A level results day is an emotional day for the whole country.
It is a day which affects everyone- not just those receiving their results, but all their family members, teachers, carers and friends too. It is amazing the impact that one piece of paper can seemingly have on so many for the rest of their lives.
I remember the day I got my A Level results. The Principal of the grammar school I attended rang me to inform me that the Northern Ireland exam board had contacted them to let them know that my near perfect scores meant I had also scored the highest overall marks nationally in my A Level Business Exams. Yet this was not what I remembered about the call.
You see, whilst the conversation was taking place, there was an ear-piercing siren alarm going off incessantly in the background- our electricity had been cut off again, because there was a coin meter in the council house we lived in, and as usual we didn’t have the fiver needed to top it up. Whilst the alarm was going off, my Principal repeatedly asked me what the noise was, and I was so utterly mortified, that I couldn’t answer her. Afterwards, I spent the rest of the day crying, as I was so ashamed.
With hindsight, the whole scenario seems hilariously ironic. The fact that the alarm was going off during this moment of achievement which people like me wouldn’t normally achieve, made it totally real- that was my reality. Looking back, it was hugely symbolic and represents the huge hurdles, that so many young people must overcome, day-to-day in order to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Whilst the media like to celebrate the achievements of the A star students, many of us forget the unimaginable struggles that so many of our young people deal with in the lead up to their A Level results from contending with unstable backgrounds at home, to overcoming personal mental health issues, dealing with bullying, caring for sick parents or feeling like they just don’t fit in.
Yet, why is it the case, that so many of these young people, who sit their A Levels despite incredible odds stacked against them still feel like failures, when they don’t achieve the ‘dream UCAS points’ scenario? I think what it comes down to, is how do we as a society define ‘success’.
For many, achievement is defined as a linear path from school, to a top-tier college, then on to a high paying job, and quick progression to the top. Yet is this really success? I don’t think so.
There are many who have trodden this path but who are not really ‘happy’. I know so many lawyers right now, who work until midnight 6 days per week, they don’t ever see their kids, they are chronically exhausted and they barely talk to their partners. Yet I know others, who work in manual jobs, in shops, factories and cafes, who finish at 5pm every day and take their kids to the park every night, spending all weekend having fun with their family and friends- who do we really think is more ‘successful’ in life?
I also know countless ‘overachievers’ at school and college, but have since fallen into seemingly lower-level positions in organisations. Whilst others who took a slower path, perhaps as a result of academic disappointments, who pursued further education and found their passion in life first-have now succeeded in reaching the highest levels career-wise. In these cases, where those who were not deemed so ‘academic’ at school who succeeded in the real-world, the common factor in determining their progression, is in finding their calling and then putting in the hours, turning up day after day, which resulted in them ultimately reaching the top of the career ladder.
The other key factor which sets individuals apart in the working world, is the ability to be able to relate to others, which is much more a determinant of progression- than how smart a piece of paper says you are. So, in thinking about how we define success, I think success is pursuing your passion- whatever that may be.
By encouraging young people to follow their dreams, we will have a society which is less focused on exam points, money and status, and more concerned with the happiness of our citizens- which must be the ultimate goal in life. So let’s applaud the achievements of all of our young people this week and encourage them to follow their passions, in making decisions about the future- because when we do what we love, we usually find that success follows quickly behind.