This one is forever long and ridiculously personal. Something clicked today and for the first time ever, I finally feel like where I am and what I’m doing is exactly/undoubtedly right. When I try to think about how I ended up here in nursing school in Alabama, it seems like it’s a blur of unexpected and completely unpredictable things. It just happened. I think that’s how I know it’s right. The things that just happen the way you least expect them to are usually the best and the most correct because they’re the most effortless.
In really generic terms, I think the first step for everyone in this journey of finding yourself (or determining your purpose or whatever it is) is identifying and/or coming to terms with your potential… which probably is based a lot on accepting who you are. So, the beginning of that acceptance is becoming aware of what you’re good at and what you’re inclined towards in terms of behavior/interests/etc. But you also have to face the fact that you have weaknesses and then subsequently determine what they are as well. The hardest part (for me, at least) was probably learning to be ok with the weaknesses. Facing the fact that I had them was easy. Figuring out what they were was a little more difficult but still relatively easy. The only way I was able to actually accept the weakness was by acknowledging that I’m not the only one who has them. At that point, I think I was able to disregard a lot of my pride/ego and decide to actually do something about them. Once you have a general idea about the strengths/weaknesses, you can begin to live with intention because you zero in on how you want to be better and what skills you already possess to help you get there. Then you kind of have more concrete concepts of what you can/want to achieve using what you have inherently and what “weapons” you’ve amassed via previous achievements/experiences.
Potential = what you can achieve and/or become
which is magically (not mathematically) derived from a combination of
natural strengths + things you’ve learned from your natural weaknesses + things you’ve learned from your past + things you learn as you go while you’re continually working on your natural weaknesses and improving yourself
Then the second step on the journey is figuring out how to maximize that potential once you have an idea of what it generally is. Basically, what I mean by that is you have to somehow determine what’s the most suitable/fitting/appropriate outlet for the expression of that potential. I think for this part, you have to start with the vague ideas you collected in step one and then just let go. Which is where those career battery tests (that the guidance counselors and academic advisors give you) get it all wrong. Don’t overly plan. Don’t look too far ahead. Don’t snap too hard after failures, even if they seem monumental, because they’re probably inconsequential when you take a step back and look at the larger picture (which is your whole damn life). All that crap will put you back at square one over and over again.
Know who you are then just wait and see where you end up. I feel like my life for the last 10 years has been a mess of decision-making fails and freaking out about what I was supposed to do and who I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing to get there. A huge part of the issue was the fact that I was totally stuck at step one.
I was trying to think about the things I was good at too close-mindedly. I could only see it in terms of explicit skills/subjects. Like being good at math, or sports, or art, or history, or leading, or teaching, or cooking. I realized I wasn’t particularly outstanding at anything aside from academic/objective writing. And that obviously wasn’t really helpful because first of all, it’s just one component of a lot of careers/activities so it offered me no guidance in terms of what direction I wanted to head. It wasn’t like being good with animals and being a vet. I couldn’t just be like, “Oh, well, I’m good at writing papers, I guess. I’m gonna go write some papers about some stuff.”
The other thing was that I hated (and still hate) writing papers so it’s not like I was going to be a grant writing consultant or anything like that. I mean, for the most part, almost everyone dislikes writing papers to an extent. But some people have at least some inclination toward writing, in that they prefer writing over other forms of communication/assessment. But to me, writing a paper is the last way I want to be tested and/or have to make a point. I’d rather even just give an oral presentation than write a paper, which is crazy because apparently public speaking is the thing that people, in general, fear the most (more than bees, heights, failure, drowning, etc).
Basically, my problem was that I didn’t think I was good at anything. And if you think about most people, they at least have a few skill areas where they perform better than they do in other skill areas. They don’t have to be geniuses or experts or proteges (because it’s rare that any of us are). But using their own personal baseline of general success, they’re better at some things than other things. Some are more inclined to be “science people” and some are more inclined to be “creative people,” etc. But to me, it just seemed like I was the same all across the board. I got good grades relatively easily but it was never like I just breezed through one subject/area and had to work harder in another. Even outside of school, I was a decent violinist, basketball player, etc. but never the star or one of the best. I had no super skills. I was just mediocre. I did a lot of things because I liked everything so I never got good at anything because I was always splitting time/attention.
