The Burdens of High Standards

Catherine Pushnaya 25 February 2022
Image Credit: Creative Commons licences

Before coming to Cambridge, I was writing a story about an island. On the island, everyone was obsessed with achievement. I called it Bjørlen: a seemingly tropical paradise, which quickly revealed itself to be a dystopia of an endless, grinding, anxiety. Local athletes died at the age of twenty, after having a fleeting success at seventeen, and university students devised clever ways to sleep less (mainly by forfeiting bits of their souls to demons). Then, I came to Cambridge, and Bjørlen’s imaginary suffering turned out a joke compared to what people do here, or in many other ambitious places.

The lives of high achieving ice skaters, for example, is riddled with dangers. Athletes have a “sweet spot” around 13-17 years when their mastery peaks: trainers usually try to find children who are prone to experiencing these changes as late as possible. But, what happens to the Olympic champions after success? After the Sochi Olympics, Yulia Lipnitskaya was exalted in the Russian media. However, her peak ended, and she suffered from anorexia in a desperate attempt to regain the glorious physical shape which allowed her to be victorious.

It is similar to the impostor syndrome many freshers experience in Cambridge. In schools, where the competition is often lacking, it is easy to be the brightest, but, upon starting here, people usually feel alienated and disheartened. The standards jump unspeakably high – and hence many depressive Camfesses. Or you come to a social, you meet people who display their art in local galleries, do startups, and score a Distinction – all at once, and end up constantly feeling like you are not doing enough.

Cambridge makes me feel imposter syndrome vividly. I was, indeed, not doing enough. A lot of successful people are relentless workaholics, and nothing great comes without some bitter, sticky, horrible sacrifice that we don’t want to make. If you look at “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” by Mason Currey, who investigated the daily routines of famous achievers, you’ll find out a very mundane truth. The historical idols that we deem so fascinating turn out to be the most boring people in reality: they spend all their time working. So, is that artistic-startup-Distinction person actually going to score a First if they’re on a social rather than studying?

Many students are unhappy with this atmosphere. It is heavy and humbling, reminding us that we are inferior merely if we are unlucky or if we allow ourselves to stop and breathe. But while there is at least one hard-working person who grinds their ambitions day and night, anything less will fail. However, you do not have to be too competitive: this heavy feeling of Cambridge ambition comes with a blessing. Once you get here, it is possible to get a comfortable, even prosperous life without trying too hard, or, if you’re lucky, without trying at all. But is a comfortable life everything you want? Really?

Is there nothing more to Mona Lisa, to the great statues of old, to the books that we are addicted to, or to the songs of David Bowie? The latter, by the way, released his last album merely days before his death – what excuse do you have?

We do not quite know, but biting your teeth together and working is the least you can do to achieve your dreams. Go on, work, stop reading this article – I believe in you!