Sunday, 18 August 2013

Getting past the next (A) level.

Thursday was A-level results day in the UK, which means that 18-year olds across the land will know by now whether or not they've got into their chosen university.

It's a good day for some students and a bad day for others, but it's always a great day for newspapers, who not only have an excuse to plaster their front pages with photos of comely young maidens, but also to fill their websites with countless click-bait articles about how A-levels are either too easy, horribly unfair, or just completely irrelevant.

A common trope among such articles is the successful journalist providing words of encouragement to students who didn't get the results they hoped for by using their own career trajectory as an inspiring example of how it's possible to "make it" without a spotless academic record. One such article is this one, by Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, who, after taking full responsibility for his lacklustre performance, concludes:

"Your grades are not your destiny: they're just letters and numbers which rate how well you performed in one artificial arena, once."

The article is doubtless well-meant, but had I read it at 18 when I had just been handed my own horribly disappointing results, it wouldn't have helped in the slightest. Not least because for every Charlie Brooker, there are a hundreds of Oxbridge graduates who got there a lot quicker (and doubtless had more fun doing it) and thousands of would-be Brookers whose unfulfilling jobs barely afford them enough time to freelance.

I'm not making a point about class or privilege here, merely being realistic. Brooker's advice to "forget about 'success' as a concept [...] and focus instead on doing what satisfies you, as well as you can", is all very well, but of little consolation to someone who's just wasted two years of their life earning a handful of weak qualifications, and now has no idea what satisfies them. The "letters and numbers" may indeed measure something "artificial", but that doesn't mean they don't have a huge practical impact on the way your life is going to pan out.

Grades don't define you, but they certainly determine your future, if not where you eventually end up then the route you take to get there. Which, as any traveller knows, is far more important.

If you're where I was nearly a decade ago and are wondering why the platitudes aren't making you feel any better, it's because anyone who tells you that grades don't really matter is lying, either to make you feel better, to justify their contempt for a system they hate (justifiably or otherwise) or to congratulate themselves on their own good fortune.

You might wonder why this article is illustrated with Mass Effect 3 bullshots* and although you'd be mostly correct in thinking it's because I forgot to take my grubby raincoat and long-focus lens down to the school gates this morning to sneak some pictures of fruity girls, that's not the whole story.

Mass Effect 3 is the concluding chapter of BioWare's epic space opera in which the player, in the guise of one Commander Shepard, defends the galaxy with the help of one of the best ensemble casts video games have ever seen. The Mass Effect series' great draw is in the freedom it gives players to make decisions that affect not just the outcome of each single game, but later games as well.

The life of Shepard is pertinent in this case for what it does and doesn't have in common with that of and A-level student. On the one hand, Shepard's missions and the lives of his or her friends can diverge greatly depending on the decisions he or she has made (and to a lesser extent, the way he or she has performed) in earlier games. Like the snap decisions that years down the line determine the future of an entire race in Mass Effect, the contents of today's envelopes have far-reaching and unforeseeable consequences for their bearers.

On the other, far less exciting hand, every outcome in Mass Effect is designed to be entertaining. The same cannot be said for real life.

While the desired A-level results generally yield congratulations and an exciting future for at least the next three years, unwanted ones, as Brooker points out, bring doubt and uncertainty.

If you didn't get the grades you wanted, you're probably going to spend the next few days, weeks, months, maybe years figuring out how to play with the hand you've just been dealt. How long the process lasts and how hard you find it depends on many things: whether this is unexpected, whether you've really put the work in and whether this is your first real taste of failure.

For me it wasn't unexpected, I hadn't really put the work in and it was my first real taste of failure. It's not the worst thing that's happened to me, but it's the only thing that still haunts me because of my part in it and the impact it had on the rest of my life.

I know this isn't going to be comforting for anyone going through something similar right now; it's not meant to be. That's because I'm not sure you need comfort right now, you're 18 and life is supposed to be terrifying. You'll have to figure this one out for yourself, and I don't think tight smiles and assurances that "this could be the best thing that ever happened to you" are going to help.

Although... it might be the best thing that ever happened to you. It could just as easily be the worst. Either way, it's a butterfly flap that sets in motion a change of events far more complex than anything Commander Shepard will ever have to face.

For something so "arbitrary" (thanks Charlie), there's almost nothing that has such a disproportionate impact on a life as your A-level results. Since no-one's yet discovered time travel or the means to visit other dimensions, you'll never know what would have happened if those letters had been different. Whom you would have met at the university you will now never go to. What you would have done. The career you'd have had.

Of course, you can turn that around and point out that what looks like a drawback now may reveal itself as a piece of monumental good luck later down the line. Maybe you'll get inspired by something that you'd never have noticed in the fast lane. Maybe you'll meet someone incredible. Maybe you'll give up on university altogether and actually earn a living free from the shroud of debt.

Maybe you'll be happier.

Or maybe you won't. Either way, it's unlikely that you'll ever stop being visited by the ghost of the moment at which one of two possible futures became a reality and the other faded into hypothesis.

You've had enough advice over the last two years, so all I will say is this: In real life you cannot save before you do something risky and important. You can't give up when things get too tough and start another character.

If you've accidentally set the difficulty to "Hard" mode, then you're just going to have to keep playing.

* From Wikipedia: "A [bullshot is a] portmanteau of bullshit and screenshot, referring to the misrepresention of a final product's technical or artistic quality by artificially enhancing promotional images or video footage."

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