>Well you see dear History friend, the issue with Cambridge - the issue with doing any 3 year long college course - is that of funding. Of course, I know I'm preaching to the choir here - you guys know full well, whether you've gone to college, thought about college or sent your kids to college or saved for college, that it costs a bomb. Indeed, this course will cost a bomb too, but it will be endlessly worth it in the long run, which of course is why this whole thing is so exciting.
>>In this post, you will find a lot about Zack you may not have known, and perhaps didn't want to know. But it's not a secret. I put it on here so that you can read it if you're curious, and not read it if you couldn't care less. If you're in a position to answer my regular calls to support me to go Cambridge by generously giving me a donation, then I feel as though I owe it to you as my backer to tell you where I've come from and how much Cambridge means to me. Also, as my donator, I feel as though you should know exactly who it is that you are funding.
>>>I should establish that I have applied for numerous scholarships, many of which can be quite generous if I get them, which I hopefully will. However, to be able to say to myself 'Ok I have this money for emergencies and to support myself further if I have to', which I most likely will, is obviously massively encouraging. I have a feeling that, if you've been along for the ride so far, you'd like to help me get to where I need to go. I understand money is tight and there's far more worthy causes than mine, but if you do feel so inclined to donate I would really appreciate it, and I make a solemn promise that any and all monies I receive from this point onwards will be going into my so-called 'Cambridge fund'. You can chose to give me something every month, a contribution which varies in size, or you can give me a once off donation instead - of course, it's absolutely up to you.
>>>>So that's it, that's my plea, from podcaster to listener. Will you support me and send #ZackToCambridge ? I'm not even on Twitter so I don't know why I'm trying to make that hashtag a thing. Regardless, thank you for your time, even if you just came here from one of the monologues at the beginning of the podcast which urged you to donate to me. I appreciate your money, but I also appreciate your kind wishes and prayers - both of these last two are free.
So thanks for stopping by When Diplomacy Fails' blog. If you want to know the full story of Zack Twamley from beginning to now, keep reading, but if not -
The Story of Zack Twamley and
Why You Should Care (YES, YOU!)
Cambridge - the best University in the WORLD for history, has offered ME a place. Whatever happens after this, that fact alone is mind-blowing. Imagine doing something, or really enjoying what you do for some time, and getting much appreciated approval for what you do from others, and then suddenly the authority on what you love comes along and says 'Yes, you sir/madam are good enough - you should join our club'. Paraphrasing of course, but that's pretty much the guts of what Cambridge have said.
If all ends well here, if all the money comes together and all my plans, prayers and hopes work out, then in October 2016 I will begin my PhD in the same place that some of the greatest figures in world history have spent time. It vindicates all I've ever been told - that I am good enough for this system, that this system wants me to take part.
In the last state of the podcast address in November, back when I was filling all these applications out, I made plain that a lot of this was a confidence issue that I myself often have a problem with. My friends, my family, my mentor in University College Dublin, heck even my girlfriend, all note that I have a problem with self-confidence, and that my own inherent insecurities sometimes override the accomplishments that I've achieved. Take the award I got for my thesis for instance. I so badly wanted to tell everyone, but I worried so much that even the act of telling them would come across as arrogant, and I worried what my peers would think of me. I am just so incredibly bad at taking praise or any kind of congratulations, and maybe it's an Irish thing, but seriously, after about the first 'well done' I run out of ways to respond - sometimes I prepare a certain thing to say in response so that I will always be able to come back with some sort of reply, but then that raises problems when I have already used it for other people and those other people are still in the room when I'm congratulated again. I don't want to seem like a robot after all.
Even when I am being congratulated for something, I would always respond with some kind of self-depreciating reply such as 'oh yeah, thanks etc. I wonder how long it is before they realise they gave it to the wrong guy'; that kind of thing. How can I be a high-flying academic with an attitude like that. I'm so freaking awkward sometimes. Even when my mentor in UCD where I worked my ass off for four years, even when he was telling me at my Masters graduation that because I got the award for my dissertation and because I got First Class Honours, I was top of the class and should be walking on a cloud during the day, my first instinct was to challenge this academic who had always looked out for me because my reaction within was that it was impossible for me to have done so well and that it wrong for me to feel good about myself to too great an extent.
