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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.