Is achievement overrated?

The weekend before last, I took a stroll down memory lane. I went back to Oxford University, where I was a student from 1989 to 1993, for a reunion dinner at my college (St Anne’s) and to spend a sunny weekend in what is an incredibly beautiful city.

I knew it would be a lovely few days in terms of sunshine, scenery and seeing old friends but I was also apprehensive. Firstly, I imagined all my fellow alumni would be “sorted”, in life, love and work. That they’d all be sure of what they were doing and where they were going and would be combining impressive careers with bringing up children in detached homes. I thought I’d be the only one who was pondering which way to turn in her work life, who wasn’t settled with a partner and family and who sometimes struggled to be happy.

I also expected the weekend would be emotionally challenging. I imagined I’d recall the negative aspects of those university days – my low self-esteem and painful self-consciousness, the binge eating and binge drinking, the several stone extra in weight I was carrying and my dislike for my body.

The Bodleian Library

University is supposed to be the best years of your life, a time of exploration, freedom, friendship and broadening one’s horizons. And I was at Oxford, not only an incredible seat of learning but a place of privilege in terms of social and sporting facilities. But when I look back at photos of those years, I cringe. I see a woman who was lacking in self-belief and self-confidence and who overate to blot out painful feelings; a woman who felt less than her fellow students – physically, intellectually and financially.

I came to Oxford from a single-parent home in Liverpool. I was the first member of my family to go to university and I’d never eaten an avocado. I remember wishing I had the money to buy the nice clothes some of my new student friends were wearing or the confidence to pull them off. I recall wishing my parents lived in Hong Kong or Africa, that my Dad was a diplomat or that my family debated current affairs around a dinner table of homemade curries or avocado salads – in my house, we ate off trays on our knees while watching TV.

This isn’t meant to sound like a sob story. I didn’t arrive at Oxford dressed in rags and I’d had a great education at a private girls’ school (thanks to a scholarship) where I’d been head girl and captain of various sports teams. But arriving at university was quite a shock. Most of the students had also been head girls or boys and had excelled at sports and studies. Not only that, but they seemed to be oozing with self-confidence and many – of course, not all – seemed to have stability, security and money behind them.

Looking back, I now see that my outer achievements at school and in sports were just that, outer achievements. I’d pushed myself academically and physically, with great results. But my success was built on sand. I had no sense of security or self-esteem, no sense of who I was or why I was trying so hard and no grounding. And I was hypersensitive to rejection. So when, in my early days at St Anne’s, I wasn’t invited to a cocktail party with students I thought were becoming my friends or when I went to the university lacrosse trials and felt ignored by a coach who in my eyes favoured the confident, blonde, southern girls, I crumbled. I didn’t have the inner strength to tell myself I was good enough just as I was.

Against that backdrop, the compulsive behaviours I’d discovered in my school years to anaesthetise my feelings ran wild. I overate and then tried to compensate by going on long, punishing runs. I drank to excess (granted, a typical student activity). And I didn’t date – except for during holidays and my final year when I was thinner and felt more confident – preferring to obsess in my head about men who weren’t interested in me.

With all that in mind, I thought my return to Oxford would be a sad affair, albeit a cathartic one. But while I feel rather subdued writing down some of those memories, my weekend walk down memory lane was completely different to what I’d expected.

Daffodils by the river

Rather than confronting my demons, I spent most of the weekend reminiscing about the good times. The city looked beautiful, with its spires, daffodil-filled parks, rivers and bicycles. I remembered the picnics, the parties, the punting and the fun I had rowing in eights with my college friends. And I realised – probably for the first time – what an incredible privilege it had been to study there.

I hadn’t wanted to go to Oxford. I applied because my school suggested I could get in and because I thought it was expected of me. I sobbed when the acceptance letter came through the post. I wanted to go to Edinburgh or Newcastle or somewhere more “normal”. I thought Oxford would be filled with posh, clever, rich people (and it was, in part, but some of those people became my best friends and others came from more simple backgrounds like me). I could have turned down my place – my family gave me the choice. But, perhaps because I thought I ought to or because I recognised a good opportunity, I accepted it.

