What are you most afraid of? Go after it.

My struggles started when I realized I had enough money not to work anymore. Math has always been a strength of mine, but it’s also a curse. I knew, given historical averages and our personal historical spending, I could retire. But, if I run the numbers with a larger house in a higher cost of living area, higher medical bills, and a poor performing market, I would need to keep working.

They say how comfortable you are naked on a beach is how comfortable you are with dying. I think that’s why most nudists are so old. They’ve had the time to figure it out. When you realize that all you are is who you are, your journey begins. You don’t get to bring your stuff with you when you’re dead. You have to be naked to see that everything around you has nothing to do with who you are. Your things do not define you. Your actions define you.

Everything you ever wanted is on the other side of fear.

– Jack Canfield

I had dreams as a child that slowly vanished, some I have even forgotten until I started writing this post. The largest reason for me to avoid following my dreams has been stability. I was raised in a stable home and understood that if I wanted this same stability for my family, I needed to maintain a steady career and have it pay well. Over time, doubt-by-doubt, a wall was constructed around my dreams. Time is the bricks, and my fear is the mortar.

In an effort to tear down these walls, I will tell you about these dreams.

The Dreams

I spent my school-age years not being intentional. My parents saw that I was successful in school and sports. They didn’t understand I was coasting. I never understood the hard work that was necessary to be exceptional. I just assumed that I wasn’t tall or fast enough to be a professional, so why put in the extra effort? I took honors classes and didn’t think the work needed to get an A was worth it. I took my Bs and still got 4.0s. I was going through the motions, but to outside observers, I was doing great.

I had plenty of time to dream before college.

The Entertainer

I have always considered myself an entertainer. However, recently I have begun to wonder if I only felt this way because of low self-esteem. Making someone else happy is a lot easier than understanding what truly drives you and makes you better. But, I definitely do get joy from helping others who want to be helped.

My earliest musings are with my mom. I did not know it when I was young, but she struggled with mental illness. She would have outbursts of crying or screaming, but she would always smile when I would sing or dance for her. It was simple, she was my mom, and I wanted my mom to be happy. That made me happy.

This continued in school, where I filled the role of the class clown. I remember receiving a red pen remark on a middle school project, “Did you take this seriously?”

Why would I take school seriously? The coursework was easy for me. The hard part was figuring out how to get enough answers right without reading the assignments. That and the timing of my jokes. Only about twice per class would the teacher let down their defenses enough for you to strike. I was never rude. You don’t talk over the teacher or make an outburst. You have to fill a transition or complete a sentence for them. I paid attention to detect when it was appropriate to make a joke or not. Getting kids to laugh was easy. It was when the teacher laughed when I felt the proudest.

The Writer/Artist

I remember my older brother writing a story for his fifth-grade class project. I was impressed at his drawings and writing. He said that there was a class competition, and since I loved to compete, I was very excited about the opportunity. I planned on making an even better story when it was my turn.

Thanks to my Mom, I was familiar with drawing and typing at a young age. I composed a story about crime-fighting cheetahs. I was sure it was revolutionary. When the class voted for the best story, I barely received any votes. I broke down crying in class. I had never shown emotion like that before. I was so positive that it was going to be the greatest thing. I wasn’t ready for the fact that kids vote for their friends and that my story probably wasn’t as transcendent as I imagined it.

I took this as the final vote on my writing career…. in FIFTH grade.

I continued drawing until sixth grade when the elementary schools merged into junior high. My classmates told me another girl was the best artist from her school. When I saw her work, I knew she was better than me. My confidence faded. Come freshman year of high school, I took an art class, and for a final project, I spent hours stippling a picture of Joe Montana. I was beyond proud. I turned it in, and when a classmate told me that the teacher did not list it as one of the top pieces, I was crushed.

I convinced myself. You’re so good at math, why would you want to be an artist? That doesn’t pay anything anyways.

The Architect

“You write like a girl,” was something I heard frequently.

I took a drafting class in my freshman year of high school. I loved it. Math, visuals, and handwriting, it was too easy. I could do it all day. I was truly a “natural.”

Our school entered a statewide drafting competition. I knew I could do well. However, the student from our school doing the computer-aided design (CAD) didn’t show. I volunteered to fill in. It felt like more of a challenge, or maybe I wanted an excuse not to fail at my true passion. I took the test and crushed it. I would have gotten a perfect score, except I didn’t notice the instructions and used the wrong scale.

I got third place. The top two qualified for finals, I was pissed.

My teacher was so proud of me for helping the team get multiple medals. My Dad, the engineer, turned salesman, was very impressed. I was dismayed.

There were no more drafting classes offered at my school. I also realized with computers are taking over the field. My beautiful handwriting was obsolete. The final nail was hearing about how hard it is to get a job as an architect. I don’t know who told me that, I know it wasn’t my parents, but for some reason, I took that as fact and hung up my compass.

The Video Game Maker

I didn’t just play video games, I treated them like family. They fought with food as my best friend.

I remember my Dad hooking up an original Nintendo (NES) in my grandparent’s basement the Christmas of 1985. I was three. Watching him play Duck Hunt blew my mind. Somehow he was pointing a gun at a TV screen, and these ducks were getting hit. My brother shared my passion and taught me the ropes over the years. Every Christmas and birthday present after that was either video games or the latest system. My Dad spent weeks trying to get us PS2s for Christmas, getting up early in the morning before work to check stores.

After watching my architect dreams get crushed by computers, I figured if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I checked out a book from the library that was supposed to teach you how to code video games. It was just a bunch of simple scripts for games like tic-tac-toe, not Mario Bros. To make it worse, I didn’t know about UNIX or BASIC or a terminal, really how to actually run these scripts. I was on my Dad’s computer flailing to understand where I typed these magical words in.

