I am going to tell you two stories about a girl who made a life decision.
They both take place in London in the early 2000s. The girl is nineteen years old, and has been studying a Philosophy & Psychology degree for a year.
The other day a lecturer from the University of Oxford came to do a guest lecture at my university. He spoke about a research project he’s just completed, about pain and religious experience. It sounded fascinating.
After he’d finished, he invited anyone who was interested to go to the pub around the corner. I don’t like pubs, but I was very enthusiastic about his research and I wanted to keep discussing it.
As it turned out, no one else went to the pub except him and my lecturer. We started talking about the research he’d just finished, and then he told me about the research project he’s now embarking on. It sounded like exactly the kind of thing I’m interested in, so I took the plunge and told him some of my research ideas. At some point my lecturer excused himself and went home. I barely noticed: the visiting researcher and I were engaged in a passionate discussion about psychology, the nature of mind, and comparative spirituality.
I went home that night feeling more satisfied than I had throughout my whole university experience so far.
A week or so later, I received an offer from the visiting researcher, asking if I wanted to join his team. It was a post-doctoral team, he told me, but they’d make room for a promising young researcher. I took up his offer and allowed him to poach me from my degree course for a research team at Oxford University.
I was finding my university course hard. I’d been growing gradually more disheartened by my course; not so much the content as the pace and the other students. It was going at far too slow a pace, and I wasn’t feeling challenged. I’d started the year having completed the reading list over the summer, assuming everyone else would show a similar level of enthusiasm. How naive. I spoke to my lecturers but there wasn’t much they could do, and they refused to push me ahead a year.
Eventually I dropped out. I joined a research project at a different university and now I study psychology of religion with them, but I don’t have a degree.
Those stories are about the same girl. The same time period. And they’re both true.
They’re both about me, in 2007.
Story #2 is the one I’ve been telling everyone for years. “What did you study at uni?” people ask me, and I tell them I dropped out after my first year.
But that’s not strictly true, is it?
I mean, it is. I did leave the course. But saying “I dropped out” makes it sound like I gave up on the subject; like I either wasn’t good enough at it, or that I didn’t have the stamina to continue. Neither of which are true.
What I could say – what I should say, probably – when people ask what I studied at uni, is “Psychology”. And then, if they ask, rather than caveating it with “But then I dropped out”, I should say I got poached from a BA and skipped past several levels to end up on a post-doc research team.
Because that’s true.
And the way we phrase things is really important. People judge us on our words as much as on our actions if they’ve just met us. By framing myself as a drop-out, I apply to myself certain qualities that the other person will ascribe to people who have given up on a course. Lack of stamina. Inability to complete projects. Being a “quitter”.
But by framing myself as someone who was poached to do research at a higher level, I apply more positive qualities. Intelligence. Drive. Commitment. The ability to make decisions.
Both versions of the story are true. I did drop out. I was dissatisfied. I was excited by the research project. I was poached by a better university, for a better outcome.
Sometimes it’s not the content of the story that’s important, but the way we put it across.
Which stories in your life could you rephrase from how you normally tell them?