How different would things have been if I’d heeded my tears and gone elsewhere? I’ll never know.

But what’s comforting is to realise I’m not that different to my fellow alumni after all. Not everyone I met at the reunion was “sorted” – yes, there were some tales of happy families and flourishing careers but others were single or getting divorced and many were at a career crossroads, wondering what to do with their lives or in a job they felt they had to stay in for the money and security.

And, I finally realised, nor was I that different to my fellows back in my university days. Yes, there were the confident ones who seemed so sure of themselves but like me, many were riddled with insecurities and drank or ate too much to take the edge off. So my trip back had been cathartic, but not in the way I’d expected.

But as I was leaving college on the Sunday, something caught my eye. It was a ‘wall of fame’ of those who’d studied at St Anne’s and gone on to achieve great things. A few names stood out. I’d never known, for example, that Helen Fielding, the hugely successful author of Bridget Jones’ diary had gone to my college. I re-read Bridget Jones recently, looking for some inspiration for my own ‘From Forty With Love’ book, and was reminded how brilliantly written and observed it is, in the humble opinion of this London singleton. Other alumni included Jackie Ashley, Zoë Heller, Martha Kearney and Tina Brown, all well-known, successful journalists, writers or broadcasters.

What struck me, however, as I read down the list of names, was that it was all about achievement at work. Only those who’d gained notoriety, who were in the public eye, who had written best-sellers or had done great things in science or the Arts got a mention.

But what about happiness? What about inner peace and contentment? What about fulfilment, love or family? I’d have been just as interested to know whether everyone on the list had found happiness alongside their success, whether they felt content, settled, secure and loved. Or had fame and fortune left them feeling empty? Were they constantly striving and not feeling good enough? Had they prioritised career over happiness and ended up disillusioned? Helen Fielding spoke at the Oxford Union in 2009 about the pressure on women to do it all and have it all and, although you can’t believe everything you read in the papers, it seems the private lives of great achievers haven’t always been a bed of roses.

And where were the names of those students who hadn’t achieved notoriety but were happily working, living and loving, who’d found peace or were in a solid marriage and providing stability for their children? Surely, they deserve a mention on the wall of fame.

This may all sound a little naive. After all, if none of us felt driven or inspired to write, broadcast, experiment in science, practice law at the highest level and so on, there’d be little development and the world would be a very dull place. And it’s unlikely Oxford University would ever broadcast the happiness of its alumni over their achievements.

But I ponder these things because of my own experience. Achieving things because we think we’re supposed to or it’s expected of us or because we’re driven by insecurity and a compulsive desire to be seen or heard, does not bring happiness or contentment. We get what we always thought we wanted and we wonder why we wanted it in the first place. And then we realise that we never really knew what we wanted because we never knew ourselves. We’d hidden ourselves or lost ourselves amid all the striving to be what others wanted us to be. Or we’d tried to mask our deep insecurities or feelings of not being good enough with external accolades, while worrying one day that we’d get found out. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone but it was, in part at least, the case for me.

And that’s why, for the time being, I’m resigning from the mission of trying to work out what to do with my life or what it is I’m supposed to achieve and I’m embracing a new challenge: Operation Happiness. More about that in my next post.

Oxford - A privilege

About Katherine Baldwin

I am a writer, coach, midlife mentor, motivational speaker and the author of How to Fall in Love - A 10-Step Journey to the Heart. I specialise in coaching women and men to have healthy relationships with themselves so that they can form healthy and loving romantic relationships and lead authentic, fulfilling lives. I coach 1:1, lead workshops and host retreats.
This entry was posted in Addiction, Eating disorders, Self-Acceptance, Women, Work. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Is achievement overrated?

