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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Redefining Success

I am the kind of guy who doesn't like making New Year's Resolutions.  Let's face it.  Nine times out of ten, we never keep them.  But I will say that one of the things that I wanted to do with 2017 was a lot of soul-searching.

I also don't like using the term midlife crisis, because none of us really know what our midlife point is going to be.  For some it's 40.  For others, 30.  For some, it might even be ten.  And let's hope that none of us have the latter happen to us!  But I will say that 36 has been a kind of transition year.  It's a year in which I am still young enough to remember past mistakes, but am old enough to have learned my lesson so that I don't continue to make the same mistakes.

Recently though, I've come to a distinct conclusion about myself that I initially believed was one of the biggest mistakes of my life - but instead ended up being one of the greatest things I could have done for myself.  Ultimately, this decision shaped the way that I look at success, and it showed me that I don't really need to listen to what society deems is best if I don't agree with it.

You see, fifteen years ago, I became a university dropout.  And up until recently, I saw it as a secret shame.

It wasn't exactly what I had planned on doing.  In fact, I already had my life planned out by the time I was thirty.  I was going to graduate high school and flee as far away from my hometown as I possibly could, go to school to become the next Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, or Peter Jennings (the main news anchors when I was at university), and be the best damn journalist I could be.  That was the plan.

Reality was that I came back to the town I tried to flee from with my tail between my legs, and have been working a full time job in retail ever since.  Not exactly my idea of having a dream come true, but let's face take what you are given in this world and you try to make the best of it.

Because looking back on it, if I had stayed, I'd probably be in the same situation anyway, only with a lot more debt and a degree that would have basically amounted to nothing.

The story begins in the winter of 2000.  That was right around the time in which the various colleges and universities were coming to our schools to have Q&A sessions about their schools, what they had to offer, what scholarships they had, the programs they had in their arsenal.  It was an exciting time, as I had long had enough of my high school, and was looking forward to going off to school.

Of course, our guidance counselors were there to try and help us figure out the right schools for us to go to.  And considering that it cost us quite a bit of money to even apply to schools, it was a decision that was not to be taken lightly.

I guess the first thing that I found odd was that my own guidance counselor only seemed to focus on the most prestigious universities in Canada.  I brought up the idea of possibly going to a community college or a trade school just to see what they had to say, and my guidance counselor informed me that if I really wanted to see success, I'd have to go to university.

See, my school was one that celebrated academics and the arts.  It was admittedly what attracted me to go to that high school in the first place.  That, plus I lived next door to the building.  But sometimes I got the impression that the school didn't really care about what information they gave their students.  It was more along the lines of them wanting to boast about having such and such a percentage of their students going off to university - or at least, that's the impression that I felt anyway.  The guidance counselor didn't even want to discuss the idea of going to a community college as she insisted my grades were good enough to get into university.  So, that was where my first mistake was made.  Only focusing on universities and not expanding my search to include colleges was not a good decision.

However, because I narrowed my search, I found what I thought was the perfect university.  I've probably mentioned the name of the university before in my blog, but I'll just state that it happens to be located in Ottawa.  They had an acclaimed journalism program that seemed like it would be the perfect fit for me, and I went to the open house during Spring Break to check it out.  I was convinced that this was the school for me, and was looking forward to applying.

Unfortunately when I received my final report card in June, my average just missed the cutoff point for acceptance into the program.  Instead, I opted to go into communications.  At least it was still under the media umbrella, and I figured that if I did well in that course, I would be able to get back into the journalism program the following year.

Needless to say, it didn't happen.

I'll say this about the university experience.  Socially, it was probably one of the highlights of my life.  I got along well with mostly everyone, and while I didn't really go out drinking or party that much, mostly everyone on my floor at rez respected that.  And I really appreciated the fact that there was always something to do at any given hour of the day when classes were not in session.  There were some days in which I would go down to the all-night cafe in the ground floor of the residence hall and just sit there and be chill.  It was my first taste of freedom and I really enjoyed that part of it.

But as I got settled into my classes, and as the months passed by, I found that I hated the classroom experience with a passion.  I couldn't figure out how a professor could really be able to connect with all 700 of his students inside of a classroom as large as a movie theatre.  It also didn't help that in my communications class, I had two different professors - one for semester one and one for semester two.  Both had such different styles of lecturing that I found it just impossible to keep up.  And it was like this in every single one of my classes.