Am I crazy, or is anyone else like this? I know it is important to be humble, and perhaps it's a combination of my upbringing wherein I learned to be considerate of others and not to boast, and my general Irish temperament I mentioned before. Perhaps it's because we've been stood on for so long, but it really is an Irish stereotype that we are mostly unable to accept compliments. There's a very famous one that's been doing the rounds here for a while, and I apologise if this puts the non-Irish readers to sleep but bear with me here. Basically, there's a great value shop called Penney's, which actually quite recently expanded into the US. It's an amazing place - clothes are cheap and most of them look very nice. When you buy something from there and feel damn good about yourself for wearing something nice, you would think that a compliment would be welcomed, right? God no - the universal Irish reaction to when somebody compliments your clothes is 'Thanks - Penney's', as if to say 'Oh, this little thing, I got it in a place anyone could get it - it really isn't all that special don't you know, you could get it whenever you wanted'.
Maybe I am looking to much into this, but really, it makes me wonder sometimes if I ever will have the confidence to rock a lecture hall with my crazy historical moves. The reason why I love podcasting is because I get to be my own boss and control what I put out, and I generally get great feedback for it. I guess I worry that I won't measure up to the Cambridge standard if I do go over there, and you might be surprised to know that such a feeling - feeling like even though you got into a great Uni' you're somehow not qualified for it and you don't belong - is considered a condition called 'Impostor Syndrome'. Seriously, it is, look it up!
What I'm saying is this - in a roundabout way me getting into Cambridge is amazing, it is the genuine realisation of my life's work and the fulfillment of the plan I have had for myself in life. I have to try my very hardest to drown out the voices which tell me that I am not good enough. I have to force myself not to listen to them, and I have to lean on people - on my friends, on family, on God - to reinforce myself and reassure myself that I do belong in Cambridge, and that I won't mess up the chances I'm given there. I have to force myself to believe in...myself. I once said in that November state of the podcast address, that you guys are my muse, because you believed in me enough to listen to the podcast, to follow its progress, to tell others about it and even to send me encouragement from time to time. I need to hold on to that, I need to not waste that belief you've placed in me in future.
And hey, maybe you don't care. Maybe you're reading this right now and thinking 'Jeez Zack, that got outta hand really fast, I just listen to your show I don't care who you are or what your struggles are'. And honestly, that is fine. I do accept that podcasters wouldn't normally do this, but I honestly don't care. I have told you guys a lot about me, a lot about who I am and what I've been through, and I really feel like telling you guys these things is worthwhile, because I genuinely want you guys to know about who I am and what I've been through, so that you can see for yourself that I am just the same as you guys. The last thing I wanted was to be your weekly lecturer, who blandly recites the script he's written each week, and then condescendingly tells you he'll be back next time to tell you more stuff that you don't know about. That's not what WDF was ever meant to be. That's not the kind of lecturer or person that I ever want to be, which brings me to another point.
The world that I am soon to hopefully enter into is full of people older than me, richer than me and more experienced than me. Above all, it is full of people who have such high opinions of themselves, they need a separate seat sometimes for their own egos. I really really don't want to turn into that. I hate the idea that places like Cambridge are closed off from the wider world, or to people like me, because we don't think we are good enough. The reason why people don't think they're good enough is because if you go to Cambridge, or to any university, and you see some of the academic staff there, it is so easy to be intimidated. Sometimes, having spent four years in UCD, I compared the higher staff there to some of our politicians, who have spent so long insulated from real life and real people and have been made content with cushy high paid positions that they barely know how to talk to normal people who just want to learn.
