Some years ago, I was at a conference for sixth form students, aimed at encouraging them to apply to top universities. As I sat at the back, listening to the speakers, one terrifying statistic caught my ear. It was the unwelcome news that, on average, Oxbridge graduates seven years post-graduation were earning approximately three times my salary.
It was a good thing I wasn’t in possession of a megaphone at that point, or I would have yelled into it, “WELL I WENT TO BLOODY OXFORD AND I DON’T EARN THAT. DON’T BELIEVE THE LIES, YE INNOCENT YOUTHS!”
Or on the other hand, perhaps I wouldn’t.
Perhaps I would have just slunk down into my seat, feeling like a total failure and returned home from the conference remembering only this one fact, and brooding on it for weeks thereafter, wondering what lucrative opportunity I must have missed to not be earning megabucks. Was I in the bar when all the jobs were being given out, downing a few pints of Fosters, as was my student custom? Was I sitting in my student bedroom bemoaning the state of my love life? Was I spending that morning watching MTV, as was my other main life activity at the age of 19?
Tonight, again, I felt the heavy feeling of failure, when I received a phone call from an unknown number. It was a jolly teenager calling from my old Oxford college, apparently to update me on the college news. This is well known to be a ruse to try and get alumni to donate money to the college.
At 19, I assumed that all these alumni were rich. They worked in the City, they were High Court judges, they probably spent their weekends out hunting with dogs, riding horses across the English countryside in their red coats and jodphurs, waving sticks in the air and yelling “Tally ho!” as they charged through the Home Counties on their faithful steeds.
I did not imagine that they were single mothers in the process of breastfeeding their toddlers to sleep in a bed in their parents’ council house, the same house where they grew up.
“Is now not a good time?” the teenager enquired (thankfully us Oxford types have a modicum of intelligence, and this one had quickly figured out that I wasn’t entirely happy about being cold-called in the middle of the bedtime routine).
“Well, I’m, er, trying to get my son to bed.”
Does one admit to being sat there in pyjamas with a boob hanging out, or is that bad etiquette when on the telephone to someone you’ve never met?
“I could ring back at about 9.30?”
“Well, er, I’ll….I’ll still be getting him to sleep then.”
WHY DO I FEEL GUILTY ABOUT THIS? Is it because I am not a high court judge and have never ridden a horse? You are talking to a teenager for Christ’s sake! Why do I not just admit that I co-sleep with a tiny child and go to bed at the same time as him? Am I supposed to return to polite company downstairs, dress for dinner and host a cocktail party whilst entertaining the Ambassador of a Central Asian republic?
I was suffering with The Fear, the Fear that I would be judged as a failure, for not making a success of my life and having bucketloads of cash to donate to the college’s latest new building fund, the Fear that I would disappoint this poor student by alerting her to the reality of life as a thirtysomething Oxford graduate, where she too might find herself living back at home, dreams of grandeur as yet unfulfilled, wondering whether she should have done more networking at that Goldman Sachs recruitment dinner in her final year, rather than just poking the free food and commenting, “ooh this is nice. Is this a souffle?” before telling everyone that you’re not interested in investment banking as a career anyway, and really you’re just here for the food.
But then, I wondered, what is success anyway? What the teenage me considered to be success-a job with one of the multinational companies that frequently courted us at university events, a public school-educated husband with impeccable manners and artfully disarranged hair, a conservative yet chic work-appropriate wardrobe from Reiss-might not be success after all.
What if success is something else? The ability to choose your own destiny, to create a life you love, to be surrounded by those who love you-even if they are your supportive and ever-present family, rather than the proverbial public schoolboy husband who never materialised.
Next time the college call, I will not try to avoid telling them my new address just in case they realise it’s the same as the one I had when I was a student fifteen years ago. I will proudly tell them my news, rather than try to avoid the subject in case they find out the awful truth that I’ve not yet published a seminal work of intellectual scholarship on early Japanese literature, I don’t live in a stately home and I still haven’t managed to learn to drive a car, let alone master the dying art of riding side saddle in a vintage dress from the 1890s.
Success is whatever makes you happy, right?