Saturday, July 17, 2010

What it takes to be a man....

So I finally started to figure some things out. It was about time. My parents were more patient with me than I deserved, and maybe even more than was good for me. Working at PC Systems had started a fire in me that would stick with me for the rest of my life, or at least for the rest of the life that I have lived since that time. I finally had the last piece of the puzzle that I needed to figure out what I needed to do with the rest of my life, but I was afraid. Ultimately I think I was just really terrified of failing again. I knew that this was the last shot I really had. If I screwed this up, I would end up on my own with no degree and likely in a job I couldn't stand. And lets face it, by this time I had been searching for that piece of the puzzle for several years and I was worn to a frazzle. The constant worrying and fretting over the fact that I just couldn't seem to come up with a plan for my life was wearing me thin. I had my distractions but those were getting less and less effective at distracting my mind from the fact that I had no idea where I was going in life. The whole subject had become the big pink elephant in the room that no one wanted to acknowledge, but we all knew was there because it was always staring us in the face. I was afraid this was another dead end, or even worse, that I would totally screw this up like I had done in the past.

Putting your all into something is hard because if you utterly fail you have no excuses. It's something I've seen time and time again during my time on Earth. People have this tendency to pull back so that if they fail they have the safety net of telling themselves that they could've done it if they had really tried. That may have been why I quit school in Tuscaloosa, by leaving early I still had the "out" of telling myself that I could've done it if I had tried. It makes really putting yourself completely into something a challenge. I do know that I faced this very problem at this point in my life. On one hand I knew that in order to be successful I was going to have to go all in and give it everything I had. My life experiences to this point had shown me that. I knew if I didn't do that I would definately fail again. But that little voice in the back of my head also told me that if I failed again I wouldn't have any excuses, I would've given my all and failed. Sometimes there is solace in the fact that you tried your best and came up short, other times that means you have to face the fact that you just weren't good enough.

Ultimately I decided to start slowly and make sure that I was really on the right path. I started off by taking a few classes at Calhoun Community College to sort of test the waters. I started off taking a couple of introductory programming classes. I enjoyed my experience with software as I messed around at home, but that didn't mean I was going to really like it when it came to doing it for a living. I kept working at PC Systems because I really needed that comfort zone to balance all the other insanity that I was facing in the rest of my life. Those classes ended up going well and only served to strengthen my belief that I was really on the right path. Finally I was on the right path. It felt good. It felt right. I can't really explain it, but after all the years of searching, finding myself on the right path was a relief. I was still scared, succeeding presented new challenges that I would have to deal with.

Calhoun was interesting. Those classes I took weren't hard. But sometimes dealing with success presents challenges that you don't really expect. And at this point in my life, I hadn't really had to deal with success a whole lot. If I'm being completely honest, those programming classes were easy. They had nothing on the things I'd already learned by messing around with the software related topics that I had already played around with. By this time I had taught myself things far more complex than the basic stuff we were learning in class and I had to stop myself from getting cocky. On one hand, the things I'd learned messing around with hacking and writing viruses and so forth were orders of magnitude more complex than the stuff we were doing in class. On the other hand, if you want to be a successful programmer you have to learn how to approach problems. Some of the things you learn in those early classes are very important in your development as a programmer. And those things aren't taught in the world I had learned software in at that time. Luckily I realized this and reeled my ego in and listened to what my teachers said, even if I already knew it.

After the success I had at Calhoun I faced a crossroads. In my prior academic career I hadn't been crazy about math. This created a problem. I had 2 paths to chose from. I could take the Management Information Systems (MIS) path or I could take the Computer Science (CS) path. The CS path would mean taking some seriously hardcore math classes, but I would be getting down into the weeds, which is where I wanted to be. The MIS path would be far less math, but I really wouldn't get down into the weeds like I wanted, I would have a more business centric approach. Both paths could lead me to a programming career, but the CS path would be better in the long run. But taking that path meant having to face my fears and even add to them. I hadn't been good with math thus far, was taking the CS path just asking too much of myself? I even had people tell me I was crazy for considering it. I remember sitting down and having a long conversation with myself about the whole thing. I tend to do that a lot when I really need to think about things, I've had some great conversations with myself on many occasions. You should try it sometime, you'd be surprised at what you can figure out if you'd just talk to yourself. I do usually try to do it in a place that will give me the privacy to do it alone so that the neighbors don't think I'm crazier than they already do.

