Here it is, the beginning of the end. 5 years and here I stand, at the finish line. Hard to believe. College in the U.S. is far from easy and many talented individuals often aren’t afforded the opportunity simply because of the price tag. Even at minimum wage, unlike our parents, we cannot pay off our debt. So it comes down to a matter of luck. And while it hasn’t always seemed like it, I’ve been extremely lucky. And I’m grateful for that. I want to take time to document my last term, much in the way I documented my time spent in Germany. It’s a bitter-sweet ending. I’m sad to go but at the same time I’m excited to start a new chapter.
The College Experience
All too often I feel the experience of the college student is often overlooked, undervalued. We are seen as young and still figuring out the world, so why should we be given the time of day? And perhaps this will change, but if I read an article about college students, more often than not it’s not written by a college student. That’s a shame. When I started blogging as a Freshman, the purpose was to give myself a voice when it felt like I had none. Over the years I’ve acquired more and more influence, little by little and now… I can look back and see the legacy I’ve created. My work, the relationships I’ve built… I can finally be proud, to take a moment to breathe. And the more I’ve changed, the more I’ve realized I’ve stayed the same. My core essence is still here, I have simply cleaned the clutter. And who am I? I’m a good man. I came to college to be a better person and while I’ll always be refining, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made.
The Fork in the road
It wasn’t always this way. Confidence. Confidence can’t be read, it must be experienced. Eventually everyone will have to make this choice, do you want to be “good enough” or do you want to be great? My cross country coach once said, “do you want to be mediocre kid”? And you know what I said? I said yes. Why? Because it was comfortable. And I remember my last race, my senior year of High School. It had been an exhausting season and there was a moment during the race where I could’ve pushed myself beyond my limits and I chose not to. And while it was a good race (ran a 5k in 19:25), it could’ve been a great race. And that’s when the idea started to manifest, the idea that maybe I wasn’t OK with being mediocre kid. So what did I do when I got to college? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I wasn’t a good student and in fact took pride in not trying hard, to simply blend in. I stopped running and simply existed. When I had no base, I used to always say, “what would Mr.E think of me now”? So what changed? Obviously I didn’t stay mediocre kid.
My Freshman year I was simply surviving. I was by every definition a mess. Angry, Ashamed, Sad; the list goes on. In addition I was very moody and not easy to get along with. I was selfish and thought the world owed me everything. So come my Sophomore year, I suppose I became the wise fool. I found a job and was able to increase my standard of living just a little bit. I could buy what I wanted and discovered coffee for the first time. I started exercising again and while I still struggled, I had come a long way since my Freshman year. Then came the betrayal. How easily one moment you can be on top of the world only to watch your kingdom crumble because it was built on a foundation of sand. So what happened?
I’ve been in school since the age of 3. Since I’ve been able to form a memory, I’ve been in the system. And while I’ve had friends my entire life, I’ve never felt like I truly fit in. I’ve always preferred to have a few close friends yet for the longest time I’ve tried so hard to impress everyone. The friends I had I often took for granted and I’ll admit I haven’t always been the charmer I am now. By my Sophomore year of college I was vulnerable. I cherished my friends and started appreciating them a lot more. I remember thinking to myself how lucky I was that I still had any friends. My Freshman year I had made very few friends and was extremely lonely. That trend continued well into my Sophomore year and as such, I was a man stuck in the past. I held onto the friends that stuck with me, through thick and thin. And then… One of my best friends, a week after we reconnected the summer of my Sophomore year, denounced me. He criticized every mistake I made in high school and said he was done. He said my life wasn’t heading anywhere and that I simply didn’t listen to my friends. I didn’t even realize at the time that was who I was. I was angry. And then I asked a simple question, why? Why was I so angry? And then I realized that he was right. I was alone and I was afraid to be anything more than mediocre. I took the easy road and had no purpose. I was stuck in the past, holding on to friends who had moved on with their lives and I was left behind. So, in this moment, what was once one road, diverged and became two.
And what did I do? I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference. Two choices, I could continue down the path of mediocrity or I could step into the unknown and seek success (which I had always sought but never laid the groundwork to achieve). So I quit my job and went to the career success center and asked, “how do I be successful”? And what was I given? A list. It said go to the career fairs, create a Linkedin, draft a resume, join management club. So, I went to management club.
Put yourself in an environment of success
This rule has served me well. If I wanted success, all I had to do was be around successful people. Easy enough, right? It took years. The first year of management club a sat and observed. I was too afraid to talk back then, so I simply listened. I went to every meeting, every event and let the success rub off on me. And to speed up the process, I joined the business fraternity on campus the term after I joined management club. I can smile now but at the time this was a big deal, as successful individuals intimidated me. And then came the leadership roles. Little Mike, who always followed others, decided to run for leadership positions! And that’s when I became the success I sought. And yet my success buried me.