But then, sometime in college, I started to think about things in more basic ways. I had to take a step back and forget the specifics in order to realize that it was just as valid to be good at general skills like analyzing, or adapting, or listening, or risk-taking, or cooperating, or organizing, or negotiating as it was to be good at things in more particular areas. I broke out of the school/education/subjects mentality and started thinking about skills that were more translatable to real life and which ones I had naturally and which ones I needed to work on. And at that point, I started to see where I was better/worse. Then, I also started to to accept personality traits as strengths/weaknesses as well and I finally felt like I was on the right track and just had to put it all together somehow.
The only concrete thing I knew going into college was that I wanted to do something that would help people in disadvantaged situations live better/happier/more fulfilling lives. Basically, help poor people have a better standard of living, help sick people get better, help unfree people become liberated, etc.
That’s when I started picking majors/careers. And bounced around between a million things. Every two to three months, I was changing my mind and gearing up for something else. I’d decide, “Ok, this is it,” and be really excited about finally having it all together then something would fall through due to various reasons like a sudden drop in interest, the work/exertion aspect undermining my love for it once it became a chore, my personality not really meshing well with it, etc. Everything ended up being a struggle in one way or another. Not really ever any academic struggles, but challenges in every other way imaginable. And everything ended up feeling like a death sentence. I always felt suffocated by the idea of having to do that one thing for the rest of my life. I’m easily bored so sometimes the deal-breaker was simply just the fact that I didn’t want to work toward something that had such minimal career flexibility even if I was good at it and loved it and was interested in it.
I ended up graduating with a B.S. in Psych/PoliSci and a minor in Latin American Studies kind of haphazardly. When I had to declare at the beginning of junior year, I had a lot of Psych credits already and knew that I loved all things Latin American (and had a decent background in Spanish as a result). The PoliSci thing was a huge freakin whim. I decided to declare it as a second major literally during the walk to my advising appointment when I had to get my tentative graduation plan approved. My advisor was like “The Psych thing sounds fine. But not counting gen eds, you only have 3 credits towards a PoliSci major. You have a ton of rando credits in tons of other subjects but this is an area where you hardly have anything. How about a Bio minor instead of double major with PoliSci?” and I said, “Hells no. I know this sounds crazy. But I still have time,” then she unapprovingly shot me a look and sent me on my way. We never got along really. I think she always was pissed that I rarely listened to her advice. But she always tried to dissuade me from doing things like taking Chemistry for fun because it was going to lower my GPA. Bitch, I love mole problems. Deal with it. I’m not taking Intro to Soc just so I can graduate summa cum laude.
Double majors may seem like they’re awesome type-A “ahead of the game” sorts of people but really, they’re usually just people like me who don’t know what their doing and want to try and pretend like they have their shit together by adding something else to build up their expertise and pass as a formidable goal-oriented person. I hated Psych even though it had interested me a lot at first which is why I took so many damn Psych classes my first few semesters. It just got so boring and repetitive and predictable after awhile and I realized it was because I was actually just interested in the neurology/brain/biology aspect and should have been taking those classes instead. The thing about majoring in Neuro is that you kind of have to start that shit at freshman year to get everything done on time so I knew it was too late for that. But I had all these Psych credits and Pitt didn’t have a Psych minor and there was no way I was letting all that boredom go to waste so for some reason, it seemed like a rational idea to just suck it up and bore myself more and get a major out of it.
But then, when everyone was like “So, what do you want to do with that when you graduate?” and I never had an answer. I couldn’t even fake an answer (that’s how much I hated being a Psych major). And responding to the “What are your goals?” question with “I have no goals” was always super uncomfortable. Everyone seemed to respect the Latin American Studies thing, though. Spanish is super useful no matter what you do (and because of this, I’m marrying a Mexican so my kids will have the bilingual advantage and also so that conservative people will hate me for ruining America). Sometimes I would just skip the “I want nothing to do with Psychology” thing and get straight into rambling about Spanish and then people accepted my response as valid and that was the end. Still awkward, but not as bad. With PoliSci on board, it was easier to pretend like I had an arsenal of knowledge/skills to combine into some kind of awesome career or get me into grad school for something and end up with a PhD. Basically, as soon as you mention the double major, people instantly get impressed and leave you alone.
