Guest post: My accomplishments don’t define me

This article is written by a friend of mine Giulia Mazzu, a recent Law graduate from King’s College London, currently working at Migrant Help. She has worked in the charity sector, particularly within immigration and asylum, and is a committed campaigner for refugee rights. She aspires to keep working in the non-profit sector, and hopefully continue to write for different media outlets. She is currently doing a short course in Broadcast Journalism. On top of this, she runs social media for Our Second Home, a charity which aims to empower young refugees in the UK through residential camps. Giulia can be found on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Giulia’s article felt important to publish as it’s a pretty unique one in that it stems from another article (like some kind of Inception-esque parallel) where she was featured as a glowing example of accomplishment. However, that article prompted her to reflect on her undergraduate life and the tougher reality of it compared to outward appearances. Silks And The City focuses a lot on how to overcome difficulties, and reach your potential – but has never touched on how this might be framed against doubts about a career path and a questioning of one’s future. Giulia discusses imposter syndrome – something I talk about here and she also mentions how her own wellbeing suffered. You can find a heap of articles that aim to help with wellbeing and mental health here if you find yourself in a similar situation struggling with fear, doubt or feeling trapped. It’s vital to recognise our own internal resources and that these aren’t always reflected in a piece of paper – something I myself touched on in this post about my own route to graduation and experience of receiving an award. If you’re considering a change of job, like Giulia did, then check out the Work Experience section here on the blog for a whole host of articles that take you through the job hunting process from start to finish. Keep reading to find out how Giulia managed to find motivation and purpose during a dark time in her degree, and for my postscript on what does define you…

“Recently, I was featured in an article on The Guardian about students obtaining legal experience while at university. The article is extremely positive, portrays me as an eager student with some amazing work experience under her belt, and mentions that I was the winner of a prestigious award. After having read the article and shared it on social media, I received a flood of compliments from friends and people I hadn’t heard from in years congratulating me on the mention. While a very flattering recognition of my achievements, it also prompted some self-reflection. Reading a list of only my accomplishments felt slightly wrong, as when I look back at obtaining work experience and then winning the award, I don’t think about thriving and doing well at my course. Instead, it brings me back to rough times of self-doubt, feeling out of place, and detesting studying Law. Of course, the point of the article was to highlight students who had the motivation to seek out work experience in order to prepare them for a career, therefore there would be no point in mentioning my aversion to studying the very degree I was applauded for seemingly doing well in. However, the reactions from those who came across my self-promotion led me to have a long think about all the decisions, and failures, which brought me to those achievements. Initially writing this was more of a cathartic experience – just for me. But then I decided to share this because I finally felt brave enough to share my flaws, and want to let people know that struggling is not shameful. 

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At the time of getting into university to study Law, it felt like my greatest accomplishment. Within a matter of months, my greatest accomplishment began to feel more like my worst nightmare. The first-year modules felt so dry, there was so much memorising of case law and statute, and I had no idea how to apply the few pieces of information I had struggled to remember. Law comes with a reputation of being a difficult and prestigious degree, which is what is lovely about telling people you study Law: they automatically assume you are hardworking and clever. However, for me, that came at a price. By January of my first year, I considered dropping out and reapplying for a different course. After speaking to a tutor, who reassured me that many students felt that way, and it would all start making sense in a few months, I decided against it. What followed were months of depression, trouble getting out of bed, insomnia which kept me up until 5 am, missing lectures, so on. I felt completely deflated and unmotivated. 

For my second year, I was determined to improve my grades and fill up my CV, as I still thought that I had to make Law my career objective at all costs. Though, I thought, “I’m going to do things my way, I’m going to fill up my CV with things I enjoy.” So, with that in mind, I started doing voluntary research on refugee law, I chose a human rights module, and I volunteered at a student society advocating for refugee rights. I motivated myself to attend most lectures, and through my involvement, I made friends on my course, many of whom I am still close to after graduation. However, the feeling of being out of place never quite left me. During lectures, I sat with the keen ones at the front, to this day not entirely sure why, perhaps I was hoping that some of their enthusiasm would pass to me through osmosis. For some reason, all my closest friends were first-class achieving, future solicitors and barristers, which meant that the conversation about Law was not confined to the lecture theatre. People on my course would go above and beyond, reading articles on the ‘further reading’ section. Some had secured vacation schemes at Magic Circle firms during first-year. At no point did I feel jealous of anyone, maybe because they were so unassuming about their accomplishments, or maybe because I had no interest in securing a top TC and I never aimed for a first-class degree. To me, scraping a 2.1 elated me. Looking back, I think of that year as the year of convincing others, and especially myself, that I was a good Law student and I loved Law and I would be a lawyer. Laughable now, but at 19 I can see why I desperately wanted to make this work: I thought the rest of my life hinged on whatever I did at university. 

