Degrees of Success

I suppose that it’s about time that I publicly announce that I have finally graduated from Murray State University with a Bachelor of Computer Science degree. After cobbling together a mix of classes that fulfilled my final three degree requirements and slogging through them over the summer, I officially graduated on August 4th. I was even able to turn my GPA around enough to graduate cum laude!

Yeah, still working on getting it in a frame.

Yeah, still working on getting it in a frame.

My final two classes were web-only, so I didn’t really get the closure of walking out of a classroom for the last time while secure in the knowledge that I was truly done. Instead, as an unofficially non-traditional student, I opted for closure in a non-traditional way: I drove to campus from my office at work after finishing my last final and took a celebratory walk. It felt very much like my favorite scene from The Pursuit of Happyness when Will Smith’s character had finally reached the point in his life where all his sacrifices and hard work had finally paid off (only without all the other people – it was 9pm in Murray, after all).

When I first started this journey before the turn of millennium, I noticed that most of my classes typically had at least one older student. Characteristically, most of these folks either sat in the very front or the very back of the classroom. What I noticed about many of them in particular is that they had a tendency to ask questions that caused the professor to repeat something he or she just said using slightly different words. Even worse, they usually asked their questions right as the professor was about to dismiss the class early. Of course these questions would usually get the professor lecturing for another good fifteen minutes or more on something that nobody in the class was especially interested in listening to because it was either understood already or tangential.

As I returned to school in 2014 at 34 years old, I vowed that I would never be the annoying old guy in the class that everyone secretly loathed. Instead, I planned on keeping my mouth shut, asking any questions I might have directly to the professors during their office hours, and most importantly, blending in as well as possible.76392-How-do-you-do-fellow-kids-30-r-fq7d

I was able to stick to this strategy for most of my classes – especially those needed for my Economics minor. From what I could tell, most of my classmates never discovered my secret identity, or at least let on that they had. I gained pretty much the same reputation that I had before as a younger student: That guy who doesn’t really ever say much.

I said “most” of my classes because there were several occasions when I absolutely could not bear the awkward silence that followed when a professor would pose a question to a room full of bewildered or disinterested students. It pained me to see an instructor’s frustration as he or she tried to get through to these kids, so I attempted to usher things along by speaking up and moving the discussion forward. This was the turning point where I think I finally began to sympathize with those older folks from my days as a Freshman and Sophomore – they were just trying to help everyone get the most out of their education.

I actually found myself wanting to see these young adults succeed where in the past I had come up short – much in the same way that I impose certain expectations upon my children because I want their lives to be better than mine. I spoke up because, like my children, I didn’t want to see them suffer because of something needless or preventable. Call it paternal instinct.

To see these young adults squandering their time and money while not taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge and other resources provided to them was disheartening. The feeling was worsened by the memory that I did the exact same thing when I was their age. A college education is a wonderful opportunity that, contrary to passing observation, is not available to a large segment of the world’s population.

At the same time, I can understand how some of these kids might be so apathetic. I have to wonder just how many of those desks were filled by students who were there only to earn the respect of the adults in their lives who asserted that, “Going to college and getting a degree is the only way you’re going to be able to succeed in life.”

At eighteen years old, having no idea what they’re going to do with their lives, many young adults tend to end up in college by default. I have to wonder how many of them really should have taken another path.

tylerMy dad never went to college, so it was real important that I go. So I graduate, I call him up long distance, I say, “Dad, now what?” He says, “Get a job.” Now I’m 25, make my yearly call again. I say, “Dad, now what?” He says, “I don’t know, get married.”

— Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Here is where I find that I am at odds with myself. I want my children to have successful lives, but the last thing I want to do is to push them into something that is only going to make them miserable and provide absolutely no enrichment. Furthermore, am I mistaken that there truly is no enrichment to be found in miserable experiences?

So when my daughter wants to quit gymnastics, what do I tell her? Do I encourage her to push through the activities that she doesn’t like so that she comes out on the other side with a sense of perseverance and accomplishment? Or do I accept that gymnastics isn’t her thing and nudge her to try something else like dancing or painting or piano or karate so that she can find her true calling? What negative behaviors am I encouraging when I allow her to quit when things get hard? What damage am I doing when I force her to keep doing something she hates?

I feel that I am fortunate that my parents never pushed me into any activities that I did not want to do while growing up. However, I often wonder if I needed a few more kicks in the butt to get me out the door and interacting with other people. Perhaps I needed to spend a bit more time outside my comfort zone.

All I can be confident in right now is that my desire to finish college was purely internal. It was something I did because I wanted to do it – not because of anyone’s expectations. It was also something that I did on my own timeline, instead of the normal four or five year timeline that most people follow. I achieved what I wanted to achieve when I was able to achieve it.

