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University: Sink or Swim

Predictably for a British, 21-year-old university student, my favourite TV series is Peep Show. The show’s premise is simple — two 30-somethings, sharing a Croydon flat, trying (and failing) to escape the mundane, repetitive, and painful reality of daily adult life.

Initially, the show’s strength seems to be its portrayal of hope and success. The deep-set tension between the delusional ambition and obvious mediocrity of the two main characters, Mark and Jeremy, is a potshot at modern man — facing difficulty in ‘making it’ in a world where it’s either that or failure.

And yes, Peep Show is that, but it’s also something more; these two layabouts aren’t just relatable, pathetic, and funny, they’re also two deeply sad and flawed men, who have let a few faults in their character rule them like a tyrant.

Peep Show’s most basic lesson is that life can go wrong – and that a good number of people fall short of their heady delusions. Yet Peep Show is also subtly optimistic. Opportunities never disappear for the pair, and for all the failures that they face, life keeps on handing them second, third, fourth, and fifth chances. Happiness is never too far off — even if it never arrives. Peep Show is a show about failure — but it’s also about the potential for success.

What Peep Show describes is something bracing, horrible, and true —and something you’ll first discover at university. In life, you can sink or swim. You can be in control, meeting your desired ends and aims, or you can be out of control, trying and failing to get a toehold on the north face of life.

And at no time in your life do you have more control or hold over this than at university. The life you live here, to a greater extent than any other time in your existence, is self-determined. The people you hang out with — your choice. The time you spend working — up to you. Your hobbies and interests, or lack thereof — again, your prerogative. In other words, you are what you make of yourself. That should be liberating — or exciting and horrifying in equal measure — as, for the first time in your life, how you do will be up to you.

Take the example of your social life. At university, you are gifted a blank slate. Once here, your old friend-group, the one from school, shatters — as its remnants are littered across the various universities of Britain and the world.

So the new friends you make are truly new — and you can pick and choose what sort of person you want to be close with. The result is a radical, millenarian freedom — to succeed or fail, to sink or swim. You can make friends that care for you, push you forward and fight for you, or make the weirdest, toxic, social leeches conceivable your nominal ‘friends’.

And that really matters. It matters, because friends are not only crucial to your general happiness and wellbeing — but they also make you who you are. Psychologists and self-help gurus often reference the ‘social proximity effect’, which, essentially, describes how being with certain sorts of people affects the person you are. Being with those with good habits, values and a positive approach to life breeds those things in you. By contrast, being near pessimists, no-gooders, and the relentlessly negative slowly changes you for the worse.

Perhaps the best evidence for this is the exceptions. As Henrik Karlsson argues, those later deemed ‘genius’ have important shared characteristics. They tend to have childhoods or early adulthoods in the presence of other ‘geniuses’ and were often taught or tutored by them. Virginia Woolf’s father invited the toasts of London to converse with his children. John Stuart Mill’s father personally tutored his son with cruel rigour from age three, and kept him in the company of highly influential thinkers, most notably Jeremy Bentham. Put simply, genius breeds genius — and more pertinently, good people breed more good people.

As Jim Rohn says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” People matter — and at university you choose them — so you better get them right.

University is brilliant and terrifying in another sense. At no other time in your life will you have quite so much freedom to act as you want. Bar the halcyon days of pre-primary school life and the tail-end of your innings in the retirement home, it is only at university that the greater portion of your daily life will be directed by your own guiding hand. Many fail to really conceptualise the extent of such opportunity and tragically waste it, devoting their time to things that don’t matter, things they don’t want to do or that don’t further their real aims.

At worst, you can end up like Jeremy, the laziest Peep Show character, whose minimal responsibility to anything or anyone allows him the luxury of a perennially empty calendar. Tragically, he fails to use this to meet his ambitions of becoming a musician, instead sitting around watching children’s TV in his dressing gown, smoking pot, and drinking beer. And that’s the nub — that’s the contrast. At university, your free calendar leaves you free to be what you want to be — and tragedy exists only because you can waste that enormous potential.

You are radically free to pursue what you want to — but with that radical freedom comes a responsibility to make yourself who you want to be. At university, it is not enough to just want to be something. You cannot coast on your fixed essence — at university, as in life, that has to be earned and re-earned.

University is sink or swim because it offers us the most fantastic opportunity. Because, for the first time in your life, you will meet people very different to you — from different classes, countries, and points of view. And with that, comes the potential for a richer and deeper understanding of the world.

Humans are a collection of perspectives — and by interacting with those with deeply different ones, you square your narrow cage of perception with others. As Hegel argues, “the truth is in the whole” — or the more perspectives you engage with, and integrate with your own, the closer you get to a true reflection of what life and reality actually is. When you do, your pool of understanding is able to draw on more past examples and emblematic cases, making you a stronger person, more in touch with the vast panoply of what is.

Universities, especially one like St Andrews, whose strength is its internationalism, and its resistance to being a monolith, provide a unique space. For in a university like ours, the common feature between people is age and intelligence - and not much else. The result is a radical opportunity to connect, to engage, and to become more than our bounded subjectivity.

So yes, you can sink. You can end up like the proverbial Jeremy from Peep Show, who at his lowest moment ends up as a life coach sleeping in a bin bag in the corner of a client’s bedroom. But, as in Peep Show, such tragedy is only possible because of opportunity. University is an amazing resource for holistic self-improvement. Don’t mess it up.

Illustration: Lauren McAndrew

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