When I was 18, I thought I was taking the safe yet deceptively easy route when I elected to forgo an immediate college education for a two-year web development program. In the short term, I was kind of right. In the long term, though, oof.
Lesson 1: Don’t sit back and wait for things to happen. Go out and make them happen.
My parents never went to college, so I never experienced pressure or intense grilling about what I was going to do after high school. I honestly didn’t think about it. When it became clear I had no plan, my dad stepped in and directed me toward a local tech center so I could at the very least develop a marketable set of skills.
At the time, I hadn’t yet found a love for writing, so I truly was operating from square one. Still, it wasn’t a bad plan since I wasn’t going to college (at least right away). The skills I learned over the subsequent two years, the first of which coincided with my final year of high school, allowed me to earn a respectable living over the next decade and change. But here’s the thing. I hated my career. Not my company, not the people I worked with; I hated the work itself.
While a career in web development had only required a couple of years of work, I quickly realized I’m simply not wired to do work I’m not passionate about. At least not if I want to maintain some degree of sanity. By the time I found writing, I had already finished the program.
For a while, I told myself I could code during the day and then write at night. And, for a while, I did just that. But mere months into my new career, I felt the burning flame of my new passion begin to falter. At first, I wondered if my sudden intense interest in writing had just run its course, but I began to notice that mental exhaustion and general apathy were following me in all parts of my life, except for the days in which I didn’t work.
Believing the company itself was the problem, I left for greener pastures shortly thereafter. The work was better and the schedule far less demanding, but the feeling returned again and again, from company to company, and state to state.
I hated my career, and I wanted nothing more than to make a living writing instead. The problem? I wasn’t nearly good enough yet to do so.
When I moved back to Texas in 2013, I made the decision to finally enroll in college so I could set down a new path as a writer. Better yet, a bunch of my credits from the technical college could transfer over, allowing me to shave about a year and a half off of the total process.
As life got hectic and my path evolved, I eventually shifted toward a career in journalism, specifically sports journalism, with the belief that I could still write my novels but that a journalism degree would allow me to kill two birds with one stone by writing about sports, which I also love. What could be better than a career built on not one but two of your passions, right?
Only time will tell. I’m finally set to graduate this December. In the meantime, I’m still working in web development, and yes, I still hate it with a passion. Oh hey, I guess that makes for a third passion!
Lesson 2: Embrace your creativity and explore it
When I was young, I mean five, six, seven years old, I always carried around a pad of paper and a box of markers with me wherever I went. I drew constantly. I drew random three-dimensional shapes and symbols; I drew Godzilla; I drew Dragon Ball Z characters; whatever I could think to draw at that moment.
Funnily enough, while I loved drawing, I don’t recall ever being that great at it. I just enjoyed the nature of the work. Later, this would surface a time or two as I took art classes in middle school and high school whenever I needed a credit of that variety, but aside from one or two reasonably good paintings or drawings, I don’t think much came of it, and I never made anything in my own time like I did when I was little.
Instead, basketball kind of became my life when I went into the sixth grade, and it stayed that way all the way through high school. And while I love the game of basketball and labor no regrets over the thousands of hours I spent practicing and playing games, I do wish I’d done more to explore my own creativity at the time.
I didn’t discover how much I enjoyed writing until I was already 20-years-old despite always having a creative knack for story ideas growing up. I had lacked the self-discipline necessary to sit down and actually put pen to paper, but when a story idea finally resonated with me so strongly I couldn’t ignore it, I sat down and began hammering away at my keyboard for hours on end. Days became weeks and then months and then years.
My story evolved, endured countless revisions and rewrites, and remains a major goal of mine to publish one day.
The discipline to stick to one of my creative ideas was unchartered territory for me. Even my drawings as a kid had always been of the “scribble, scribble, done” variety rather than patient, dutiful labor for my art.
As I entered my thirties, however, I discovered other creative outlets of great interest, such as photography. Also, while I had read off and on with great consistency, the periods between devoured series could span months, sometimes even a couple of years. I’m not really sure why that is, but I wish I’d explored my creativity more fully in my younger years.
I sometimes wonder if I’d discovered writing at an earlier age if I would have gone to college straight away since my biggest hesitation at the time had been spending an ungodly amount of money on general education courses when I didn’t have the slightest clue what I wanted to do with my life anyway.
If I’d pursued sports journalism back then and let my fiction writing and photography, as well as a healthy love of reading, tend to my creative stirrings, I might have not only had a more traditional college experience but not found myself at age 31 trying to complete a dramatic career pivot while providing for a family.
Lesson 3: Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone
I make no exaggerations when I say I’m an introvert to my core. Until I’ve been around a person for a while and gotten comfortable, I barely know how to act like a normal human being, let alone not come across as awkward and uncomfortable. It’s always been that way, and for years I allowed it to keep me contained within a tightly sealed comfort zone where even trying new things would be met with apprehension in my alone time.
I stuck with my web development career because it was a skill I possessed and the only “grown-up” job I’d ever known. I stayed with my most recent company for six and a half years despite being burnt out and miserable for more than four of those years. The pay, mixed with the schedule flexibility and the company’s proximity to my home made me comfortable and lulled me into a false sense of security.
Starting my sports blog/channel sparked that creative energy within me again, shaping my decision to go back to school and finally get my degree.
When approaching new tasks or opportunities, I still catch myself sometimes resisting, tempted to withdraw back into myself because it’s easier to not feel uncomfortable if the thing never happens in the first place. But it’s when you step outside of your comfort zone that you actually grow, and for the longest damn time, I didn’t allow myself to do that.
