I have both a B.S. and a Masters degree, the latter from Harvard University. Now from that simple statement anyone who did not know me would probably think I am a pretty smart guy who did really well in life. Well, truth be told, only one of those statements is true, I am indeed a pretty smart guy. Now comes the “but.” But I miss pretty much every opportunity afforded me in my teens and twenties. I am pretty certain I received a PhD in missed opportunities.
When I was in high school I managed to be so thoroughly distracted, mostly by girls, that I was unable to complete most assignments. From age 14 to 18 I spent far too many hours thinking about the girl of my dreams, which varied of course, when I really needed to be doing my homework.
Did I tell you I am a contradiction in terms? I am! From when I was about 6, I always found a way to earn money. True, most of that money went to buying candy and ice cream but I was happy and satisfied. I had a paper route for about 3 years, ages 11 to 14. When I turned 14 I had a full time summer job on a local farm which I went back to when I was 15. At 16 I worked in one of the local factories, a true sweat shop. Loved it! One of the best educations of my life. And finally, when I was 17 I got a job at Raytheon company as a clerk. Seems I could type pretty well. I earned 5 cents more per hour than a girl my age who did nearly the exact same job I did. I knew I was unfair.
After graduation from high school I was headed for Boston University. I had gained early acceptance, November of the previous year, and thought I was good to go. Well, nothing could have been further from the truth. Before the first semester had ended I knew my college career had ended. Prime reason, I was constantly daydreaming about the girl of my dreams which varied. Oh, and I was not doing my assignments.
By December of that year I had decided that a career in the army would be a good thing. I took their various tests and actually managed to get myself into flight school, no easy task. No one breezes through basic training but once I had completed that I was on to my dream, flight school. In the army that means you are going to rotary wing (helicopter) training which, in those days, started at Fort Wolters Texas and was completed at Fort Rucker Alabama. It did not even take me a month to drop out of that. Still, certain people saw promise in me, enrolled me in the following class, and suggested I take that opportunity, one which was seldom offered. I declined. I had had enough. In truth, quitting seemed easier. Enough said about that save over the next 18 months I received every promotion I was eligible for in the minimum time required.
I was a two-year enlistee who got out and headed directly back to college. I mean, who can fail twice? Ah, but I was head of the curve this time. I had the girl of my dreams, was head over heels in love with her, life was wonderful! And yet, in spite of that, I managed to fail every class in which I was enrolled. And so what do you think I did next? No, I did not go into the army but I did go to flight school.
This flight school was of the fixed wing variety held in Tulsa Oklahoma. And as it turned out, I was a natural pilot. This time I pushed myself just enough so that after 5 hours of flight time, the minimum time required by the FAA before a person can fly solo. I soloed during my 6th hour. Time passed, my flight time mounted up, I took and passed the FAA written test required for a private pilot’s license. Oh, and during this time I held down a full time job as an orderly at a hospital in Tulsa. One day, while driving home from that hospital, I daydreamed for a moment or two but I was exactly enough time that I did not see the person stopped in front of me until it was too late. I managed to total two cars and decided it was time to go back home and do what?
That question got answer just before I left Tulsa when talking with my mother on the phone she asked why the army was looking for me. She assured me she had not told them where I was but I knew the gig was up, again. You see, I was supposed to be going to reserve army meetings for two years following my separation from active duty. I had attended exactly zero.
I bit the bullet, headed for the local army recruiter and confessed my sins. He had a nice laugh on me but in truth I was actually happy to be returning to the army. It was a safe place for me, and I actually liked it. During my first three years back in the army I managed to successfully navigate two years of college education via the local University of Maryland campus. Now a reasonable person would think that within the next three years I would complete that degree and all would be well. That is not exactly how it went. During those 3 years I got married, had a child and allowed just about everything to impede my college education. I took me until 1986 to finally get that B.S. degree. I did not mention this before but I entered Boston University in September 1967. You might say I was just a tad slow, or, you might hold me to a higher standard and say I found far too many excuses for not succeeded while giving not a single good reason.
I started my graduate education at Harvard University in September 1986. That degree took me far too long too, but let me just say, it was more of the same stuff I have already related so why repeat myself.
What does any of this have to do with those of you who are in your teens and twenties. Everything!
I am 66 years of age now, retired and enjoying pretty much everything life sends me its way. But my retirement has also allowed me the time to give my life considerable and very honest review. What I discovered is absolutely appalling. I found that I had missed pretty much every opportunity which came my way from age 11 through 30, a full twenty years! How could that happen? How could a rather intelligent person, which I am, miss just about every opportunity? Simple. I did not see a single one for what it really was.
