I was watching a college soccer game last weekend, and it filled me with shame. My alma mater was playing, and playing very well. Indiana University was winning and looked like they might be well on their way to their ninth national championship. Soccer played at this high level should bring me joy, but instead, it shined a spotlight on my regret.
As I watched these players in pursuit of what I consider a noble goal, I couldn’t help but think of how I spent my time on that very same campus 25 years ago. I graduated in the spring of 1995 from the business school at Indiana with a 2.99 grade point average. How utterly poignant is that final GPA. It’s just a hair below a wildly underachieved B average. Of course, I always rounded it up for job interviews, but the truth is, it is a perfect symbol of time wasted wasted.
I was a member of Theta Chi at I.U., and my fraternity life was far more important to me than my education or any other pursuit or purpose. I liken being in a fraternity to attending a Trump rally. You show up with some ideas about your opinions, goals and beliefs, and pretty soon you are immersed in mind-numbing chants and idiotic slogans, and you trade your sense of self and any goals you might have for a hat that announces your tribal allegiance and a plan for the future that will surely turn you into a mindless zombie. We weren’t trying to build a wall or lock anyone up, but we were trying to maximize our party time and get into girls’ pants. We got fat and lazy and did the bare minimum educationally and work wise to stay on the path of mediocrity and have beer and vodka money for the weekends.
And the idea that I traversed the same geography as the soccer players I watched on Sunday is mind boggling. They will leave school prepared for whatever life brings. I’m sure they drink to excess sometimes, and I’m sure they are quite a bit more successful than I ever was in the girls’ pants department, but those are secondary pursuits. Whether they get that ninth star or not, they sacrificed and toiled and worked and pushed their bodies to the limit in the pursuit of something quite a bit more honorable than a 2.99 GPA. They are learning how to achieve, handle failure, claw back into the fight and succeed.
I learned how to alter my mind with a chemical, and squeak by in life without any sense of a greater pursuit, much less a drive to achieve it.
I am reading a book about our failing sense of community written by Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. In a chapter I was reading this week, he makes reference to something that happened during the five years he was a university president. His nonchalant achievement drop stunned me when I read it. Senator Sasse is less than a year older than me. He grew up in the midwest in a middle class, God fearing, hard working, loving family just like me. Unlike me, in his 46 years on the planet, he has achieved the title of U.S. Senator, and, it seems, spent some time presiding over a college. I turned my 2.99 GPA into a job in sales for ten years, then spent fifteen years running a mildly successful small business.
No achievement for me, just mediocrity. Sure, I got raises and promotions in my corporate gig, and I kept food on the table and a roof over my family’s heads while operating our business, but there was no five year stint as a university president. I did exactly what my fraternity life and 2.99 taught me to do. I embraced what I learned in college. I turned it into a lifetime of booze-soothed underachievement .
You might be thinking that Senator Ben and I are in the midlife crisis age zone, and you are correct. I am keenly aware that the monumental shift in my career pursuits, and my eagerness to explore my recently-discovered life purpose, are not unique to me. This is the age when most people ask, “Is this all there is?” I am also aware of the necessity of my past to align me with my purpose for the future. My newly-embraced mission in life is to end the stigma associated with alcoholism and help reverse the deadly addiction epidemic. I would not be able to pursue this passion had alcohol not nearly destroyed my life and sent me spiralling down into the pit of debilitating depression. All the mediocrity and time wasted wasted, was a necessity in my case. But that doesn’t make it any less despicable.
And my experience makes me sad about the bigger picture. The lifestyle structure we have come to accept as part of growing up is badly broken and with permanently life-altering consequences. I remember my dad disappointedly joking that both Indiana University, and then later Clemson University where my sister attended, were voted top party school in the country by whatever magazine publishes that list at precisely the times my sister and I attended our respective colleges. A sad joke. But is it really even a little bit funny?
We send our eighteen-year-olds who have likely experimented with alcohol and maybe drugs out into a world of unrestricted freedom and independence. It’s like setting a disenfranchised coal miner loose at a Trump rally. I bet he’ll find some equally disgruntled folks to chant with. And so, too, will our wide-eyed, pseudo-adults find some like-minded freedom explorers with whom to bask in the din of chemically induced mediocrity.
When I entered into this realm of openness about my recovery from addiction, I inadvertently, but quite miraculously, invited others to share their heartbreaking stories with me. It might be the first non-mediocre thing I’ve achieved in my life. I am blessed with the trust and pleas for help from complete strangers, and it makes my purpose and mission all the more real and critical and life affirming.