So I devised a plan. I took time to step back and ask, “How do I want to finish”? The leadership roles were phase one, as I knew I would either fail spectacularly or rise to the challenge. I knew however, this would not be enough. Phase two? Germany. My leadership roles were meant to develop talent and while they helped with confidence, they could not help with independence. So what better way to become independent than to throw yourself in a foreign country for four months? If you’ve heard “#NewhairNewMike”, this was my personal re-branding. My entire life I have had scraggly hair because I have a scar on the back of my head, afraid of others judgement should I cut it too short. So while it may not have seemed like a huge deal to an outsider, my haircut in Germany was symbolic of my new found confidence and a reflection of my personal growth. The Mike that left for study abroad is not the Mike that came back. So now comes phase 3, which I have called my retirement. This is my polish phase. After achieving independence, I’m now taking a step back to ask, “what do I want”?
My entire life has been shaped around what I think I ought to do, not what I want to do. And on that note, I will add that this philosophy has served me well. I have been criticized for not being myself and while the comment has good intent, I take issue with it. I was a MESS when I first got to college, had I simply been myself, I would have failed. The only reason I have made it as far as I have is because I chose to mimic who I viewed to be successful. Or by observing the mistakes of those who failed and seeking to rise above. Had I tried to be myself as a Freshman, I would probably be living in my parent’s basement playing video games. Why? Because I had no idea who I was back then and I still don’t know. By trying to be someone else, I was able to realize who I wasn’t and am just now starting to realize who I am. So, if you’re stuck, don’t try to find yourself, create yourself. Go find the successful and do what they do. Then, when you’re ready, you can find yourself.
Phase 3 is about finding myself and realizing that with all the success I’ve achieved, I am not invincible. Everyone is the hero of their own story yet ambition blinds you. And for as many strengths as I have, overconfidence is my weakness. The world brought me to my knees this term and I’m glad. It made me realize how beautifully flawed I am. With all this talk of success you’d think I’d frown on failure. Yet quite the opposite is true. We learn best through our mistakes and the more successful you become, the less you feel you can make them. But I am here to tell you that is bull. Success is built on failure. The more we fail, the more we succeed. We learn through mistakes and it shouldn’t be any other way. Mistakes are the fun part of life, the challenge. There’s a beauty in mastery but by it’s definition mastery means you’re done, that you’ve made your mistakes and learned from them. If we didn’t fail, success would lose it’s value. Because we fail, we are able to enjoy victory all the more, when we finally do cross the finish line. So don’t be afraid to fail.
Grit is a word you don’t hear too often and it’s something not everyone has. In the college of business there’s a lot of polish. Children groomed for success at an early age and seeing adversity through the looking glass. Because of this grooming, these children often are ready to navigate the chaos that is the college experience and they secure leadership roles along with internships their Freshman year. Because of this, they are able to build on that foundation and often receive jobs with the big companies that a lot of people seem to drool over by the time they graduate. Some might get mad at my saying this as it seemingly undermines the hard work and effort these individuals may put in, but it’s the truth. Very few acknowledge the factor of luck and until that day, I’ll keep mentioning the influence of luck. It’s nothing to be ashamed of but it needs to be understood that some may work hard and be incredibly unlucky. People are quick to judge yet too few take the time to understand. My philosophy is everyone has a story, the least you could do is listen.
What about myself? Well, I’ve been stuck in the middle my entire life yet since I’ve arrived at college, I have very much been on my own. I’ve gone from the lowest of the low and didn’t realize until recently that I am now considered a “top achiever”. When did this happen? Little by little, over the course of five years. Had I not gone to college, my life would be very different right now. What’s my secret? It’s how I’ve dealt with adversity. Optimists don’t survive in this world, they die off. It’s realists with the knowledge that they will prevail that survive and thrive. Optimists turn a blind eye to reality, choosing to see an ideal world and are ill-equipped when the puzzle pieces don’t fit. Realists find solutions to problems and build road maps to get there. They don’t ignore the world for what it is but they actively seek to level the playing field. How do I know? I’ve gone from pessimist to optimist to realist as I’ve grown throughout my time spent in college. And I love telling people how it is (which people don’t always like to hear) and then telling them step by step how it can be better.
Grit has come about from the ashes of my best laid plans. I came into college spoiled and college has been kind enough to slap me around until I’m down and then continue kicking me until at points I’ve been choking on my own blood (metaphorically, of course). That’s grit. Most frustration in life comes from expectations and people unwilling to adapt when shit hits the fan. What people don’t realize is that the future is malleable, that your future has many possibilities. Grit is your ability to get back up, to stand firm while the storm rages on. In the beginning it’s tough but in the end, experience enough adversity and you can walk through Hell with a smile. There is nothing that I haven’t already seen and I’m glad. Grit builds confidence and resolve. I can look back and see how well I’ve dealt with adversity, where at the time I nearly drowned in my own misfortune. So appreciate the good and the bad, the headwinds and the tailwinds.
Plenty. I’ve kept raising the bar for myself so now I stand at the top of the mountain. For some, reaching the summit may signal the end but for me there’s always more mountains to climb. I’ve gotten the most out of college and am ready to tackle the world. What was once a dream is now a reality and 3 months will fly by. I’m excited to spend my last term writing about my experiences.
If you have questions about college, I’m here to help! Post in the comments and I’ll try my best to answer any questions you might have. Freshman, Senior in High School, Adult? It doesn’t matter, feel free to ask away! And as always, thanks for reading!