When you are 18-years-old truly believe that you have this infinite pool of time ahead of you. That is mistake number one, always! Life happens a day at a time and even though at times it seems incredibly and boringly slow, those minutes are just as important as any other collection of minutes in your life.
I really believe that it rare that an 18-year-old had any inkling as to what he wants to be doing come age 40. And why is age 40 so important? Two reasons: first changing professions at that age is extremely difficult and, two, like it or not, age discrimination comes into play. Cry all you like about it being against the law, which it is, but just try proving it! That means that by age 30 you really really need to be doing a job you look forward to and cannot imagine doing anything else. That was not me.
Okay, so what should you do to insure that at age 40 you are right when you both want and need to be? Be on the lookout for opportunities and explore each and every one to the fullest extent possible. Ah, so what is an opportunity?
Failure! Failure is one of the best opportunities of all. Failure, by definition, says you tried something but did not succeed. Failure is the most prevalent opportunity any human will ever experience. Do not quote me on this, but I believe Thomas Edison failed over 200 times before he finally found a filament that worked in his light bulb. It is likely that the incandescent light bulb would have been invented eventually anyway, but it was Edison completing the task because he did not take failure as meaning hopeless. He saw it as meaning he needed to find another way of doing things. And that is exactly how failure becomes an opportunity every time.
It took me two shots at algebra and two shots at geometry to get each right once. Had I carried that forward most, if not all, of my failures could have been turned into successes. But I did not. It was always easier to say why something could not happen than ask the question of how could I make it happen. And this is where you come to a universal truth. Going it alone will probably get you lost. But ask for help and you will probably find the way. And never ever let anyone tell you that you cannot do something. They probably do not know what they are talking about anyway.
Instead of finding an excuse, find a way. For example, you are getting ready to graduate high school and you happen to notice that your grades are average and that being said by a generous person. But you find, of a sudden, this desire to be a nurse, a lawyer, an architect, the best trumpeter ever, or pretty much anything else. Your first response is going to be that such lofty goals are now unachievable. Bull shit! They are all achievable but you must find an alternate path. That means instead of graduating from medical school at age 27, you might have to graduate at age 30. So what? Start with something you can do. I suggest community college. It is affordable and pretty much takes on all comers. Plus, it is college and its credits are generally transferable to not only the state schools but to most private colleges and universities. But most importantly, once started, do not let anyone or anything stop you until you have reached your ultimate goal. But be warned, your ultimate goal is likely to change while you are attending college. Hell, you may even change career fields entirely but that is part of learning.
If you do not think that is true, pick any highly successful person you know and ask them one simple question: as them what was their biggest failure prior to becoming whatever they are and how they overcame that.
One more thing about your aspiration, find someone who is successful in your field of choice and asked them to tell you in some detail what it took for them to get where they are.
Finally, along the way you are going to run into difficulties, some greater than others. But there are going to be a certain number of difficulties where you have only one choice and that is to ask for help. Do it! Make no excuses for not doing it. Do not project what you think the person you are asked for help is going to think of you. The thing is, it is human nature that we enjoy being asked for help. And, this is important, that first person does not have an answer for you, do not leave without asking if they know someone who might know. And if they do not know that either, keep looking until you find the needed help. And never ever miss an opportunity to nail down your professor and them him or her that you are 100% confused over a point, a concept, or anything else. Those are the things people who do not quit do. And those are the things I failed to do on a regular basis.
Finally, there is this idea of inherent intelligence going around. I happen to know I am a very intelligent guy but it does not seem to have done me a lot of good, at least until recent years. I truly believe that most people underestimate their actual intelligence. If someone looks at your high school record and tells you what your listed IQ is, I recommend that if it is less than what you think it should be, put it off to your having had a bad day the day of the test and that you are in fact far more intelligent than some test says you are. I say this because more likely than not, you are.
Every mistake you make gives you a bit of valuable information. It tells you where you made a wrong turn. Return to that point and make the right turn. Make absolutely everything which happens to you in your teens and twenties learning experiences, commit them to memory, get advice on some of them, and use them to your advantage wherever possible. If your mother wants you to become a doctor and your father wants you to become a lawyer and you want to become a chef, get yourself into that chef’s school. Own you decisions, own your mistakes, never lie, and never quit.