In truth, I’m still learning how to do this, but I’ve come unbelievably far over these last two or three years.
Lesson 4: Mental health is health
Now, to be fair, I also failed for years to take care of my physical health — the result of a garbage diet no longer offset by countless hours of pickup basketball and mandated sprints for conditioning training. I’ve never enjoyed running, and the idea of weight training only appealed to me for brief stretches whenever I tried to get back into it, so I gained a bunch of weight because I didn’t know how to take care of myself or my diet and then developed horrific self-esteem issues that crippled me emotionally for years.
When I was 29, it all finally came crashing down on me. I was having a — for the most part — remarkably quiet breakdown that most friends and family weren’t even aware of. But a combination of stress, anxiety, self-loathing, body dysmorphia, and family issues swept me into a cycle of drinking, anger, and depression. I finally broke down one night talking to my wife, and we agreed I needed to begin talking with somebody.
After dragging my feet on the matter for a few weeks, I eventually started therapy, and for the next two years, I tackled scarring memories and moments that shaped who I became as a person, as well as the person I was trying to become yet. It was brutal at times, but I felt it ultimately held me together until I was able to find the strength and resolve within myself to move forward on my own.
In seeking clarity, I found meditation. That opened a world of possibilities to me as stress and anxiety could suddenly be managed effectively, allowing my typical optimism, whom I hadn’t allowed to hold the megaphone much in recent years, to speak up uninhibited. That then gave way to soaring ambition and confidence, which led me to find and stack more good habits on top of my mediation until, with time, I felt like a new man altogether.
Among these habits were journaling, writing, reading, creating, and physical activity. My workout of choice? DDP Yoga.
The result has been a vastly improved mental state, a body that’s carrying 56 fewer pounds and, if I may say, is looking pretty damn good these days.
Although my therapist didn’t provide me the ultimate answer to my problems, I believe she helped hold me together when I was falling apart, buying me the necessary time and providing bits of wisdom to eventually take that next step on my own.
It’s freeing not to be controlled by worry or fear anymore. If something is beyond my control, I let it go and focus on myself. If I keep fortifying my mental state and staying active with these daily habits, I’ll remain strong of body and mind. My younger self needed that knowledge in the worst way. Still, it’s beyond my control to help that past form of myself, so it’s not worth stressing over.
Lesson 5: You are more than the sum of your flaws and mistakes
We’ve all seen that meme with a person lying in bed at night, eyes wide with terror as a caption reads “lying in bed trying not to think about [insert obscure embarrassing memory from middle school or general adolence].” That was me. I did that. Every day. Most every hour.
Maybe I didn’t sit and reflect on high school geometry while in a work meeting ten years after the fact but I absolutely remained stuck in patterns of unproductive thinking in which I couldn’t let go of mistakes I’d made or inconsiderate things I’d said or done in the past. Worse, I let it eat me alive like cancer.
Eventually, I had to more or less learn to rewire my brain because these negative patterns only fueled my growing self-hatred and convinced me I would never live up to whatever potential I might possess within. It was toxic and it made it difficult for me to feel deserving of anything in my life.
When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was the sum of those mistakes and failures, not the person I was trying to become.
Before I even discovered the incredible benefits of meditation, I had a bit of an epiphany. While I had spent years trying to navigate these uncertain currents, ie my career pivot, my depression, my anger, so on and so forth, the currents themselves were not the problem. The problem was my reaction and subsequent response to them.
I was the thing in my way.
I knew how to address many of the issues I was facing. I learned to count my “victories” each day and practice gratitude. I knew the simple act of reading and writing raised my spirits and brought me joy. I just didn’t do them nearly often enough.
I was resistant to growth because I had become comfortable in my set way of thinking and pattern of behavior.
To correct this, I had to reprogram my brain from what had become an overwhelmingly pessimistic and barren landscape to something more fertile from which good things could grow. To achieve that, I needed to practice self-love.
As the daily self-care routine took shape and I started stacking days on top of one another, the benefits compounded over time. Now, eight full months in, I feel like I’ve finally realized the version of myself I had always aspired to become.
While I’m by no means a finished product, I’m comfortable in my own skin and confident in my abilities. I don’t fear every conceivable worst-case scenario my mind can conjure anymore because, frankly, my mind doesn’t conjure those pessimistic thoughts anymore. They don’t serve me so I’ve continually cast them aside until they stopped altogether.
My younger self was quiet and introverted, who hid behind a superficial identity as an athlete to define himself because he was afraid he had little else to offer. He was alone and unsure of himself, always lamenting the things he’d done wrong or fantasizing about what he should have done instead.
He looked for validation everywhere but himself, and when he couldn’t find it, he tore himself down believing himself unworthy.
I’ve ranted long enough already but I’ll try to summarize.
We are the sum total of our experiences and actions. I may wish I had learned these lessons in self-care and personal growth at a far earlier age but, if I had, who’s to say I still would have become the same person I am today? Would I have met my wife? Would we have had our daughter?
Life is loaded with ups and downs but it’s the meaning we append to those moments that attempts to determine whether they’re good or bad. I struggled to find myself and become the best version of myself for more than a decade-spanning my late teens and 20s.
While the experience certainly wasn’t fun or enjoyable, the road eventually lead me to where I am today. I like who I am today and I love the life I have built with my family, as well as the career I am forging for myself. So who’s to say those struggles were bad or unfortunate? What matters is that I (eventually) learned from them and grew.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Darreck W. Kirby(Author)