As a middle-class white man in America I have enjoyed an incredible amount of privilege, there’s no escaping that fact and as a thirty-five year old man I am much more conscious of it now. However, as a teenager you’d never have convinced me of anything other than that I was in fact downtrodden and given a tough shake in life. It’s ridiculous to think about now, but when we’re teenagers, particularly in the 90s when the internet was still in it’s infancy, being exposed to other cultures and thought processes isn’t as simple so our personal culture and thought process is shaped by the experiences we have everyday within our own small communities. For me, despite having a wonderful home to grow up in with over a hundred acres of untouched forest in my neighborhood to run around in, I thought I was disadvantaged because I had to drive some crummy old ‘86 Honda Prelude that didn’t have a door handle.
It’s the most recognizable status symbol for high schoolers: your car. The school bus is the great equalizer. Doesn’t matter how big your house is or how nice your parents’ car is, we all pile on to the same yellow bus with torn seats and a slight smell of exhaust constantly hanging in the cabin. When you get a car though it’s like a billboard of your family’s financial status. It’s silly, and of course means nothing in the greater scheme of things, but when you’re sixteen it’s EVERYTHING.
I hated that Prelude, I hated how just by looking at it you could tell it was worth less than $500. There was no door handle on it after all. I hated that it was so beat up and crummy that the older kids at school instantly could recognize it as the same car my sister had that clearly was handed down to me. I hated parking it next to the fixed up BMWs, the nice Jeeps or even the brand new Honda Civics. That car, in the eyes of my peers, meant I was poor. Of course we weren’t, the idea that my family or 99% of the families who attended a school set in one of the more affluent suburbs of Colorado Springs, were in any way poor is absurd. In the scope of our experience though, to most kids in school I was one of the poor kids simply because of the way my car looked. I hated that feeling more than anything else. It was naive, it was self centered and it was how I felt.
From that moment on I became obsessed with success, or more accurately obsessed with money. I spent my entire 20s living by the idea that money was all that mattered. I actually got a degree in economics because, foolishly, I thought “economics, that has to do with money, that degree will make me rich!” Seriously, that was the exact thought process that led to four years of studying a complex subject for which I didn’t really have any passion. It wasn’t until I was in my senior year, far too late to turn back, while I started taking some of the graduate level econ courses that I realized my folly.
Believe it or not, there’s no chest full of money at the end of an Economist’s career. Instead there’s a mountain of student loan debt because nobody gives a shit what a 24 year old (I took the six year college path...) with a bachelor’s degree in economics thinks about the markets. No, they’d rather you just try to sell life insurance if that’s as far as you’re willing to go studying the subject. I also realized through these graduate level course that economics is in fact hard, really hard, and for me incredibly boring. It is a studious career, filled with sitting at a computer entering data, evaluating data, comparing data to trends, on and on and on. I hated doing it in a classroom setting, there was no way I could spend my entire life doing it and no way I was going to take on the requisite graduate school to make actual headway in the profession.
And so I wandered. Spent some time in New Zealand bartending and chasing girls which was certainly not a bad way to spend a year while the world was in the middle of a global recession, but even then I knew it couldn’t last. The clock was ticking. That fact was never more apparent than when my visa ran out and it was time to come home. My immediate options were move back in with my parents, or move back in with my five, yes five, former roommates and go back to my college job of managing a pizza shop. Twenty-five years old and my options were move into mom and dad’s basement, or make $9 an hour making pizzas. What the hell happened?! I have a bachelor’s degree in economics! I was going to be a success!
I chose the latter of my options, you couldn’t play beer pong at mom and dad’s after all. That meant accepting a hard truth. $9 an hour wasn’t going to cut it anymore without the benefit of mom and dad or Sallie Mae’s financial backing. Originally the idea was go back to school, get a degree in journalism and chase that sports writing dream. I got accepted into CSU’s journalism program despite my 2.4 college GPA. I knew I had to make money to pay for it so when my dad had a week long job swapping out lights in an indoor tennis facility in New Jersey I lied to my boss at the pizza shop and said I was going on vacation.
I always hated being an electrician in my early 20s. I joined the trade literally a week after I turned 18 as a summer job. Remember, at this time I’m the kid who thinks driving an ‘86 prelude without a door handle is a great hardship to overcome. That first year as an apprentice was, well, eye opening...and extremely hard. I wasn’t given the greatest leadership. My dad was the effective number two of the company so I didn’t actually work with him, instead I worked with people who were his subordinates, some of which were not particularly fond of that fact. That experience soured me on construction in general. I was exposed to the toxic and rampant “tough guy” mentality in the industry. It reminded me so much of being back in high school, being made fun of for things that weren’t really important at all. I hated, and still hate, that approach to leadership.
Still, now at age 25 there was the undeniable fact that I was being paid double to hang lights in comparison to making pizzas and I didn’t have to take on a cent of debt to do it. It’s one of those defining moments of my life. The type of moment where you make a decision that has such a great impact on your future that you can remember every detail of it exactly. Dad and I had figured out how to get the hotel room window open and were out on the roof smoking a cigarette. It was that moment, in the hot and humid New Jersey summer night, smoking on a hotel rooftop overlooking the freeway that I decided I was going to be an electrician. I came home, quit my job and went to work full time with the company that was contracting my dad. Over the next year as I continued through my apprenticeship I formed a goal: master’s degree and master electrician by age 30. I had spent enough time working in the trade and seeing who was in charge at the highest levels to understand that if I had those two bullet points on my resume I could work anywhere I wanted in the trade and I would be well compensated to do it. If I was going to do this job that I didn’t like, you better believe I was going to figure out how to make as much money possible doing it.
I finished my apprenticeship in 2012 and passed my journeyman electrician’s license exam. After that I attended school online and in 2014 I graduated from CSU’s global campus with master’s degree in project management. In 2015, at age 30, I passed my master electrician’s exam. Along the way I met my wife, started a family and moved to the area where we wanted to raise our kids. Goal accomplished...and then I wandered.
There was an underlying problem to my goal: it was for the wrong reasons. I spent my entire 20s chasing dollar bills, but when I started to significantly accumulate them I found they brought little happiness. Certainly it made things easier, my struggles don’t bear their fangs as sharply, their injuries are less immediate and severe. However, my whole pursuit of wealth was based on meeting a self imposed standard that was born from immature criticism from people I don’t care about at all. The success was hollow and in many ways wasn’t a success at all.
One thing I’ve come to understand just in these past weeks is that I realized the pursuit of my 20s was hollow early into my 30s, but I’ve been wandering ever since. Sure, I’ve had goals and sure, I’ve accomplished things; but I’ve lost the vision of where I’m going, of who I want to be. That has effected me greatly. It has taken a toll on my mental health, it has often times worked against me. It has made me lose a sense of purpose, of fulfillment.
That’s really the key, in my opinion, to this whole life thing. We have to figure out where we’re going, where we truly want to be. We have to understand what makes us happy, truly happy, and not just what makes other people happy or even more damaging, what other people think makes us happy. For me, life is about fulfillment. If there’s one thing seventeen years as an adult have taught me it’s money alone will not fulfill me. Things will not fulfill me. What will? I’m not sure, but I have to find it, lest I spend the rest of my 30s wandering.