When I tell people I went to Cambridge, the reaction normally goes something like this:
“Wow, you must be like a super genius or something!”
Comments like these, while a boost to the ego, always make me wince inwardly. I don’t think very highly of Cambridge, nor of any decision that is predicated on prestige. I would much rather people compliment me on my courage and resilience than on a fading piece of yellowish paper from a fading institution.
Living the middle-class dream
I enrolled in Cambridge because that’s what I was supposed to do. “Go to the most prestigious university possible,” my parents said. “Associate with the right crowd, impress the right people, then surf through life on a wave of success.”
What I didn’t realise at the time was how this encouraged me to look for validation outside of myself. It didn’t matter what I learned or how I improved as a person, only that I followed the tried and tested path from educational achievement to career prosperity. I needed the right degree certificate and the right connections. That, apparently, would lead to happiness and fulfilment.
I was actually a total misfit during my first year at Cambridge. Most of my peers engaged in a mix of studying and socialising (read: drinking). I ignored the latter and focused on doing everything my professors asked of me. I joined clubs and filled my out-of-class hours with extra-curricular activities. It was a brutal schedule, and the strain of keeping it led to more than a few sleepless nights. But because my attendance and grades earned praise, I continued thinking I was doing the right thing for my future.
My Cambridge college
The wake-up call
It wasn’t until my second year that I started to see the trap I had fallen into. Cambridge puts students on a treadmill of achievement which leads precisely nowhere. I wasn’t supposed to gain knowledge or improve myself, not really. My job was to please professors and pass exams – no matter the cost to my well-being.
I soon discovered that there were easier ways to achieve those ends without suffering the drawbacks that come with sitting in the library for 10 hours a day. It was a simple matter to read articles about assigned materials instead of crawling through dense source texts. The outcome was basically the same — good enough marks to get by and to gain the approval I craved. The only difference was that I gained very little in terms of knowledge. Nobody cared about that fact, however. Not my teachers, not my family, and certainly not Cambridge.
As I was questioning the purpose and value of my education, a wake-up call came in the most cliché way possible: I met a girl. She was captivating and pretty. There was no question I wanted to pursue her. Rejection seemed likely, as I wasn’t very experienced with relationships, but I went for it all the same. To my surprise, my efforts were successful.
Personal growth from an unlikely source
The relationship itself, such that it was, wasn’t my wake-up call. It was a single conversation we had about the manner in which I pursued her. She described me as… suave. My immediate internal reaction was complete disbelief. Suave? I wasn’t suave, I was new to all of this. How could I, the studious bookworm with excellent grades and no social life, be suave?
Like anyone my age, I turned to the internet for answers. Obviously I had done something right. I wanted to know exactly what that was, whether it was part of my personality, and what I could do to nurture it. I stumbled upon pick-up artistry (PUA) and read all about seduction systems I could use to intentionally become more successful with women.
Me as a PUA
Of course, looking back on this now, I consider it a dysfunctional way of thinking. But at the time, it gave me a framework for how I could behave in order to manipulate women into liking me. Through learning this consciously, I was later able to see in therapy how I had been unconsciously using similar techniques for years to win the approval of my professors, parents, and other authority figures. I realised that I had been searching for validation from others for all this time. In reality, trying to control what someone else thinks of you is inevitably a losing game.
It wasn’t the pick up artistry itself that inspired change. It was the act of striking out on my own and being willing to think for myself, even at the risk of failing. This was in sharp contrast to Cambridge telling me to ignore self-knowledge and work to gain the approval of others. Good grades please professors. It didn’t matter what I learned in the process, if anything at all. My strange pursuit of pick-up artistry offered insight into myself as well as tangible value to my life.
The worthlessness of prestige in real life
I continued this shift away from achievement-hunting as I finished my studies at Cambridge. I turned my attention inward, sought intrinsic validation for my pursuits and ideas and became more confident as a result.
I also faced the cold reality of the limitations of my education. Having a prestigious university’s name stamped on my degree didn’t mean I was more capable than other people. I still faced challenges and failures just like my peers, and I couldn’t overcome them by simply name-dropping my alma mater. I’ll be blunt: this was one of the hardest things I have ever had to realise. That statement alone shows you how entitled I felt at the time to a good job.
In the cases where mentioning Cambridge did open doors for me, I quickly learned that those doors were not worth stepping through. Someone who values a name over ability is not someone with an intelligent values system, nor are they someone you want to work with.
My takeaway from Cambridge is simple: prestige is a worthless currency. It’s little more than an illusion. Enabled by the youthful naivety of its students and the economic ignorance of their school teachers, the university is guilty of milking this illusion for its own financial benefit. It banks on former successes to create this bizarre name-worship situation, sacrificing the personal growth of its students in the process.
Yes, Newton developed his three laws of motion while at Trinity College, Cambridge. Watson and Crick also defined the double-helix structure of DNA at Cambridge. Such achievements cannot be imparted onto other Cambridge students, however. Those people worked and fought and failed before earning their place in history, and we must do the same.
The value of acquiring real-life knowledge
If you take nothing else away from this article, let it be the value of self-directed learning. There is real and lasting value in learning for practical purposes, and in ditching the impulse to earn praise from people around you. Instead, look for ideas that are right for your unique character. Expand your horizons until you find your interests, then hone in and specialise. Get to know your own temperament through self-analysis and you will discover the true value of learning.
I don’t regret my time at Cambridge. If I had known then what I know now, I would have probably started a business at age 18 instead of going to university; there’s no faster way to learn and grow. However, my time in mainstream education is what gave me the inspiration to start this business and the confidence to speak frankly about the constraints of a life built around prestige and the approval of others. Prestige may be desirable, but you don’t need to rely on institutions for validation. As Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham said: “Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious.”
Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.
Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.