Now, I really don't mean to generalise - I have met some lovely people in UCD who I would be lost without. My point is, I really want to be like those people, I don't want to be like the lecturer who glared at me for like 30 seconds when I asked him in his office if he had a stapler so I could staple my assignment together. I don't want to be like the guy who told me to 'move to France and learn French' since that was the 'obvious' way to learn French for the sake of my planned for PhD in History. Yeah, ok, I'll just up roots and move to a different country then. That's why me going to Cambridge is so exciting for me - though yes it's really exciting for me professionally - I really cannot wait to give back, and bring up the confidence of people who I'd like to call 'Zack Clones'. 'Zack Clones' are, as I understand it, people like me who have a ton of potential but zero confidence, and are in desperate need of reassurance from a person in authority. Once that person in authority gives them that reassurance, they will be more inclined to believe it. Let's be honest, most of our parents, our friends and family will tell us we're great. My granny thinks I'm the most handsome man who ever lived, but until someone in a position of authority backs up what's been said, you won't really believe it. For example, I didn't believe I was the most handsome man in the world until my girlfriend said it, and then it felt like I was hearing it for the first time.
Seriously though, I really feel like, whatever happens in my future, I would love to be the person that tells other people that they can do something. I would love to be - if I could be so bold - an inspiration to others. Others like me who started out wondering if they were good enough, and went on to achieve incredible things. Others like me who always knew they had something within them that needed to get out, but always doubted whether they would get the chance to realise that potential. I want to pick these people up from the ground where their low self-confidence has left them, and I want to show them that they can do things, that they do matter, and that they should never let their own self-doubt hold them back from achieving what seems like the impossible. Whenever anyone has asked me for help in getting them set up with a podcast, whatever advice they ever wanted or help they needed, I tried to be the person who I would want to talk to if I had been in their situation - since I know that I was at one stage. A wise man once said, 'It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice'.
In my Leaving Cert, the Irish state exams that everyone takes before they leave 'High School' and go to college, I did not even get enough points to go to UCD and do the History and English course that I thought I wanted to do. I was devastated. My life, as I knew it, seemed over at 18. I had no options and whatever romantic ambitions I had set for myself seemed doomed to never be realised. But I stuck at it; my guidance counselor in school encouraged me to apply for what was called a Post Leaving Cert or PLC course in a college of further education in Rathmines, a town a little bit south of the Dublin city center. I had heard of these courses before results came out and my world crashed down, but I had turned up my nose at them since I felt I was above such ventures. 'Post Leaving Cert' I would scoff, 'what a joke of a course'. Now I was forced, by my own shortcomings, to accept that I now had to do this very course. It turned out to be the best, most formative experience of my young adult life, and what is more, it set me up for successes more than I could ever give it credit for. The idea was, you'd do a rake of subjects similar in style to an average College arts/humanities course. Following exams in the roughly 10 different subjects, you would see if you got enough distinctions to then get into a course like English and History in UCD. You had to get a minimum of 4 out of 9 distinctions in order to be considered for Arts in UCD. I managed to get all 9, and I was over the moon. It was perhaps the first time I ever felt like a success, since school had not been massively encouraging for me as a creative human being. In school I was known as the guy who wrote stories and essays which were far too long, and as the guy who knew a lot in history class, but when it came down to it the exam system always kicked my ass.
But I digress, this time I had done it. This time I had done well in a course and now knew, or at least had a better idea, of what I wanted to do. I wanted to do History and Politics, since we had been introduced to that subject in Rathmines, and from that I knew that it was the combination I wanted, rather than English and History, the former of which I found awful at a college level, and still do. So I got accepted along with four others out of the PLC course to go to UCD and make our families proud. It was a great experience, to be able to finally walk into the college I had so long aspired to be in, to sit in the oversized lecture halls, to drink in the collegial atmosphere. I had made it. It was a bit of a rough journey ahead, since I had 3 years of a Bachelor of Arts to get through, but I ploughed through it, and by the end of the first year I began to think of something. After listening to podcasts, after thinking to myself 'I love this topic in history but not others' and 'I really wish people would examine diplomacy instead of war, since that's what interests me', I decided that I had to get on the history podcast wagon, which, as any oldy podcaster will tell you now, was quite a small niche in May 2012. I don't know how I came up with the name, I wish I did because I'm sure it'd make for a great story. But it literally just came to me one day when I was thinking about possible names. I've no idea why it came to me, but it did. Yawn.
