How To Survive The Inordinate Terror Of Leaving University

[The view from outside.]

I felt like I was stepping back in time.

A too cold house. So much washing up that you couldn’t find a place to put your mug without toppling the entire kitchen and late nights of drinking, laughing at music videos and avoiding talking about any real dreams in case they’re too much.

Turns out, by visiting the past you learn a lot about how you’ve changed.

And I’ve really changed.

I was stunned. Obviously I’ve been in this position, and made my own inelegant execution of post-university life. And yet something substantial has altered in how I think about the future.

There’s a palatable fear associated with being a final year university student. The balance between ‘how am I going to get all this work finished and the haunting question on everyone’s mind of ‘what’s next?’.

To my great relief, I’ve lost much of that fear.

What if you fail?

What if I fail to get this job? What if NOBODY wants to employ me? Is getting my degree even good enough any more – everyone has degrees so they’re pretty much worthless, right?

What if I choose a PhD (or post-doc) and then can’t do it, or don’t find it interesting, or don’t like my supervisor, or have to spend the rest of my life in this totally boring going nowhere niche? What if I can’t get funding?

What if I get funding?

What if the only job I can get is in London, and I don’t want to live in London? Or what if it’s in Hong Kong, and I’m scared of flying? And what if I start this job and nobody likes me? Or what if I’m really awful at it?

And right now it feels like everyone has already started applying.

Just being snuggled under a blanket listening to so much uncertainty was unnerving.

No. No. No.

If you know what you want, go get it.

If you don’t know what you want, stop wasting your energy being frightened and give yourself a chance to discover what it is you do want to do.

There isn’t a deadline.

When September rolls round, you don’t have to have your desk marked out.

Life doesn’t have to feel like complex jigsaw where you don’t know what you’re trying to build. Or even why you’re bothering.

Your education is a great gift. But when it comes to the future, your degree is a sunk cost and your skills are your immovable assets. There’s no point pondering sunk costs, and just because you own something, doesn’t mean you have to use it.

You need a vision and a strategy before you plan your next investment.

What If I hate what I do?

If you don’t get a graduate job, if you don’t get funding for your PhD, if you start a job and hate it, if you start a PhD and hate it. It doesn’t matter.

If you don’t like it, quit, try something else.

Quiting isn’t failing. It’s a recognition that you’re ready to head in a different direction.

If someone’s going to hold it against you that you’ve screwed up a few times in your life, committed to stuff you realised was wrong for you and changed track, they’re the fool.

If you can take responsibility for removing yourself from a situation that’s not enriching your life, then you should be proud of yourself. Not ashamed.

Shame is unhelpful.

But what you mustn’t do is do nothing.

Stagnating is the only real failure. Not learning. Not trying. Not dreaming. Not doing.

Commit to something small – reading a relevant book, talking to someone with influence, consulting your peers and family, applying for a temporary job or internship. Get momentum, then use it to keep moving.

Keep learning. Keep improving. Keep falling down and getting back up because otherwise you’ll sit and stagnate and never go anywhere.

Throw all the cards in the air, shuffle the deck and deal yourself a new hand.

Take up improvisation theatre classes or climb a mountain.

But, my parents?

Here’s the bit I screw up.

If your parents love you, they’ll worry about you, a lot.

They’ve got the right to do so.

There’s a lot of ‘well-meaning’ people in the world but just because people love you doesn’t mean they necessary know what’s best for you. It’s easy to exclude everyone with a heart at this point.

The trouble comes when you think you know what they expect or want from you, but you don’t really know because you haven’t asked and they’re too polite to project their desires on you anyway. Mostly, people who genuinely love us want us to be exactly what we want to be: smiling as we engage in doing something that makes us feel worthwhile.

It doesn’t harm to listen to parents once in a while. They’ve already invested a large proportion of their adult lives in you. If you care about them, give them the benefit of the doubt and keep them in the loop.

Take the time to explain your decisions. Don’t they deserve to know where you’re going and what you’re doing?

Leadership starts with a clear vision. You’ve got to lead your own life, but also need supporters, and for them to follow you, you’ll have to share your vision.

I say this, and I’m rubbish at it. When I get scared I fill ‘My Documents’ with files and leave the blog looking sparse. This is the wrong way round. When you’re terrified, that’s when you need to vent and articulate your feelings. When this stuff is out in the open it’s easier to recognise the fear for what it is.

