Is striving for success really what we want?

“The exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS…is our national disease.” Thus wrote William James to H. G. Wells in 1906. The same could be said of Oxford University today. Every student has succeeded in getting in, but it’s not long before we need more success- it is addictive. The way we think changes a lot during our degree, much more than we might initially expect. Eventually, the majority of us decide to hit the work hard before Finals, perhaps because of the pressure of expectation, or because our friends appear to be doing so, or because we want to succeed and make the most out of this opportunity. I’m not sure if this mentality is necessarily something we all possessed or even desired before we came to Oxford.

I chose my degree and my University because I loved my subject. Now I’m not working because I’m interested, but because I’m terrified of failing. I need the best degree I am capable of. My question is: why? I pray to God that what I learn from my degree won’t be used exclusively as table-talk in the middle-aged pseudo-intellectual dinner parties of my future. Essentially, the better the degree, the better the opportunities for a ‘successful’ career; be warned though, this definition of success has nothing to do with an assurance of happiness. The effort we put into our degrees is fuelled by a desire to ‘fit in’ with students who are among the most intelligent in the world. People should not expect to just ‘fit in’ to this category. Fitting in to this category is very very odd, and very special too.

Regardless, we do want to fit in here. The more we ‘fit in’ with the academic potential around us, the more we perpetuate a work ethic which benefits both ourselves and Oxford as an institution. Our time here is a mutually beneficial moulding of potential into a successful future for all. My concern is that when the struggle at Oxford is over, we all enter the big wide world and have to struggle away again. This time, however, there is no graduation to the next level, no degree pasted onto a ceiling to tell us that the effort is over. In our blind rush to climb to the top of the pile, we forget that climbing to the top of the pile holds very little meaning with regard to actual smiles on faces.

So, Oxford changes us: but I wonder if it is all positive change. Examples of institutions changing the behaviour of those within them are rife in the 20th Century- the Stanford Prison Experiment ( ), Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Pinter’s Hothouse (soon to be performed at the Oxford Playhouse) are all well-known examples. Obviously, Oxford isn’t a prison, a madhouse, or an unnamed Hell on earth; we have a choice in everything we do- we can quit the experiment at any time. However, we get so caught up in talking about the storm that we don’t realise we can step out of it. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel just a bit like they’ve eaten out of date food at some point before a collection, or late at night, wired beyond comprehension on cheap coffee and staring at a blank page, begging it to fill itself up with arcane knowledge in time for their 10am tute. It’s not bad to work, but it is bad to work out of fear. If we want to chase happiness, we can’t be running away from failure at the same time.

-Will Godfrey