The lone exception was my film studies class, where we got to at least watch a movie every week, and where my teaching assistant was incredible.  I think the film studies class was my favourite, and part of me was questioning whether I should have made that my major instead.  Questions that will remain unanswered, I suppose.

Despite the fact that I wasn't feeling the first year of school, I really busted my butt to stay in the program.  I did everything possible which included drinking several bottles of Jolt Cola to pull all-nighters for my exams

(NOTE:  Don't ever do that.  Jolt Cola is the most disgusting soda that I have ever drank.  Even more disgusting than Mountain Dew.)

In the end, I did what I thought was fairly well.  A 79% average.  Not bad in most places, right?  Well, unfortunately, I needed a solid 80% to stay in the program, and the school was not really willing to cut me a break.  They told me that in order to stay in the program, I'd have to redo my entire first year over again.

That was the very moment I suspected that I made the wrong choice.  But the stubborn Taurus in me was determined not to let this faze me.  So I couldn't continue with mass communications...I thought that there were other choices that I could do instead.  But with a 79% average, my selection was extremely limited.  Apparently I had decided to attend a university with impossibly high standards - as most universities in Canada and the United States seem to be.  The only option left was to go for a General Arts degree - which essentially would mean that I would get a degree, but that was all that I would have.  It just seemed like it was a waste of money and time to go for a degree that I really didn't want or have any interest in.

And during my second and final year of university, I found it to be one of the worst years ever.  My professors were dry and uninspiring, my rez friends split up in different directions and I rarely ever saw them...and I was realizing that I was very unhappy.  I was no longer thinking of the experience as being a good one.  I was thinking that the longer I stayed, the more unhappy I would be.

So at the end of the second year - after essentially flunking out of school - I made the decision to move on.  It wasn't an easy choice to make.  Truth be told, I really didn't want to leave like that.  And for years afterward, I kicked myself over and over again about how stupid I was and how I closed a lot of doors in my future, and how my life would be forever ruined because I didn't get that piece of paper.

It has been fifteen years since that day.  I'm not going to sugarcoat it.  My life's not exactly the most glamourous in the world.  My job isn't exactly making me independently wealthy.  And honestly, the closest I'll ever get to living the cosmopolitan life is the checkout counters at a grocery store where they sell Cosmo Magazine - a publication I despise with the heat of an active volcano.

Yet, I'm actually okay with this.  And do you want to know why?  Because I still managed to make a few of my dreams come true in spite of not getting a university degree.  After all, I am a homeowner.  Sure, it's no McMansion with a fancy white fence around it.  But I learned that I don't need to have an expensive home to feel like a success.

I also managed to get all of my student debt paid off.  Granted, it took me thirteen years to pay for it - and no degree to show for it.  But I could have ended up owing a lot more.  In a way, I thank myself for waving a white flag of surrender before I got in too deep.  At least with a mortgage, I have something to show for that debt!

But I think the most important thing I learned from all this is that university is NOT for everybody.  I know that it was a poor fit for me.  I couldn't handle the supersized classes, I fell asleep listening to professors babble on about stuff that was NOT ON THE FINAL EXAM MIGHT I ADD, and I just think that while it was a great thing for me socially, everything else was completely wrong.

I think if I get the chance to do it again, I would finance the whole experience myself, and take something that I know would be a useful skill.  I would definitely choose a college or a trade school.  I like small classes and instructors who are more available for you.  I learn best by doing things - not listening to someone drone on and on.  And, I know several college and trade school grads that make more money than those who have a university degree. 

I also think that the guidance counselors at my school were idiots.  But that's more of a personal opinion and not factual.  Unless you all want it to be.

Society has a funny way of defining success (as does Dannii Minogue, apparently).  They feel that success means that you have to have a house that is humongous and pristine, have a job that nets you over a hundred grand a year, you must have children to be successful, and you have to go to university.  I'm here to tell you that I am living proof that society is screwed up and that you all need to find your own path to happiness.  Maybe I don't have the degree.  Or the expensive house.  Or the kids.  So, what?  I'm not about to let society dictate to me that I am unsuccessful because of it. 

I am who I am.  And I'm in the driver's seat.  Ironic, since I don't know how to drive.  But hey, let's go with it.

Maybe back in 2002, it was my biggest regret.  In 2017, it became my biggest learning experience.  One I needed to have.  

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