I had completed a Biology degree from Binghamton University, and was intending to take the MCAT, to apply to medical schools. It seemed like the best path I could pursue at the time, given my limited knowledge of the way the world works and my horrible understanding of my own emotions relating to the subject of success. I had drunk the Kool Aid, assuming that all I had to do was prove myself in an grueling, demanding, and ultimately unrewarding field to somehow show everyone how worthy I was.
I know, sickening to see myself in such a state. Not to mention the detriment to my health and finances... most of my doctor friends are miserable, sleep deprived and overweight. Their personal transformation has been put on hold, the pilot light on their desire is flickering: they have very little balance in their personal vs. professional lives. Many have confirmed that given another chance, they would not choose the same path. Dodged a bullet there.
Anyway, having just finished two semesters of being on the crew team, about to turn 22 years old, I was in the best shape of my life thusfar. I wanted to keep my training regimen up and my brain operating at full useless fact cramming capability. I knew I could run 10-15 miles at the drop of a hat, and I knew how to ride a bike, so why not do a triathlon? Swimming shouldn't be that hard to learn, right?
Over the course of that summer, I managed to raise my physics scores 50% and my bio and chem an average of 30%. I had also kept in shape, done a few miserable open water swims, but never in a wetsuit. I didn't have access to a lap pool, and had no one to mentor me. Did this deter me from my unrealistic goals? Well, if you think it did, you don't know how stubborn I can be when I set my sights on something.
We can argue how fair this was til we're blue in the face, but let's just agree that I wasn't prepared to make the transition to reading for comprehension on a paper test in a quiet lecture hall-- what I had been used to for the prior 4 years in college-- to the incessant clacking of PC keyboards in miserable gray cubicles with everyone and their brother tapping, clacking and shifting in their computer chairs around me. Long story short, I couldn't focus, had a mini panic attack, and in my attempts to calm and center myself succeeded only in running out of time, compounding my anxiety, which eventually left me so exasperated that I ended up forfeiting the results and walking away, dejected, from my first attempt at acing the MCAT.
The photographer for the results newsletter got a great shot of me which I hung on the wall for posterity, along with my finishers medal. I included a pic (attached) because it so perfectly and accurately captures a man so far out of his depth. To twist the knife a bit deeper, included with it was the caption: "And the last shall be first"... when I got the photo I was in full on aimless wandering mode, so I cut it out as a feeble attempt to trauma block a bad experience, yet again. I've since become aware of how often I do this. Blocking traumatic experiences and not truly dealing with them emotionally, but that came much later. I should have kept it, in retrospect, because life is long and there are many opportunities to redeem yourself.
I hastily tried to dry off, barely changed out of my wet clothes, and donned my woefully ill equipped bike for the long and cold ride up and down the hills of the surrounding hamlets, replete with old money Great Gatsby-esque views. I managed to pass a few folks on the ride up, and started to really enjoy the racing experience, despite being chilled to the bone. I finished the biking portion, little worse for wear, having passed at least a dozen other racers along the way. My hubris was right there waiting for me when I got back to the changing station.
Not ten steps into the run, having forgotten to take a minute and stretch, my dead legs wouldn't cooperate and I twisted my knee. I was so close now, only a 5k away from the finish line, I had to complete what I had started. Never again, I kept saying over and over again. If you just finish this race, you can nail the MCAT tomorrow, get into school, and you never have to subject yourself to something this crazy again. I was full of bad ideas that day.
I don't remember much about the rest of the day, except being tired and proud of myself and stuffing my face with carbs. I woke up the next day fairly sure I had been hit by a truck. I was dehydrated, had a chest and head cold, a bum knee, and several phantom bumps and bruises whose origin I could not quite identify. My headache was an just one more symptom of just how screwed I was. CRAP! My test is today, and this is my last shot. I downed as much coffee, excedrin, and Dayquil as time permitted, and raced out to the Garden State to seal my fate.
Even in my addled state, I managed to pull out a 12 in Physics/Inorganic, an 11 in Bio/Organic, and top 4% in the country on the written portion of the MCAT. My verbal was dismal... a 7, with no chance to make it up for that year. I had been getting 11's and 12's on the practice tests, but combined with the computer test taking format and my exhaustion and illness bordering on delerium, it was just too much. I had met my match. I was solidly denied by all the top tier medical schools I had applied to. That turned my "maybe I'll take a gap year" plan into "I guess I have to take a gap year" and reevaluate. My 30 with the strong writing was better than average, but not good enough for the schools I wanted.
Dejected, I ran off to the city and worked as a bartender for a year to escape my troubles there. This strategy would become a recurring theme in my 20's. That path worked out better in the long run, but man, was I upset at the time. I felt like a failure, but I completely overlooked the fact that I had set myself up to fail. I wouldn't listen to anyone, and now I think I know better, but I still sometimes catch myself letting my optimism get in the way of reality.
Sometimes retrospect is your best friend, and some things that are bad in the moment are for the best in the long run. I learned a lot about my limits and setting realistic goals that summer. That temporary tragedy set me off on the path to where I am today. I learned just how human I really am. I have blown away all expectations that 22 year old had about success, and achieved more in a shorter amount of time than I have ever thought possible. So that's the silver lining on that story. Thanks for taking time to read this, it was cathartic writing it. Hopefully this story will help you put similar stories in your own life into perspective.
Just in case you were wondering, I did eventually become a very strong swimmer, though it wasn't until I moved to San Francisco and had access to a pool everyday. I still incorporate swimming into my routine most days of the week and enjoy the hell out of it. This article made learning a whole lot easier for me.