Just a couple of months ago I spent every day wishing I was asleep. Unconscious. I was in the thick of my final undergraduate year, battling poor concentration and the inevitable mundanity of having my eyes glued to my laptop screen. Just as the spooky clickbait article warned would be unhealthy! Blue light will kill us all! Pretty early on in my studies I realised that trying to meet deadlines made me ill, however hard I tried to approach work more constructively.
Being unable to take breaks because it took me so long to complete basic academic tasks (like reading relatively short texts) meant that, by my final year, I would shut myself away and punish myself if ever I thought about socialising or doing anything fun. Which I would still occasionally do — since I’m not and have never been, to the best of my knowledge, a robot. This would be followed up shortly after by a fanfare of inner turmoil.
Just four more months. Just three more months. Just two weeks! Tomorrow! Then you’ll be free. You’ll be a real adult, with real freedoms, with opportunities and time to commit to activities. You can finally develop hobbies, like you’ve been telling yourself you would! Now you can stop feeling sorry for yourself, be the cool put-together person you’ve always secretly known you were. You can start living for yourself, and not in an unhealthy way where you think about yourself through the lens of others’ perceptions of you. These are things I genuinely believed. I also seemed to convince myself that, although sometimes my job was difficult and drained me of all my energy, these things wouldn’t bother me anymore because I would somehow be a freer adult. All of the problems and negative feelings I’d been experiencing in my twenties were solely because of university, and nothing else.
This wasn’t true in many ways, although I think it’s worth mentioning that finishing and graduating was a huge weight off and definitely not something insignificant. Members of my family (most of whom I’ve seen once since March) commented on the visible differences in my personality and even my mental state. I don’t doubt that could’ve been different if I hadn’t done so well in my degree, but then I do also think to a large extent that I had stopped caring about my grade by the second half of my final year. I really just wanted it all to be over (which I think says a fair bit about education generally). I really did struggle a lot with completing work and it did feel as though my only purpose in life was to write essays, albeit working much more slowly than a lot of people. I think if I were to meet my younger self now, I wouldn’t necessarily advise them to go to university.
This is a complex area for me, at least. In a lot of ways both cliche and not, I did develop a lot as a person by moving away to university, and also getting involved with activities on campus (well, in st*dent p*litics, of which we do not speak). There were a lot of things I was able to take away from these sorts of experiences and I wouldn’t say I regret having them, in large part because that isn’t really a productive thing to think about. But would I do it again if I had the choice? Or, perhaps a more relevant question is whether I would agree that this is the most productive pathway for someone in my 18-year-old position, with my 18-year-old interests.
I understand that there is a glaring problem with this question too — I’m making a huge assumption that life should always be about aiming for maximum productivity. Fresher me is screaming in a Marxist theory seminar, somewhere. It’s true that we shouldn’t solely (or even mostly) focus on our own productivity, and that this is a negative effect of the economic structure we exist in. It does become difficult, however, because in trying to think of the things I’d like to do and achieve in the present (for my own enjoyment and enrichment), I find myself coming back to a question of productivity. What can I do to achieve x goal? Or, I want to do x thing because I enjoy it, but in order to be able to do it, I need to have done y?
Again, although it’s not necessarily healthy or politically appropriate for us to consider our life and enjoyment in terms of future career, I am someone who enjoys working and feeling as though I’m contributing to the workings of a service or system. In some ways it’s my creative outlet — my way of producing something. And this does feel good, when it feels good. Not when you’re being screamed at by a member of the public who isn’t entitled to a refund on their TV from the 1700s, but I do find myself able to be passionate in a role. Especially one that involves providing something for someone else in need, or even just contributing to the bureaucratic workings of that provision.
With the degree subject I chose (Politics), I spent a huge portion of my time wondering if I should switch to a different branch of humanities/social sciences. Sociology could give me knowledge about this, history about that, philosophy about whether either of the first two subjects even mattered. I always picked modules from within other schools/programmes, because I wasn’t solely interested in one subject — I certainly wasn’t about to analyse voter data or learn the names of a hundred party leaders. Not that it’s at all wrong to be interested in these things, but they aren’t for me. I always thought if I could learn enough about different approaches to and areas of economic and social life, I could become exponentially more empathetic towards the people around me and somehow be the sort of person who just gets it all of the time.
I do believe that becoming more empathetic is a virtue and something we should all strive for. I’ve also learned, as I’ve grown over the last few years, that this is not something one person does better than another, but something we all do differently. On top of this, my time working in mental health helped me to get to grips with the idea that empathy should always be something you extend to yourself, and not just other people. And this in turn is absolutely something I believe helps in understanding others better.
Regarding the latter point, it was during my time working in mental health that I realised that perhaps working in party politics or journalism wasn’t the only way to understand people better, or to improve lives collectively. It certainly may be for some people, but, having read the room within my own brain (I almost unconsciously blocked myself from associating with any student politics after 2018), I realised perhaps it wasn’t a pathway most obviously appropriate for me. Especially given my lack of confidence in my own knowledge and political opinions (if you’ve ever spoken to me, you’ll know I shift between perspectives a lot).
Essentially, I’ve come to realise over the past year or so that maybe my time and energy, or at least that which I actively want to put into contributing to political and community aims, could be best utilised elsewhere. What I’ve shown myself to be good at within employment, at university, in social settings, aren’t necessarily the things I envisioned as career pathways. Which, is a helpful realisation in some ways — I know perhaps what I don’t want to do and am not going to put any more time and energy into those things. But then again, this realisation makes me painfully of all of the things I would’ve preferred to be doing.
I’ve realised I’m good at taking charge of tough situations, whether that’s in work when my team and I are at peak stress levels, or when a person I’m close to or responsible for is in a vulnerable or dangerous situation. For a long time I thought that this might just be me falling victim to the economic drive to move up within a role, to be in charge of other people, and also me wanting to exercise power over others. But I don’t actually derive much (or any, really) enjoyment from the latter. What I do know is that I am able to make quick decisions in a way that can account for the perspectives and needs of others.
Whilst I don’t necessarily think this would make me the most obvious choice of policy writer, cultural academic or scrutiniser of parliamentary legislation, I do know that there are other sectors and roles where this is a skill that is genuinely useful to others. I think this is probably why I would tell my younger self to study something more healthcare/mental health oriented, or to have chosen a more medical career path outside of university. For all of the great experiences I’ve had because of my choices over the last few years (which I certainly wouldn’t change now), I’m now in a position where I can’t envision a time in the near future where I’ll feel fulfilled in my work.
It’s definitely a difficult time to really have the answers in these sorts of situations, with COVID-19 still omnipresent. In a way I feel as though I may have to spend years and years investing all of my energy into things that don’t make me happy, in order for me to feel fulfilled for at least some portion of my life. In some ways I feel like I need to throw myself into something new to escape the lingering feeling that I may have wasted my time by studying what I did at university. But then again, it’s hard to know whether this is the voice of mental illness. Am I simply dragging myself down, or am I genuinely worried that I may be settling for a pathway I don’t want? Am I subconsciously worried that my new admin job in a healthcare setting is going to end with me being stuck on a life trajectory I hate, or find boring, or makes the thousands of pounds of university debt completely pointless? Is this something that’s natural after graduating, or natural in a global pandemic, or natural before starting a new job? Am I actually lonely without realising, and writing about these things because I feel like sharing my feelings on the internet will make me well? Am I depressed again?