My senior year I took Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus. Devoting myself to advanced math with two periods and countless hours studying, I passed the AP test with a 5. As I entered my freshman year of college, I tested into Math 378. I can’t remember the course title but I do remember the complete astonishment and wonder that filled my mind as I had no idea what the title meant and was too afraid to admit/ask. I was scared. What if I failed the course? At the time, my status was based on my grade point average and I took much pride in this number. I avoided risks if they threatened my maintenance of the “smart” label among my peers and family. Consequently, I never took that math class. Sure, I ended up following my other passions into journalism and then into teaching, but I am often left wondering what would of come had I ever taken that math class I was afraid of? At the time fear drove my decision making.
Looking back some 15 years later, there are a few lessons I wish I understood then.
- Become comfortable with uncertainty: When I was 18, I had a life plan, a specific course I expected life to follow. Though having a plan was comforting to the brain (I was so calculated that I graduated in three years) it limited the options I even considered. Yes, my goals helped me escape bad choices and many mistakes. But, this time period, that is the age of exploration for so many, was predictable and prescribed for me. Thinking back, I wish I viewed uncertainty as a hidden opportunity to explore a pathway unexpected but deeply necessary in becoming open to new ideas and possibilities.
- Your strength is greater than you can imagine: From age 18 to 33 I experienced many life emotions I was unprepared for. From elated happiness resulting from motherhood to the deaths of close friends to family transformations, I have experienced life in ways I couldn’t of imagined 15 years ago. I was 18 and two weeks into my freshman year when 9/11 happened. I remember that being the first time I was scared for an elongated period. I startled quickly, became introverted/ lonely and worried constantly. Yet, as I reflect on the hardships that have challenged my life or the stories that have impacted me, I am reminded of the incredible strength and pride I have just for making it through. In fact, I am rather proud that I have found a voice, feel comfortable sharing it and also understand that I am human and often emotionally wavering. Courage did not define me 15 years ago but today it does.
- You don’t have to be your worst critic: The world is quick to label, judge and define who you are. Whenever possible, try not to add to that criticism. Self-reflection is necessary and valuable. But incredibly harsh internal talk will only weaken your drive. It is alright to be confident. I wish I had given myself permission to lighten up on myself in order to be present rather than constantly focusing on self improvement. Forgive yourself often. It is ok to admit mistakes and even acknowledge that they are necessary in finding your path. Expect and embrace them.
- It is always ok to start again: Diverting or restarting your path does not equate to failure. Even if it seems like failure, failure is not final. Sure change of any sort is often overwhelming, no doubt. Try to listen to your internal voice. When something doesn’t feel right, give yourself permission to try something different. When faced with a situation that I know I need to change, I often say now… I don’t know where I am going, but I know I can’t stay where I am. Understand that the end of anything does bring about unexpected possibilities. Be open to those.
- Hang on… for a few days: The pendulum is swinging and you are on it. Your emotions, thoughts and plans can change overnight. Before making any large decisions, take your time and marinate in concentrated thought. You will know when a decision is right for you and thankfully, at 18, you have time to consider the options deeply.
- Set boundaries: With each relationship, friendship or work situation, it is imperative to determine what type of communication results in you feeling emotionally safe. If you notice a pattern of behavior and you are uncomfortable with the pattern, you can voice your concerns and redefine the interactions that you have. These often uncomfortable but necessary boundary setting conversations will help protect your heart and develop your voice.
As a mom to a daughter, the feeling I want to reduce in her, if possible, is fear. As a young woman, I was so scared to disappoint others or hurt people’s feelings. While I want her to be humble, sincere and respectful, I would be equally proud of her developing a bit of an edge as finds her inner voice, makes mistakes and takes risks along her path.
In one of my favorite movies, Never Been Kissed, Drew Barrymore’s character makes a statement to the high-school students. She says, “find out who you are and try not to be afraid of it.” For so long I tried incredibly hard to camouflage my love of mathematics, silly personality and sensitive spirit. Though there are times when I feel I am still finding out who I am, I am no longer afraid of the woman I have become. While my path has not been as linear as I had imagined, it has informed and prepared me for the exact life I am living. For that, I am thankful and optimistic.