I have all kinds of friends and all kinds of readers. On occasion, I allow some of them to become writers via my blog. Here are some previous guest posts (here and here too) and now comes one from my long-time friend and teacher, Rob. He's a real role model if I've ever seen one and I thought he'd be able to drop some gems on this here blog...he did. Sure the story is specific, but the larger message is very broad.
As a high school teacher and coach for the past fifteen years, I see the following scenario often enough that I have come to view it as a problem. Bright, often educated 20-somethings struggling to find their way in life. I’m sure that every 25 year-old living in his or her parent’s house has a unique story, but it seems to me that I see similar patterns over and over.
Six years ago I had a student named Mike. Mike did very well in my AP U.S. History class, making all As and a four (out of five) on the AP exam at the end of the year. He was also an All-State player on our soccer team and a national qualifier on our debate team. He seemed to have all the intangibles that would point to success – quick to smile, engaging personality, highly successful parents with advanced degrees. When it came time for Mike to apply for colleges, he asked me to write his letters of recommendation. Ultimately he was accepted into USC, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Michigan, and Wake Forest and ended up choosing Wake Forest. At the time I would have placed Mike high on my list of the best students I had ever taught.
Mike spent five years at Wake Forest including time off for an academic suspension halfway through. He switched majors two or three times and ultimately left without graduating. He’s living with his parents and selling cell phones at Best Buy.
This whole situation is embarrassing to Mike’s family. His father is a colleague of mine. Not so long ago, his dad spoke of Mike constantly and was obviously very proud. When he stopped speaking about him so much, I suspected something was wrong but I didn’t ask about it.
Recently I ran into Mike at 7-Eleven pumping gas. He didn’t look very good and didn’t seem that eager to talk to me. He probably doesn’t know that I know about his struggles. We had a quick conversation. I didn’t press him about any specifics. This has been bothering me a lot lately and I’ve been thinking about getting in touch with him so that I can offer him some unsolicited advice. I know that Mike must sense this and the atmosphere around their home must be tense.
I went through the exact same thing over twenty years ago. I was expelled from college one semester shy of graduation because of poor grades. Why this happened is another story completely. This is how I overcame it and this is the advice I would give Mike or any other young adult facing a similar challenge.
- Realize that this is no joke. Not finishing what you started is almost always a bad thing so you can’t allow it to stand. You have to graduate from college. If you failed academically and were suspended or expelled, you need to go back and finish at that place.
- Confront any failures directly. I used to pride myself in being able to write a decent paper on a book I hadn’t read. After being expelled from college I went back and read every one of those books and wrote a paper on each one. Five years later, when I re-applied to the same college that had expelled me, I submitted these papers to the appeals committee along with an explanation.
- Do something everyday that makes you feel good about yourself. I went to my local high school and volunteered to tutor struggling students and got way more work than I expected. Volunteer at a food bank or homeless shelter. Making yourself useful is the best thing you can do.
- Don’t get away from what you are good at. Mike was a great soccer player. Now he’s fat. Why? He should join an adult soccer league and take it just as seriously as he took it in high school.
- Instead of avoiding people in your embarrassment, cultivate relationships with people who can help you. You will find that almost no one cares about your current circumstances and that most people are eager to help someone who wants to move forward.
- Accomplish short-term things that few people can do. On a whim one day I rode my bike across the state of Florida. Took a picture of myself with my bike standing in the Atlantic Ocean early in the day and an identical one in the Gulf of Mexico nine hours later. You do stuff like that often enough and you start to feel pretty good about yourself.
- If you are living with your parents you need to remember that having an adult child living with them was probably not part of their ideal vision of where they wanted to be in their 60s approaching retirement. You have the responsibility to communicate a plan to them and they have a right to see you moving in the right direction. They will do almost anything for you if they don’t feel like you are simply spinning your wheels.
So that’s what worked for me. I graduated from college when I was twenty-eight and started my professional career that I’m in now when I was thirty. You know what though? I don’t regret a single mistake that I made in my early twenties. I met my wife when I returned to school. If I had been completely disciplined, focused and responsible at an earlier age I wouldn’t have her or my kids or my career that means the world to me.
The only thing I would have regretted would have been resigning myself to my failure and settling for less.