Over the summer I have been experiencing what can only be described as a case of first class come down. Now, before I go any further with this blog I want to issue a disclaimer. By writing this blog I am by no means trying to imply that I am ungrateful, dissatisfied or moaning; what I’m doing is simply trying to explore the “darker side” of achievement.
So, back to the come down. The ecstatic, jubilant, uninterrupted high from receiving my degree results lasted for about four days. Four days before a little niggling voice in the back of my mind dared to ask “Ok, so what next?”, I scolded myself for being ungrateful and got back to feeling great how hard I’d worked and what it meant for my future. But that naughty little voice didn’t leave me alone, and so for the last few weeks I have been pogoing between feeling really good and feeling full of doubt and questioning why I don’t feel better. For three years I had eaten, slept and breathed my degree; threw my whole self into working hard and ultimately achieving… and now, having accomplished what I’d always dreamt of, I felt guilty that I wasn’t “happy enough” because I found myself full of questions about what came next.
In the UK we teach children as young as six that grades and exam results are only the gateway on to the next set of exams. A grade is only as good as the next one, and there will always be more grades!! SAT tests used to be the things that dictated what level of exam you would do when it next came round to the time for SATs. GCSE results were a massive thing, but were actually only used to judge what AS-Levels you were allowed to do. AS-Level grades soon paled into insignificance when the next year came and it was time for A-Levels. And then if uni comes after A-Levels then degree results soon dwarf anything that happened at school. Our meritocratic approach to education and achievement has turned us into a “What next?” people. I was conditioned throughout school, after every results day, to not rest on my laurels and look to what came next. And so, now uni is finished with, I’m not actually that surprised that I am looking to see what academic doors this result could open for me in the future. Now I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to want to further yourself academically, and completing a masters at some point in the future is defiantly something that I want to do. But why can’t we allow ourselves a period of celebration before we ask the inevitable question?!
But, by asking the “What next?” question are we in fact revealing that there is a much darker side to this whole achievement thing?
The title of today’s blog comes from “Thanks Goodness”, a song from the (Absolutely unbelievably awesome and breath taking) West End musical Wicked. “Thank Goodness” is a song of celebration but, as the lyrics I’ve quoted suggest, has a slight bittersweet edge. I won’t ruin the story but Glinda, one of the witches of Oz, has just got everything she ever dreamed of and is perhaps not feeling as ecstatic as she thought she would or should. “Happy is what happens, when all your dreams come true, isn’t it?”. For me Glinda is expressing an aspect of achievement and accomplishment that far too many of us will not talk about and might not even want to admit to ourselves, for fear of sounding ungrateful or something.
In the run up to the Olympic closing ceremony, the BBC showed a short film featuring current and ex athletes and psychologists talking about what happens to an Athlete emotionally when they win a gold medal. It was really eye opening, because it was pretty dark stuff! Athletes spoke about pushing themselves so hard, training for years and years and then feeling numb to their wining. Feeling they had let down fans because they weren’t happy enough. In short, these athletes were discovering that happy maybe isn’t necessarily what happens when all your dreams come true. By all means happy will be part of what happens, but there might be some other stuff that comes along with it that may not be as easy to swallow or admit to. Just look at the TeamGB motto, “Better never stops”, even top athletes don’t escape the what next culture; no wonder winning gold sometimes feels like it’s not enough!
So what’s the point of this blog? Well like I said, I am not rubbishing academic achievement or pushing yourself to achieve in anything you set your heart on; I’m not even dissing the idea of “Better never stops” because in some ways it is a really positive philosophy to live your life by. But what I’m trying to say is that happy isn’the only thing that happens when your dreams come true and there is no shame in that. It is as Glinda continues in the song: “’Cause getting your dreams, It’s strange, but it seems a little – well- complicated. There’s a kind of a sort of : cost. There’s a couple of things get: lost. There are bridges you cross, You didn’t know you crossed, Until you’ve crossed.” Maybe we would feel better about what we’ve achieved if we allow ourselves to admit the complicated bits of those achievements; if we are willing to talk about the cost and things that we’ve lost on our road to accomplishment.
And so, I’m Lex, I am delighted to have got a first in my degree but at the same time I am completely exhausted and a bit shell shocked after three years of the hardest work I’ve ever done; and right now I am feeling a little bit lost and without a purpose or direction for the first time in ages. And, if I’m honest, I’m scared that if I stop writing essays I will lose the ability to think and write.
I wonder what things you have achieved recently, maybe you’ve just completed some exams, maybe you’ve finished school forever and are off to uni. Perhaps you’ve just got a new job, maybe you’ve just completed a big project. Well I dare you to explore the complicated bits of what you’ve achieved. What have your recent accomplishments cost you and have you lost anything along the way? There is no shame in any of it. If you are completely blissfully happy, amazing; but if there is a little nagging voice at the back of your mind, allow it to say what it needs.
Today, I pray that each of you, whatever point you’re at, would know what it is to achieve things; I pray that God would make it abundantly clear to you that he loves you an insane amount in spite of what you may or may not have accomplished. And ultimately I pray that you would know, really truly know in your hearts, what it is to have all your dreams come true and be ridiculously happy about it.