Today is a melancholy day, the funeral of one of my first college friends. He had battled for years with depression, anxiety and a cascade of associated health problems.
His passing led to a burst of correspondence between those of us in his circle in those university years. We agreed that if we had been asked at that time to identify someone likely to have an illustrious future in the world of academia, it would have been this person: widely-read, amusing, astute, and a glamorous figure with an arresting choice of outfits. It was so easy to imagine him becoming an eccentric, popular professor.
Sadly, he did not thrive in the years that followed. He never seemed to grasp the nettle of the outside world. We kept hoping there would come a turning-point. He would manage to get off his medications. New therapies would be found. A counsellor might help him to turn the key in his mind. It always seemed as if there was still time for a new leaf. Now we have to accept that there wasn’t.
We have been mulling over the trajectories taken by those of us who used to sit around the table in the college bar, setting the world to rights. Some of that group have flourished, others not. Yet the cards have not fallen in predictable patterns.
Luck, health, opportunity or lack of it – these have played a big part. Talent is important, but it turns out there is no straightforward link between talent and success. Ambition, determination and perseverance have helped, but have not always been enough. Personality and ‘clubbability’ have been assets. Careers with definite structures have made ladders easier to climb. Mental resilience has been vitally important. But how to develop it?
Looking back, I do feel that more could have been done to prepare us for the challenges of the working world. I don’t recall any of my university tutors ever asking me what I planned to do when I graduated. Where was I going to go, how did I intend to support myself financially. Did I have a realistic plan? (I didn’t.) There was no career advice whatsoever. They were kind to me until the moment I left, but then turned their attention fully to the next cohort of students. I found the transition to the working world very hard, and some of my friends found it even harder.