Succeeding shouldn't mean holding yourself to unreasonably high standardsLouis Ashworth

For as long as I can remember, my sense of self-worth has been closely tied to academic success. Revision, exams, grades, revision; this familiar and relentless cycle came to define my secondary school existence. Growing up in a small town in North Wales, I fixated on this cycle as a path to somewhere bigger and brighter, where I would have the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be. Work just a bit harder, push yourself just a bit further — I was certain that there was something waiting for me just around the corner, and I allowed this belief to sustain me.

Being offered a place at Cambridge felt like the reward. Finally, the cycle would be coming to an end. I had spent months visualising myself amidst those dreamy spires, cycling through the city in the crisp autumn sunlight. I arrived on a bright Friday morning to a city that felt alive with possibility. Three days later, the romantic image I had built was shattered abruptly by the shock of my first reading list, which was swiftly followed by another reading list. I naively asked how many of the dozens of legal cases on the lists we were expected to read. Then, another reading list — this time, for an essay on constitutional conventions. I struggled to grasp the definition of the term, let alone write 1,200 words about it. I didn’t receive a grade for the essay. I was told by my supervisor that in light of its quality, knowing my grade would be “disheartening.”

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As the seemingly insurmountable pile of assignments grew, so did my sense of panic. It seemed to confirm the feeling I had been battling throughout the Summer before I started university: that the admissions staff had made a mistake by offering me a place, that I had somehow slipped through the net. Nobody else appeared to be experiencing the same loss of control. Surrounded by the relentless excitement of freshers’ week, I began to feel increasingly disconnected from the people around me. I found myself quickly retreating into the familiarity of work, locking myself in my room and steadily becoming isolated and withdrawn. I was conscious of the dynamic of my year group beginning to shift, breaking off into tight-knit and seemingly impenetrable cliques. Almost overnight, the inclusivity of the college canteen disappeared. Suddenly, each table was closed off and unapproachable. Although I built friendships in that first term that have now become indispensable, at the time they felt scattered and fragile.

The sense of shame I felt was overwhelming. I carried it with me to each supervision, each casual interaction with a friend – the knowledge that this was meant to be the happiest time of my life, and I was somehow failing. I was acutely aware of the experiences I was missing out on but felt trapped by the constant need to prove myself academically. My mood for an entire week could be determined by the mark I was given on an essay; I spent the five weeks of the winter vacation preparing obsessively for my mock exams, only to feel crushed by my mediocre results. I realised that the cycle of work that I had always thought of as temporary had in fact grown into something much larger and more pervasive. Somewhere along the way, I had started to base my sense of self on academic success. Without that security, I felt myself breaking apart.

“Sometimes, succeeding means opening yourself up to something that is messy and raw and painful”

This gradual realisation was a catalyst for change in Lent Term. In a city of endless opportunities and possibilities, I realised how narrow I had allowed my definition of success to become, and resolved to make a conscious effort to change it. I began focusing more of my time and energy on building new friendships and strengthening the ones I had already made. The security that these friendships offered me was transformative. The sense of acceptance I derived from them empowered me to take risks beyond the familiarity of my comfort zone.

Determined to set myself a challenge, I took on the role of president of my college’s may ball committee, which turned out to be the single most challenging experience of my life. For an entire year, I felt as though the event was just about to slip out of my control. The list of things that went wrong during that year is too long to recount; the list of things that went wrong on the day itself even more so. It was a long way from perfect — but despite this, it was a success. It was also an experience that challenged everything I thought I knew about success.


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Mountain View

You don’t actually have to do all of your work. You don’t, in fact, have to do much of it at all.

Success does not require perfection. Success is about pushing yourself to try new things and allowing yourself to fail spectacularly at them. It’s about finding friends who love you fiercely, even in your darkest moments. It’s about letting yourself fall in love for the first time, and having your heart broken. It’s about making the choice to prioritise yourself above your essay for once. Sometimes, succeeding means opening yourself up to something that is messy and raw and painful.

In an institution that places such high academic expectations on its students, there is a risk of allowing ourselves to define success in such narrow terms. I wish I could tell my fresher self that I am so much more than the arbitrary marks I was given on my essays and in my exams. Allow yourself to make mistakes and get things wrong, so that you can discover who you are and grow and develop as a person — for me, that is the true meaning of success.

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