While I don’t consider myself a hugely successful person, I also don’t consider myself a failure. I have a nice life that allows me to live much better than paycheck-to-paycheck, have some toys and hobbies, and the time to pursue things I want to accomplish in my personal life – like writing and working with my hands. But I didn’t get here by a string of successes, at least not initially. I found this path by the single biggest failure of my life – I failed out of college my first year out of high school.
I’ll be the first to admit that I never really liked school in high school. I started working when I was 15. I always liked the idea of work, and I thought school was just a waste of time before I go to go earn money. I have no idea where I got this idea, as both my parents and my sister and brother, all have college degrees. But I did, I hated school in high school, and I barely did any work but managed to graduate in the top 10% of my class. It doesn’t speak highly for high school academics, but that’s a different story. College was always the road I was assumed to be taking, and I followed that path like a good boy.
I went to the closest state school, Northern Illinois University, registered and started signing up for classes. I had to go to a student counselor to help me with my schedule, and as I signed up for sophomore-level classes, my counselor would tell me, “that class will be much harder, and have a lot more work than freshman classes.” At this point, I hadn’t ever worked hard in school, so I told myself, “I’ll just have to work a little harder.”
One Failure, Two Causes
Two things happened. One, I was introduced to alcohol, and being of clearly Scot-Irish descent, I rather liked it. The second thing that happened was I completely underestimated how difficult college would be compared to high school. There was no comparison, and I was not prepared. I was so unprepared that I realized I didn’t even know how to study. I didn’t learn how that year, let’s just say.
Out of 30 units attempted over two semesters, I passed a total of 18. I was asked not to return for the next year, and I had to move back in with my parents, who had left Illinois, and moved to Southern California after my high school graduation. I knew what was coming, but I didn’t tell my friends, I was ashamed. While I had never been a studious person, I had never really struggled in school, either. My sister, who has a master’s degree in applied math, was exceptionally pissed off at me. My parents were very forgiving. The allowed me to move back in with them and said I had to either go back to school or get a job, to stay rent-free.
Back to School
At first, I went to work. It only took me about a year to figure out that I needed a degree to go anywhere I wanted to be. So back to school I went, but this time, while working, with my tail between my legs, and a healthy dose of humility. I went to a local community college where I had to start over with my grades. I had to learn how to study. I had to actually do the work. I eventually transferred to California State University at Fullerton and got a degree in Literature. Ironic, because I was the guy who had never read in high school. When I first told my mom I was changing my major from journalism to English, she flipped out and told me, “That’s too much for you to take on.” She was probably right, but I hunkered down and managed to get through. My final semester I worked 40 hours per week and took 15 units, 4 classes of which were upper division English classes. For the first time ever, I got straight A’s. That’s not my point, however. I got there from a place that seemed like I would never get through college, and never move up in life.
As it turns out, that degree was just the stepping stone in my career. I wouldn’t have gotten the entry-level job I got if I didn’t have the degree. But even with that, I wouldn’t have gotten an interview if it wasn’t for a connection my dad had with the hiring manager. It took a long time to get where I am today, starting with 8 years struggling to get the basis for moving up any type of ladder. I could have taken those eight years and gone into a trade and probably been happier and more successful today in some ways. Probably not financially, however.
A Message to the Young
I bring this up because I hear a lot these days about young people struggling. Despite whatever you’ve learned or been told, life is neither fair nor easy. The ones who get ahead do so by sheer will and hard work. But even those two things don’t guarantee you success. The absence of them will guarantee your failure, however. So no matter how bad your current situation, you can rise out of it. You can right wrongs, fix the bad, increase your abilities. You absolutely can. You just have to build a steel resolve and keep working towards a goal. I think the young were meant to struggle. It’s much harder to struggle in your 40s, trust me on this. You want to get all that out of the way in your 20s. Work hard, build your base and move forward from there. It’s been done for centuries and is still valid today. Don’t let the naysayers get to you, don’t be distracted from your path, and keep faith in yourself.
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