This night was a real turning point because it was the night I faced my fear about taking the steps I needed to take to move on with my life. I had finally reached a point where I couldn't' put it off anymore. This was it, I had to make a decision and do something. That night is very vivid to me because it was hard, I mean really hard. I knew that I had to look deep down inside of myself and figure out if I was really ready for this. And in order to figure that out I would have to be completely and brutally honest with myself. And even though I was still pretty dumb, I knew that doing that was going to be unpleasant, to say the least. So I took it all out and laid it on the table. I took all my fears, reservations, concerns, you name it and I brought it out. I had to know if I was really ready for this step. I had to be sure as I could be about what I was thinking about doing.

I cant say that I liked a lot of what I saw sitting on that table. It's hard to describe what it's like seeing all of your shortcomings staring you in the face like that, it's just something that you have to experience. But, even with all the things I didn't like, I realized it was finally time. It was now or never, I had to take that step because if I didn't do it now, I'd never take a step like that again. I think what really hit home for me was that at some point I realized I was focusing on all the wrong things. You see I was spending all my time thinking about what was going to happen if I failed again. It was like it was a foregone conclusion. What I hadn't really thought about was what would happen if I succeeded. What would happen if I took on the toughest challenge of my life and beat it? For one I would have the confidence to challenge myself again because I would know that I could handle it. I firmly believe that you will not really be able to grow as a person if you don't challenge yourself. And once I realized that, my choice became crystal clear. I knew that it was as simple as believing in myself, even if a lot of other people didn't. I knew I had to believe in myself for once and actually try. If I backed down at that point I could almost see the path my life would take where I constantly backed down from challenges because I was too afraid to try.

I don't know if everyone has a point in their lives where they have to make a choice like that and the results of that choice will reverberate down the path of thier life for the rest of time. But my life had a moment like that and I made the right decision. I decided that I would go to UAH and major in Computer Science. I knew it would be hard. I knew I would have to do extra work to make up for deficiencies that I had in my academic career. I knew I was choosing the more difficult path and that by doing so I was increasing the odds that I might fail again at a time when I couldn't fail. In short, I took the past least followed. And the truth is that I never looked back. I made my decision and set off. I had no idea how hard it would be, but I was as ready as I could ever be.

I talked to my parents and they agreed to give me one last chance. I think I had to sign some kind of contract with them or some such silliness. Look, there was no way they could put more pressure on me than I was already putting on myself. I know they meant well, and I wouldn't have believed me either when I said that I understood that this was my last chance. But the truth was that I did understand that, I actually understood it better than they did. To them this was my last chance for them to help me try and find my path in life. To me this was the last chance I had at finding my path at all. Yes that's overly dramatic, so what, I was smack dab in the middle of life changing metamorphisis. Ok, I got overly dramatic again. It was a big deal though, bigger than we all knew.

I also decided that I couldn't keep working at PC Systems. I knew I would need all the time I could get to focus on my school work and the task of getting myself caught back up. I had a double whammy. I hadn't been in school in a couple of years so everything was rusty. To top that off, I knew I was going to have to learn how to study and how to approach college because I certainly had no idea how to go about it. By this time Sherman and Greg were on the outs and I didn't know if Sherman was going to stay. He took a temporary leave of absence that seemed like it would be permanent. Greg actually offered me his job if I would stay. But I knew I couldn't. It was time for me to move. It was a time for another one of those introductions.

So I left all of that behind and enrolled in UAH with the intention of getting a CS degree. I knew it would be hard, but I still didn't really know just how hard it was going to be. But I was about to find out.

My personal life had started changing as well. We finally stopped hanging out in parking lots. I could drink legally by this time and we found ourselves hanging out at Applebee's more and more often. That was a nice change because it made me feel like I was starting to move on with my entire life. We had a lot of fun there. Another decision I had made when I decided to go back to school was that I wasn't going to get too serious about any girls. The last thing I needed at that time was the drama that goes along with dating someone seriously. That was a distraction I couldn't afford. I would still go out on dates, but I wouldn't let myself get too involved with anyone. When things started to get too serious, I'd pull the plug and ride off into the sunset. There were a few girls that I probably hurt by having this approach, and I'm sorry that it was necessary. But believe me, it was. I just couldn't handle that kind of thing at that time. Besides, I was still screwed up enough that I wasn't doing a girl a favor by sticking around. I was a mess.

UAH would present a lot of challenges for me. But it was a turning point, a turning point I'll pick up in the next post.

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