I wrote this piece for my old newsletter, The Drewsletter on July 5th, 2005.
The inspiration came from the commencement speech Steve Jobs had just delivered at Stanford University.
His words got me thinking about my own life, and this is what came out of me six years ago.
Thought it was worth a re-post in honor of the man who led me to write it.
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“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” – Steve Jobs
It’s high school graduation season, and as I see all the parties taking place on the lawns, I find myself reflecting back on this era of my life. Eighteen years ago I was gearing up to fly from the nest and head towards college. My imminent departure was bittersweet. During the previous months I started to receive the letters from the colleges that I applied to that would hold my destiny.
I had applied to seven schools, gained acceptance to the five I had heard from. While this was all well and good, I had not yet heard from my top choices: The University of Virginia and The University of Notre Dame.
I owned one of those massive college guide books and each night before going to bed, I would open it and pore over the admissions statistics to the University of Virginia.
GPA? Check. SATs? Check. Activites? Check.
By the numbers, I believed I belonged there and I prayed that I would soon be walking the halls founded by Thomas Jefferson.
Of course, Notre Dame was no slouch either – an excellent Irish Catholic school with a great sports program seemed right up my alley. Everyone around me thought that this school would be prefect for me. While I was certain Virginia was the school for me, I knew I couldn’t go wrong in South Bend.
Every day I would come home from school at lunchtime. My heart would start pounding as I fished my hand into the mailbox, hoping my hand would find a fat envelope that would inform me of the good news. (Thin envelopes = standard form rejection letters.)
And one day, there it was… A thin envelope with the UVA logo. I tore it open and absorbed the words on the page. In disbelief, I reread the part where they “regretfully informed” me. I collapsed. I cried and screamed, a crumpled mess sprawled on the floor. I called my mother at work and wailed. (Only now can I begin to imagine how helpless she felt.)
My dream was over. All I had worked for the past decade was for naught.
In a few hours I pulled myself together and did my best to get excited about the prospects of attending Notre Dame. The next day I returned to the kitchen floor, crying into the phone to my mother again. There had to be some mistake, right?
My whole life was over before it began.
And just for good measure, within the year my hair would begin its permanent vacation from my head.
Four years later, I would once again be waiting on some envelopes as I applied to graduate school for clinical psychology.
Eight envelopes came in the mail. All of them thin. I graduated magna cum laude and not only was I not good enough to fulfill my dream of becoming a psychologist; I couldn’t even get the most menial job. (My nadir — the mall pet shop rejected me for the coveted minimum wage “cage cleaner” position. True story.)
I’d have to wait another entire year before applying to graduate schools again. After 5 more thin envelopes, I received a sixth from Syracuse University. I threw in the trash without opening it, but my curiosity made me dig it out and read the rejection. In complete shock, I discovered that I had been accepted into the social psychology program at Syracuse University with a full scholarship. (They sent me a second, fat envelope a few days later.)
As I sit here today, living a life that I would not trade for anyone else’s, I can reflect on those past experiences and connect some of the dots. In other words, with the gift of perspective I am able to make sense of why things happened the way they did in my life. I can see how the experiences I’ve had — no matter how traumatic at the time — have really been placed in my path so that I could evolve and apply the wisdom gained at some point in the future.
For example, the college I graduated from, the State University of New York at Geneseo, was a magical place where I had as much fun in a few year as some people do in decades. I cannot think of that period in my life and not smile. The school was a perfect fit for me. Deep down I know that would not have had those same experiences at Virginia or Notre Dame.
And, yes I went bald, but my being bald helped me become me. Even if I could have hair today, I would prefer to remain as I am.
When I got into graduate school, many of my classmates and friends were studying clinical psychology. I got to see what clinical psychology was like up close and personal and I knew it wasn’t for me. My “second choice” of social psychology turned out to be my true love.
As Mr. Jobs states in his quote, we can only connect the dots by going backwards in time. We can only make sense of why things worked out the way they did by looking at the events of the past in the context of the now. Even then, we are not privy to the Truth about why things happen, but often we can come up with stories that seem to make intuitive sense.
At some point we have to release our grip on thinking we control all of the outcomes of our lives. When we can release our expectations of how we believe things are supposed to happen and lighten our judgments about the events of our lives having to be characterized as either good or bad, we step into the surrender of the infinite power of the universe.
But while surrendering sounds good, no one said it was easy to do. For every place I am able to now connect the dots, there are several dots in my life that seem to lead nowhere.
I do not know why my mother has Alzheimer’s disease and slowly wastes away in a nursing home. I can come up with stories to placate my mind and explain this dot in my life, but the truth is that I do not know why this experience is in my life. I may never know. There will always be more mysteries, more puzzles with missing pieces than solutions in this lifetime. But among all those mysteries, there are enough of those times where we can connect the dots and see the perfection of life.
Still, it’s a challenge to have faith in life and trust that things are perfect “even when they ain’t.”
During those times when I get caught up in needing to know all the answers, or the illusion that I can know the answers, I come back to question asked by Einstein —
“Is the universe friendly?”
Personally, I believe that the universe is a benevolent place. I believe that life is good, that people are good, and that we’re here to experience the joys of being human. I had enough experiences where I could connect the dots where I’ve cultivated this faith. And I believe that when my thoughts and actions reflect my belief in a friendly universe that I draw more good things into my experience.
Things go “wrong.” And yes, being human means that we all experience disappointment, confusion, and pain. Yes, the expression “things work out for the best” is trite and it takes tremendous courage to believe in the goodness of things when there’s a seemingly endless supply of evidence to the contrary.
But what the hell…
Believe it anyway.