When I decided to return to university ten years ago, I had a plan: I was going to do a BA in English, which would take three years. I was hoping that within those three years, one of the Dutch universities would finally have started offering a Creative Writing MA, which I would then apply to.
At least, I thought that was my plan. It was only in hindsight that I realised that – deep down inside – I had a lot of other expectations: returning to university was going to be THE BEST THING EVER, to the point that it would erase my previous shitty-to-mediocre experiences at university. People were going to discover that I was the greatest structuralism-genius since Foucault and everybody was going to LOVE me. Returning to university and getting my BA degree was going to fix everything that ever went wrong in my life. Deep in my heart, I was completely convinced of this.
Considering that, it’s no wonder that my return to university turned out to be a huge disappointment.
It was only a few years ago that I learned that this type of childlike thinking is quite common for people whose lives haven’t turned out the way they wanted them to. Children who are bullied for example, are powerless to change their situation by themselves, no matter what
victim blamers people may claim.
More often than not, they keep themselves alive by telling themselves things like “When I grow up, I’ll show everybody that I can do [something exceptionally awesome]”. Which is understandable, especially when nobody takes you seriously and the constant, soul shattering bullying is dismissed as “It’s just a joke” and you’re told that “You’re also a bit at fault here of course”. Delusions of grandeur are needed to keep your spirits up and keep yourself alive. Literally.
Apart from that, there’s a non-stop stream of success stories everywhere in the media. My return to university coincided with the heyday of hustle culture: as long as you work as hard as possible, preferably all the time, without pause (“You can sleep when you’re dead!”), success is guaranteed.
Sure, you have a bigger chance of becoming successful when you do the work, but there’s no guarantee whatsoever that working yourself to death will lead to guaranteed success. I would say the opposite is true. The sad part is that, rationally, I was well aware of this, but I still felt attracted to this extreme way of thinking like a moth to a flame. It has to do with my need for control and the illusion of a person’s life being completely malleable. The fact that I’m a foreigner and that both my parents were refugees is also a huge factor: being successful within academia is the only way to not disappoint your parents and compensate for the misery endured, basically. This suffocating pressure to succeed is something I’ve felt all my life, and I’ve never known how to deal with it, except for to internalize it.
Fact is that no studies, and definitely not the ones you started at 35 for all the wrong reasons, will make you super happy, mega successful, and loved by all. Life is not a fairy tale, where all your lifelong problems get solved in an instant.
Apart from all this, the particular studies I chose turned out to not be for me. I’ve once described my studies as “speedreading every published issue from Reader’s Digest”, which gives you an idea. Looking back, I should have quit in week four, that would have saved me a lot of money, time, energy, and both mental and physical distress. Unfortunately, I was completely stuck in the “Quitters are losers”-mindset, that my motto “Get a BA or die trying!” almost became a reality.
The only reason that, after my stroke, I eventually wrote my thesis and graduated, was because of the sunk cost fallacy. And the example of the North-South-metro line, which turned to be pretty useful once it was finished after years of delays and exorbitant budget overruns. The fact that I would be able to do an MA was not an incentive to finish my BA, because by the time I graduated, there still wasn’t a Creative Writing MA in The Netherlands, and the long distance MA Creative Writing in the UK that I was going to do, became unaffordable due to BREXIT.
Where I publicly (even on this blog) said socially acceptable things like “I’m going to take a year off to decide on what I’m going to be doing with the rest of my life”, in reality I – of course – already had a plan: I was never going to do anything ever again. Never. Not a damn thing. I felt that I had done enough things in my life, with zero results, so I was just going to quit doing things.
And then the pandemic started.
Part two will be posted tomorrow!5