If there’s one thing I do “well,” it’s impulsively/fearlessly making huge changes and this was obviously a case where it worked out ok. I realized that the success rate from hasty decisions (no matter how hasty) was basically the same as the success rate after putting a lot of thought into something. In both cases, sometimes the outcome is what you want and sometimes the outcome is bad and you have to make another decision from there. PoliSci was more or less enjoyable and I settled into a “law school–>grad school for public policy–>law school–>grad school for public health–>law school” cycle which would carry me through to graduation. The plan was to get a decent job, work a bit, save some money, and apply to some kind of dual degree law program where I could get a masters in public health or public policy on the side.
For an explanation of why that didn’t happen, click here.
After the law school plan failed me and before I arrived at the nursing realization, I was kind of a mess of WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING WRONG AND WHY DOESN’T ANYTHING EVER WORK THE WAY IT’S SUPPOSED TO AND WHAT DO I DO NOW? Typical early twenties/post-college stuff. Then I just gave up and decided to let it go and not have a plan for the first time since like 8th grade. And that’s when everything started falling together. I think maybe it’s because if you don’t have expectations or goals, you just naturally somehow gravitate toward where you’re supposed to be doing because you’re just living your life. I think we get this all messed up as a society. Just living your life is the thing that you’re supposed to be doing. You end up with aspirations/goals/expectations that actually fit your life and it becomes laughably simple. Trying to make your life fit your aspirations is the backwards way to do it. If you don’t know what you want in life or what’s important to your lifestyle or what makes you happy on a daily basis, you’re obviously not going to be able to set realistic goals for yourself. Even if they’re realistically achievable, you probably won’t end up being very happy.
It’s definitely good to instill kids with the ideas of hard work and career possibilities and setting/achieving goals. But I kind of think the constant “What do you want to be when you grow up?” thing is a little out of control. It’s just really easy to lose sight of who you are and what’s important. Things like just wanting to be the best friend you can be to everyone or following your favorite band around on tour for awhile never seem like legitimate goals/choices to most people. But, in my opinion, as long as you’re not taking away from someone else’s experience or ability to fulfill their own potential or reach their goals (essentially, as long as you’re taking care of yourself and not burdening anyone in any way), why does it matter? Who gets to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not?
A major turning point in my life was during this resignation period. Somewhere in the silence of just being myself and not worrying about who I was supposed to be, I realized that being mildly to moderately decent at almost everything in terms of specific abilities is actually a super skill. I finally understood that I was good at something. I was good at being ok at everything, if that makes sense. I’ll never knock your socks off with my skills but I can marvelously perform any job that requires a lot of varied/conflicting competencies and the ability to perform all these things at once and transition between them effortlessly. What’s a job that requires those things?
Destination: nursing. Hurray!
In general, to be a good floor nurse, you have to be able to treat people medically/scientifically for physical conditions and also provide additional care in the areas of developmental/psychosocial/spiritual/etc needs. You have to have to be able to do math, know science, be good with people, make sound judgments quickly and under pressure, be active, be methodical, adapt easily, be optimistic, take direction, give direction, know how to manage time and prioritize, know how to cooperate, be empathetic/caring, be conscientious, be detached/objective, know how to balance your emotions, be confident/undaunted, be humble, have a sense of humor, etc, etc, etc… (basically going on forever). Some of those things are kind of contradictions in a way. Like if you’re really good at one of those things on the list, you might not very good at another thing. So, because nurses have to balance all those aspects in one job, it’s probably better to be decent at everything than really good at some things and really bad at others. In the latter scenario, it’s harder to incorporate all those aspects into the total care needs of all your patients.
And there are so many different types of nurses who work in different settings and with different groups of people and assess different health issues and also a billion non-nursing things that you can do with a BSN or MSN. So, I don’t feel that sense of dread or being trapped like I did with everything else because when I get bored with whatever I end up doing right after school, I can move on to something else. There’s not one nursing faculty member I’ve met in this program who hasn’t done drastically different things at different points in his/her career as a nurse.
