Dear graduating class of 2021

Justine Toh has some words of wisdom - and warning - for those who aren't happy with their HSC results, as well as for those who are.

Dear Class of 2021,

This morning, thousands of students across NSW will finally access their HSC results. The rest of you have already received your final marks, so it’s as though these guys are arriving fashionably late to the party that everyone was no doubt dreading.

That’s because no matter where you live, if you finished school last year, you survived two of the most tumultuous years in education in living memory.

You’ve weathered home-schooling, dodgy internet, incredible uncertainty, mental health challenges, and being isolated from friends – all before you sat final exams in pursuit of a numerical ranking – the ATAR – that you probably feared would sum up your entire schooling career. No pressure, right?

Yet getting those results is an opportunity, too. Whether you receive a high ranking or barely scrape through, I have a wild hope for you: that getting your results marks your exit from the rat race.

Not the RAT race that Omicron has presently condemned us to but a different kind: the rat race that endlessly chases fulfilment through external markers of “success”. An impressive CV, a pay rise or promotion, home ownership in a blue-chip suburb or, increasingly, owning your own home at all: these are signs indicating someone has “made it”.

Sure, all that seems a long way off right now. But the ATAR is your initiation into the rat race. It invites you to apply to your future endeavours the same grit, effort, discipline, and sacrifice that saw you through your studies.

Of course, these habits of success are worth learning and there’s nothing wrong with working hard for a material reward. I’m not anti-ATAR or dismissing achievement.

But we rarely note the spiritual stakes in striving for success: our tendency to look to achievements to signal our significance. You’ve anguished over your ATAR because you fear that it will be decisive for your future. This number has you in its grip, as though the ranking were an index of your individual worth.

If that’s how you feel, we need to prepare you for life after school because even if you finish Year 12, you never really leave. No matter the setting – school, university, the workplace – you’ll hit familiar beats: achieve your KPIs, ace that assessment or performance review, collect the bonus, accept the award.

In other words, long after the ATAR, there are endless opportunities to tether your worth to your work.

But bundling up your identity in your efforts proves a fragile basis for meaning and purpose. It leaves you unprepared to deal with failure, sudden sickness, or a drastic change of life circumstance.

Even the buzz of accomplishment you feel after reaching a goal proves short-lived. The next project on the horizon will beckon as another chance to prove your worth. Yet it’s no fun pounding the performance treadmill indefinitely.

Take it from someone who was raised by hardcore Asian parents and partly wrote 100,000 words of a doctoral thesis just to put “Dr” before their name: the rat race sets you up to be addicted to achievement.

Your intrinsic worth and value can never boil down to a number.

But that needn’t be your fate. Not if you let the incredible disruptions you’ve lived through grant you priceless perspective on your results. You may not have achieved exactly what you’d hoped. But you’ve spent your final school years learning a critical life lesson not on any curriculum.

You’ve learned that life, even in the form of a once-in-a-century pandemic, gets in the way of the best laid plans. You’ve learned that you have the strength, resilience, and ability to get on with things in the face of enormous discouragement. This will set you up for success in the long run – the kind of success that no number can adequately measure.

Hopefully, this helps you see that your intrinsic worth and value can never boil down to a number. Everyone says this, of course, but it feels flimsy in a world that constantly rates and evaluates your performance.

But if this is the world you have to live in, you need an alternative story to live by. The big stories of religion may be off trend these days but as the late David Foster Wallace once observed:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping… If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough.

We could add: if you let a number define you, no number will ever be enough.

You need some secret knowledge like this if you’re going to resist the rat race. It also wouldn’t hurt to ask: what will you worship?

Maybe that’s a lot to put on your shoulders right now. But you’ve adulted long before your time. You’ll work it out.


One of many cheering you on.

Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of Achievement Addiction.