Coming to Terms With College

I had an interesting exchange with an old college friend on Facebook today. He mentioned that, had he known then what he does now, he would have not moped around so much in college. It was a trait we shared – both of us seemed genuinely unhappy with where we were. Neither of us dated, neither of us knew how and we commiserated on this and a number of other things in a number of ways.

I responded to his comment:

“I hear you on the moping around bit. The future was too uncertain. It’s *ALWAYS* uncertain, but I have a better grip on how to deal with it now. C’est la vie. I’m probably a better man for it. I hadn’t had a chance yet to fail and prove to myself that I could dig myself out of the hole. At 38, I’ve done it enough times that I have absolute confidence that I can overcome anything, so long as I point my face forward and keep pushing.”

My comment that “I hadn’t had a chance to fail” came as a minor epiphany to me. And, upon reflection, it’s not even entirely true. In fact, I had just experienced my first big failure, and it profoundly shook me to my core in a way that, all these years later, still reverberates.

When I was 11 years old, I got it into my head that I wanted to be a Mechanical Engineer. I had always loved science and have had a long fondness for building things and playing around. I fell in love with computers when I was about 8 years old and was able to completely throw myself into them when I inherited my first computer – a TRS-80 that had just entered obsolescence – just before I turned 10. I had no real concept of computer science or engineering or anything else at the time. The computer I had came from a family friend who, himself, was a mechanical engineer. I imagined that he got to build amazing things and work on all kinds of complex technology. While not entirely far from the truth, it turns out his work was far more mundane, focusing on the thermodynamics side of things and only building small electronic circuits and such for fun on the side.

Still, through him I was able to glimpse a world where knowledge led to creation. He passed on his old copies of “Design Engineering” magazine, which I thumbed through repeatedly as if they were holy scripture. A key highlight of my youth was when he took my mother and I to the expo floor of an engineering conference he was attending, where I saw linear actuators, ultra-high resolution computer monitors, and tons and tons of ball bearings, mechanical gew gaws and materials that were far beyond anything you could find at the hardware store. That I was able to take sample after sample after sample of all of these led to my later fascination with conference swag. That walk around the expo floor cemented the position of my aspirational compass.

I threw myself into math and science classes in high school, often reaching far beyond my grasp. Math has always been a tricky subject for me, largely because I struggle with abstract concepts that can’t be tied to real world analogs. Being told to just remember a formula and trust it to solve an equation leaves me cold. Rather, had they presented me with a real world problem and demonstrated how working through the formula would help me arrive at an answer, I’m certain I’d be a math whiz. Alas, that’s just not how math works (so I’m told).

Regardless, I somehow wound up accepted into the highly competitive Mechanical Engineering program at UC Berkeley – one of the top programs in the country. I was living my dream. It didn’t take long for that dream to shatter. I barely passed Calculus I and spectacularly failed Calculus II. Despite trying to get help from the TAs and professors, I was never able to get my head around the purpose of derivatives, integrals and the like. I still don’t get it.

That poor math foundation led to even more problems in Chemistry and Physics, where I was expected to make the conceptual leap entirely on my own between the Calculus and the real world. Again, overburdened TAs and tenured professors provided no insights. By my third semester, I had spent enough time on academic probation to be faced with the dreaded specter of expulsion.

The associate dean of the college of engineering called me into his office to decide my fate. He presented me with what he termed “the Faustian bargain”: I could leave UC Berkeley – a place I had called home now for two years and had established a strong social circle and lifestyle – and continue my study in engineering at a school with a more practical focus, like Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He had strong ties there and was certain he could get me in. More so, he was certain that, based on my other aptitudes, I’d be successful there and likely to graduate with an engineering degree. Or, I could sat at UC Berkeley. He couldn’t guarantee that another college within the University would take me – he’d be sending me out into the cold to re-apply on my own – and I would have to sign a document to promise that I would never take another course in the engineering department during my undergraduate years. But at least I’d still be at Cal.

I was about 20 years old when this happened. I had spent seven years dreaming of being an engineering student and two years failing at it. This moment was the culmination of my failure, and it was devastating. By that time, I had no interest in pursuing engineering or computers or, really, anything having at all to do with science or technology. I was an abject failure and I felt it to my very core. I signed the paper and decided to take my chances trying to get accepted into the college of Letters and Sciences, which turned out to be far easier than I anticipated. To his credit, the dean was very positive about my decision and even said he’d make a note of my name, for he was certain he’d be reading it on the cover of a book some day.

My remaining three years at Cal were actually pretty solid from an academic point of view. But my abysmal engineering grades were never expunged from my records and the credits could not be recouped, so, by the time I graduated, it was by the skin of my teeth with no credits left to spare. My stubbornness in sticking with engineering as long as I did weighed me down and, despite the fact that I did exceptionally well in my L&S classes, I was never able to pull my grades up past a 3.0 because of it. Engineering was an albatross around my neck, made all the worse by the humiliation of having to abandon this thing that I had so deeply ingrained as part of my identity.

At the time, I had a hard time seeing my successes in the wake of so great a failure. Having never really experienced failure, I felt alone, as if no one else could comprehend it. My mother – who had sacrificed so much to get me into college and support me while I was there – remained my biggest supporter and was proud that, rather than giving up, I simply found other ways to move forward. But what choice did I have?

I retreated to Classical studies – Latin and Greek – to get as far away from technology as I could and because I held some romantic ideals of college as a place, if not to train for a career, then to expand one’s intellectual breadth. I had studied Latin for three years in high school and enjoyed it, so I decided I might enjoy it in college. Perhaps I would become a classics professor. Perhaps I would simply become yet another over educated barista. Either way, the destination, like the languages I was studying, was a dead end.

