Personal

Own your failure

Rejection seems to be a huge part of a starry-eyed graduate’s life.

The sooner we accept this fact, along with all our student debt, the better. Prior to graduation, you might have experienced rejection applying to university, a part-time job, or asking someone out. Without undermining these disappointments, I think there’s something unique about graduate rejection. It’s the anticipation. You’ve worked at your degree for three years, you sat at school for a decade before that. It’s all been leading up to this very moment. The start of your real adult life. You have your 2.1 (maybe a golden ticket First) – the world is yours for the taking. You fire off cover-letters left, right and centre. You’re hopeful. You wait, and wait, and wait…

‘The managers have completed their short-listing process and I regret to inform you that on this occasion you have not been selected to attend an interview.’

If I’m completely honest, prior to these past few months, I haven’t been rejected that often. I’m not boasting. I haven’t really put myself out there enough. So when the dream I’d been living and breathing since school came crashing down in February, I took it pretty hard. There’s a prestigious university I’ve always wanted to study at. I didn’t apply at A-level because my grades weren’t up to scratch. But as an undergraduate, I’d upped my game (I found out this week that I’m set to graduate with a 78% average). Whenever I dragged myself to the library at 9pm, to put in a few hours on my latest essay, my motivation was getting onto that dream Masters. So when I got rejected for, in hindsight, a pretty weak research proposal, I lost all motivation. The timing was awful. I was mid-dissertation. I had a 4,000 word essay due next week.

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Since then, I’ve boosted my grades again. I somehow pulled off 83% on my dissertation and an 88% on that very essay. I’ve also decided a Masters might not be for me. My initial backup plan was publishing. I sent off at least a dozen applications for assistant jobs and internships. One by one, I was rejected. I’d been so set on continuing with academia, that I didn’t have any of the publishing experience necessary to even make it to an interview. Coming to terms with this, assessing my strengths and weaknesses, my current idea is digital marketing. I have some relevant experience. This blog itself reflects my interest in social media and content production. You know what, I think I’d be good at marketing. It feels assuring to at least have something resembling a plan. Or maybe I’ll reapply for that Masters… I’m staying open-minded.

What have I learnt from all this? Well I’ve gotten better at writing cover-letters for one thing. But I’ve also learnt that it’s okay to feel dejected, disappointed, even angry following rejection – for a little while that is. It just means that you cared. It means that you worked hard for something you wanted. Feeling and doing the same might well pay off next time. It’s even okay to mope around and feel like you deserved for things to have worked out. You might well have deserved that promotion or that position. But the problem is other people probably did too. The key thing to accept is that the universe doesn’t owe you a job or a First class degree or even a girlfriend.

An air of entitlement will get you nowhere.

Rejection isn’t inherently a bad thing. Sure, you might miss out on some great opportunities, but it can help you duck lousy ones too. It can inspire (okay, maybe force) a change of direction or a new approach you might never have otherwise considered. From recent experience, getting rejected is also a whole lot easier when you have other options on the table too. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you ask out each and every girl in your seminar class, but, providing they don’t all find out, you’ve increased your odds.

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The personality test

Today I found out that I’m a INTJ-T.

That’s an introverted, intuitive, thinking, judging and turbulent individual. Not the catchiest of acronyms so they call people like me ‘architects’. I can’t see that going on my Tinder profile any time soon. A 12 minute test confirmed what I already suspected: I’m an introvert – 57% to be precise. I’m 62% intuitive which sounds like a good thing. As does 59% ‘thinking’ until you realise the alternative was ‘feeling’. They may as well have said: ‘Lee, you’re a calculated and cold human being’. I also can’t help but feel 56% ‘judging’ is just a nicer way of saying judgemental. And a whopping 74% ‘turbulent’? They didn’t even try to make that sound positive.

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I’d like to point out that a ‘who even am I?’ crisis didn’t lead to me searching online for mathematical and psychological proof that I might be ‘normal’ after all, or hard-wired to be Apple’s next CEO. I’ve been accepted onto this three-day entrepreneurship programme and taking a personality test was mandatory. They apparently use our results to sort us into balanced and effective teams. Do businesses actually operate like this now? It wouldn’t surprise me. Although it does feel a bit like setting up your Gemini friend with a Sagittarius. (That could be an astronomic disaster.)

The thing about these personality tests is that they’re not going to tell you that you have a shit personality, are they? Even if you do, apparently like me, lack in ’emotional availability’ with parenting set to be a ‘significant challenge’. They also tend to describe you as a bit of everything. I’m ‘imaginative yet decisive, ambitious yet private’. The list goes on. Pretty much all of the adjectives get thrown in there somewhere. In fact, you’re given so much information, from career paths to workplace habits and friendship, that you end up picking and choosing the parts you wanted to hear. Bit of a bossy child growing up? You’ll be pleased to learn your controlling tendencies were completely justified – turns out you’re a natural-born leader.

