I got my master’s thesis grade this week.
I’m normally pretty accurate at ‘marking’ my own work – I can often predict within a few percentage points what my mark will be, and I can usually guess what the feedback will be too.
In this case though, I have legitimately spent four weeks thinking I might in fact FAIL. I’ve done a lot of self-talk around how, if I do fail, it won’t make me a bad person; it won’t doom me to eternal failure; in the grand scheme of things it’s not that important; life will still go on. I’ve done quite a few calculations of various grade scenarios to prepare myself for what the lowest grade would be that would let me retain my distinction, what would permit a merit, and what would happen to my average if I just barely scraped a pass on my thesis. In my most optimistic moments I chanted ‘seventy-three, seventy-three, seventy-three’, because 73%, for some reason, is my comfort benchmark.
I have never in my life been so fucking neurotic about grades. I’ve never had to be. I’ve always trusted myself to deliver academically. I’ve always known that my half-arsed, last-minute, crash-my-bike-and-hitch-hike-to-the-submission-box efforts outpace most people’s very best work. I have always had the luxury of being very arrogant about my academic prowess. I’ve always known that, even though I’ve fucked myself over getting to this point, I haven’t fucked myself over enough that anyone else is going to notice.
But, this time, my brain broke a few months before the project was due.
Usually, if my brain’s going to break, it breaks after the deadline. After three consecutive all-nighters with sustenance derived primarily from energy drinks and pre-cooked quinoa eaten out of the packet. Surrounded by piles of debris, financial peril, and myriad evidence of how all other areas of my life were forsaken in favour of completing my assignment. I break when it’s over. Because I’m good in a crisis.
But this time, there’d been multiple crises dragging on for at least two years already. I’d wanted to quit my master’s back when lockdown first hit because I knew I didn’t have the reserves to see it through in my usual style and would instead have to resort to flogging myself across a scorched, barren landscape to make it to freedom. But I couldn’t bring myself to quit, so flogging it was.
In the last few months, there was a thick layer of transparent sludge between me and my project. Like that jelly they put on you for ultrasounds, but about twenty inches thick. I had to reach through to work on it but I couldn’t really see what I was doing and my arms started aching very quickly. The quality of the end product was anyone’s guess. But it probably wasn’t good.
Now I have been rewarded for the flogged muddling with 85%. Despite months of sleepless nights with a three year old pushing me out of bed. Despite my supervisor leaving two months before the hand in and having to renegotiate my report for new eyes. Despite needing to complete another module left over from last year alongside. Despite all the reasons that it only made sense that my grade should suffer, I got 85%. The first adjective used in my supervisor’s feedback was ‘exceptional’.
This wasn’t what the story was supposed to be. This was supposed to be a cautionary tale. That pushing myself past breaking point could not yield success. That sacrificing myself for the grade would not only lead to misery, but also underachievement. That I had to find a better way.
I’m actually not sure what to do with eighty-fucking-five. Don’t get me wrong; I did fucking earn it, more than I’ve probably earned any other grade. And, yeah, I’m probably capable of ninety-five with a gentle tailwind, so I can still be dissatisfied with my performance if I want. But what exactly is the lesson here?
…Learn to take a win, Yve?