So, I recently got my exam marks back. I’m not going to go into detail, but they were ok. Not good, not bad, just ok. I was not surprised by this, because that pattern of not-good-not-bad-just-okness has characterised my entire university career so far.
These are possibly the most uninspiring couple of sentences I’ve ever started an article with. But stay with me.
The reason I thought my relative mediocrity was worth mentioning is because it’s a fairly recent development. I won’t go into detail about this, because doing so is literally one of the most annoying things a person can do, but I was reasonably near the top of my class at high school. I’m not saying I was a genius, but I was definitely above average. Because of this, I came to St Andrews with the (flawed, arrogant, stupid) assumption that I’d be above average here too. As anyone who’s ever been in a tutorial with me can probably attest, it hasn’t quite worked out like that.
Now, I understand that this isn’t precisely the most interesting subject in the world to write about, and I wouldn’t have bothered dedicating an article to it if I didn’t know that this condition wasn’t unique to me. In fact, every third person I speak to at St Andrews seems to have undergone this transformation from genius to mediocrity, so I reckon it’s worth a few hundred words at least.
Some of the impacts of becoming a smaller fish in a bigger pond are pretty obvious. Your confidence in your abilities and, therefore, your sense of the possible, begins to shift. For me, this lead to almost a year and a half of confusion and disappointment as my ego took the kind of battering that only the Bubble can dish out. If you’re part of this group, you’ll understand what I’m talking about: slowly beginning to question whether the five or six years of your life you spent being told you were academically gifted were some kind of sick joke, or part of your brain just broke during Freshers’ Week.
Even if you manage to avoid this mild existential crisis, then you’re still left dealing with the fact that being happy with your academic achievements (and if you’re part of this group, being happy with academic achievements is a prerequisite for self-respect) means lowering your standards. That’s a tough choice to make. I’ve been her almost three years, and I’m still not sure which side I come down on.
But it’s not just that. While not without its drawbacks, being seen as “the smart one” can act as a very effective form of social armour, a kind of cushion that excuses bad behaviour. You’re not a scatterbrained walking disaster, you’re an absent-minded intellectual. You’re not a selfish dick, you’re an irascible genius. Now, you could argue that this stereotype, perpetuated across popular culture by everything from The Imitation Game to The Big Bang Theory, is a little problematic, but by god it’s useful. Useful, that is, until you get to a place like St Andrews, where you’re not unusually intelligent, and everyone realises you just suck as a person.
Irritating, however, as this is, there are some positives that come out of it. No healthy ego has never been pricked, after all, and there’s nothing like a challenge to inspire greater work ethic. It’s also probably the best way of ensuring that you have more to offer the world than a set of good grades. In fact, you could even argue that this, as much as anything else you learn at university, is a crucial part of preparing you for the world.
I just wish the process of learning these lessons was less fucking annoying