This International Women’s Day, set your own goals, define your own success, and disregard the expectations others have of you.
“We expected you to do better.”
I’ve never been able to forget those words. It was one of tutors in my first year at university. I had been called into her office at the start of my second semester to talk about my first semester exam results. I hadn’t sat an exam in more than four years. My primary, secondary and further education had been interrupted by spells in hospital for orthopaedic surgery, and long periods of recovery. I was just glad to have made it to university at all.
I had actually done pretty well in that exam. In the university’s archaic and complicated grading system, it was the equivalent of a B. That had been my average at secondary school. I don’t remember any of my teachers telling me then that they had expected me to do better. What I do remember about that school was that learning was personal. It was what I could get out of it, what I enjoyed it, what new things I could discover. Discussion was encouraged. Sharing ideas, thinking your way round a problem promoted. When I failed my maths exam, teachers suggested I complete the qualification through classroom assessments rather than a timed test at the end of the school year – and I passed.
The only criticism I remember getting at school was that my spelling needed to be more precise, and this was because in the days when everything was handwritten and there was no spellcheck apart from a hardback dictionary, I couldn’t spell eponymous. I kept writing it as ‘eponimus’, and my English teacher kept giggling at it, telling me to think of a pony and mouse, with the e moving from the end to the beginning. So it never felt like a criticism.
I’m not sure what the point of the “we expected you to do better” comment was. Did the tutor think I’d wail at her that I’d try harder next time and beg forgiveness for not giving it my all? I was trying my absolute hardest, which is why I wasn’t disappointed with a B, and probably why I ended up with glandular fever between first and second year.
In that university office, I felt like my work ethic was being questioned, my commitment to studying and learning, my ability to put thoughts down on paper during an exam. The tutor was getting annoyed that I didn’t seem very bothered about getting a B, and when I told her I wasn’t, she got angry, and nearly erupted when I said: “I don’t know what you’re getting so het up about.”
This was my education, my experience, my exam result, not hers. I didn’t care what she had expected of me. I was enough of realist not to have any expectations of myself in an unfamiliar environment where I had no idea how they did things. I was doing a foreign language degree, so the important thing for me was learning new vocabulary, a stronger understanding of grammar, an improved ability to speak and comprehend.
This is what I achieved over my four years at university; my grades went up incrementally every semester. I didn’t get a first, but that had never been my goal. I found out on graduation day that an appeal had been made on my behalf by the department of the other subject I had done my joint honours in to try and get my degree moved up to a first as my overall mark was 0.75 short. The department of this foreign language had said no, because I “hadn’t done well enough overall.”
For me, I had. I had got through four tough years of learning a language, as well as studying another subject, and being told I hadn’t met expectations, hadn’t done well enough, and most memorably in my fourth year by a language tutor that “not one single sentence” I had written in an exam “made any sense”, despite the fact that – due to anonymous marking, I suppose – I had again got a B for it (I asked to keep the paper and a native speaker looked over it – it wasn’t perfect, but the majority of it was grammatically correct and easily comprehensible).
I had exceeded my own (non-)expectations by getting to university and completing a joint honours degree. That was my goal, my success. It really didn’t matter to me what the tutors thought. It only mattered to me what I got out of it. And beyond the piece of paper, what I got was a reiteration of what I had been told to prize at school – education is personal.
I have taken that with me, no matter what I do, where I work, who I work with. My goals are my own. As a woman, this is especially important. So much of what we do in life still revolves around others, what they expect of us, what we’re supposed to be giving to them. So this International Women’s Day, think about what you want from life, and don’t measure it against other people’s expectations of you. And if people get angry or annoyed, just say: “I don’t know what you’re getting so het up about.”
Eléna Hogarth is co-founder of Compass.