-laced insides of another 1970s textbook any day. 

NB- 3rd years are exempt from this laissez-faire philosophy and are strongly encouraged to stop procrastinating on TCS and get back to revision.