I started writing for the Daily Cal because I wanted to write novels. A writer writes, and I figured the discipline of having to write something every day with a looming deadline and the possibility of getting paid for it would put me on the right path. What I found in journalism was a new path. Journalists could be scoundrels or journalists could be heroes. You saw them each evening on the nightly news and you read about them in the papers and in books. Woodward and Bernstein became personal heroes and I’ve since watched “All the President’s Men” more times than I can count – more times than “Star Wars”, if you can believe that!

Journalists didn’t get paid much, but it was certainly a better defined career path than “classicist”, so I shifted majors again. The only thing on offering at UC Berkeley for undergrads that even closely resembled journalism – despite boasting one of the best graduate J-Schools in the nation – was mass communications. Mass comm is the study of the effects of journalism on society and has produced far more PR flacks and marketing drones than real journalists (at least, that was my perception at the time). So dedicated was I to this new craft that I eschewed the mass comm route and sought a way to get a real journalism major.

The college of Letters and Sciences at UC Berkeley has a major called “American Studies” – what I refer to as the “Choose Your Own Adventure” major. If you can convince the department heads that what you want to study is worthy of a major AND you can create your own curriculum around it AND you can convince the department heads of the interdisciplinary classes you need that it’s worth giving up a seat from a student in their department for you AND you can somehow tie it all back as an aspect of the study of American society, you can turn it into an American Studies major.

American Journalism was a slam dunk. But, to accomplish it, I would need to take Journalism classes. Those classes were only open to graduate students. Convincing the dean of the Journalism school that I should displace a potential grad student from the classes I needed so that I could get my undergraduate degree was a challenge.

By this time, I had already spent a year at the Daily Cal and was officially a staff writer on the crime beat, both University and City. There was not a day that one of my stories didn’t appear in the paper, even if it was just a 250 word “News in Brief”. That dedication turned out to be enough for me to land a faculty sponsor at the J-School and to convince the dean that I should be allowed to take graduate-level journalism classes with the likes of Tom Leonard, Lowell Bergman and Neil Henry.

After another year at the Daily Cal, I quit in a rather churlish fashion due to some perceived – and at least partially, if not wholly, factual – slight from the new guard of leadership and went to work as an intern at AOL, where I managed the Bay Area news desk for their Digital Cities local content experiment. After a couple of weeks, they determined the news desk was not worth the cost and moved me to community management, hosting chatrooms for teenagers and single people on the prowl. My aspirations were now firmly affixed on a career in journalism and letters, perhaps starting with a bit of travel writing to fund my way through a backpacking trip around the world. When layoffs came to Digital Cities, I was the first to go, but I took it in stride and chose to focus, instead, on completing my last semester and graduating in May, all while making plans for my world tour.

As May approached, the reality of my financial situation – about to be made worse by crippling student debt – began to set in. I panicked. I had no income and no job prospects. I wrote query letters to newspapers across the country, but none seemed interested in hiring me. I was about to graduate and was faced, yet again, with the possibility of cataclysmic failure, of having the rug pulled out from under me.

Two weeks before graduation, I received a call from a former co-worker at Digital Cities. He had since moved to Intuit, remembered how skilled I was at community building and coding and wanted to know if I’d be interested in working for him. Ecstatic at the last second save, I drove down to meet with him and his boss on a Friday and had an offer in hand by Monday. As a newspaperman, I had been told that the most I could expect to make at my peak was around $58,000. At Intuit, I expected to open the salary bidding at $35,000 with the expectation that we’d finally settle somewhere around $28.000.

Instead, when the offer came, they apologized that the absolute most they’d be able to pay me was $40,000 – would I be able to live with that?

That’s how I wound back up in technology. Though my writing was sharp, my business knowledge was severely lacking. But, unlike many of the other content producers on the team, I frequently coded my own pages in HTML and showed an interest in learning their proprietary templating language. Before long, we determined that my programming skills would be of better value to the company, and I moved up rapidly from there.

Since then, I’ve stumbled more times than I care to admit. ┬áThere was the nine month stretch of unemployment following the first dot com crash when no one would return my calls. There was the terrible, soul-sucking job as a web engineer at the Academy of Art College. And then, of course, there was the spectacular implosion of my own business, TechKnowMe, as I struggled to breathe life into it long after rigor mortis had set in.

I’ve been beat down in so many ways so many times over so many years, and I keep coming back stronger. Somewhere along the lines I finally gained the confidence in myself to know that I can pull myself out of any hole. I know that, sometimes, I just need to stop, evaluate the situation, decide where I want to go, then put my shoulder down and do the hard work to get there. And, so long as I don’t lose focus and don’t give up, I can do it. This is as true for the big things – marriage challenges, job problems, money troubles – as it for the small things – the drive to get out of bed on a rough day, the perseverance to finish work I don’t want to do, the will power to stick to a diet. I’ve gone through it enough times to know there’s peace on the other side, and that’s what keeps me moving. I’m driven by my own set of personal values that I’ve established and identified through the years and keep as my guiding light.

When I was in college, when the future was so uncertain, when I had the misguided belief that following a certain path would guarantee success and happiness and deviation would destroy me, it’s no wonder that I spent so much of my time worrying, especially when I felt I had that path pulled out from under me. I’ve learned to thrive in uncertainty. While I can wish I had learned this sooner, regret is a useless emotion. I am who I am because of all of that, and I happen to like who I am and where I’ve wound up. And if I wake up one day and find out I’m not happy, I know I have the ability to fix it. It is, by far, the most expensive lesson I’ve had to learn – not just in terms of money, but in terms of time and wear and tear on my soul – but it’s also a lesson that I value greatly.

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