I think that at this point, the most important thing that I can teach my children is something that I’m finally coming to understand myself: Nobody has life figured out. All of these people out there who look like they know what they’re doing? They’re winging it. We’re all just running around pretending that we know what’s going on so that we can have an orderly society.

The good news is that we don’t have to worry about “having it together” in the way that most people think we do. Our duty is not necessarily to live a life that is considered “successful” by other people. Instead, the standard by which the value of our lives is measured is our obedience to God and His commandments. For many people, the appearance of success is going to look very different than what we would expect.

And that’s okay, because as long as we’re doing what we’re supposed to in God’s eyes, we’ll achieve at least some degree of success.

Escape Velocity

I hated growing up in Murray. As soon as I was old enough to realize that it was possible to leave, I made that my solitary goal. It pained me to see the look on my parents’ faces each time I made this proclamation, but I was absolutely convinced that if I was ever to become successful in life, I would need to situate myself elsewhere — someplace with a thriving tech industry that didn’t stop moving after 9 pm.

Now, here I am at 35 years old still living here and have yet to reach escape velocity. Quite the opposite, I’m actually finding fewer and fewer reasons to leave. You could say that I’m running out of thrust, to keep to my metaphor. To put it simply, I just speculate that I have more to lose than to gain by leaving. It’s simple economics.formula6

 

I’ve lost count of the other individuals I’ve encountered through life who’ve told a similar tale to mine — those who once also counted themselves among the despondent legions of Murray’s youth who vowed to leave this mire without so much as a rude gesture once they had the means. Of those who did manage to leave, the gravitational pull of this place inexplicably drew a good number of them back years later.

Those that haven’t returned yet? Give it some time.

I sometimes imagine that the phenomenon could be used as the main premise of a comedy film in the same vein as Groundhog Day or The Truman Show. I can already hear the trailer now: “Meet Fred, your average, everyday, normal guy. Fred just moved to Murray, KY, a seemingly normal, quiet town. But this particular town has a well-guarded secret. Once you settle there, you can never really leave.” The frightening thing is that those words could actually work for a horror movie as well.

This is a horror film disguised as a comedy.

This is a horror film disguised as a comedy.

... This too

… This too

The distinction between the comedy or tragedy of being bound to a location lends itself to an interesting behavioral experiment. Consider how the classic psychological test of whether an individual sees a glass of water as half full or half empty can purportedly be indicative of whether he or she harbors a optimistic or pessimistic worldview. I believe a similar test can be devised by asking individuals if being tethered to Murray is comedy or tragedy. Do they regard themselves as being blessed beyond measure, or do they feel that they are victims of terrible misfortune?

For the longest time, if you had asked me the Murray question, I would have answered that it was a series of poor decisions, mistakes, and bad luck that kept me rooted here. I would have also answered that God was punishing me somehow by keeping me here to atone for past sins. I spent many sleepless nights driving myself to madness by calculating “what if” scenarios. What if I had made a different decision or reacted differently to a given situation? Would my current lot in life had been any better?

The problem with this thinking is that those “better” potential outcomes would have inevitably led to other unknown potential outcomes. What may appear to have been a better decision in current hindsight may have eventually led to a catastrophic outcome. I am loath to admit it, but the film The Butterfly Effect (based on the eponymous concept in chaos theory) was instrumental in helping me understand this. We all sometimes wish for a chance to go back and change certain things about our past, but there is no guarantee that those changes would have made us any happier.

butterfly effect

Change one thing. Change everything.

Now logically, this all makes perfect sense to me. Emotionally, I’m still working on internalizing it. I have to occasionally remind myself that I am in Murray not by misfortune, but because that’s just how things worked out. Every time I wander into the dangerous thinking that my life should have turned out differently, I have to pull myself back out by reminding myself that things are exactly as they are meant to be.

I’ve been trying to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness to keep myself from going to such dark places in the first place. I have so many wonderful people in my life right now who either would likely not have existed or I would have never met if I had strayed from my path even a little. The thought of giving up those lives and relationships breaks my heart, so even if I was given the opportunity to go back and change things, I would be a fool to gamble away all that I have for some unknown alternative.

So am I glass-half-full kind of person or a glass-half-empty kind of person? In response, I ask, “What is wrong with just being okay with the fact that the glass just is?” Many countless happenings transpired to transform the glass and its contents to their current state. Some were events of nature and others were decisions made by people who were driven by many different motivations. I think it’s presumptuous for us to label the net sum of those happenings as fortunate or unfortunate, as we simply cannot comprehend how those happenings factor into the ultimate future of human existence.

full-glass

 

Instead of judging happenings as good or bad, fortunate or unfortunate, we have to remember that we can’t see the big picture of this thing called life. Or as Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey so eloquently put it, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” We have to trust that since God is in control, everything will work out in the end for those of us who trust in Him and allow Him to direct our lives.Romans_8-28