I want to write about something which is pretty close to my heart, but I’ve hesitated for a long time because, to be honest, I was worried that this whole post would sound like a humblebrag. Here goes.
I got a distinction this year in my master’s exams at Oxford, and I only revised around 4 hours a day.
I know, I sound like a total wanker. But I’m trying to make a serious point.
The culture at our ‘elite’ British universities instills us with a fear that unless we work ourselves to the point of exhaustion, burn ourselves out, and sacrifice our mental and physical health, we will not succeed. If you’re not sleep-deprived, caffeine-addicted, and pulling all-nighters, you’re doing it wrong. I experienced this at Cambridge, and again at Oxford. And this is bullshit.
What I’m trying to say is that there is another way.
I know the workload can be huge. I know it can feel like we’re not smart enough, and that we’re not doing enough. But as students, we need to refuse to prioritize anything above our mental and physical wellbeing.
I learnt this lesson during a hard time in my life. It took an extreme situation for me to realise that burning myself out was no way to live. Sadly, I feel like this is what it takes for many students to come to a similar realisation.
Ten weeks before my Cambridge finals began, I was with my Dad in New Zealand as he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. My sister and I were his primary caregivers for his last few days. Then I returned to England, and subsequently made the painful decision to end a long-term relationship. Because, you know, I figured things couldn’t get much worse. But I still graduated with a first three months later, and more importantly, didn’t have a breakdown. And I’m convinced that I managed this because these four words became my motto during this time:
Be kind to yourself.
I didn’t graduate in the top ten of my course because I was one of the ten smartest people. Just trust me. I was a pretty average student in my first and second year – in many senses of the word. Averaging low 2:1’s, too familiar with Cambridge’s terrible club scene, proud of my high alcohol tolerance, mainlining coffee, and resorting to emergency naps to get through the day. In fact, I felt distinctly below average a lot of the time. In first year I sometimes cried after supervisions, constantly felt inadequate, had to have ‘remedial’ Russian lessons, and generally wondered how the hell I’d managed to get into Cambridge. I also took the contraceptive pill back-to-back to ‘manage’ a hormone condition, because every time I took a week’s break, a black cloud would come over me, and I’d feel incapable of dealing with life. (Pro tip: don’t do this. Get help.)
Let’s fast forward to my final year. A year abroad in Russia and Kyrgyzstan had been a refreshing change, I’d learnt to adult a little better, and was taking better care of myself. I’d cut out most sugar and all caffeine from my diet to manage my hormones and a digestive condition (antibiotics, stress and Russian food had proved an unholy trinity), and was generally feeling like a more competent human. I had read Arianna Huffington’s book ‘Thrive’ during that year, which inspired me to prioritise my health and wellbeing. My Russian was much improved, which relieved some academic pressure, and it turned out that when I got 8 hours sleep a night and wasn’t hungover twice a week, I could actually get decent grades.
However, by February the stress of finals and my dissertation was mounting. I was worrying about grad jobs. My Dad had been given a year to live; chemotherapy hadn’t worked. My digestive system had all but ground to a halt and I was living on courgettes, carrots, chicken and rice to avoid the pain. And God knows when the last time was that I had actually had a period. I was trying to convince myself I was fine, but my body was telling me otherwise.
When I came back to Cambridge in March after my Dad’s death (that year he was given turned out to be a cruel two months), I remember wondering how the fuck I was going to cope with life. I was basically waiting, wondering when I would collapse in a heap. I knew I needed to finish my degree, so I just hung on to four words my lovely dietician had told me a few weeks before. “Be kind to yourself.” I resolved to do just that.
I saw the college counsellor and cried in front of him for an hour, every Tuesday. I stopped taking the pill, and worked to balance my hormones naturally through food and lifestyle. I practiced yoga three times a week, and ran twice. I cooked proper food for myself, made sure I always got my eight hours sleep, and made time to do nice things every day. I drank tea with friends. I cooked Sunday dinner for my favourite people. I sat in the college garden and read novels. I bought myself flowers. I never worked for more than six hours daily. I made a revision plan, stuck to it, and stayed calm. I prioritised my health and happiness.
And guess what? It worked. The breakdown never came, I was astounded when I got my results, and I graduated.
This year, when exam season rolled around again for my master’s, I worried that without the trauma of a recently deceased parent, I wouldn’t be able to get good results. Don’t ask me to justify that logic. The whole exam situation was (admittedly happily) complicated by the fact that I was living in one small room with my new fiance, who had just moved from Australia to be with me. I had never lived with anyone full-time before, and this added pressure worried me.
But I decided trust my previous method and hope for the best. I made a revision plan and stuck to it. I started every morning with yoga, and attempted to meditate for 10 minutes. I ate lots of fruit and veg. I cut back on drinking (just don’t mention the boat club dinner) and continued my caffeine ban. Every day I would cut myself off from technology and distractions, and focus solidly on revision for 3-4 hours on the broken table in my shared living room. The rest of the time I dealt with my other commitments, enjoyed spending time with Charly, and probably spent too much time rowing and doing yoga. (Have I mentioned that I yoga?)
In the end, this exam term was the most chilled out term of the entire year. My grades, it turned out, reflected that level of calm and control. Also (TMI ahead), my digestive issues are so, so much better than they used to be, and I’m actually starting to experience something which resembles a natural hormonal cycle, for the first time in my entire life. My anxiety levels are lower, and I managed not to kill my fiance. I’d call that an all-around win.
So, coming back to my point (when I’m on a roll, I tend to overshare; sorry): I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad for revising their ass off, reaching the end of term in an exhausted heap, or struggling with stress and anxiety. We all do the best we can, and I have so much respect for people who can function under stress levels that would crush me. I also acknowledge that some people have a lot more to deal with whilst at university than I did/do.
I’m just trying to make the point that by easing off the accelerator a little, showing ourselves some love and care, and trusting that our nurtured body and brain will do their thing, we can succeed, and be a little bit happier whilst doing it. We don’t have to buy into the idea that in order to do well at university, we have to work ourselves into the ground, and compromise our health.
Admittedly, for me the real test is going to be sticking to my resolve to look after myself when the pressures of Michaelmas term start to mount again. But I’m going to try.
It sounds like a radical idea in Oxbridge, but it really shouldn’t be: We need to give ourselves permission to prioritise our well-being above our work.