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On my first day of university, a lecturer told our class that some of the most successful students she has taught didn’t even pass their course. At first I wondered what she was talking about. How can it be classed as successful to fail? But as I got further into my course, I realised she was right.
I’m a creative writing student who up until starting my course had an intense fear of failure, to the point that I was considering retaking my A-Levels if I didn’t get all As. Throughout mine — and most of the country’s — time at secondary school, we are fed the idea that we need to get good GCSEs so we can get good A-Levels so we can get into a good uni so we can get a good job with good money so we can save up to buy a good house with a good spouse and have good children who will follow the same route we did. However, when I actually got to university, I realised how flawed this system is.
With a subject like creative writing, the greatest challenge comes with freedom, which you don’t tend to have as much of in sixth form. Instead of following memorised revision notes and a text book, I actually had to come up with original ideas to write about. It was daunting and at times all I wanted was a teacher to give me a mark scheme and a model answer like they did at school.
However, what I’ve found to be the best way to get through the course is to experiment and take risks. The best writers didn’t play it safe. They pushed boundaries, turned heads, and toyed with nonsense and nuance. Sure they might have been rejected and laughed at, but they wrote their stories in the most innovative way that they could, which is more than a lot of us have the guts to do.
However that’s not to say that taking chances always pays off. The risk of taking risks is that they can backfire. Maybe your poem was too whimsy, or maybe your memoir about your childhood from the perspective of next-door’s cat was too ambitious, but real success lies in the courage to take the risk in the first place, and that matters far more than the grade you get.
The same can be applied to life in general. When you leave home to study at uni, it tends to be the first time you have ever lived independently. As such, it is very hard to get it right the first time. A lot of it you learn from experience, experimenting and realising that perishable fruit won’t last in the fridge for two months without some sort of moss growing out the top of it. Growing up isn’t as straightforward as school made it out to be and there is no right way to do it. While you can follow a life that everyone expects from you, you can never truly succeed until you’ve taken the chance to go after what you want, whether it makes others happy or not.
So yes, some of the best students may not have passed their course, but they have something far more important: grit.