Present > Perfect

What do you want be when you grow up? Surely you were asked this question at least once, in some form. Maybe it came in high school when you realized you had to make the choice of where to go to school and what to major in. Seriously, our system trusts TEENAGERS to potentially decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

At 18, I thought the High School Musical 3 soundtrack was quality and it was cool to wear sunglasses inside. And this was a year AFTER I applied to the school I would eventually attend.

Perhaps we think an 18-year-old has a good handle on his or her future because we’ve been trained to get to this point. We all know college is coming and we have to make a choice. For some, it isn’t college and they elect to do something else. For too many, it’s assumed. There isn’t another option. You go to college, hopefully major in something with a good job outlook and achieve. This was my experience.

You see, I’ve always been a smart kid. You know the problem with smart kids? They know they’re smart but haven’t developed the tact to keep it in check. Fortunately, my parents did an excellent job of downplaying my straight A’s and accomplishments to keep me humble, but they could only do so much.

I spent my entire life achieving. I wanted to be the best in every class. To this day, I’m not sure if I’ve ever lost a game of Around the World. More than just the best grades, I wanted to be first. Rarely did I look over my work or spend the available time remaining checking my answers. I thrived on the looks of other students when I finished early and still maintained my perfect A record.

I can’t imagine what the other students actually thought of me.

When it came time to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I was stumped. For so long, I focused on what I was good at without thinking what did I enjoy doing? I did well in every subject but nothing stood out to me. I once asked my art teacher for guidance, and she told me she always thought I’d make a great talk show host. I’m still not sure it was a compliment.

I was envious of my friends who knew what they wanted to do. For some, they wanted to teach and had a passion for a subject or an age group. I have a friend who dreamed of being an apologist and still writes and speaks Russian which is pretty incredible. It seems though, looking back, most of my friends were as lost as me, settling on majors that were safe.

I decided to be responsible and become a nurse like my mother with dreams of attending Pitt (main campus, obviously). I was being responsible and striving to be the best.

Obviously, if you know me, neither of these things happened. My mom’s insistence that I attend a Christian school led me to tour Waynesburg University where I instantly fell in love and said goodbye to my dreams of a diploma that read ‘University of Pittsburgh.’ Soon after, I discovered the major of public relations and realized it was kind of like student council for adults, which was cool with me.

At the time, I never considered writing, which is strange looking back. My childhood was spent creating elaborate worlds and backstories for my toys filled with drama and intrigue. I used to spend time on the computer writing stories, typically with exaggerated details like 53 broken bones in a car accident or a dog that was blind and deaf and ran into walls all the time. My imagination is hard to quiet, always crafting an alternate version of reality that I tend to get lost in, then and now.

In my own way, I was a storyteller. The problem was I HATED English class (except reading the books) and at 18, I didn’t want to go to four more years of English classes. Again, this is why you shouldn’t trust teenagers with their futures.

So I went to college, excelled and maintained a high GPA (although not a 4.0, curse you Print Journalism). I was focused on being the best – being involved, attending conferences, pushing harder, being known for the work I did, etc. All I knew was continued achievement for the sake of working hard and recognition. I thrived in this world.

Looking back, though, thrived is the wrong word. I graduated with honors and a handful of friends and no real college experience to speak of. So yes, professors knew I did well, but what was all the time I invested really for? So my resume looked good? It seems now I survived college the only way I knew how.

To my great surprise, I didn’t immediately get a job. WHAT? HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? Do employers not realize how hard I worked for years? Here call my professors they will tell you I’m a STAR and you will be #BLESSED to have me on your team! No? Okay.

Like approximately 74 percent (made up statistic) of college grads, I ended up working in retail, probably in what we could consider the hellmouth of it all, Sears. It was here I hit a grad school dark place because I wasn’t achieving and I felt lost and I needed to fix this. I needed to be able to say I work in retail* (*but I’m getting my master’s degree).

Yes, in case you’re wondering, I had always planned to double my student loans and become a master of something. I’m an achiever, remember? Turns out, if you have a high enough GPA and some recommendations, the Integrated Marketing Communication program at WVU is pretty easy to get into.

[Not disrespect to the IMC program – I had a great experience]

To condense the next few years, I quit my job in retail and planned to move to Buffalo with my family only to get a surprise job in communications in Pittsburgh where I stayed for two years while I became a Master of Science and worked with the local chapter of a national public relations society before getting a surprise job that allowed me to move to Buffalo with my family.

As I approached 26, I was exhausted. My life was a giant to do list and I kept checking boxes that I assumed would lead to happiness. Get a bachelor’s degree. Get a job. Get involved in the field. Get a master’s degree. Get involved at church. Have a group of friends. Get a dog. Start your life.

“What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?” Mark 8:36 MSG

At a time when I thought I was gaining myself, I was actually losing so much.

Right after I moved to Buffalo, I preordered Shauna Niequist’s new book, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living. It sounded interesting, but I really didn’t think I was all that frantic and I really didn’t think I would get anything out of it. Why did I buy it then? Because God gave me the gift of reckless spending.

What I learned from reading this book is I was wrong. So wrong. Everything I had built in my life began to crumble in my mind as I examined motivations and the should and the whys. It made me realize I’m here in my life because I felt the expectations to be here. I should be involved with my small group, I should have more education, I should stay in this field. I’m not saying everything associated with a ‘should’ is bad, but if it’s your reason, it’s bad.

At some point, I became a cyborg as I lost my soul to the world. It didn’t look like people might think and I’m sure from the outside, most people probably didn’t notice. But I felt it. I made excuses for why I didn’t make real connections and justified where I was.

“I did what ‘people’ thought would be good for me. I did what ‘should’ have been done. I became what I was ‘expected’ to become. And it did not get me where I wanted to be.” (pg. 201).

I literally said YAS QUEEN when I read this out loud. It never occurred to me I’m not where I want to be because I’ve never asked me, Chelsea, where that place was. Sure, I’ve grown a lot and become more accepting of who I am, but I still haven’t really examined why I’m here.

[Sidebar: I don’t write this because I think everyone is settling and you need to quit your job. We are all different, beautiful little butterflies who need to flutter our own way]

If you’re reading this and you’re like me, ask yourself why you’re here and what do you really want. Not what you mother expects or your father wants. Not what society tells you is the right path. Not what you know is safe. Figure out that answer and do something about it. People will always expect things and tell you why you should do something, but those people aren’t you.

This life is your call.

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