The results that stand out are your strengths and weaknesses. A ‘quick, imaginative and strategic mind’? ‘Independent and decisive’? ‘Hardworking and determined’? Sounds about right. The strengths part is great for your ego. But then you get onto the weaknesses. I feel like they should have alternated them to ease you in. I’m arrogant, judgemental and overly analytical. Or so they say. I loathe highly structured environments and I’m clueless when it comes to romance. I’m not sure about the environment part but the romance is spot on.

Can you take these tests seriously? Who knows. But I think it’s at least interesting to see how your results compare to your expectations. It makes you start thinking about the different versions of yourself and who you want to be. It turns out I have a lot in common with Vladimir Putin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Katniss Everdeen. I think I’m ok with that.

You can take the test yourself here. Comment with your results!

The future freaks me out

I started this blog on 6th August 2013. I’d just finished Sixth Form and was nervously awaiting my A-levels results, desperate to find out whether or not I had made it into university. QFL was a project that was about keeping busy. I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands and far too much to worry about. I needed a distraction. It was therapy.

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This time last week, I handed in my final year dissertation at university. I have one exam left before my sixteen years of education are over. In honesty, I’m not taking this particularly well. I do have some friends that want to leave. Everyone is a bit fed up of the work at this point, myself included, which I wasn’t really expecting, having loved studying up until now. The freedom that comes with earning money will be a huge change, of course, for the better. But I don’t want to leave. I’d redo fifty assignments for another three years. I don’t want to leave people behind. Or maybe I don’t want to get left behind.

I celebrated finishing my dissertation pretty hard. Three big nights out. I woke up at 7am Saturday morning, having gotten in three hours earlier. This wasn’t a normal hangover. I felt sick. But I also had cold sweats and my heart was racing. It was like waking up from a bad dream although I couldn’t calm myself down. In short, I had what I can only describe as a panic attack. In hindsight, it was likely caffeine-induced. My fault. I’d had coffees and jägerbombs and all sorts the night before, to try and perk myself up. So I crashed. Weeks of stress, followed by days of overdoing it, caught up with me. I sat wide awake for an hour and just wallowed, thinking, reflecting, worrying about everything. Talking to a friend about it later, he said something we all need to hear sometimes: It’s okay to worry about the future you know”.

I needed to get where I was Saturday morning because now I can get out. No alcohol for at least a week. A healthier diet. From tomorrow, I get up at a respectable hour. I’m writing a bucket-list of things to do before I leave. Revision starts for that final exam: my last hurdle. I’m going to buy a bunch of books I’ve wanted to read. Start watching films again. I have a few weeks left yet and I’m going to make the most of them, spending time with the people who make leaving so hard.

And, quite frankly, I think I need to start blogging again.

Giving a little for a lot

I have always felt really guilty about never having worked a proper day in my life.

Sorry, you haven’t what? 

Yeah, you’re probably surprised… Having just turned 19, I must belong to a small minority of teenagers who haven’t held a part-time job. My excuse to myself has always been that I’m far too committed with schoolwork. Even I’m not buying that one anymore.

I’m not that lazy. I study bloody hard I’ll have you know… But so do most people. The reality is that I’ve always been fortunate enough never to need to work for money. And like most people, anything I don’t need to do rarely gets done. Getting a job was never a burning concern – that is until now. Since arriving at a university, the real world has reared it’s ugly head.

All of a sudden, money has become much more than just a number I can indifferently watch fall and rise and fall and fall… It turns out those digits on my bank balance aren’t imaginary.

Person Holding Hire Me Sign in Crowd

If you earn a pay cheque, or have at least sought to acquire one, you’ll know that getting that first job can be difficult. To apply even for a job stacking shelves you will find yourself up against a dozen other applicants – if not a great deal more. Almost all of them will have held other jobs. Most will already be experienced shelf-stackers. And what do you have on your CV? If yours is anything like mine: a Bronze DofE Award (that I didn’t really deserve and received years ago), and a handful of grades that say “yeah I can knock up an essay” – hardly shelf-stacking credentials.

So with a whole month off from university at Easter, it was about time then that I sought some work experience, in-between the 5,000 words in essays I had due (there I go with that excuse again). Okay, I wasn’t quite so motivated… I was led to work experience like an un-thirsty horse to water. You see, my mum had noticed that the local Cancer Research charity shop were after volunteers. They usually are to be honest. And she basically dragged me in. I wasn’t reluctant because I didn’t think it was a valuable use of my time. And I wasn’t particularly bothered about it being unpaid work. I was simply reluctant about the thought of trying something new – leaving my comfort zone – it intimidated me.