Anyway, the learning process began, and over the summer of 2012 I churned out a bucket of podcasts in a very short space of time. Looking back I don't know how I managed it, but you guys were definitely spoiled for about the first year that WDF was in production, and then we slowed it down a tad. Over the years I became more confident, and my confidence grew in podcasting I realised that I was better able to excel in the college work aspects too. I had so much background knowledge and so much more passion than many of my peers, mainly because I had spent so long engrossed in the various topics which we eventually wrote essays on and studied. It stood me in good stead, and I may have irritated some lecturers when I tried to promote my podcast to them, sometimes a bit excessively. It was, I soon realised, hard to be like 'I have a podcast that looks at wars in history' without sounding a) arrogant or b) amateurish. The problem of course was that most people have preconceived notions about what a podcast is, and if they just picture you going 'uh...er...um...' for the entire thing then of course they won't want to listen or even hear you go on about it. But I didn't give up.
The podcast was beginning to bring me into places I never thought it would: in December 2013 I was invited by listener Dr John Hogan to deliver a lecture in the Dublin Institute of Technology on the origins of WW1. It was terrible lecture, consumed with all of the cliche's of the pre-war era that I have since learned to repudiate and argue against, but I was so elated at the time that of course I didn't care at all. Further things were in store. Because my friend knew I did a history podcast he set me up with a lovely family who were looking to get history grinds for their 15 year old. I got to rant and rave about the international system to a girl who was literally in awe of my knowledge for like 2 hours, and she loved it (or at least her mother claimed she did). The best part, of course, was that I got paid for it. I actually had endorphins and came home singing every time we finished a session. It was probably the most fulfilling and satisfying time in my professional career - to date. I was utterly convinced - I needed to teach history as a job, it was where I belonged and where I knew I had to be.
So the idea came up to apply for the Masters in UCD, and after having done the 3 year BA there already, it was surprisingly easy to get in. My BA GPA wasn't particularly amazing, but because I was known as the enthusiastic, passionate, personable guy I was accepted. My podcast definitely helped - when other candidates for the course can barely map out the idea they had for their dissertation, I looked like a freaking pro with WDF behind me. But it took another trip to really appreciate how important WDF was. Through family connections in the BBC, I was invited to go to London and talk with some high ups there about my podcast. It was a great experience, and really showed me that I had something great with this podcast, and you guys. The guy I met was so encouraging, so certain that I would go far because I had such incredible passion, that I couldn't help feeling on cloud 9 afterwards. I wanted to hug WDF, and every one of my listeners, but obviously I couldn't, so I celebrated instead by releasing a special 3 year/1 million download anniversary special.
It was now that it clicked - I had When Diplomacy Fails behind me. I had the support of over 50,000 individual people who could verify that they at least listened to my voice at some point, should they ever be asked. Now I was determined to use that to my advantage, because after a conversation with my well connected Aunt while over there I made the decision to go for it, to go for the big one. I didn't know how I was going to do it, I didn't know when I would, but I knew that I had to do a PhD in history, because that was how I would get to where I wanted to go - a university teaching history to people who were once so very like me. I wasn't sure where I should go, and it was early days yet so I had some time to decide. I had to finish my MA dissertation first, so I kept going with that and regularly met with my mentor from UCD in order to keep picking his brains about how the whole practice works. Initially I was adamant about one thing that might surprise you now - wherever I went to do my PhD, it absolutely, could not be, in Cambridge or Oxford.
