It’s the end of the academic year, and I’m procrastinating revising classical mechanics (anything’s better than having to look at inertia tensors). I’m sat wondering how I’m half done with university already because, compared to last year, the time passed by incredibly quickly. Maybe it’s some relativistic effect I haven’t learnt about yet?
There’s a ton of reasons why. Instead of moving somewhere new and learning to live on my own far, far away from my parents and siblings, it was a return to more of the same. Instead of having to adjust to how university study differed from sixth form, I already knew what to expect from another year of lectures, tutorials, and workshops. Instead of constantly trying to meet people, I already had made some friends. And the biggest thing- after a year and some change of not really falling into any friendship groups, I finally felt like I was part of some kind of community.
I got really into trying to “make the most” of the whole university experience last year- I figured if I was so jaded over my adult life not starting off the way I wanted, then all there really is to do is to try to improve my situation. So I tried a billion different societies, I forced myself to get over feeling a bit shy and start conversations with strangers to try to make more friends, and I kept reminding myself how university was a big deal compared to sixth form so that I’d do better academics-wise than I had before.
What I learnt from it all is that obsessing over becoming some kind of productivity god who has a million-and-one hobbies, gets perfect grades and is built like a Dragon Ball Z character didn’t really do much in making me feel happier or even just more satisfied in the day-to-day. Stopping worrying about what others thought of me was good, but putting in so much effort to meet people most of the time led nowhere. I’ve found that the best genuine friendships tend to be made when you don’t have to try so hard; when there’s mutual effort and there’s some kind of regular activity (e.g. lectures) that gives you an excuse to meet regularly. I was getting a lot done in this period, sure- but in terms of overall satisfaction, I was in a rut. Everything felt surreal in a strange way, like things had stopped being real after I’d had to acknowledge changes in my life after finishing high school.
I’m not trying to knock self-improvement. Quite the opposite, actually- trying new things and focusing on growing has made me a much more well-rounded person, with far better physical and mental health compared to two years, eighteen months, even just one year ago. But the mentality I had last year was: if I set a bunch of goals- start a blog, start a podcast, learn to drive, do a summer internship, etc.- then once I achieve them I can finally feel like I’ve “made up” for not getting into the university I wanted and personal failure. Finally, I’d be able to gain some semblance of self-worth after spending so much time in the gutter! But once I started ticking more and more of the boxes I’d set for myself, lo and behold- nothing changed. It’s crazy how much you can build something up, work towards it for so long, and as soon as it’s done, it’s done. You get your hard-earned dopamine high for a few seconds, minutes, maybe days- and then you’re right back where you started. And it’s funny: even if I got everything I wanted when I was seventeen, I’m sure I’d still have all sorts of stuff keeping me up at night- just the details would be different.
The turning point for me was the Easter holidays this year. My obsession with trying to one-up myself made me tell myself that I needed to spend comical amounts of time revising for exams every day of the holidays. Because even though the system I’d used last year was a good balance, clearly I had to step up my game the year after, right? The result was that beginning to do anything ended up feeling like so much work that most days I just couldn’t be bothered to get started. Suddenly I was knee-deep in exam season and if I’d just maintained my previous system of doing 3-4 hours each day instead of frantically trying to do more, more, more just for the sake of it, I’d have been in a much less stressful spot.
Few people would say they don’t want “happiness” in their future, even if they haven’t fully fleshed out what that means to them yet. Learning that I don’t have to perpetually postpone it to some date in the near future where I’ve finally achieved $latex x, y and z$ and getting off the hamster wheel has helped me in my pursuit. It’s not like that mindset shift has suddenly made each and every day all sunshine and rainbows, but things have definitely improved. It’s a nice feeling to be able to look forward to third and fourth year a lot more than second year, and it’s a huge contrast to the dread and indifference I had going into the first.