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How Staying Back in High School Gave Me Two Graduate Degrees
Who you were does not dictate who you become.
Today’s article is focused on an embarrassing point in my life and a proud accomplishment. This delivery is intentional as I believe it’s on “Lifestyle” writers (such as myself) to share their lows as well as their highs, and with social media being what it is, a place to flex your wins for others to validate your “success” in life, I look to it for genuine connection and authentic delivery of my story.
This piece will be especially relevant for those who are experiencing a variation of the “Failure to launch” epidemic playing out in many homes. We have a society that promotes perpetual adolescence (I can’t adult) and redundant circling of the same watering hole, never venturing to see what else is out that one town.
There are 20-30+ year-olds living lives with the same insecurities and mental obstacles which plagued them in high school. These people are who they always were, having neither worked to evolve beyond that phase of their development nor have they chosen to dig deeper into becoming a master at their craft.
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These folks often live through their children’s accomplishments because they have none of their own these days.
They’re the ones who use outdated profile pictures because their current face has some wrinkles and puff they don’t want to share.
It’s the same folks who will crack jokes and refer to things that happened in high school as if they are relevant today…
The person we used to be and the phase we once commanded were all supposed to be temporary points, not permanent positions in life. I was talking to my wife Jackie about this yesterday; people are afraid to grow up, get old, and chase new goals while letting go of past experiences and moments. This pursuit of “the good ole days” and clinging to the fun of yesterday keeps people from growing into a better tomorrow.
Below you’ll see that for me to grow, I had to let go of who I was, and you must do the same if you’re ever going to save yourself from the trap of comfort and routine.
Who You Were Does Not Dictate Who You Can Become
This is an actual photo of my high school transcript - needless to say, I was not the best student...
When I say that I was a terrible student, I don’t think people appreciate how literally terrible I mean, not until I show the proof (see above) and then they say, “I can’t believe that’s what your report card looked like” as if I wasn’t telling everyone all along, I was not a great student, and it took a toll on me, my parents, and my siblings - I hate the time wasted and preventable pain felt, but I digress…
I want to make something clear here as it seems this is the correct time to share something; I wasn’t stupid:
There were times when I was moved to the advanced classes as I could test at higher levels, and I comprehended the material just fine - a few days after walking in the advanced classroom doors, I’d always find myself escorted towards the “other” classroom. You know, the one where they put the kids who are playing with knives, can’t tie their shoes, and nobody gives a fuck - I was smart enough to keep up with my smart friends, but I was too distracting, never turned in homework, even when I would do it, and all I wanted to do was talk and hangout. It wasn’t that my IQ didn’t meet the level of public schooling; it’s that my mind was fragmented and chaotic from what I went through as a kid, and nobody knew how to reach me, so I drifted year after year, somehow making it to getting my diploma (I was late to my own graduation, 5 years in the making and I almost missed it).
I wasn’t stupid; if I was, it’d made this entire thing easier.
The problem with sharing my past and trying to let individuals see how I got to where I am, is they look at me and base their opinion on where I came from off current achievements:
$500k+ online since 2018
30k+ Followers on Twitter
Published Book and Key Note Speeches given
100,000+ Podcast Downloads
1,000,000+ Blog Views
Bachelor’s & Master’s Degrees
Some see this and write off what I had to overcome to reach these accomplishments, thinking it was easy. They do this because if they were to admit that I came from a less than stellar background, then they’d have to admit that their personal excuses aren’t enough to justify their continued failure to grow…
Success was never a guarantee in my life, and if we’re to take a more statistical analysis of where I’m at - I should be in jail, broken, angry, or abusing substances.
The grades above represent me as a child trying to navigate the world after my mother committed suicide when I was 6, my father was in and out on deployments with the Navy, and I suffered a few different traumatic events over the years, which I’ll share someday. On top of all this, I had an incredibly active and revolutionary mind that did not want to be told what to do or chained to a desk for hours each day...
It’s clear why I had my struggles.
Some people see these grades, and they will think, “This is someone destined to work at McDonald’s their whole life.” while I see them and think of the fucking chaos going on in my mind at the time. It was temporary, and if I were to have assigned myself a position in life based upon this temporary phase, I’d be a loser watching those around me grow while I sat there listening to NOFX thinking the world sucked and was holding me down.
I had no outlet for the pressure in my mind, and even when I did have people who wanted to help, specifically my step-mother, as she was the first person who made me believe I was smart and that I was simply misapplying my energy and focus - even she could not reach me because I was not in a position where I knew how to express what it was that I needed.
