Many of you will get this: growing up with the school and family pressure to go to a “top university”.
From an early age, it was always Oxford or Cambridge that was the definition of what success would look like - even before I knew what I wanted to study! Uncertain about what degree to choose, I only figured out in my A-Levels year that I wanted to pursue what I was most passionate about - mathematics.
I had no mentor to guide me and had very little idea what a math degree entailed. But I was driven to pursue it. I completed my A-Level Maths in a single year with my best friends, whom I had also convinced to do the same. My school didn’t offer Further Maths or have any teachers to support me in it. But this was a key requirement to have any chance to be considered at Oxford, so I took on the challenge and decided to study it independently.
I researched colleges and imagined what life would be like to be studying there. And when applications came around, I applied to Oxford alongside some other “backup” universities including UCL. But I didn’t truly consider those options deeply - I was blinded by what I thought was the only option.
Certain memories become deeply ingrained. And I still viscerally recall the memory of receiving my rejection email from Oxford. I was stepping into my bus at the end of the school day and got a notification - an email from Worcester College.
Unfortunately, in view of the overall competition for places this year, and after consultation with other colleges, I am sorry to tell you that we shall not be able to offer you a place at Oxford and that your application is no longer under consideration by any of the colleges here.
My whole world came crashing down. I was a failure. And my dreams had shattered.
But it was not just myself I had let down, I felt a deep sense of responsibility to my parents, my teachers - everyone who believed in me. This was one of the most difficult and challenging moments in my schooling life. And the next few weeks were not easy.
But it gradually improved and I began to consider the other options and heard back some positive responses. I began to reframe the failure as a redirection and began to get excited again. We build narratives around what life can and should be like. But in each situation, there are strengths and weaknesses and sometimes we are unable to see them. There certainly were disadvantages to pursuing a degree in Oxford and the benefits of studying in other places - I had never even considered them.
My mindset shift was critical to helping me bounce back and get ready for the next challenges ahead of me which included completing the Further Maths syllabus and sitting the final A-Levels! I settled on UCL before my A-Levels which, coincidentally, my best friend also decided on. My results came through and in September 2016, we headed off to London together.
Retrospect is a funny thing. At 17, I had no idea that I would become a social entrepreneur and that the blog I was sharing my notes on would turn into a startup I would be pursuing full-time after graduation. I could not have considered the huge advantages of studying in London - being at the pulse of the startup ecosystem and in a university that championed entrepreneurship among its students. I did not realise how amazing and supportive is to have your best friend of decades to be with you starting a life in a new city.
We don’t have a time machine to see what my life would've been like if I'd ended up in a different university. It might have turned out radically different - not necessarily better or worse than this reality. What is more important is how I ended up approaching failure in each of those scenarios.
A big part of what we ended up doing boils down to mindset. Today, I embrace my failures as opportunities for growth and redirection. I’ve come to realize that every time I fail at something, I’m being redirected towards something greater. And while it’s not always easy to see that at the moment, it’s a powerful reminder to never give up on your dreams.