I pictured the snobbiness, the stuffiness of the place, how entitled everyone would be and how out of place and unwelcome I'd feel, and I immediately felt turned off. Well there was that, and the fact that it cost £50 to apply to Oxbridge, and I was not parting with that kinda money. So I thought. So while ideas swam around in my head I accepted a dinner invitation with my mentor and he basically sold Cambridge to me. I can't pinpoint exactly when it was, but afterwards I was determined to go there. I would apply to Oxford as well as a plan B, but I was determined that because Cambridge was the best place to go for doing a history PhD, it was where I had to be. Suddenly it was a mission for me, like a test for my own self that I had to pass. 'What about this college or that college', asked my supervisor, 'what if your plan a and plan b don't work out'. What about it, I said, I will just apply to everything next year if I can't get into Cambridge or Oxford, but since Cambridge is where I really want to go, I feel like I should apply there with confidence, and if I don't get in then, well, I'll accept that it's time to stop dreaming and be more realistic.
A long period of stressful applications followed, as I discovered one should really get a degree in applications before even applying for these places. I stressed buckets, but other good news brought me back from the gloom - I learned that I had won an award for my dissertation, and that it was the best of its kind out of the Graduate History School in UCD for the year. This, my supervisor and mentor helped me appreciate, would really help me with funding and actually getting into Cambridge, since I actually looked like I was the top of my class. Elated as I felt, if you remember from earlier it still didn't quite feel real - it felt as though I was good, but surely not that good. I didn't really dwell on it or celebrate as much as I perhaps should have, and I kept the whole thing under relatively close wraps. I made a celebratory Facebook post announcing my graduation and I announced it as well on the State of Podcast Address that November, but still, none of it felt real just yet. Perhaps it was because I still had so much to do.
December 2015 was an immensely stressful time, since deadlines were coming up for scholarships, problems were encountered and heart attacks were almost had. I'll spare you the details, but let's just say sometimes these things cause more stress than perhaps anything like them ever should. Seriously. After sending off the Oxford application and kissing it goodbye, I eventually did the same with the one for Cambridge after the first week of January 2016. I was glad to see the back of it, and happy to finally focus on the podcast and nothing else for a while. Then it happened.
On a normal Monday evening on 26th January 2016, I got an email. It said it was from Cambridge Graduate Administration. I dozily opened the email and my phone wirred into life as the email containing the following words appeared on the screen.
We are very pleased to make you a conditional offer of admission as a Graduate Student at the University of Cambridge.
I read it about 5 times before I actually realised what it had said. Then I felt this strange feeling of euphoria, similar to the one I felt when I had opened my results envelope in Rathmines and discovered that I'd gotten 9/9 distinctions. It was real. I freakin' did it!
I had done it, I had been offered a place at Cambridge!!
I ran the facts over in my head. I had a lot of questions, first among them being 'REALLY? Like for actual reals?' The second being 'oh my agihknekfdbwkejfbkwbf!&*' The third being 'conditional ay?... upon what exactly'. Even with such great news in front of me, I remained skeptical, I remained convinced that it was too good to be true. I downloaded the information pack for prospective students who had been offered a place, and I habitually ignored the first line of it which basically said 'well done, not everyone gets into Cambridge, you did very well, now just take these few steps and you'll be all set.' I texted my mentor and supervisor and the former rang me to congratulate me in person. This is how Cambridge works, he said, but if you give them what they want - essentially hard copies of my degree results and a form that proves I can pay for it all (I will have till July to get the monies together) - then I'll be accepted. Above all, Cambridge were now waiting on me to accept their offer. As far as they were concerned, I was good enough for them, I was good enough for their system, I was good enough to now become a member of, as my mentor put it, 'a community of only the top 10% of the world'.
