The Price of Being the Best at Cambridge
Success at university taught me how to compete to be the best — It also taught me the hidden cost you must pay for it
In 2014 I achieved the best overall grades in exams in an ultra-competitive masters programme at Cambridge University, arguably the best university in the world. This experience has taught me many things I’m grateful for, including how to succeed in a demanding academic environment. It took me a while to realise the price I was paying for it.
Aiming to study at Cambridge is perhaps the result of growing up following Isaac Newton as a role model. Newton is regarded as one of the brightest minds in history, possibly even outshining Einstein. Newton’s vast legacy includes mathematical calculus, the theory of gravity, and a set of diabolically complex equations used primarily today to torture students.
What Newton’s extensive legacy does not include is a family — he had little time for anything other than research.
I certainly came close to experience Newton’s lifestyle at Cambridge. I found myself working 80+ hours per week, and I was not the only one doing this. I’ve never been in a more competitive environment so full of talented people.
At Cambridge, I learned a fundamental truth about life: you must pay a high opportunity cost if you want to be the best at something. In fact, opportunity costs are incurred in every choice we make in our lives. Let me explain what I mean…
This concept is derived from economics and is defined as:
The loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.
I believe opportunity cost is better explained with a diagram. One of my favourites is the classic student’s dilemma:
There are simply not enough hours in the day to do everything you possibly want! I tried to do both studying, partying, and sleeping at the same time once. My results were rather unsatisfactory indeed.
The student’s dilemma is a joke, yet there is some truth to it. I believe the dilemma encompasses the essence of opportunity cost — time is limited, if you want to do something, you will inevitably miss out on something else.
You can achieve great success working very hard to be like Newton. Bear in mind though, substantial time will be invested in doing so — time that could be potentially allocated to alternative activities. You can never take your time back once spent. Being the best at anything always comes at a cost: an opportunity cost.
Opportunity cost constitutes a constant life dilemma for all of us. After all, every day we make choices, small and big. Both when favouring tuna vs bacon for lunch, or when choosing who to marry; holding to one option excludes the rest. Opportunities are like open doors. Opportunity cost means that when you enter a door, others close. Sometimes forever.
Being the best at Cambridge came at the opportunity cost of not having time to pursue other interests. The experience taught me 3 crucial life lessons that I would like to share. Who knows? Perhaps you can even identify yourself with some of them.
1. You can control choices, but not time.
You only live once has been quoted many times, but that doesn’t diminish its meaning. Time flows always forwards and will eventually come to an end for all of us. You cannot slow down time and you cannot live forever.
Stop trying to control time; it’s a waste of time.
There is one thing you can do about time though. You can decide how to spend it. You can make choices. Careful though, when trying to put your top 3 priorities in a triangle sometimes you will only have time for 2.
Being the best at Cambridge is like being the best at anything: it’s a choice. A choice on how to spend the bulk of your time. Implicitly, it’s also a choice on what you will NOT have time to pursue.
Because of opportunity cost, being the best at something is a big commitment. You must choose carefully, your plans may implicitly conflict with other important things such as family like in Newton’s case. Stakes are high, what happens if you feel you want to change your past choices?
Sadly, we cannot change past choices, only current ones. Constantly looking back in the past in regret is a futile effort. The past can be used as a learning tool though, to build upon mistakes and to make better decisions now.
The choice is yours, choose wisely. This leads me to the next point.
2. Using the past to make better choices now
Because opportunity cost is always present in our lives, we need to learn to make the right choices. Focusing on what is important is crucial, because we don’t have time to choose everything we want. I like to sum this up with
You can be the best at something, but you cannot be the best at everything.
How to always make the right choices when life is so unpredictable? The truth is that nobody can be always right. Making mistakes a reality we must accept. Any of us can choose poorly even on big aspects of our lives:
- In personal life, many marriages conclude with a divorce.
- Financially, many people end bankrupt.
- In career path, many people choose a job they hate.
We cannot change bad choices made in the past, but we have the power to make the right choices today, right now. The main thing stopping us is loss aversion, usually making us fall for the sunk cost fallacy trap:
Sunk cost fallacy trap — you buy non-refundable tickets for the cinema but unfortunately fall sick the day of the movie. You think: “I still have to go, otherwise the money will be wasted”. Truth is the money has already been spent, and you cannot get it back no matter what. Neglecting your health will result in not enjoying the movie and making your situation even worse. You shouldn’t let losses in the past influence your decisions in the present.
The sunk cost fallacy is what prevents many people from leaving a job they hate. They feel leaving now would mean it has all been in vain so far. Similarly, being the best at something may deter you from leaving it. We shouldn’t let facts of the past we cannot change affect our decision process.
I was really happy with my choice of doing a masters at Cambridge. However, after a year in research, I felt pressured to continue with three more years in the form of a PhD. I felt that otherwise I would be wasting a brilliant academic career and lifetime opportunity. This leads me to point 3.
3. The price to pay for being the best
I didn’t do a PhD. I left Cambridge to pursue other projects after my masters. This was a tough decision, but academia posed too high an opportunity cost for me — research would not let me have time for other important things.
The price of being the best at something is not having time left for other pursuits. Thus, It’s really important to think if you really want to go all the way.
My advice is: be the best at what matters most to you. Don’t try to be the best at something else to escape what you really desire just because you are afraid. Don’t fall for the sunk cost fallacy either. It’s a trap.
Don’t wait to prioritise what matters to you. It is a common mistake to assume you will be successful in everything just because you are very successful in one thing. Examples of imbalanced success are:
- Someone making millions in business but having obesity problems.
- Someone with great physique coupled with confidence issues.
- Someone that apparently has everything, yet is unhappy.
Don’t aim to be a millionaire to obtain happiness as a sub-product. Aim to be a millionaire if you want money, and aim to do things that make you happy if you want happiness.
Follow your dreams, but stop from time to time to check if your goals are up-to-date. I wanted to be like Newton when I started my studies but my priorities changed along the way. It would be frustrating to persevere on a career you no longer enjoy just because of the sunk cost. But it’s OK to change, and is never late. Colonel Sanders started KFC at age 65 after all.
And if you want to be the best, go for it. But think first about the cost.
We should all live pursuing our dreams. This implies checking from time to time our goals are still as important as when we set them, making adjustments as we learn more. Life is too short to stick with bad choices.
Be the best, but choose wisely what you want to succeed at. Don’t let being the best interfere with what you want out of life. Don’t be afraid to change your path when necessary.
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