I suppose that’s why they call it your “comfort” zone.

Well I did go in, and I have been volunteering a few shifts this holiday. I’m not writing this because I’m after a pat on the back for aiding a good cause. And I don’t want a pat on the back for overcoming my anxiety about work either. I just wanted to write about how the whole experience was really gratifying. I wanted to record my own thoughts about putting myself out there for a change. In the hope that I can look back on this for inspiration to do it more often. I’ve grown up a lot since moving out and starting university but I feel this was another learning curve for me, and a long-overdue one at that.

cancer research shopI couldn’t possibly finish this without mentioning some of the other volunteers I’ve met. I find few thoughts more inspiring than the fact that an army of volunteers – mostly pensioners – are battling cancer, and countless other diseases, in charity shops around the world, one cup of tea at a time. I’ll definitely be volunteering again in the future.

I’d encourage anyone to do the same – particularly if you need work experience!

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Grown up people are obsessed with this question.

Whether it’s a parent, teacher or career advisor trying to pop your tax-free bubble of adolescence, you’ll notice they employ the same tragic tone. It is one that screams: you’re not going to like the real world, best to start lowering your expectations now! One that laments their own long buried ambition, and pre-accepts the futility of your answer.

Career Path

That’s if you have an answer. Adolescence is a time of spectacular indecisiveness. Only last week did I spend, probably the best part of an hour, trying to buy a new pair of jeans, fluctuating between fifty shades of grey and three types of ‘skinny’. (Worryingly, next week I actually have to start looking at renting my first house… Do estate agents charge by the hour?) Another problem hindering any teenager’s answering of this question is their easily influenceable nature. The young mind is a malleable thing. After binge-watching the TV show Scrubs, I managed to convince my 16 year-old self that I wanted to be a doctor. A problematic realisation halfway through my A-levels when I wasn’t studying a single science subject. Luckily, it was a phase I grew out of. But just imagine if my TV taste had favoured Dancing on Ice or WWE Wrestling.

Adult: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Me: A writer.

That wasn’t so hard. Only…what is “a writer”? Once upon a time, I tried to specify “an author”. But we all know they shoot that one down. Aspiring to be the next J. K. Rowling isn’t a feasible, concrete career plan, especially when you start sentences with “once upon a time”. I suppose my subsequent thought process wanted to take that writerly ambition and frame it in a professional, adult-like, briefcase-carrying kind of way. I envisioned that this would plant me behind a desk, in the stuffy office of journalism. That’s an acceptable career option alright…in a loose sense of the word “acceptable”. My frowning Grandad did mutter something about the sleazy press.

Until recently, this was what I thought I wanted to do. Sure, most of the time I find the news extremely trivial and depressing, but there are aspects of journalism that really appealed and still appeal to me. The creative routine, the city lifestyle, the rewarding sense of publication. I was ambitious about making an honest career in a stained sector. My role model being the late and great Christopher Hitchens, who used to say: ‘I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information.’

Blogs vs traditional media

I made the plan that every aspiring hack does: to get involved with student media the moment I arrived at University. In reality, the opportunity arose before I even started. An editor at one of my University’s online publications, by sheer chance, found this blog, and invited me to write for him. Hurrah! Look at me making baby-steps towards the career ladder. Actually… A single question knocked that ladder down. ‘What do you want to write about?’

Ah. Um. I had nothing. All I could think was that I just wanted to write. A sentiment that wouldn’t fit into a neat little category like ‘sports’ or ‘current events’. I eventually answered that I fancied contributing to the ‘opinion’ section. No surprise there then. But proposing this just made me feel arrogant. Why should anyone want to read my views? What do I know about anything? This is why I blog – you can get away with it on a blog. A corner of the internet where people are too polite to criticise, or too critical to read. Safe to say, I haven’t contributed an article for student media yet. But I might well in the future. My passion for journalism might return.

That would be awkward, a future editor finding this post…

For now, I have no idea what I want to be.

Writing is a compulsion, a lifestyle.

An awestruck atheist on secular spirituality

I have been wanting to write about this for a long long time. It’s a hard one to get right because firstly it’s super important, and secondly I’m not certain about what I mean to say.

Spirituality. Let’s start with only the word. The term is often considered the exclusive property of religion. Most atheists are hesitant to use it. I really think this is a shame. Why? Because it’s just a word at the end of the day. Words shouldn’t be monopolised. When they are, language becomes a barrier. Of all the conversations to build barriers around, those concerning belief are certainly the most dangerous. The discourse has to be open and accessible. It is essential that everyone can, and does, employ terms like spirituality, awe, wonder, freely. Conversations about the universe and life are tricky enough without us speaking in different languages altogether.

