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13 August 2015

On A-Level results day, don’t use your success to tell other people everything will be fine in the end

We can't all be Toby Young.

By Sarah Ditum

A level results day! Also known as the day of people who’ve done more than all right tweeting about how they faffed their exams up and it didn’t make any difference to them because look where they are now, so really aren’t A levels meaningless all things considered? (But not actually completely meaningless, because that would be insulting to the people who’ve done well, so better read that back three times before you fire your 140 characters into the world and find yourself beset by narked off teenage overachievers.)

What the well-intentioned successful are actually saying here is: I’m exceptional, you can be too! And the truth is you probably won’t be, because the thing about exceptional people is that they are exactly that – exceptions. For the general population, the general laws apply, and if you didn’t get the grades you needed for the thing you wanted to do, you probably won’t end up doing that thing.

Better haul yourself through clearing to find a course that’s close enough to the one you pegged your hopes on, better think about those resits, better accept that the smooth progression to adult success and contentment will not be yours, better understand that you have hit a bump and for some people – maybe not you, but also, maybe you – this bump will be unrecoverable.

Because we do not live in a meritocracy, however nice it is for people who’ve done rather well to believe otherwise. Look closely, and a lot of the people who say they succeeded despite a raft of Cs will turn out to have had something else on their side: parents with the cash and tolerance to put them through another year at home at the very least, almost certainly some kind of family connections that helped to ease their access to the profession they wanted to be part of. The kind of invisible good fortune you don’t even notice if the world has always seemed to be run on a principle of kindness to you personally.

That’s not universally true, of course. There are people who yank their triumph from A level disaster with a mix of extraordinary talent and staggering determination lavished on every frond of incipient luck, like a gardener pouring fertiliser on every seedling that pops up in a stony patch of ground. But luck doesn’t sprout for everyone. If it does, maybe the shoots will still be too sparse and spindly for you to coax into life. And there you are, letters on a CV, disappointment spelled out. We could pretend it’s not like that, but it’s not fair to pretend there’s any fairness in it.

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Social mobility is, for the most part, a bust. How you do depends hugely on how your parents did. Pretty much none of us “deserve” the success or failure that comes our way: it is in large degree simply something we have inherited. This is wrong, and if you want to change it, you should do it like this: grab every bit of privilege that comes your way, turn it into power and use that power to get stuff done, before someone else can use their power to make the world even more obnoxiously unequal.

Don’t use your success to tell other people stories about how everything will be fine in the end. Probably it won’t be. There are millions of clever people whose chances have been stymied by early bad luck, brains stewing in dissatisfaction and poverty. If you’re the exception, do something exceptional: rather than use mollifying fairy tales to justify the world we’ve made, how about doing some work to make the world a bit more just?