The Mother told me her worst fear was that I’d join a commune, chop off all my hair and take up drugs. The worst fears of some of the students I’ve spoken to over the last week were much more grounded in reality – like mental breakdowns and depression.

The worst case scenario

What is your worst case scenario?

Mine involves not doing the work I believe in. It involves not having something to be proud of. It involves being so distracted by my own insecurities and fears that I forget to invest time in the people I love.

What will you be proud of when you’re old and grey?

Work really hard at something you believe in, invest in the people you love, and you’ll have plenty to be proud of, whatever you do.

Something has changed in the way I think.

I’m no longer being driven by fear. I’m not paralysed by fear. I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities and the freedoms that come with being in control. But this overwhelm isn’t a deadening overwhelm.

It feels more like eating a whole bag of Jelly Babies.

My mind is bouncing, energetic, excited by today, thrilled that tomorrow is going to happen too.

It’s my life. My choice of pace.

You have the choice too.

For A Girl Who Wanted To Speak Out

This morning, my cousin asked for my help. And I wasn’t sure how I could respond.

She wants to raise awareness that animals need treating with kindness. Particularly, she’s upset that an image promoting animal cruelty is allowed within Facebook’s Community Standards.

It got me thinking of the word that’s been on my mind a lot in the last year: kind.

Living in our mixed up world of kindness, ignorance and suffering

Someone’s said something cruel to you, trying to make you feel small. Maybe it was at school. Or during a break-up with someone you once loved. Either way it hurt.

Thinking of it, brings up bitter emotions. It’s personal. It’s left a scar.

Who do you trust to always be there for you? Never to say anything out of spite. Someone in you life who you look to as unbelievably good-natured. Someone who you’ve never heard raise their voice, who’s always polite, who always sees the best in you, no matter what.

There love is unassuming and unconditional.

And easy to take for granted.

And then, undoubtedly on a daily basis, you experience a background of emotion triggering events that pass in your periphery: news bulletins, stranger’s faces, charity plea letters and images that you come across whilst browsing the Internet.

Such as the image that upset my cousin on Facebook this morning.

We are constantly prodded with images and experiences from across the spectrum of human action: kindness, insensitivity and cruelty.

We pay the most attention to danger when the risk can be translated to ourselves, and then, when it doesn’t, when we feel helpless, we detach any emotion and act as if we have not seen.

There’s so much suffering in the world that we feel numbed by it. We don’t know how to speak, or act.

The Dalai Lama would say that this suffering is caused by ignorance.

Choosing to discover ‘kind’

The word, ‘kind’ pops into my head on regular occasion.

In January, rather than make a new year’s resolution, I decided to explore this simple four letter word. It pops into my head, maybe once or twice a week, and for a moment or two I ponder what it means.

It’s driven some of my reading choices. I’ve read about Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, I’ve read The Little Prince and then, when I’ve read books on sales, motivation and organisational structure it’s been through this weak lens of ‘how does this relate to kindness’.

Dale Carnegie, in How To Win Friends And Influence People, discusses the teachings of B.F. Skinner:

“The great contemporary psychologist has shown by experiments with animals and with humans that when criticism is minimised and praise emphasised, the good things people do will be reinforced and the poorer things will atrophy for lack of attention.”

Daniel Pink says something similar in Drive.

The best way to inspire kindness is to be kind.

As such, to create a kinder world, one where people show compassion to each other and their surroundings, we need to make sure we’re also talking about what’s good. Show gratitude for the good in the world. Give it the attention it deserves.

Sharing the kind-heartedness of my cousin

Since the catalyst of this blog post was an unkind act to a dog by it’s ignorant owner, I want to share with you a more positive look at animals and the potential for our relationship with them.

This is a TED Talk which I believe captures much of what my cousin believes in.

My cousin is still at school, but I have no doubt her kindness is going to cause ripples in the world and make it a better place.

Feels like fireworks; sounds like a battlefield.

I’m outside of my comfort zone.

I’m not a worrier, I don’t tend to doubt my convictions once I’ve had them, and I’m normally reasonably articulate about my choices.

Right now, not so.

Right now everything is terrifying. I get an adrenaline rush from all the thoughts buzzing in my head during the time it takes to clean my teeth. The tension in my back and shoulders commands I stop half-way up the stairs to stretch and try to feel normal.