I was in awe, I was in shock. I was in denial. For about a week I refused to believe it, I didn't know what to do with the news. I had told my close family straight away of course, and sent a cryptic message to my delighted girlfriend, but I told nobody else, and made sure nobody really told anyone either. I don't know why. Why was there such a secret regarding the whole thing? I think I was worried above all that it wouldn't work out, and I wouldn't actually go to Cambridge despite what the email had said. I knew deep down, it was a lot of money to require, and I was going to enter into a world in which I really didn't know anything about. Then the college I had applied to join within Cambridge - Peterhouse - offered me a place too. Basically, Cambridge is divided into colleges with fancy names, many of which you've no doubt heard of like Trinity and King's College and Churchill for example, and the college serves as your hub within Cambridge. It can offer you funding, it houses your bed, desk and hopefully some mates. To be offered a place is a critical part of applying to Cambridge and is, so I've been told, one of the most wretched and nerve-wracking parts of the whole process. Now I had a conditional offer and my first choice in college. But still, doubtful Zack lurked in the background.
Then I got some advice, from myself. No really, I had just gone for an amazing run and sat down in Costa to do some coffee drinking and contemplating. Seriously if you haven't done this before then you haven't lived - it's such an amazing combination. Anyway, so I listened to some of my back catalogue and decided to listen to my state of the podcast address from November. Within it, I had declared that even to be offered a place in Cambridge, regardless of whether I could pay it, would be an achievement worth celebrating, and that if I could only get that far, never mind anything else, I would be able to feel like I had made it. It struck me like the most emphatic of epiphanies. What the hell was wrong with me?
There I was with an amazing podcast which is renowned across the world, with over 1.5 million downloads and a base in every English speaking country. I had an amazing family, a gorgeous girlfriend whom I deeply love and, above all, I am on the cusp of beginning the next incredible stage of my life in a place where as recently as November I didn't think I could get into, but which I have now undoubtedly been accepted by. Furthermore, I have a base of operations set up and a supervisor in place for when I go over. It was a strange feeling, like I was only just seeing things for the first time. 'Cambridge don't make mistakes Zack', I told myself, 'you are just that good'. I smirked to myself naughtily; if anyone had heard me make such an arrogant statement, they'd think I was a jerk.
But then I thought again 'I am good enough for Cambridge. I am'. Then as I traveled home it suddenly became funny, 'Look at me' I thought to myself, 'I live in a council estate - if Cambridge even knew who I really was, where I'd come from, what I'd done and how hard I'd actually worked to get there, then surely they'd realise how incredible my whole story was'. It was at that moment that it hit me - my story is an incredible one, and for the sake of people everywhere who believe that they aren't good enough, or who are told by people or the system or anyone else that they aren't good enough, it is a critical one to tell.
Had I given up, had I decided not to pursue the end goal of a PhD in history that others had recommended. Had I listened to the voices that said no within me rather than the people who encouraged me without, where would I be now? If I hadn't been encouraged by others to keep going, I don't know if I would have at all. I don't know if I would have been strong enough to persuade myself that, even if I made it to the end, that I was worth that end result, or that anything like that success would be destined for me. Had the guidance counselor in high school not believed in me; had the secretary in Rathmines not believed in me enough to give me a place at the last minute in an over-subscribed course; had my listener John Hogan not believed in me enough to ask me to do a guest lecture; had my friend not believed in me enough to set me up to give history grinds; had my Aunt not believed in me enough to recommend me to higher ups in the BBC to talk about my podcast; had my mentor not believed in me enough to persuade me that Cambridge was the place for me; had each and every one of you not believed in me enough to tune in every week and send words of encouragement my way - had I not believed in me enough to justify continuing with the work, with the podcast, with the study, with the applications, even when it was so hard and success seemed so out of reach, then I don't know where I would be right now, but I definitely wouldn't be here.
It stands as an incredible journey, and I am blessed to able to say that I have achieved all that and that I am now about to begin another chapter of this life. Sometimes, I still hear the voices deep down which tell me that I can't do it, that I should give up and that other people are better, more qualified and more worthy than me. Sometimes I hear them, but the other, better voices are much louder now. Sometimes, when I listen really hard, the better voices are all that I can hear.
Thanks for reading, I mean that sincerely, and if you feel in any way the same as I did; like you're not worth it, like you should just give up, like you may even have 'impostor syndrome', then please talk to someone. People care about you whether you believe it or not, and the best is yet to come.