And as I said, the fact that I’m decent at most things is a result of the fact that I generally like most things too. And I used to see this as a burden because it was always like “Goddammit, I love this film class but I love calculus just as much. Which one do I pursue? Which one is going to allow me to help people the most?” But now I kind of see this as more of a pro than a con because it means that I have enthusiasm for universal situations because I love everything that people do and where they’ve been and what their passions are. And there’s nothing more universal than a hospital.
When I get tired or burnt out from being a floor nurse (or whatever I end up doing), I can be an expert witness for court cases and still be involved in the legal process but not have to be a lawyer. Or I can work for a blood drive organization because I love community involvement. Or I can teach other people how to be nurses. Or advocate with grassroots organizations that address healthcare issues because I love public policy and public health. Or I can be a midwife because I’m a strong believer in women having more natural childbirths when possible. Or I can travel the world and work for health-related NGOs. Et cetera… forever.
There are a lot of et ceteras in this post. My life and who I am as a person is a continuous stream of et ceteras and I finally understand where my potential as a human lies and how to maximize it. I feel like I’m finally doing something with my life that’s worthwhile. And all I had to do was give up my constant determination insanity business and be still/calm/uninvolved without a real direction for awhile and let it happen. I just had to let go.
It’s like the universe gives us a puzzle when we’re conceived and as soon as we’re actually born, the box with the puzzle pieces explodes and all the pieces go flying back out into the universe and get mixed up with every one else’s pieces like those TV particles in Willy Wonka. Then after some living, we start to hear people talking about this puzzle thing that we have to put together. And at first, it seems like it’s just a few pieces and should be easy to do. Like “Job, spouse, house, car, kids, pets, retirement… That’s it? Got it,” and you’re like “Astronaut, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, mansion, Jeep Wrangler, 3 daughters, a border collie, beach house in Aruba. Done.” But then you realize that the puzzle is actually 100 pieces, then 1,000 pieces, then 100,000 pieces and it’s harder than you thought to find ALL the pieces that go to your puzzle when there’s so many and they’re just zooming around out there with everyone else’s. Then you realize eventually that this damn puzzle is actually a billion pieces and that you will never ever be able to put it together even if all you do is spend all your time/energy trying to find the pieces that work. Because it seems like for every piece you find, you realize that another one you previously tried to fit into the puzzle doesn’t actually belong. And then you give up. You’re like “Fuck you, puzzle. I’m done. Put yourself together. Or don’t. I don’t care either way.” And then you just become motionless and quiet and collapsed from the defeat of this puzzle nonsense. And after awhile in that silence, you hear a *bloop*and you’re like, “Sigh. Who’s messaging me?” then you slowly open your eyes and get up and go to your computer and see that it’s not even on. Then you check your phone and you have no new texts. Then you check your microwave and realize that your french bread pizza isn’t done yet so it couldn’t have been the microwave. Then you decide that you must have imagined the noise and you close your exhausted eyes and go back to your motionless/quiet/collapsed state for awhile. Then you hear another *bloop* and check your computer (again), phone (again), microwave (again), smoke alarm, and door bell. After verifying that it’s not coming from your house, you resume the defeat. Then you hear the noise AGAIN and this time you open your eyes fast enough so you see a piece fall into your puzzle on its own. And you think “Hmm, that’s weird. But you’re a little too late, puzzle piece. I already gave up,” and return to the resignation state. Then you hear another *bloop* and open your eyes and see that another piece has fallen into place and you start to wonder what’s going on. Then you hear another *bloop* and another and another until all of a sudden all these freakin pieces are just falling into your puzzle so you jump up and say, “Hey, what’s going on!” then you run over to your puzzle and see that a big piece says “nursing” then a huge piece with glitter glue on it that says “MOBILE, ALABAMA” falls down somewhere and a little piece comes in next to you and says “summer session A&P starting next week” then another piece nearby says “sublet in Oakland” then another piece falls and it says “get your old job back” and you’re