Swing Harder

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog, wellness

With Thought, Perseverance, and Grit, You Can Get Through Anything

The path you walk is one that you create. Sometimes it’s a walk downhill in a sunlit park in 78-degree weather. Sometimes it’s through thorny, thick bramble in an unmarked forest during a blinding downpour at night, which is where I found myself at 14. After being expelled from my first school, my mother enrolled me in an outdoor program in the North Carolina mountains that was designed for “troubled” teens. We were instructed to meet our guides on the side of a road. The sky darkened with clouds and daylight faded as the late afternoon sun dropped behind the mountains. We were given two tarps each & several pieces of rope. We were also given one compass for the group and a map with a point marked on it. We were then told that was where we were to camp for the night. We figured out the straightest line to the campsite. Then we marched.

It began pouring. The kind of rain that falls with enough force to ricochet off of the ground, which makes it seem like its coming from everywhere. There was no way to stay dry and almost no point in trying. We hiked for hours before finding ourselves in the middle of a briar patch with only one machete. We took turns hacking through the bush. In the middle of my shift, I stopped and looked around. Several people were sitting in the mud, sobbing. I began to seriously consider that we all might die of hypothermia. But as I stood there, soaked, hungry, cold, and exhausted, machete in hand, chest heaving as I drew breath that materialized into fog when I exhaled, I realized that moments like this existed to put the rest in perspective. And not just the perspective that things can be better, but that they can also be worse. In order to push through that moment, I began to think about all of the things I had. First, I wasn’t alone. Everyone in that group was living through it, and if we all worked hard and together, we would eventually finish. It wasn’t permanent, it would end, and when it did end, I had a lot to look forward to. That moment made me realize that almost anything was possible if you were willing to work hard enough for it. No excuses. Pick your head up, focus on your goal, and put your back into it. Now, when I feel that I can’t do something, I think about that moment and that trip. A month in the North Carolina mountains, hiking along the Appalachian trail, with only tarps and string to make a tent, living through thunderstorms, downpours, cold and heat, animals, and hunger. It was one of the hardest and best experiences of my life. It didn’t change everything, I still dropped out of high school, but it gave me resolve and the knowledge that with thought, perseverance, and grit, I could do and get through anything.

I have revisited that moment many times in my life, to remind myself that I can get through anything. I thought about it when I chose to leave high school after 9th grade. And I thought about it when I was told, by many people, that because of that choice I would never amount to anything. I thought about cutting through that bramble when I received my GED, enrolled in community college, and worked my way into a transfer program that got me into my undergraduate university. When I took my first biology class and found science, it was like the first time the rain let up just a little bit. I was back, standing in that rough, overgrown valley and when I looked up I could see the ridge where I was headed in the flashes of lightning that frequented the sky. I knew where I needed to go, but there was a lot work ahead.

That night, swinging that machete, it often seemed that the more I cut, the faster the bramble closed in, thicker and sharper. The first time I approached a professor at my undergraduate university about working in his lab, he asked me what my parents did. I told him my mother was a teacher at a public school and my father worked in construction. He told me that it didn’t make any sense why I wanted to be in science and that I was in the wrong place, and with no background in science I would never make it. I was wasting my time, he said. That only made me swing harder. So, I found two labs to work in and spent every moment that I wasn’t in class working in one (or often both) of them.

I took as many as 21 hours in one semester with four labs and graduated in three years with a B.S. in biology, three credit hours shy of a double major in Chemistry. I then went to my first job interview and was told by my interviewer, that she was surprised because I was actually much smarter than my southern accent made me sound. I worked 12-20 hour days (and slept there on more than one occasion) as a lab tech at a prominent southern university. It was here that I found my genuine passion and the focus of what I wanted to do in science. But throughout that job, I was constantly told that I “thought incorrectly” for science and that I wouldn’t make it.

Eventually, I was recruited by a big five pharma company, largely for a specific skill that I had acquired. In my time there, I fought through elitist attitudes, worked after hours and weekends to provide evidence for a discovery that was considered high risk even though it had obvious potential. Through good science and a lot of resistance, I put that discovery into experimental medicine trials in less than three years.

Grad school has had its own set of difficulties and battles. But I know that I belong here. And as with everything I’ve ever done, it’s worth fighting for. Some days are hard, it’s constantly stressful and you often feel that you are never good enough. A lot of people will put you down, tell you that you can’t do it. But a lot of people will also see that you belong there and tell you that you have the potential.

This is my last piece for this blog. It has been a little hard to open up and put myself and my thoughts out to the world, but I’m glad that I did. I have recently noticed many of my classmates and others in my personal and professional life facing difficulties, both large and small. So, I thought in this last piece I would share this story. Not to show what I’ve overcome, but to inspire people to look back at their own path and think about all of the things that have made them strong and brought them to this point in their lives. Hopefully, they might realize that inner strength is something that is cultivated with mistakes, failures, and difficulties. The path is easier for some than it is for others, but we all face adversity, turmoil, and obstacles. It’s how you deal with that adversity that really makes you who you are. Sometimes no one is there to pick you up when you fall…so don’t fall. Never let them knock you down.

I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences with whoever is reading this. The thought that I want to leave you with is the same one that I had 22 years ago in that valley and that still follows me to this day. When lightning flashes and the brambles and thorns of this life close in all around you,

Swing harder.

I wish you the best…whoever you are. Take care of yourselves and be kind to those that you meet.

Cheers,

Sam

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