Tim Squirrell – The Tragedy of Enthusiasm

In his first columnn, TIM SQUIRRELL regales us with his thoughts on motivation, identity and keen freshers.

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In my first year, I was keen. ‘Tragically enthusiastic’, some called me. I was keen about rowing. I was keen about squash. I was keen about college life. I was keen about medicine. Those were the things that defined me, or at least defined who I was within Cambridge. It’s a boring cliché that everyone here is clever and you have to find other things to make yourself stand out, but it’s a cliché because it’s true (which itself is also a cliché. Fuck.).

I don’t think I knew the meaning of the word ‘keen’ until I got here. It’s got such conflicting connotations, implying both that someone is enthusiastic and at the same time somewhat tragic with it. I never knew that it could be an insult to describe someone as enthusiastic – unless it was enthusiastic about work, but you’re probably quite used to having been called a ‘boffin’, a ‘know-it-all’, a ‘nerd’ or a ‘geek’ for the majority of your formative years.

When we get to Cambridge, we become thesps, Union hacks, Tab/TCS/Varsity hacks, drinking soc lads/girls, rugby lads, Blues, medics, engineers, lawyers, architects, comedians, boaties, musicians, BNOCs, people who go out, people who don’t go out, people who go out on a Wednesday night or a Thursday night but never on a Sunday night, people who hate The Tab or the Women’s Campaign or drinking societies; people who are going to be something, someday. We carve out these identities for ourselves as a way of making our time at Cambridge, and in turn our lives, mean something.

If I speak in front of lots of people will they love me?

I became a boatie, a medic, a college person. Now I’m none of those. I haven’t been to a college bop in a year and a half. Rowing became boring and, frankly, I lost the kind of determined masochism which lets you willingly get up at 6AM and put yourself through hours of pain each day. I don’t know where that motivation went. I’d like it back, but it’s gone.

Little pieces of you disappear in the night and you barely notice until you’re lying in bed and you can’t sleep because you drank Blue Bolt (let’s be honest, you can’t afford Red Bull) at 3pm because you always flag a bit in the afternoon and you needed to do your essay rather than nap (but you watched Game of Thrones instead) but when it came to bedtime you still had about half the caffeine in your body (you know this because you looked up the half-life of caffeine – nerd).

You lie there and all the things you need to do and the fuck-ups you’ve made circle around your head, and if you’re unlucky you’ll accidentally start thinking about the inevitable death of you and everyone you’ve ever loved – and then you realise that you’re not in love any more. You’re not in love with your subject, your sport, your girlfriend or boyfriend, your hobby. Maybe it’s sudden.

Maybe it’s been coming for a long time. The little things which you ignored – falling asleep during one too many lectures, not answering your phone despite not really being busy, putting off your essay for just that bit too long, finding it harder and harder to work up the motivation that used to just come – all fit together in one big, depressing jigsaw puzzle. And then that love is gone. It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just gone.

The jigsaw is a metaphor. Probably.

From that moment on, you can’t do it anymore. Maybe you quit the next day. Maybe it takes a meeting with your tutor to explain that you want to change subject and they make you get a 2.i in medicine to prove that you really want to quit (because that’s logical, right?). Safe to say, though, that you’re not an architect or a rugby lad or a medic anymore. That thing that you used to identify as is gone, and you have to find something to fill the gap.

So you start going to the gym. You get involved in the Union. You write for The Tab. You get involved in charity work. You switch over to Natural Sciences and you do HPS and you become an arts student in spite of the fact that you used to make fun of all the arts students in first year because, after all, it’s easiest to define your group in opposition to other groups, and dickishness is the primary weapon of the insecure.

Did I say you? I meant me. Sorry.

This column is going to be about identity – the ways we find to define ourselves in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to stand out. I think it’s going to be about that. That’s the plan – but all of our plans change, don’t they?

I hope you enjoy it.