Warning: naughty language ahead!
A ridiculous (and tragic) story about how I went into a meltdown when I was 17 over a maths exam.
It was the final year of high school and we were all at full-brain capacity with university applications and preparing for our International Baccalaureate exams (an equivalent final high school exams/to British A Levels).
For a little context: somehow, I’d ended up in The Top Maths class of my year.
The fact that I now need to ask Alexa to subtract 67 from 154 is an indication that I was obviously not cut out for a life of science and numbers, but that’s where I was at the time.
I was also in a highly competitive, high-achieving school.
Everyone else in that maths class had applied to and were accepted by Ivy League universities and/or Oxford/Cambridge to study something intense like medicine or engineering or a complex degree requiring a great deal of, well, maths.
I was the only person in that class going on to read a humanities degree, which, compared to these smart fuckers, made me feel like the village idiot (obviously, I know now that you can’t make simple comparisons like that—but culturally and socially, in the late 90s and in East Asia, maths/sciences were definitely considered far more prestigious than the arts).
Anyway, even though nobody ever said a single thing to me, never gave me a funny look, never gave a single tiny indication that they thought any less of me, I developed a real indignant chip on my shoulder about this whole science versus arts thing. I began to feel absolutely convinced that everyone else thought I wasn’t as smart as them, that I was a shitty failure, that the pressures of this science-privileged world were too much for my angsty 17-year-old to bear.
So, I gave myself a nervous breakdown.
I decided, in an act of rebellious, petulant defiance, that I would go to my mock maths exam (the one right before the finals), but I wouldn’t bloody do it.
Instead, I wrote a poem. Something pretentious and cringey about “not fitting in” and the grossly unreasonable pressures of “forcing square pegs into round holes.” I thought it was deep and telling, but it was really just mortifying and embarrassing.
My wonderful maths teacher came to talk to me afterward, listened to me wail about something-and-nothing, and talked me off this imaginary ledge I’d put myself on.
It all blew over. I went back to studying, did the finals, and got a grade of six (with seven as the highest possible grade).
This whole thing was so ridiculous. I realise now that nobody in that maths class gave two shits that I was doing a Literature degree. I recognise now that they also wouldn’t have given any more of a shit if I studying something “hard-core” like theoretical physics at Harvard.
But fast-forward 20+ years, and many, many other work and life accomplishments, failures, and experiences later, I realised one day in my late 30s that I was still thinking, feeling, and doing the same thing.
That is: putting a tremendous, undue amount of pressure on myself to be “just as good” as the next guy, when in fact, literally nobody cares and nobody else puts that pressure on me.
Okay, so maybe I could have put my teenage folly down to the pubescent, hormonal dramatics and heightened emotions that come with being 17.
But here’s the cruncher: how many of us still do this to ourselves well into our adult years? Into our 30s or 40s or even beyond?
How many of us roll through every day convinced that we’re utter and total failures because we’re not good at the same things/don’t have the same goals/haven’t achieved the same successes as Marvellous Mo and Terrific Tay over there?
How many of us go on to berate ourselves, feel increasing anxiety and general shittiness about our lives, and maybe even go on to have full on meltdowns?
Maybe not as flamboyant a show as sobbing in a maths exam while writing tortured poetry, but still some sort of frazzling-out?
As it stands, all the clever clogs in that maths class did go on to study medicine at Imperial or maths at Cambridge and then got jobs at Wall Street or became Vice Presidents at multinational corporate companies.
I went on to do two Literature degrees and a PhD at a university I loved, wrote for some of the world’s largest magazine brands, won awards for public speaking, and am now delivering training and coaching on issues that matter deeply to me and which I love.
Bottom line: we’ve all ended up doing the things we love, honed our skills, and had a good fucking time doing it. That is all.
After all those teenage tears and all the things I feared that “everyone” may have thought of me, none of it mattered a single tiny fuck for what I went on to do and found great amounts of success and happiness in.
So here’s the thing: just because you’re in a particular place, at a particular time, doing a particular thing (e.g. in high school, when you’re a student, studying in the year’s top maths class), it doesn’t mean you have to go on to follow the same trajectory, desire and achieve the same things, and express those skills and capacities in the same way as the other people in that same place, at that same time, doing that same thing with you.
(In fact, how utterly boring the world would be if we did all end up heading the same way).
Literally nobody gives a single damn whether your work experience/qualifications/skills/passions/preferences perfectly tallies with everybody else’s goals/aspirations/next steps. (And mostly, really, they’re too busy dealing with their own stuff to even think about yours.)
So, if you’re a PhD student right now, you don’t have to go on to do the usual things that PhD students aspire toward and do (be an academic, commit to a research career, aim for a lectureship, publish in journals).
If you’re a highly-paid, highly-sought-after consultant at a top Fortune 500 company, you don’t have to aspire to make partner or be a CEO before you’re 35.
If you’ve trained for years to become a great lawyer and then decide you’re now flipping bored of law and want to open a pie shop instead, there’s nothing that says you can’t or you shouldn’t just because you’ve got this set of law qualifications.
I’m going to round off with two more good-feeling stories.
1. A few years after graduation, I heard about a girl I knew from that same uber-competitive, high-achieving school who’d gone on to get married, had several kids, and posted ridiculously happy photos of herself making jam.
2. Another woman from that very brilliant top maths class—in fact, she was one of the top, top people in that class—attended an Ivy League college for both her undergraduate and masters degrees, and then decided to join a convent and become a nun.
When the younger, judgey 24-year-old me learnt about these gals, my instant thought was: “What a waste. How stupid and wasteful of them to throw away such a great education to just make jam and pray. All those great opportunities for nothing!”
Here’s what I think now: it was because of their great education that they sobered up, got clarity, and got out of that endless trance of expectation and chasing that the rest of us—including me—are stuck in.
They weren’t being stupid and wasteful.
They got exceptionally clear, early on, about what they wanted to do and how they were going to live their best life. And they bloody did it.
The joke was on me—who went on to struggle through another 15+ years of endless comparisons with everyone in the world who I thought was doing better than me, and of feeling constantly like I was falling short.
In the end, I realise nobody set those punishing expectations on me. Nobody gave a flying fuck whether I went on to pursue a specialty in quantum physics or read Salman Rushdie for three years. The only person who cared that much, who worried herself into a nervous breakdown, who gave way too many fucks—was only me.
So this is my nudge for you to just do the thing—your thing.
Make it the best, most pleasurable, satisfying, heart-filling thing ever.
And whatever anyone might think? Well, who cares.