My brain, body and environment all feel out of sync.

Now I’ve made the choices I have, I need to leap up and prove something. But first I need to stop and relax. If I carry on with my brain as active as it currently is I’m going to go crazy.

This counter-intuitive reality is the result of too many months sauntering along a line perpendicular to where I wanted to go, doing things that weren’t right for me. When the Noph, who has known me since I was three, told me she’d never seen me so livid before, I knew something was wrong. I’m not normally an angry person. I don’t normally feel so helpless.

I’d made a mess of the basics.

And it’s been having a negative effect on those around me. I’m so wound up in my own dilemmas that I’m making a disastrous friend. Self-obsessed doesn’t even begin to describe it. My thoughts are like fireworks. I’m struggling to explain the sparks to my family. I see something wondrous, and they’re hearing a battlefield.

When we’re outside our comfort zone we behave erratically. Hands sweat, voices wobble and we panic at the slightest threat.

Just past the line of comfort is where we become more than we are. It’s where we grow.

And recently, I haven’t been there enough.

Today I was brave

Today I took a spontaneous trip to London, to find a building in a part of the city that I’d never been to before. The building wasn’t boldly labelled and Google’s fancy maps only seemed to confuse me more. I had to ask directions.

The doorman took me to the lift, and then I was alone, travelling upwards.

The room I entered was filled with people I didn’t know talking to one another. Nobody knew me. I was merely a name on a list that was never referred to. I recognised a few people from the Internet – we all have people we stalk – but that just made them all the more intimidating. There was free beer.

This is not my sort of environment.

Yet, I’d decided it was what I wanted to do, that however terrified I might be, it was worth taking the risk.

But what did I fear? Looking a fool? Coming across as wholly naive?

The man whose talk I went to watch looked similarly nervous during his first slide, but he was talking about something he cared about, and when we really care it’s easier to push. Putting yourself out there, taking the risk is always a heart-thumping moment.

I went to London because I craved a look at a reality that’s a little different from my own. I wanted to put some concrete on a dream.

And because the best moments are heart-thumping moments. The fear is just growing pains.

Cutting my hair with the fabric scissors

Last week I chopped seven inches off my hair. It took two snips of my largest fabric scissors.

But why?

Because, it’s just hair. 

Of course, I’m as self-conscious as any other woman in her mid twenties. I’m paranoid about weight, diet and remembering to do exercise just like anyone else.

From a financial perspective, my reasoning went like this… if I have £20, then I can pay for a haircut, which would make me look nicer? Or I can buy two books and spend a few hours curled up on the sofa reading. If you’re reading £20 and thinking ‘only £20’ you’re right. I’m definitely talking about the lower end of hair cut prices.

Most people I know routinely get their haircut. They use the same hairdresser, choose a similar style and pay the price. They’ve always done it, so they don’t take any time to ask why. A hair cut is a necessity. Isn’t it?

Choosing uglier hair is harder than booking an appointment. When a real hairdresser with talent cuts my hair, it looks wonderful. After all, I have a huge volume of long, thick, healthy hair.

But I want to own my choices – proactive choices based on my values and beliefs. I want to base my actions on thought.

Society’s expectations vs autonomous thinking

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, he describes this battle of balancing instinctual, inherited needs with the perceived expectations of society. In simpler terms, you need to work out how to be yourself whilst fitting in with society. Plus, try and be a positive contributor towards it.

All this requires, “a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.”

To me, my haircut is of low importance. It has only a minor effect on my appearance. It’s true, I’m like anyone else who stares with envy at the photoshopped models. But once I get over the jealousy, I remember it’s chemicals and water-pollutants, hours of sitting in front of a mirror and some skill with a computer program. A haircut isn’t going to make me taller, thinner, prettier or happier.

Yet, I still fear being looked down upon, as if I am somehow uncouth. I have amazing hair. It’s the aspect of my appearance that instills open envy in others. In school I was told how wonderful it would look if I straightened it. I’ve been told to wear it down more often. I’ve been told to blow dry it. I’ve been told it’s amazing when curled. The possibilities of how amazing I could be if only I managed my hair better seem endless.

In the beginning

Not getting a professional haircut wasn’t the first step I’ve taken towards this neglect.

When I started buying conditioner, I bought it based on price per 100ml. Money was sacred.

