The inevitable approach of another new year can’t help but bring the best of us into a time of reflection. Reflection of ourselves, how we have met or fallen short of our goals in the past year, reflection of our reletionships with others, and even reflection of the other people in our lives whom we care about. It can be bittersweet, or sad, or joyous. I was asked by someone to reflect upon the question, when did you stop believing you could do anything?
When you grow up, there’s a point in time where you realize that you, your mind, your body, you, is sort of limitless. Not becaues of some little clear pill, but because when you put all of those things that are you to a thing, some cause, you just go acheive it. The question changes from, “what if I can’t”, to,” what if I don’t like it when I do”. This is slightly problematic for a person trying to decide what to do with the rest of their lives, at whatever young age this happens. Of course, this could happen at any point in your life, but for me, it happened a few years ago.
The question that was posed, when did you stop believing you could do anything, implies that I already did believe I could do anything. And, I did. Sort of. I believed that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. But I did not realize what that step, the setting my mind to it step, I did not realize what that actually entailed. I believed that I could, but I did not know how to. I hadn’t taken that step yet. So, since I really didn’t know what the achievement step meant, I can’t have truly believed it.
Then I started to. With this, came a lot of changes in the way I looked at myself, and thought about myself. I find it interesting in my own personal reflections, because I keep growing at an ever accerlerating rate. I surprise myself with the changes. I scare myself a little. Ultimately I am becoming more comfortable with who I am.
I am in the middle of my last year of my undergraduate studies, where I am studying aerospace engineering. Now, let me tell you, that is quite the thing. I’m not trying to priase myself with that. What I mean is, it’s not something you walk away from with any sense of dignity or pride if you don’t have intent. It’s not a degree program that you sleep through, and then become like, a high school phys ed teacher. The last year takes hours. Long hours. Long hours of doing nothing but staring at a computer screen at a bunch of lines of MATLAB code, wondering what it all means anyway. Or, staring at the textbook that contains the equations that are the meat of the lines of code in the MATLAB code, looking for a misplaced negative sign, or a missing parenthesis. This part, sucks. It is rather miserable. But, it taught me quite a bit about myself.
I wasn’t the one doing most of the staring. But, I was there, because we were a team doing a project. My main job was to take everything that was happening in the lines of code and the textbooks and the design desicions that were being made, and turn it all into a five page (not four, not six, not three) report that was to be handed in at the end of the semester, which would also account for 60% of the TEAM grade. The actual MATLAB code, because I know you want to know, was %10. Extra credit. But, we needed it in order to complete the deleverable requriements and all of that hubbub jargon stuff. So we did it. I can say we because I did help a little. But, most of my efforts were put towards the report.
Where I learned about myself, was by watching the people who were writing the MATLAB code. In doing this, I realized something. There are people out there who live for this sort of stuff. I happened to have the pirivilege of working pretty closely (anytime you spend two or more consecutive nights with someone past midnight in a computer lab, it’s close) with them throughout the semester. They’re great people. They’re smart. They accept you if you do your job. They don’t judge you if you’re job isn’t as technically challenging as their’s, as long as you’ve got your shit together. The truth was, they would much rather be mulling through lines of MATLAB code, than mulling through lines of the english language. And I would much rather be mulling through lines of the english language, than mulling through lines of MATLAB code.* So, I did my part. And I did it pretty well. And, I learned, that that was okay. I was just as much a part of the team as everybody else. And I understood, partly by watching the process that was being done by my teammates, and partly by taking part in the discussions to figure out the things that I needed to communicate in the report.
This semester, I made a 4.0. Which is a big deal for me. I achieved this grade because I basically devoted myself to my classes. I really didn’t have much of a life. I didn’t really work on my relationships. I focused my energies, both mentally and physically, on makeing myself better academically. For a brief context, I hadn’t been doing so hot when it came down to the nitty gritty engineering classes. Because I hadn’t applied myself. Because I didn’t really have the passion that drives aerospace engineers. That passion is more than just a passion for aerospace vehicles. It is a passion for math, for materials science, for thermodynamics, for simulation algorithms. I love airplanes and spacecraft. But I don’t love engineering them. I know this, for a fact, because I had the semester that I did. I devoted myself to it, and I did well. I performed in the solo acts, and I had a valuable piece to add to the ensemble. I walked away from it knowing that it was not what I wanted to do.
I also walked away from this knowing that where I apply myself, I succeed. When I give my all, all of my mental and physical energy to some cause, I do pretty well. Even when the passion isn’t there. I know I didn’t have the passion for at least some of the work I did this semester, yet I still did well.
So, what does this mean?
It means that the answer to the question, is that I never stopped believing I could do anything. Because I’ve never really believed it at all. I’ve never really believed it, because I’ve never known what it meant. Until now. If anything, I have become closer to this belief in the past few months, not farther from it. I have started to realize what it means. I have started to believe in myself.
This is a process that takes a lifetime, and your relationship with yourself is constantly changing, in part, because you are constantly changing. There was a quote from doctor of some sort who dealt with Alzheimer’s patients and their relatives which was brought up in dinner conversation the other night, which captures this. Paraphrasing, you are always traveling between who you were yesterday, and who you’ll be tomorrow. Who you are today is just a mix of the two. This constant personal evolution means that your belief in yourself, and the realization that you can do everything must also constantly change.
What has happened to me this semester, is that I have realized the tip of the iceberg of what it means to believe in yourself. I have started down the path. I have also realized that I am at a pinnacle in my life. Several potential pathways await my boots. I now know some of the things that I can achieve when I apply myself. I also know what it is like to not enjoy those things. I know that whatever I apply myself to next, I want to enjoy. Which is where the problem lies. Because that question — what do you enjoy doing? — is still as big and as looming as it was four years ago. It’s just that 4 years ago, there was a large bank of clouds in the way, and I didn’t know just how big and looming the question really was.
I will concede one point here. The blank statement, “I believe I can do anything,” is very arrogant, and even ignorant. I think a more appropriate, and more true version is: There is nothing that I have come across that I have not been able to achieve. This leads to a self confidence that vastly improves your chances when you round the next bend in the trail. I do not think that I am invincible, but I would bet on myself.
Ultimately, it comes down to this. I am a 22-year-old man, who is 5 feet and 9 3/4 inches tall, weighs 218 pounds, is pretty smart, and has a plethera of opportunity ahead. I am not in the best physical shape I could be in, but at the end of the day, I am a healthy person. I have learned a lot about myself, and others, and I know that there is more information that I don’t know than information that I do know. (Come back in a few years for the blog post about how I actually came to know that for what it actaully is.) I am very well off in the world. Where I will be in five and 10 and 20 years from now will be something that other less forunate people will envy. It will be things that I might not even know exist now. It could be anything. But the one things it won’t be is younger. With this, I go forward, into the last months of my undergraduate career, and into the great unknown that lies beyond.
* This is not entirely true. I have nothing against code. I like code. More specifically, I like code that is doing something that I am really interested in. But I found that it was the internal thermoanalysis of an afterburning turbojet engine that I didn’t really find as all engrossing as my teammates did. It’s cool, that an afterburning turbojet does what it does, but I don’t live to know what the tempuratures of each stage are.