  1. sallyenfrance says:

    I’ve been reading a book called the Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters, who says that the part of our brain that thinks emotionally and often irrationally (and includes the voice in our head that admonishes us for not being ‘good enough’) is not really us, it is our ‘chimp’ and it evolved for the purpose of procreation. The ‘human’ section of brain he says, contains the ‘real you’ and that is the part you have control over and is influenced by facts and logic. This is the part that we access when we are calm and in control. He says that the ‘chimp’ measures its worth by achievement and looks and the ‘human’ part of the brain meausures its worth through qualities such as kindness and altruism. From a spiritual point of view, Deepak Chopra says that true success is not material success or even family, but happiness based purely on being alive. So sounds like you are on the right track with your Operation Happiness and I look forward to reading more. All the best, Sally.

  2. roisin says:

    Sally, that’s a great quote from deepak, thank you for sharing it.

    Katherine, I look forward to hearing more about operation happiness too- sounds like a plan is like to follow myself!! On a different note, I wondered if you had thought about the impact of being 40s and single without a child when ones parents die? I know you come from a single parent family and I’m not sure if you have siblings but it’s something that I’ve discussed with my brother and although we are all equally close to our parents (albeit in different ways as you would imagine in a large family) he cannot see why I would be dreading this inevitability so much. But then he has a wife and four lovely daughters to focus on when it happens. I, on the other hand, have just me. Is this something others who are single and without children dread too?

    • sallyenfrance says:

      Roisin, I read your comment with interest for 2 reasons. Firstly because I am in my late 40’s with no children and as of February this year I am in the position you describe. Although I am married, I do wonder how I will cope if my husband is no longer around. Like you I have a brother who has family of his own. Also, when I read the Deepak Chopra quote I am comforted by it, but sometimes find it hard to believe that i will be truly Ok without close family around me. Having said that I don’t think it’s a good idea to have children in order to allay our insecurities and it’s only in my low moments that I worry about the future. I think it’s up to us to get out there and ensure we have a network of good friends and absorbing interests. I loved my parents dearly, but family can also be a tie and an obligation. I think it’s a matter of making the most of whatever situation we find ourself in.

  3. Hi ladies,
    Thanks so much for commenting – for your thoughts on the book you’re reading and the Deepak Chopra quote, Sally, and for what you wrote, Roisin. I have indeed pondered the impact the death of our loved ones can have on us, particularly if we don’t have our own children. I remember writing about it in a previous post, Loss and the life cycle (, shortly after my Grandad died. I think losing parents or grandparents brings us face to face with our own mortality and the question of what we’ll leave behind. My father died five years ago but my Mum is still with us and I have one sibling, who has children. I think it’s inevitable that we’ll be hit harder if we don’t have our own offspring, both because of that sense of legacy but also because children occupy so much emotional and mental space that their parents have to move on quickly. I think there are a lot of occasions that are tough to face as a singleton or childless woman – deaths, marriages, births, christenings etc. They all remind us of family. That said, I guess it is about making the most of the advantages that come with our circumstances, as Sally wrote, but believe me, Roisin, I know those feelings of loss and I do imagine (I say ‘imagine’ because of course I have no idea what it’s like to have a family) the pain is easier to bear with a partner and/or children.
    Maybe I’ll try and write an article about the topic for a newspaper and do some research – it’d be interesting to hear what others think.
    Best wishes and thanks again for reading and commenting,

  4. Tracey Cockram says:

    Another lovely piece – and I am so relieved there are some good memories to look back on! I have fantastic albeit selective memories of my time at St Anne’s and know that the painfulness of youth is usually hiding some great fun and warm friendships and activities. Still, your writing always encourages sensitive thought and inclusive sympathy. We probably wouldn’t want Mods or Finals again but a quick punt down the river might be just what the doctor ordered! Thank-you!
    Tracey Cockram.

  5. rantywoman says:

    I relate quite a bit to your college experience… reposted on

  6. Babatunde says:

    This is one of the most educating blog i’ve come across.. You would not imagine the amount of people struggling through the thought of what they are meant to do with their lives. Like you, i’m embarking on the journey of happiness. Although i do have a career in film making but now i realize how much time of my life it is taking. Starting from tonight, i am taking few steps back to enjoy life more. Thanks a lot.

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