During my freshman year of high school, I learned that my TI-85 calculator had an instruction manual that includes a tutorial on how to code in TI-BASIC. I was familiar with calculator games and decided to make a clone of “Drug Wars.” I spent my study hall coding away on a graphing calculator. I was even able to figure out a way to save your game by using the memory reserved for other applications. I named it Street Warfare and included graphics I made pixel-by-pixel. I also allowed you to buy a tank if you made enough money.

I felt like computers were coming naturally to me, so I decided that I’d combine my love of video games and coding to be a video game maker. Unfortunately, a teacher told me, “it is tough to get into video games. I know people that have tried for years.” Just those few words were enough for me to stop pursuing my dream.

Who are these people telling kids that shit is hard, and why was I listening to them?

The Comedian

Being a class clown is one thing, but standing in front of others and trying to make them laugh is the Super Bowl of comedy. Due to my low self-esteem and chunky thighs, I assumed the funny guy’s role early in my life. When South Park came out during my freshman year, I learned how to make a mean Cartman impression. I then lost 25 pounds, and my wrestling singlet dangled from my body, but I still did, “Fat guy in a little coat,” from Tommy Boy.

During my senior year of high school, I found myself with very little to do in study hall. I was sitting next to a kid who I knew but not very well. We worked on some writing projects and made each other laugh harder than I have ever laughed before. It was like a first love, but for comedy writing. I was used to just trying to do silly things rather than actually practice the craft. He now actually continues to do comedy in Chicago today. I stalk him on Facebook.

In my sophomore year of college, I saw a flyer for a comedy team. I actually mustered the courage to go to the tryouts by myself. My desire to discover if I was actually funny or not overcame my introversion and social anxiety. They sat us all down in a circle and asked us to tell a story. I tried way too hard. I tried to make up a story that resulted in me not being able to read. It fell flat. They then put us in improv situations, and I made a good enough impression where one of the team members asked for my name. I had hope. I was also concerned that maybe she was writing me down as a hard no because I talked about how the other person’s mom had cancer.

They were only taking one new member. They chose the fattest guy there. I promise he wasn’t even funny. He was just a large man with a large stage presence; maybe he knew someone I don’t know. I did convince myself that was my one shot, and I missed. I relive that initial round-table to this day and think about what I should have said. I should have told the story about how I beat my roommate in a game of Madden, and he was going to tackle me, but instead broke our glass coffee table. They wanted to hear me tell a story and perform, not make up a brand new joke… sigh.

Since I wasn’t over six feet, I wouldn’t be a professional athlete, and I tried too hard to impress. I would not be a comedian, back to playing video games.

The Teacher / Coach

I continued coasting through high school but practicing for the SAT. Apparently, reading was a lot harder for me than math. I took the test enough times to get admitted to the University of Illinois. My parents could afford to pay for me to go to an in-state college (this was before tuition ballooned out of control). It was a no-brainer. I didn’t believe I was smart enough to go to a better school. I saw classmates get accepted to MIT and Stanford. I didn’t even apply. My parents even told me they’d figure out a way to pay for me to go to another school.¬†The truth was that I didn’t want to work hard for it. I got into a Top 10 Computer Science school, checkbox checked.

In college, I continued floating. I was successful with math and computers. I stuck with it. When senior year came around, I was completely lost. I barely passed my senior class project and decided that I would be better served as a teacher/football coach instead of a software engineer. It’s what my older brother just did. It seemed like a fine path to follow.

After two years of Education classes, I was a student teacher.

I taught mathematics to first-year high school students. Pre-Algebra, Algebra, and Honors Geometry. It was hard. I had to make three different lesson plans every day and teach kids who didn’t care. I knew the material, but I couldn’t manage the classroom. I couldn’t inspire the kids to do well. I couldn’t teach to the test. Across all teachers, my students got the lowest scores on their finals. I felt like a failure.

I took the test to qualify to be an official Illinois teacher, but my wife and I moved to Colorado before I ever even saw the results.

At least I tried this dream out. I didn’t want to get paid so little to hate my career this much.

My Job

Years passed and I ultimately became a software engineer (analyst -> product owner -> manager -> director -> project manager -> engineer).

I had to work through business requirements, follow processes, attend meetings, document things, test things, post memes, and occasionally write code. I could have written more or better code, but it wasn’t interesting to work on. I could have pushed on my boss to allow us to do more interesting code, but then I would have to commit to working on that, possibly failing and having to spend lots of nights figuring it out.

My company treated me very well, and I truly enjoyed working with my team members. I didn’t love the job. It was never a passion of mine to write business code for an enterprise company. But I’m a responsible adult and couldn’t turn down the paycheck, health care, and stability it provided my family.

I was only 38. Most people would continue doing the job for 25 more years and suck it up. I was exhausted. I wasn’t meant to sit behind a computer and be a cog in a machine. My fears and doubts left me there.

The Future

The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.

-Mike Murdock

It is easy to say that no one knows what the future holds, but you need to put yourself in the right position to be in the future you desire. I am a fortunate person to be both physically and mentally well. Even luckier to have family members that are the same. I have the opportunity to really challenge myself to determine what my best future holds.

But what if I abandoned my job and pursued one of my dreams?

This has already started by me writing down my thoughts in these blog posts. But do I have the determination to focus on one of my previous dreams and make it come true? Can I put together a spec pilot? Can I make a video game? Can I be a stand-up comedian?

Stay tuned. We’ll find out.

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