For the sake of progressive discussion, we all have to try and be clear on our definitions. Any Christian’s understanding of spirituality is bound to differ, if only slightly, from another’s, let alone a Buddhist’s or an atheist’s like me. Explaining your positioning on something as important as spirituality can seem a tall order. I think half of the time because we are uncertain of ourselves. But this only makes trying all the more important. You can’t hold an opinion, a belief, whatever you want to call it, without being able to justify it – to yourself.

So here’s the question, what does spirituality mean to me?

As an atheist, it has nothing to do with the supernatural. Rather the opposite, it’s about being truly in touch with the natural, ourselves and others. Spirituality is a quality that transcends our extremely limited primal senses, the faculties that allow us to physically interact with the world around us. It is still such a faculty – and certainly not a religious sensation – but the highest of faculties, the highest form of human sensation. I specify human, because as far as we know, you and I belong to the only species capable of wonder and existential curiosity. I believe this to be our most valuable, endearing, redeeming quality. Other species appear bound to biological urges, seeking basic, temporary satisfaction and contentment, in the form of food, sleep and sex. Spirituality is the deeper sense of well-being shared only by humans; the fulfilment of an inner peace, unrelated to physical health or prosperity. An inner freedom achieved through being conscious (that is to be aware rather than just awake) of our smallness within, but also oneness with, the universe.

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That’s my poorly articulated, vaguely expressed understanding of spirituality. A kind of numinous sensitivity. But how does one try and attain this state? Obvious spiritual pursuits might be prayer or meditation. They share the same notion of turning within to seek understanding, blocking out our other senses, and the distractions they detect. But using my spiritual definition of awareness, smallness and oneness, I would just as equally propose that other activities can be spiritual pursuits, such as science or literature.

Science, like prayer, is an attempt to understand the universe. Its goal is to extend our knowledge and awareness. Its discoveries – the realisation that the sun does not orbit our earth – have humbled our species, forced us to accept our smallness. Science and religion do occasionally even arrive at similar conclusions. Buddhism teaches that everything is nothing and thus everything is the same. To many this appears an idealistic simplification. Modern science has made us think twice. I don’t claim to know a great deal (or even a small deal) about atoms, but I know that they are everywhere, and make up everything. I also know that every atom is 99.9% empty space. Adding one and one seems to indeed suggest that everything is very nearly nothing. Lawrence Krauss has a little more to say about the poetic nature of our universe, and the spiritual notion of oneness. He is like me, an awestruck atheist:

My final example of a spiritual pursuit is literature, something very dear to my heart. Outside the pages of the so called ‘holy texts’, you might not feel stories are capable of being a source of spirituality. But to me the world of fiction seems a perfectly reasonable way to seek an understanding of the seemingly incomprehensible. Reading has many similarities to prayer or meditation after all. It is a time you spend alone, separate from the physical world and biological urges. It is an activity that can translate meaning and invoke empathy, awe, wonder. Novels, poems and plays can change lives and perspectives. At their finest, they can have us reevaluate the world outside of their fiction. Who would deny that reading offers a very secular out-of-body experience?

So I’m a spiritual atheist – in my understanding of the word that is. How would you define yourself? Any attempt is going to first require pondering and navigating around an array of enigmatic terms: spirituality, god, soul, spirit, religion, consciousness, life, transcendence, faith, energy, awe…

I wish you luck.

 

Better than no words

A blank white page with a flashing cursor.

All of your best pieces started the same way. Okay, your worst too. You’re not a writer if you aren’t writing. Just a pretender. Write something, anything.

Pedancy. It’s not a word. Someone asked me the other day and I just typed it out to check. It’s not a word. I am a pedant. A perfectionist, but that sounds arrogant. I always thought it was a good quality but recently I am not so sure. It has made me proud of my writing in the past. But now it’s the reason why I’m not writing. And I mean really writing. I have been churning out essays of course. Churning is not the right word. It implies fluidity. Grinding is the word. There is no flow. My essays are not written; they are rewritten. Sentences survive seconds. Commas are placed and then removed. The experience is painstaking. Hours of typing sees my word-count decrease. I’m getting the grades. But is that enough? The final product is satisfactory. But the process isn’t. Let yourself write an awful first draft. That’s textbook creative writing advice right there. I can’t do it. This isn’t to say my first drafts are any good. I mean I can’t do first drafts. I can never start on the first sentence and reach the last without rewriting those in-between. I never really plan anymore, maybe that’s my issue. Do plans really drain your creative flow? Planning when I don’t have one can’t hurt. I have a plan: I’ll plan my next piece.

1.43am.

The blank white page is not as blank. No rewriting. Kerouacian spontaneous prose (even with background jazz for inspiration). A writer is someone who writes. Present tense.

Today, I am a writer of 300 words.

Writers block