Insecure Over Your Intelligence? You’re Not A Special Snowflake Now

CHARLOTTE IVERS feels stupid now, and so should you – but isn’t it liberating?

Alumni Cambridge charlotte ivers Freshers insecurity intimidation self esteem Watson and Crick

We are all average now.

This is not meant as some pseudo profound indictment of modern society, but rather as a fairly basic fact about life at Cambridge. This place is filled with former sports captains, head prefects and debating champions, all coming to terms with the fact that here they are nothing special. The Cambridge experience is rather similar to the experience of world-class runners who come last in the 100m at the Olympics and feel like a chubby asthmatic kid on his school’s sports day. When you first arrive here as a fresher, it can feel like you’ve lost your inhaler.

“And this little bit here is the part which shits all over the self esteem of future undergraduates”

Most universities give their freshers one week to have fun and then another to organise themselves. Most universities finally get around to politely suggesting that their students might like to consider doing some work around about week five. But then, as my school careers advisor was fond of declaring ominously, Cambridge is not most universities. At Cambridge, they give you four days in which you are expected to simultaneously adapt to independent living, produce your first essay and drown your liver in all the Sainsbury’s Basics alcohol that you can lay your fresher’s flu-laden hands on. In the past week, it has become abundantly clear that I find one of these tasks dramatically easier than the other two.

At home, I would have rated myself as a reasonably competent and intelligent human being. It took Cambridge less than 48 hours to disabuse me of this notion. All the GCSEs in the world count for very little when you find yourself walking across Granchester Meadows at 6:30 in the morning, still in your heels from the night before, having ended up on the wrong side of town after drunkenly locking yourself out of your room. After five years of being the clever one, not only did I find myself in a place where everyone was clever but I was myself proving to be especially stupid.

Cambridge could have been designed to crush the egos of fresh faced undergraduates. Just take a look at the glamorously intimidating spires of King’s, or spare a glance for the imposing and only-slightly-Third-Reichy phallic monstrosity that is the UL. If ever there were buildings designed to make you feel inferior, these are they. Throw in nearly a thousand years of glorious academic history and it’s a miracle that any undergraduate emerges with any confidence at all. Think how demeaning it must be to be a Natsci: in the very place where previous generations discovered DNA and unearthed the electron, you have been pushing a small wooden trolley down a ramp for the past four hours and measuring its fall. And even then you managed to balls that up.

Thrusting into the sky and spearing your dreams

Thrusting into the sky and spearing your dreams

It takes a special type of person to stay arrogant when you have the spirits of generations of Nobel Prize winners looking over your shoulder tutting as you down your third can of Red Bull whilst trying to remember the difference between Deluze and Derrida. Very few people come out of Cambridge still maintaining the belief that they are the most intelligent person they know. Wittgenstein, maybe. Newton, perhaps. Johnians, almost certainly. (Only joking. To paraphrase the racists, some of my best friends are from John’s.) But for the rest of us, there is something quite liberating about realising that we have found somewhere where we are completely and gloriously average. It permits us to justify pounding our brains in Life without any sense of guilt over the potential loss of those cells to humanity. It means that we can justify spending an hour or two on the sports field or the stage instead of hitting the books. It allows us to study for our degrees because we are interested, not because we feel we ought to.  It lets us consider that we may be able to bring more to the table than just a high IQ. So I am going to settle down and accept my inevitable 2:1 (okay fine, 2:2) and follow the advice of one of our many illustrious alumni: “it is no use trying to be clever – we are all clever here. Just try to be kind”.