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Frustration: Between a Hard Place and a College Degree

I have a new little addiction: trail mix. I love the variety of textures and tastes. I enjoy the mix of salty and sweet. And it doesn’t hurt that it makes me feel a little better about eating chocolate. Somehow by association with all the dried fruits and nuts, the chocolate chips seem so much less sinful. There’s just one problem. My favorite mix comes in a plastic tub with a lid that doesn’t like to budge. Seriously, it’s as if the manufacturer wants you to burn off a few of the calories before you actually ingest them.

You’d think I’d learn my lesson and just ask for help. I’ve got a strong hubby and a just as capable 16-year-old, both of whom would be happy to help me. But no, instead I try to twist and turn that lid to no avail. And in the end, what do I have to show for all my efforts? Certainly no trail mix—just red palms rubbed raw from the ridges of the lid itself.

And sadly, this can happen to all of us when we set out to make a dream reality. We can wear ourselves out before ever reaching our finish line. We can be so intently focused on the end goal that we miss the different opportunities along the way that could make the journey even easier. I know because I’ve been there. And if you’re reading this, you probably have, too.

My Dad was a man of few words. But there are a few aphorisms that he’s shared throughout the years that have rung particularly true.

“Wish in one hand and crap in the other,” he’d say. “And see which one fills up first.” But that’s not verbatim. He’d use a much more colorful word for “crap.”

Crude, yes. But true? Absolutely.

It’s funny how it can be so easy to get up and get going on some things. But for others, we can barely muster up the energy to get started. “Funny” may be the wrong word, though. “Frustrating” is a much more apt description. It’s frustrating that the things we like to do—the things we want to do—are quick and easy. But the things we’d rather avoid—the stuff that takes work and maybe even a bit of discomfort—linger on like an anchor around our neck. Ugh.

Many dreams, wishes, and aspirations turn out like this, too. They start as hopes to strive for, pushing us along to the promise of a better tomorrow. Yet—when work rears its ugly head, or it requires more effort than maybe we initially anticipated—much if not all of our momentum can come to a screeching halt. And this process can leave us worse off than even before we began: We can feel disillusioned. We get frustrated with ourselves. We may even question whether it’s even worth trying to reach a goal or dream ever again.

I don’t know where, when, or who I heard it from, but somewhere along the line, I heard another adage: A goal without a plan is only a dream—true words, for sure. But I think we’d all be doing ourselves a (big) favor by adding a few more words: A goal without a plan and effort is only a dream. Actually, that’s how we can effectively transform a dream into a goal: A dream with specific, actionable steps that lead the way to it suddenly changes into something much more attainable and tangible.

My Dad’s proverb is cautionary, but this latter shares exactly how to tip the scales in our favor. It’s good to have dreams. It’s important to wish for better. But it’s even more important not to let ourselves stop there. I’d hazard to guess, though, that this is kind of a “duh” statement. It’s the doing that’s the challenge. It’s the “how in the heck do I keep pushing forward when there’s nothing but roadblocks in my way” that’s the problem. I get it. I really do.

I was about six months away from graduating high school, and I was so excited to pursue my dream of becoming a teacher. While neither of my parents had graduated from college, I knew this was the path I’d have to take to reach my goal. But I wasn’t intimidated. I’d worked hard my entire high school career, graduating in the top 10 of my class, and I was looking forward to taking the next step.

But that next step would prove nearly impossible and was something that hadn’t even crossed my mind. I never expected or even wanted my parents help paying for school. I understood that money was tight. It always was. But what I didn’t expect was their unwillingness to provide their tax and income information for my FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), a form and process that would be required for me to start college in the Fall.

No problem, I thought. I was already 18 years old, a legal adult. Surely, there would be a way for me to apply without their information or even consent. But not so much. I distinctly remember a very close friend staying up with me for hours over the phone, combing through every word on the application, seeking some kind of loophole. But sadly, there was none. The only way to apply without parental information was as an independent. And the only way to get that
was to either get married or wait until I turned 21. Yikes. Talk about a punch in the gut.

I was faced with only two choices: give up or find the grit to get me there—some way, somehow. I’m so grateful to my past self for choosing the latter. And it was, in fact, a choice, a choice to not stop, a choice to keep going despite all the crap that rolled my way. And believe me, there was no shortage of it.

To make a long story short, I got there. Maybe not via a direct or even predictable route, but I got there. I pushed and pried my way there by accepting the fact that I was going to have to work—and work hard. I knew I would have to keep my eyes on the prize—a college degree—even when there was no certainty other than a few days or months ahead of me. And I knew—because of my age—there may have to be pauses along the way. But I knew I could choose not to stop altogether until I got there.

I tried to explain to my parents the conundrum I was in. But they wouldn’t budge. They were sure that if they gave me any of their personal information, that they would somehow be on the hook to pay for (or at least contribute to) my tuition costs. Initially, I thought this was just a money issue. (Again, I knew money was very tight, so tight you could almost hear the squeak.) But it didn’t take long for this to feel very personal. And now that I have kids of my own, I can’t help but wonder who wouldn’t want to help their kids?! But I digress. My parents wouldn’t help. So, I decided to let the words of my Dad help me instead. I was holding a whole lot of crap in one hand and my wish in the other. I was going to have to find—and create ways—to fill up the latter.

To make a long story short, I got there. Maybe not via a direct or even predictable route, but I got there. I pushed and pried my way there by accepting the fact that I was going to have to work—and work hard. I knew I would have to keep my eyes on the prize—a college degree—even when there was no certainty other than a few days or months ahead of me. And I knew—because of my age—there may have to be pauses along the way. But I knew I could choose not to stop altogether until I got there. In short, it wasn’t about the route I had to take or how long it took to get there. It was about the end result. Maybe that’s why it felt like such a tremendous feat. It still does. My degrees in Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education were hard fought and equally hard earned. And maybe that’s why they’re even more valuable to me now. They’re proof that I never gave up.

Takeaway

We can choose to stay frustrated, focusing and ruminating on the challenges we face, or we can shift our focus.

We can intentionally channel our energy and efforts in a more positive direction: toward our goals and making things better despite the crap we’ve been dealt or have to muddle through.

Think of a time you were frustrated but didn’t let obstacles stop you. What was the hurdle or challenge in your way?

What made you keep pushing forward instead of staying stuck in frustration?

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