It isn’t never being scared, or sad, or heartbroken.
Strength is not taking failure, or rejection, or grief gracefully—
And it isn’t even the ability to stand after you fall.
Sometimes strength is just getting through it.
And it’s not pretty, or romantic, but it’s real.
I wrote this quickly, a few times over.
First, I scrawled it in the bottom of my notebook, in more words, and less pointed. I wrote it as a reminder, and then I didn’t look back at it for a few months.
I wrote it again as I bounced back from a rough week. I wrote it as I mulled over what had happened, and why, and how I should handle it all. That time I wrote it as a mantra—it is okay to not be okay.
I’m writing it again now, more fluidly. I mulled it over this weekend, choosing the right words, cutting and snipping.
It is important to remember that the moment you are in does not define you. You are not your weakest moment, and you aren’t what others see you as. You get to choose who you are.
And imperviousness to weakness, that does not make you strong. It is okay to not be okay. That is normal, I promise.
So this is just a reminder that you are strong—
Even when you are tired, sad, or scared, when you feel like you’ve failed, when you feel rejected and alone, you are still strong, even if you don’t believe it.
There is strength in putting yourself back together, sure, and in turning the other cheek, and all of the things that we usually name strong. But even when you don’t weather it gracefully, even when you feel like you’ve failed, and don’t have a shred of dignity left at all, and you don’t feel strong, just remember that you are.
Because just getting through it makes you strong too—and I will believe that you are strong even if you don’t.
Hey, I hope you have a great day. You have got this.
I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.
This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.
This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.
“Do what makes you happy”
People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.
I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.
My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.
A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.
A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.
“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.
Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.
I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.
I don’t want to be the person to tell you that all mistakes are good, or that even the worst things you will grow from, because frankly that’s obnoxious. Maybe it is true that even the hard, sucky, parts of life make us stronger, but I don’t think telling anyone in the hard, sucky parts how they’re going to grow from it is necessarily helpful. They won’t hear you.
I don’t think that you can stop people from making mistakes either—you can’t look at someone you know, gauge exactly where they are going, and then tell them what they’re doing is a mistake. First off, you could be wrong. Second, even if you are right, there are a lot of mistakes people have to make for themselves.
I have stayed out later than I should have, and gone out with people I knew it wouldn’t work with, and forgiven people I shouldn’t have given a second chance. I have run farther than I should have, against advice, I have worked on projects I was told were hopeless. I have drunk near gallons of coffee past 7 pm. As a result, I have gotten overuse injuries, had whole projects scraped, and laid awake in bed wondering why the hell I needed a large black coffee at 7 pm anyhow. And honestly that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s the thing—
Be it your 7 pm coffee or something much, much bigger, some mistakes are worth making.
Maybe it is a mistake to get up at 2 am and drive to try and catch the Northern Lights the night before you have to work. Maybe you’ll regret it in the morning. Maybe not though.
Maybe it is a mistake to pursue a relationship with someone you know is probably not the best choice. Maybe you’ll regret it in a year. Maybe you’ll regret it tomorrow.
Maybe you shouldn’t try climb that mountain, or hike that hike alone. Maybe you shouldn’t stay out late, and you should’ve gone to bed. Maybe you should’ve planned better or paid more attention, maybe you shouldn’t have invested so much in that particular person.
But maybe not—
If you didn’t make any mistakes, what kind of stories would you have to tell? And I know I’ve made mistakes, everyone has, but I don’t regret staying out too late, or drinking too much coffee, or blowing off sleep to look at the stars. I don’t regret some of the bigger mistakes too.
So you know what? Make your mistakes, because they are yours. You get to make mistakes, and you get to show up to class hungover, and you get to date boys your friends don’t like, and eat too much pizza, and blow off studying sometimes. You get to get lost in the woods and pull yourself out, and you get to have hard moments completely of your own creation.
Make the mistake. Some mistakes are worth making. And maybe some mistakes are not even really mistakes at all.
I am not going to sing the praises of nature, as if a walk in the woods can fix all your problems. The woods are not medicine. I am not going to tell you that being alone in the woods makes it easier to think, because it doesn’t. And I’m not going to tell you that hiking alone is fun, because I would be lying.
