Tim O’Brien: Week 3

This week TIM O’BRIEN explains why he thinks you’re probably working too hard.

blag blagging column columnist Fireworks hard work hobbies insecurity priorities stress tim o'brien work

Outsider syndrome. We’ve all felt it. That feeling you don’t belong here. That feeling admissions must have made a mistake – I mean, everyone else just seems so capable, how did they let you in? Whilst you might be working your way through just fine, you’re secretly hoping that no one discovers the true ‘you’ – the ‘you’ underneath that doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. It’s like a child version of you, vulnerable and scared, hidden away inside a young adult’s body. And for many of you, it makes you work too hard.

If you recognise this feeling, let me try to give you a morsel of consolation: I have a sneaking suspicion that it applies to everyone on the entire planet. Everyone. The top academic in your department, the CEOs of the biggest corporations, the supreme leaders of the most powerful countries. I’ve recently started to hook onto the fact that everyone who has ever been successful since the dawn of time has just been very good at one thing – blagging. At appearing like they know what they’re doing when they don’t and just working things out as they go along.

Think of your interview. We are always told that the people who run these interviews ‘just know’, as if they have some kind of sixth sense about who deserves to be here. Yes, I’m sure they can spot intelligence or talent or ambition. But come on, are you trying to tell me they can see beyond a good blag? I doubt it. Having all come out the other side of that horrific process one truth unites us all – we must be good at talking a tired academic into seeing potential in us.

Of course, I’m not denying that there is such thing as intellect or innate ability or a genuine capacity for hard work. I’m just suggesting that perhaps these are not as important for success as people make them out to be. We’re all human after all. And once you take away the pedestal that we put successful people on by buying their biographies, striving to be like them in every way, or worshipping them for recycling 150 year old Marxist arguments in unnecessarily flowery language (*cough* Russell Brand *cough*); once you take this away, you’re left with people just as human as the rest of us.

I genuinely believe the world is driven forward by one giant undercurrent of people winging it. To some extent, almost everyone you meet is pretending they know what they’re doing, convincing others to trust them with tasks they can’t even trust themselves to do. The truth is, we’re all a bit bewildered, we’re all just taking things as they come, and we’re all just learning on the job.

What’s more, this is totally relevant in Cambridge. It does constantly seem like we are surrounded by deeply accomplished and gifted people. No matter how engaged you are there will always be someone in your lectures who asks more nuanced, interesting questions. What you have to remember is that they are almost certainly recycling an opinion they read in some obscure secondary text to make themselves sound like they understand it better.

Or maybe they have actually worked harder. But you know what drove that? Insecurity. A fear that someone else would be the one to ask the hard questions.

Don’t let it worry you. Work to your own timetable. Push out your mind the fear of not being good enough. Don’t push yourself to work too hard to keep up (unless, of course, you need that first class degree for a life of academia or Goldman Sachs).

What I’m really saying here is just try to relax. Remember you are at University for your own reasons. There must be something you want out of it. If it’s not a first, then do enough work that you feel comfortable doing. Most importantly though, make sure you find time for something else. Something outside the library. Something that involves stimulation and preferably other people. Join a society. Join as many as your degree allows. Throw yourself in the deep end.

As a great superhero was once told It’s not who you are underneath. It’s what you do that defines you”.

#YOLO Batman

Will you look back in ten years and wish you worked harder? No. Will you look fondly at the memories of worrying about everyone else’s ability? No. Will you ever be in a position where you can put on a play, go on the radio, take part in a debate, play in a sports team, write for a paper, play competitive tiddlywinks, learn a language, be in a band, make a film, or play with science-y things (sorry, I’m at a bit of a loss on that one) so easily? No. So do it now, while you can, and forget about that feeling you don’t belong.

Everyone’s just blagging it anyway.