Some of the Things I Learned At University
A middle-aged man ruminates inconsequentially
The University year is coming to an end, with the exams finishing and a strange, surreal experience in store for those who would have been expecting to spend the final few weeks of term just kicking back and waiting for results in normal times. But these are not normal times, and there’ll be none of the usual partying, or release, after all the hard work of the previous few months. Usually, at this time of year, Durham is buzzing, with all manner of things going on all over the University and city; not this year. There will be uncertainty for those who haven’t finished yet, and don’t yet know how next year will work out (1). For those who have just finished their last final, this will be now be an especially sad anti-climax, because all the stuff that was supposed to crown your time as a student has been snatched away.
But for those who are looking out to the world beyond after their time as a student, it’s also a time to sit and think; a time to take a pause and ruminate on just what the last three (or possibly four) years have meant. More than a quarter of a century ago, I was doing the self-same thing, at the end of my time in Durham. But what did it teach me?
Well, it certainly didn’t teach me to be the astrophysicist or the cosmologist I was intending to be when I got there. But that’s OK, because sometimes your own discipline is among some of the least interesting stuff you are exposed to. Some of the most useful stuff you learn isn’t even on the curriculum. As it happened, my initial plan didn’t work out, and it took me a long time to sort out anything approaching a new one(2).
It’s good to have a Grand Plan, but you don’t need to. Some people do, and it works out perfectly. Some have to make some adjustments. But if the plan doesn’t seem so good, or it looks like it’s not going to work out the way you thought, you are allowed to change direction. Now is probably the best time that can happen, before you get too set, and feel you can’t turn back. Besides, as John Lennon said,
life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. (3)
I had it confirmed in my head that I was not cool. I am not cool; I will never be cool. That’s fine, because being cool (like being “normal”) is hugely overrated. Being cool is actually not particularly cool. I found the people I wanted to be with, and did things in the way I wanted. To be honest, most of the people throwing shade at you right now if you are a bit different are going to end up doing the deadliest dull jobs, and having the most stultifying lives of soul-melting comformity, because they’re too bothered about what others think of them, and adhering to standards that really aren’t worth the effort. Be who you are, and what you are, don’t feel you have to apologise for doing it, and let others do the same. That is truly what cool is.
I found out that to contrary to popular opinion, popular opinion very often sucks, and is wrong. Fuck popular opinion, and go with your own judgement. If you like something, like it, unironically and sincerely, and let popular opinion keep its snidy, half-arsed opinion to itself.
Try not to have too many regrets. Do the “liking” stuff, and do stuff to find out what you like. I didn’t do anywhere near enough of that, and I do regret it. That’s why I’m telling you this.
I was always hopeless with girls. I arrived at University as a shy, awkward, lumbering, socially maldroit hairy man-boy. I left as a shy, awkward, lumbering, socially maldroit hairier adult. Of course, all of this was exacerbated by the rise of the AIDS crisis and the (much needed) birth of female empowerment on campuses. Sadly though, if recent indications are anything to go by, a backward step has been taken there(4). All of that said, it made negotiating boundaries a task I found stressful, and fraught with peril in my own head. I was always paranoid about invading the personal space of others. It just seemed less risky, and damaging, not to bother for the most part. I needn’t have worried, anyway; women generally speaking found me altogether far too resistible a proposition, and I found it wasn’t problem that arose. My stuttering, infrequent attempts to negotiate this particular minefield generally ended all-too predictably in failure, until, in almost the supreme act of irony, I met someone a week before the end of my final term. Make of all that what you will. Anyway, try not to be too shy. In the words of the song,
shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you, from doing all the things in life you’d like to.(5)
It’s also easy to be caught up in Impostor Syndrome. There’s always someone more talented than you, or even harder working. At school, you are generally a big fish in a small pond. At University, you are generally nothing that special. Even if you’re very good at something, there’s generally someone better at it than you are. And even if you are supremely good at something, there’s always someone equally as good (or better) at something else to remind you not to let your head drift up yourself too far. You’re no better than anyone else, but you’re no worse either: that’s how you got here in the first place. Even if you don’t think you’re particularly talented, it’s a guarantee that others will see that you’re good at something, whatever that thing may be. Try to find out what that thing is.
Whatever you may think, no one is really that bothered if you make a fool of yourself, unless it has a (mostly immediate) negative impact on them. Even if there’s some temporary embarrassment involved, don’t worry too much about being an idiot, because there’ll always be another one along soon, and your stupidity will generally be forgotten quickly enough.
Try not to be a dick. Or at the very least, do try to be kind. You don’t know how much others might need it, or or how often, so try to keep the supply of kindness topped up.
The friends you make on your first day may be your friends for life. But you know what? They may not. They might drift away as you form new friendships, and thats fine. But if you do make, and maintain, those friendships, treasure them. Those deeper friendships will sustain you through what comes after, and will hopefully stay with you for a very long time afterwards. They will be valuable.
It used to be true that it didn’t entirely matter how you did, the experience was the key thing, Now, the pressure to perform makes the whole process of being a student just that little bit less fun. Then there’s the money, and the fact that as soon as you start forking out money, you start to think like a consumer. That’s not a good attitude to have, bcasue you run the risk of being treated like one. I was lucky to have someone else pay for my education. But that was fine: the understanding was that I’d do the same in my turn for someone else later on. That particular contract seems to have been broken now, and a generation of students are staggering out of graduation with millstones of debt around their necks. It makes me sad, because it risks making them far more risk averse than I was at that point. But, unless you’re doing something very specialised, most of the time the degree still doesn’t matter all that much — well, not after you’ve got the first job, anyway. Once you’ve got some experience, no one really cares what degree you’ve got, and they definitely don’t care about the class. It’s just that getting that first job is that bit harder now, with more people with supposedly the same qualifications chasing the same things. So the thing I learned there was just to put the work in, and try to do as well as you can, however well you think “well” is defined for you.
But what I learned most of all was how lucky I was. Lucky have the chance to spend time doing things I liked; lucky to be able do it in an environment that offered me every opportunity to do it, and also offered me the opportunities to do a whole bunch of other stuff while I was doing it too. So, if this is your last term, and the things you thought you’d get to do didn’t come to pass, then you’ve still had plenty of those opportunities, many more than others get. If you’ve still got time to come, then now you know to make the most of them while you can.
(1) No, none of us do yet. Even the ones who work here.
(2) Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve never really had a plan. You can tell, can’t you?
(3) Well, he did, in the lyrics to Beautiful Boy, but maybe not actually first
(4) Things are pretty tough for women now. They’re not altogether a picnic for some men either, and for those who feel they don’t fit neatly into either neat box, it’s sometimes worse still; it’s all a bit of a mess, really. See the bit about being kind.
(5) Then again, look at what a titanic twat he turned out to be.