And the stories I have heard in the last year are as tragic as they are tragically common. I’ve head tales of alcohol-enhanced sexual irresponsibility that had permanently life altering consequences from pregnancies to sexual abuse and more. Stories of girls whose entire self-worth became tied to the sexual satisfaction they gave to young, drunk men. Their self-esteem became entwined with the desires they elicited in their male peers, and alcohol made it all palatable. I’ve heard stories of college-age drinking that made other activities possible that resulted in jail time. I’ve heard stories of college-age drinking that made failing out of school an unavoidable destiny for otherwise smart and capable young people. I’ve heard stories of physical, medical, life changing collateral damage from alcohol abuse while in college. Most of the stories I’ve heard make me feel lucky to have survived college with my embrace of mediocrity as my only deformity.
And yet, while we shake our heads and say, “What a waste,” to the most bombastic examples of alcoholic destruction, we continue to view our own college experiences as a right of passage from youth to adulthood and continue to tolerate the same experiences for our children. We shouldn’t ask, “Is this all there is?” in midlife if we don’t also ask, “Is this any way to start?” about our transition into adulthood in the first place.
I get that life rarely, if ever, ends up how we planned it. But maybe we should stop taking a flamethrower to the plan as we accept binge drinking and sexual recklessness as the norm. Adolescents do need to make their own mistakes. Some misery and discomfort are a required part of the learning process. I get that. But isn’t there a better way?
There are nights in college when I was so drunk and so disoriented walking lost in the rain in the predawn hours when I quite literally deserved to die. But I didn’t. So we just chalk that up as a learning experience? What? Does everyone have to experience drunken brushes with death or rape or DUI vehicular manslaughter? For how long are we going to accept that as part of growing up?
Most of the people I know have fond memories of their college partying experiences. Most people I know went on the have successful careers, get married and raise families. All people I know have faced significant trauma, whether I know about it or not, at some point in their lives. I wonder if any of them would trade the preparation they received in college – preparation to face the trauma that enters every life eventually – for the preparation those I.U. soccer players are currently receiving. I know I would.
I’ll never be a university president or U.S. Senator. But I’d like to think the road ahead holds much greater goal achievement than the road in my rearview mirror. Unfortunately, no part of my history or future makes me comfortable with the norm we have come to accept and celebrate for the college experience of our youth.
My high school freshman son was up until 11:30pm last night doing homework after wrestling practice. It is painful as a parent to watch him struggle through long days and lack of sleep in pursuit of his extracurricular activities and excellent grades, but I know how important it is to his development as a human being. The idea that he is just a few short years away from facing the decision himself – whether it is a conscious decision or the path of most pleasure and least resistance – to, perhaps, trade the effort and results for instant gratification and mediocrity scares me like nothing else.
My daughter is a junior in high school and is pursuing an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy. While I am excited for her, I am trying to be very careful not to push in that direction. It has to be her decision because of the long-term commitment involved and my desire to avoid actions that cause my children to resent me. When friends and family hear of her pursuit, they often ask, “Why?” I struggle with the question. Given the mediocrity and alcoholic turmoil that resulted from my big-school-with-unrestricted-freedom college experience, the answer to the, “Why?” is self explanatory for me. I know academy cadets can fall victim to addiction as well. But the discipline learned in pursuit of a goal larger than oneself is an experience we all should long for, isn’t it?
I don’t know if she’ll get into the USAFA or not, and I know she’s going to make me proud whatever goals she pursues. But the possibility that she could fall victim to the chemically-induced path of mediocrity is among my greatest fears for her.
And if you think I’m crazy to risk everything in pursuit of my life’s purpose, maybe expand your understanding of the things on which I hope to work beyond helping drunks like me sober up. If we try to find and fix the root causes of some of our problems, maybe we’ll help some young people achieve their full potential. Sometimes that means recovering from addiction. Sometimes that means avoiding addiction to begin with. And always it means aligning our lifestyles to something bigger than ourselves or the party we want to attend this coming weekend.
I don’t know if Indiana will win the College Cup this year, and I don’t know if Ben Sasse aspires to run for president someday. But I thank them for their shining examples of what it looks like to work toward a goal. My goal is lofty and possibly unachievable in what’s left of my lifetime. But I’m going to work tirelessly toward it.
I haven’t just given up the drink. I’m also abstaining from the comfort of mediocrity. I’ve finally learned I have no more time to waste.
Please subscribe to receive my blog posts via email. I promise not to sell or share your email address, and I won’t inundate you inbox. Thank you!