Embracing a sense of purposelessnessAlice Kay

My life has been dominated with exams since the age of seven when my parents bought me a verbal reasoning book to start preparing for my 11+. Since then, my life has revolved around these looming tests that excite me as much as they instil dread. Although we spent so much time preparing, psyching ourselves up for, and practising exams, there is never any advice for coping with the aftermath. I always find myself at a complete loss, too anxious to relax, and falling into a pit of post-exam depression, desperate for September to come round again.

"While having goals and aims is extremely important in life, it hides the importance of enjoying the moment and exploring alternatives"

A lot of these bad feelings come from suddenly no longer being able to ignore all those issues in my life, when the purpose of exams is taken away. I think I have always used work and revision as an escape to avoid those everyday problems, where I’m perfectly happy to try to understand and critique the world but less so myself. Summer becomes a series of endless, hot sticky days where the façade of being a hardworking, productive student melts very quickly away.

Many of my summers have been spent desperate to continue this productiveness through internships, reading lists, sporting goals. These are so many reasons to get up early in the morning, but for what purpose? So often finding a purpose has often been a means to an end; to distract me from the reality of this life. While having goals and aims is extremely important in life, it hides the importance of enjoying the moment and exploring alternatives. We all may achieve many things at Cambridge, but so many of us will be lost in never being able to relish in purposelessness, in doing nothing, but being our entire selves.

So after exams, I’ve decided to actually relish in purposelessness, to find where exploring things I love will take me, without expecting a set of outcomes. It feels so terrifying to let go of months of intense, focused work. Yet, finding enjoyment in no aim at all will lead to a whole host of unexpected discoveries, giving me space to feel my own years of struggle and pain that has been hidden so far away.

Firstly, I would like to enjoy the purposelessness of spending time with family and friends, without the aim of a ‘catch up’, a revision break, or owing them a visit. It is so easy to take for granted the fact that your best friends live a few minutes away or that your family are just a phone call away. I so often forget how much I enjoy just simply being with other people not for any other reason than just that. So I cannot wait for aimless trips down to the river on golden summer evenings, sharing stories, laughing, and savouring the post-storm glow of exams, only to wake up and do it all again without expectation.

Such purposelessness I also hope to make space for in sport and exercise after my Cambridge year being dominated by rowing and triathlon. Here, there is something about moving away from the goals of being super fit and looking like I’m in good shape, towards just appreciating the powerful nature of what it feels like to move. This means leaving the digital devices behind and just running with no aim of getting somewhere. When I’m at home I can enjoy surfing for hours, letting go, and leaving the control of the waves down to the ocean alone.


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By letting myself be aimless, I’m avoiding burnout

Finally, I feel the most difficult of all is to find purposelessness in academic work and reading, of being able to get lost in gendered subaltern counter discourses of Afro-Colombian social movements, just because I want to. It is the purposelessness discussion you have in a coffee shop with a local about their experiences that will remain with you so much longer than that late night cramming of 50 references ever will. The joy of no deadlines will invoke fear of unproductiveness in all of us, but perhaps this is an opportunity to challenge such ‘productiveness’ as to only meet certain criteria.

I write this in the middle of my exam week that is all too consumed by the purpose of doing well, achieving, working harder than ever before. Yet, now I feel less scared and more excited for the abrupt end, and whatever embracing purposelessness will bring. The aimless trips, the directionless runs, and the endless reading have so much potential to give me long-lasting empowering enjoyment, precisely because I will not expect them to achieve anything at all.

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