It was quite a change from the luxurious conditioner that I grew up with – beautiful expensive bottles, decorated with exotic fruits and words like luscious and silky.

I love the smell. I love feeling how thick glossy and soft it makes my hair. I love long showers.

And then, I started reducing the conditioner I used. Nowadays I often don’t use it at all, despite washing my hair almost daily.

All small steps.

The hair cut

Whilst cutting my own hair might seem crazy, it wasn’t much of a risk. Before I cut it, it was twenty-six inches long. I took off 7 inches and what remains could be restyled and still considered long.

Building integrity

I’m grown-up and professional. Really. I’m sure that grown-up professional looking people don’t have hair chopped with fabric scissors.

At work, everyone else has beautiful, styled hair. In fact, so styled that I’m not sure what the natural hair colour is of almost half the women in the office. I see all this effort and yet, when I joke about my hair, I’m told that I’m not allowed to speak. That it’s unfair that I have such beautiful hair. Comments about split ends and thin hair follow.

I can tie my hair back and pretend, but I want to have integrity.

I don’t want to hide my choices, which is why I blog. Somehow it’s easier to speak through keyboard strokes. I’m giving you the choice of whether to react to my choices or not.

Back to the £20. I bought myself the Dalai Lama’s How to be compassionate – a handbook for creating inner peace and a happier world.

My word isn’t beauty; it’s kind. In the marathon of life, understanding kindness is going to make me happier than having prettier hair.

What do you do without thinking just because you’ve always done it?

On quidditch

I’m stood at the edge the pitch terrified that any moment my little sister is going to be the one getting shunted into the ambulance that waits behind the goal line.

She’d say it’s a question of technique, if you and your opponent tackle well then you’re going to be fine. People get hurt when technique is bad. It’s why you’re not allowed to initiate contact from behind. Such behaviour would of course get you a red card.

It’s my sister who is on point. The person at the front of the formation of the team determined to win back that ball.

The guy with the ball is built like a hulk. My sister is 5ft3.

What ensues is terrifying. At a full sprint she throws herself into him. He staggers and stays upright. My sister bounces, rolls as if a stunt man on a James Bond film and gets back to her feet. Seconds later she’s at him again and he’s forced into getting rid of that ball rather than making a run for goal.

Sometimes they just go down. My sister neither gloats nor concerns herself with their ego. She’s already at the other end of the pitch with her mind set on the goals.

Of course, not all tackling is perfect. I’ve watched my sister charging forward, ball in hand, and get launched at from behind by a much taller chap. They both go down. The referee blows his whistle and the two of them stagger to their feet.

I breathe.

After checking this chap is alright, and assuring him that she’s fine, my little sister is shaking his hand with both of hers and consoling him on his disqualifying red card.

In fact, she shakes everyone’s hand, or gives them a hug, after every match. As does the rest of the team. This is a tribe of people who value each other.

It attracts all sorts of people. Some of the participants haven’t had a history of sporting prowess, something I can relate to, but here, amongst these people they’re wearing a team kit and despite being cherry faced and exhausted, they’re grinning.

They’re proud of themselves, proud of each other and proud of their sport.

A sport that I’ve been known to roll my eyes at.

Rolling your eyes at acceptance, and inclusive teamwork is ridiculous. Rolling your eyes at people helping each other become fitter and develop confidence within a safe, encouraging environment is ridiculous. Rolling your eyes just because these people chose their sport from a book that they loved and a story they are passionate about is ridiculous.

When I was younger I would tell my sister where it was and wasn’t acceptable to play pretend. She would look at me terribly confused and wonder why it was that one situation wasn’t suitable for playing Famous Five or something similar, but another place and time was acceptable. My mind would be racing wondering who would see, who would think us stupid or childish.

I never ran, because I would look stupid running. I never wanted to go to the gym, because I wouldn’t know what I was doing. I fear team sport, because I’ll just let someone down. Rolling my eyes is a defensive strike. I’m saying, your sport is silly, but what I’m feeling is a terrible fear because I can’t let my guard down like that.

I don’t know how.

But my little sister does. She’s at point, she’s got the whole team behind her and she knows it. She knows her job isn’t to get the ball herself, her job is to push, to fight and trust that there are two men poised behind her are ready to catch.

She hurtles towards a man twice her size and there’s no fear holding her back. She might be only 5ft3, but 5ft3 is all of enough when you know who you are.

I’m proud of her.