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During my third year, I got accepted to volunteer at the university’s legal clinic. Working on real cases finally gave purpose to my study. Representing vulnerable clients, knowing that my work made a contribution to someone’s life, gave me hope that maybe these three years of misery had not been in vain. I was a reliable volunteer and enthusiastic about the cases, which impressed those who ran the clinic; so much that they nominated me for an Attorney General Award for my contributions and my activism for refugee rights. I had no idea that this award existed, and when I got the nomination I was surprised, so you can imagine the shock when during the ceremony held at the House of Commons, I won. 

I received a lot of congratulations from friends and the law faculty, there were articles written about it; the win had been featured on all university social media accounts. Yet, I did not feel like I deserved any of it. I worked well within the clinic, but I felt like an imposter, for multiple reasons. I kept thinking that a lot of students who could have won that award were probably achieving far better grades than I was, or had greater desires to go on to further study and become lawyers. I felt that my ambitions and my academic performance did not qualify me to be recognised, and my lack of enthusiasm for the course, in general. Until now, I thought that a degree and good grades defined someone as worthy of employability and success. This changed after graduation, when I realised that my skills and experience all came from striving to learn and improve myself, and not from sitting in lectures and being good at exams. Recently I have come across several people in industries who didn’t even attend university, yet they stand at the heights of success. They have done this through working hard and never letting a piece of paper, or lack thereof, get in the way of their ambitions. 

After I shared the recent Guardian article, the mis-match between my glowing achievements and the reality of that time prompted me to reshare the article but with a long caption where I shared some truths about what really happened before I won those awards. I didn’t mind people thinking that I had, “the extracurricular hyperactivity to make the average office worker wince” to quote the article. But I did not want people thinking that my journey at university was straightforward, that I got those internships and an accolade because I was so enthused by my course and keen to rack up some work experience for my CV. I struggled, I hated my degree, I did not do well, and until now I was too embarrassed to admit that to anyone, especially my coursemates. But I’ve come to realise that there is a lot of strength in admitting your vulnerabilities, even if only to yourself. The award and the recognition was a side effect to some amazing experiences I had at the legal clinic, later on at a Law centre, and now at a charity that I work for. After sharing my brief but honest account, I got more messages than ever, mainly from people who were on my course, who thanked me for my candor. A lot of these people were first-class candidates, but it goes to show that even those at the top of the cohort are not immune to moments of self-doubt and fragility. I am proud of myself, not for my award or for graduating, but for finally having the courage to embrace the hard times and the doubt as a strength as opposed to a weakness. If I could say something to my first-year self it would be: stop taking your life so seriously, you won’t even remember that time you got a third, it won’t matter, and you won’t even remember that time you got a first, it also won’t matter. A grade, a degree, an award, all of those things, they won’t define your future.”

Thank you for sharing, Giulia. Unfortunately, the way the world currently is means we often feel unable to admit when we might be struggling, show vulnerabilities or let people know (or even admit to ourselves) we feel scared or alone or trapped, and uncertainty is viewed as something ugly and destructive. I have written about tips for when life throws us a curve-ball or when we need a confidence boost that try and address these modern day fixations: appearing completely together, always on top of everything, unflappable, sure of our destination, unstoppable at reaching a goal we have clung to for years etc.

As Giulia writes – it is often in our darkest moments that we find inner resources we never knew we had, and that can fuel our journey to a place of happiness and fulfilment; a place, and with people, we maybe had never considered. A place, and with people, who maybe weren’t part of the ‘grand plan’, but that feel right – even if it involves a period of adjustment, discomfort and fear of the unknown or failure. Giulia faced up to the fact that her dream degree wasn’t so dreamy – and the years of hard work may have been spent on a future she now didn’t want. Instead of crumbling, she managed to find the strength to admit out loud that what she’d been working for was no longer what she actually wanted – and through that she has managed to find purpose and joy in her life. That bravery means she has been able to find the things she feels truly passionate about, and even be rewarded for her work.

Giulia ends with saying a piece of paper shouldn’t define you – I couldn’t agree more, and have said similar many times. What defines you is you – those little details, quirks and abilities you have that can never be taken from you or captured – those things you are open about and the self-knowledge you have. Whatever life throws at you, whatever judgments others make about you, whatever constraints society puts on you – what defines your future is you. Sometimes being honest, raw and letting people in can open up a whole new world of exciting opportunities and fulfilment – even if in doing so, you have to walk away from a dream that was merely that – a dream. If awards were given out to people who reassessed their lives, created change, struggled to let go of past dreams that no longer feel so dreamy and then found their adventure then they’d be bravery awards – and Giulia would be getting one of those too.

(Don’t be shy…click ‘Leave a comment’, share this post if you like it; email, tweet and generally pester me if you want to hear more/share your stories/say hi)

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