It is hard.
It is hard when you pull yourself over what you thought for sure was the top of the mountain, only to see you still have ages to go.
It is hard when you forget water, or bug spray, or first aid, and you feel stupid and a little scared.
It is hard when you make a wrong turn and suddenly the woods get darker and you feel very, very alone, and you wonder how the hell you ended up where you are.
It is hard when you fall, whether you hurt yourself or your pride, and it is hard when you feel alone.
It is hard, and lonely, and it can be terrifying.
We don’t always do things to be fun, or easy, or for them to make us happy. Sometimes it’s not about having a happy walk in the woods, seeing wildflowers or playing in rivers.
Sometimes it’s more important to fall, and get lost, and make mistakes.
It’s worth it in the moment you pull yourself up again, and brush off the dirt. It’s worth it when you clean out and bandage your own cut, and when you pull out a compass you’ve never had to use before and figure it out.
And it’s worth it when you get to the place you wanted to go, simply because you did it yourself, and it wasn’t easy. You earned your final destination, and every moment in between.
No, it’s not easy, and it’s not fun, and sometimes it fucking sucks. It makes you feel small, and insignificant, and utterly at the mercy of nature. But it can also make you feel strong.
I like to think I have a handle on things—we all do. We all think we know exactly what we’re going to do tomorrow, and we have this rough idea of what next the year, or the next five look like.
We think we know what we’re eating for dinner tonight, we think we will have a boring day tomorrow, we think that we have control.
We don’t have control, and I think to some extent we know that too, but it’s a lot easier to hold on to the idea that we know what is coming tomorrow than to embrace the idea that we actually have no idea.
And then it hits us—you are doing so well, everything is so normal and then one day something happens. Maybe it’s small. Maybe someone says something that alters your perspective a little and it snowballs. Maybe it’s not small—maybe it’s big and it clearly changes everything. But either way, the earth shifts beneath your feet, and suddenly you are looking at things from a different place than you were yesterday.
The moments that change us—they are big and small, they are significant in their own way, and they make you who they are. Sometimes they hurt—a lot. Sometimes you feel it like a physical pain.
We don’t get to choose when everything changes and we don’t pick how. You don’t get to choose the moments you remember, the ones you think of, the moments that follow you.
It’ll knock you down, leave you bruised, and it will change you. It is scary to have something happen and all the sudden things are different.
But guess what.
The moments that knock us down, that make us feel confused and scared and weak, the moments that hurt viscerally—they are the moments that make the rest of life so much more vibrant. They stick, they make us uncomfortable, and ultimately yes, they change us. But that’s part of living—growing, changing.
So yeah, it’s hard, and you will change, and it will be uncomfortable and you won’t always like it. But it’s going to be okay, and you are going to be stronger tomorrow.
No matter where you are right now, one day you are going to be happy with yourself. And without the moments that changed you, the moments that made you, you wouldn’t be the person you are going to be. So hang in there—one day you’re going to look back and tell someone about the moment that changed you, and how it made you who you are.
We—hikers, writers, nature lovers, always champion the therapeutic power of nature. I have told people that I hike because it relives stress, and I have spent bad days looking out the window, convinced that if I could go outside and be alone in the woods for just a bit I would be so much happier.
Hiking, or being in nature helps, but it isn’t magic, and it isn’t always a solution.
For every hike that has helped with stress, there is another hike that tested me, made me nervous, and made me doubt myself. There have been hikes where I have scraped up and bruised my legs, hikes where I didn’t bring enough water, hikes where I was sure I was irreparably lost.
There have been hikes when I have hurried up mountains to get the right shot of the sunset, worried I came all this way just to mess it up, and times where after a perfect sunset, I have had to walk back in the dark, and worried about that too.
There have been hikes that I didn’t think I could finish, where my legs hurt and I was winded well before halfway, and left feeling weaker rather than stronger.
I am a worrier, I am anxious, and I get stressed, and tall trees and fresh air don’t always fix that. But sometimes it does, and even the hikes that make me happy to get back in the car and pull off my hiking boots have taught me something.
The time my sister and I did the Dune Climb with no gear taught me that you always need water; the time I wore brand new hiking boots up a mountain in Colorado taught me I am not immune to blisters.