like “WTF, I guess I should move back to Pittsburgh maybe?” and then immediately, a big puzzle piece that says “Pittsburgh” *bloop*s into place. Then all of a sudden things get out of control and more pieces just start raining down and you just do what they say, moving from piece to piece as opportunities present themselves. Sometimes a few pieces come down at the same time and you get to pick between them. And as time goes on, some absolutely monstrous puzzle pieces that say things like “Matt’s an asshole” drop in and those ones knock out some of the other puzzle pieces that said things like “celebrate 3 year anniversary” that you had already tried to put in the puzzle yourself because you thought they fit. After awhile, the rate of puzzle piece raining fluctuates a little and it slows down or gets faster depending on whatever the puzzle piece weather ends up being that day. Sometimes all the *bloops* give you a headache because there are too many and they’re too fast and so the noise is really loud. But when they stop completely, like right after the puzzle piece that says “now wait for your acceptance letter” comes down, you’re tempted to go out and try to find another piece on your own after a decent amount of time has passed without any activity. But for some reason you just don’t. You say to yourself, “I’m just gonna see what happens. Even if I don’t go to Mobile, I’ve accomplished/experienced a lot of things I never saw coming and they were mostly good.” Then out of the blue, there’s a *bloop* and along with it, a puzzle piece that says “phone interview TODAY” and you’re “AHHH WTF! WTF AM I DOING TO DO. I’M NOT PREPARED AT ALL BECAUSE I GAVE UP ON THIS BECAUSE THE PUZZLE PIECES STOPPED,” then the phone rings and the biggest load of little pieces *bloop* down all at once and give you all your interview answers then it starts raining pieces again and you move to Alabama and by your 3rd week of nursing school, you know for the first time ever that your puzzle is finally being put together as it was always meant to be. And it’s pretty effortless, all things considered… even in spite of all the hard work you know you’re going to have to put in before you get to that looming “graduation” piece that’s kind of far away in another part of your puzzle. Lots of studying but at least you’re not in perpetual internal crisis state anymore. And you don’t know what pieces are going to *bloop* in between you and graduation but you know that it doesn’t matter because it’s going to be ok. You know that if you just let the puzzle do it’s thing, then by the end of your life, it WILL actually be finished and just taking a step back and living is way more productive (and definitely easier) than actively struggling to find the pieces.
You don’t know how big your puzzle is going to be so it’s important to take things a day at a time and make relatively short-term decisions a few at a time so you don’t end up wasting all your hours on useless/unenjoyable pursuits. Don’t spend too much misused energy on stressing or trying to control too many things at once. Life just happens. You can either roll with it or freak out about it. It would suck to be at the end of your life and only be able to think to yourself, “Well, I tried to do a lot but never knew what I was really supposed to do and took all the wrong turns so I didn’t end up doing anything at all.”
It’s like a 30 page research paper that’s way too daunting to start. If you try to do it all at once or over a short period of time, you’re going to freak out and procrastinate more. But if you break it down into little bits, you’re actually able to get it done. First you pick a topic. Then chill for a bit. Then do some light reading on the topic. Then chill for a bit. Then start to find relevant resources. Then chill for a bit. And so on and so on until it’s done. Writing that research paper isn’t going to be the most fun thing you’ll ever do and it definitely still feels like work. But if you just do it bit by bit, you’ll be ok. You’ll manage to get it down without popping an aneurysm. At the end, when it’s done, you’ll feel relieved and content and proud of what you’ve done. Just take life as it comes and focus on taking small steps towards the things that you know will allow you to showcase your strengths and improve your weaknesses, while keeping some vague comprehensive idea in your mind about what you want your life to be like and also recognizing what’s consistently important to you and reliably rewarding. You’ll be successful. You’ll be happy.
Incidentally, if there were actually only 7 pieces like I thought when I was 10, my reality/wish-list right now would be:
– any tall/strong/polite/outdoorsy guy from Mississippi
– anything with hardwood floors, elegant character, and a big fenced-in yard
– 3 boys and 1 girl
– rescue puppy from the shelter
– sailing around the world
I blame that MASH game for this.