The time I almost got frostbite taught me a lot about poor planning, and the time I hiked to Copperas Falls taught me that not all hikes are fun, and some are definitely not worth repeating or recommending.
So while a hike isn’t medicine, and nature isn’t always an antidote to stress, even the bad hikes can still be adventures.
And sometimes, if you’re very lucky and in the right place at the right time, your hike can be both an adventure, and magic.
There is a lot of pressure on high school graduates to choose their career path and set up their lives right away, and maybe you’re feeling that right now, and that’s why you’re here. I know I felt that pressure 4 years ago, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
It wasn’t a straight path for me—I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and after a few months volunteering in the ER and vomiting at the sight of blood, I realized that I didn’t. Then I thought I wanted to be a professor, but then I looked at the years and years more of school I would have to complete, and that didn’t seem right either.
I still don’t know “what I want to do”, and I will be graduating in less than a year—which believe me is scary to write.
While I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, I do know what my immediate options are, which is a much easier and arguably better way to look at it. More importantly, I know how to cope with stress and actually plan these things better than I used to, which is why I am laying this out here.
DO: Explore Majors
People will inevitably tell you what major is the best, and what you should do to be successful. Keep in mind all people give advice based their own experience, and no one knows just how many majors and different paths might be available to you. Attend your college events, meet with different advisors, and talk to upper classmen—the more people you talk to, the better sense you’ll have of all the opportunities available.
DON’T: Be Stubborn
It took me a long time to fully admit that I didn’t want to be a doctor, because I had already told people that I did. In the long run, this hurt me more than helped, and I spent a lot of time, money, and effort on classes I wasn’t interested in and I probably won’t need.
My advice? Don’t even declare a major until you’ve got a good sense of all of the majors available—and don’t hang onto a major just because your friends and family think that you should.
DO: Get Involved
Everyone will tell you this, but go to club meetings, join the IM soccer team, attend events. Not only is this a great way to meet people, but this also lets explore your campus.
Another perk of getting involved— you end up meeting a lot of upperclassmen who can give you advice specific to your school and maybe even your major.
DON’T: Assume There is Only One Right Way
One of the biggest issues, for both me and many of my friends was assuming that there is only one right way to do things— there’s not. Take a gap year, go to a community college for a few years, it’s not the end of the world. And if college isn’t right for you, that’s okay too.
Two of the most successful people I know either took a gap year or transferred from a community college. Just because people “usually” go straight to a four year university, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or that it’s the right way for you.
DO: Get a Job
The cool thing about college campuses is that you can get a career-relevant paid position, but you have to put yourself out there.
My freshman year, I went out on a limb and emailed the campus Writing Center to see if they needed tutors. I’ve worked there for two years now, and it funneled into my second job, where I act as a peer mentor and teach writing to freshman science majors—to whom I impart all of my life advice that doesn’t make it on to this blog.
My sister’s freshman year, she emailed 6 professors to see if they needed an undergraduate researcher. Only 1 of the 6 even replied, but this professor gave her a paid position this summer in his lab working on solar panels—I’m pretty sure she just gets coffee and cleans beakers, but still. I have another friend whose freshman lab experience got her an internship at a National Park. In contrast, most of the people I know who have put off getting jobs and getting involved are having trouble finding jobs after graduation.
Your freshman or sophomore job, be it in a cafeteria or a research position, can lead to bigger opportunities down the road, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there.
DON’T: Try and Plan Your Life in One Day
You might feel like you need to figure it out today, or tomorrow, but I promise you don’t. I’m not necessarily saying put off everything forever, but you don’t need to choose a major, or a career path right away.
Instead, focus on trying out classes and going to club meetings. That way, when it comes time to make decisions, you have a good idea of what your options are.
DO: Make Your Own Path
Don’t choose a major or career just because your parents did it that way, or all your friends are doing it that way— you have to do it for you. At the end of the day, you’re going to be a lot happier and more successful if you do something you actually like than you will be if you live your life to make someone else happy.
You’ve got time. Whether you’re going to be a senior in high school and don’t know what major in, or a senior in college and don’t know what to do with your whole life (me), or anywhere in-between, it’s going to work out.