I look back at this time period and recognize that this was the biggest battle of my life, and it was here that I chose I was not going to accept this fate, but rather that I was going to grab life and do what I wanted to do with it.
My choice to join the Navy after high school is what turned me from going nowhere fast to the motivator who has since published a book, spoken in front of hundreds, and reached millions while leading a community of 150+ men and multiple brands that are changing the lives of countless families for the better across the globe.
This shows that every kid is worth investing in, and oftentimes, troublemakers are just crying out for help. No kid wants to be bad, and only an extreme few don’t give a shit; the majority are in pain and need an adult to both see and hear them. I had many people try to connect with me, but I wouldn’t let them in. There are others out there who will, so don’t give up on them - teachers and coaches alike, don’t give up on the “rowdy” kids as they may be just one positive connection away from becoming an example for others and inspiration to those who need it most because, at one point, they needed it most.
Read on to see how I went from chump to champ.
The Greatest Life Lesson: Never Quit
There’s never been a better time to take a chance on yourself than today. I hope you understand how literal I am in that message; the world has lost its mind - there was a global pandemic, a recession is imminent, and the future is as predictable as a magic 8-Ball - so why not be as crazy as the world has been and do that thing you’ve talked yourself out of doing for so long?
Move away from your town
Change all negative perceptions of yourself
Remove every limiting thought, and instead of saying, “Why me?” push forward with the mindset of “Why not me?!?”
This is the template I followed, and I’ve never been the same since; life turned from an anchor pulling me down to the fuel which propels me forward.
These are my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees + a Graduate Certificate; I had them in the basement for the longest time before I stopped being ashamed of my achievements and recognized them for what they were, milestones along the journey.
Now, in the title, I said, staying back gave me two Graduate Degrees, right?
Yes, I did, and the reason is I’ve decided to return to school. I counted this chicken before it hatched, I’ve not gotten the 2nd Master’s Degree yet, but I start classes on October 3rd and will not allow this opportunity to slip through my fingertips.
When I joined the Navy, I found myself sitting in Boston on September 5th, waiting to fly out; I decided there that I would not be who I was. When I landed in Illinois on September 6th and sat there on the bus right before the RDCs (Navy Drill Instructors) boarded to flip our world upside down, I promised myself that I would try.
I don’t know if I ever told them, but in my head, I promised I would do what my step-mom and father had been asking me to do for years; I would finally try, and I would put effort into everything I did from then on out; I’ve remained true to this promise to this day.
I stopped viewing myself as a victim, I stopped telling myself I was stupid, I stopped justifying mediocrity, and I kicked my ass, going all in on everything I could, I left it all on the field, and that’s what is happening right now.
I left the military with a Bachelor’s Degree, busting my ass on shore duty to knock it out while being a present husband, father, and active-duty sailor. Upon separation, I used my benefits to get my graduate degree. A few months ago, I spoke with my Veteran Counselor, and he told me I had time remaining and that I could still use the benefits, so again, I did what I’m advising each of you do, I took another chance on myself and decided to push forward - I submitted my application and was accepted to a Masters of Arts - Psychology Program.
I’m going back to school, and in a roughly 18-24 months(ish) timeframe, I’ll be writing here with another Master’s Degree to my name.
This is one that I’ve aligned with my passion. I’ve always wanted to help people; it’s literally what I do daily, but I want to offer better help and to do so in a different field of service than what is currently available.
I’m looking to angle this Master’s Degree toward an Addiction Counselor/Rehab Treatment type career where I can help others get over their vices. I am, as of today, 2 Years, 2 Months, and 2 weeks sober, and sobriety has motivated me to want to help others do the same.
I’m already doing so within my 365 to Sobriety community; it only makes sense that I bring this all the way to where I can sit down and help inspire others to take charge of their life through my story and example. Eventually, my education and certification will give me more tools to use that will enable me to better serve those in need.
Staying Back in High School Gave Me a Gift
Staying back in high school made me feel like an idiot for a long time; it was a source of embarrassment and shame, and yet when I decided to turn things around, it became “enemy #1” in my sources of motivation to continue on. I still find myself looking back at that period of time and using it not as an anchor to bring my confidence down but as a propellant to go out and continue to rise to greater heights.
I’m not that kid anymore; I’m not facing those demons anymore, I’m not carrying that weight anymore…
I’m me, through and through, and I’ll never be who I was because that time has passed - and the future which awaits. My greatest self lives there, in tomorrow - not yesterday; and so, the embarrassment of watching friends I went to school with for 10 years walk across the stage without me is what pushes me to continue walking tall on the stage of life today.
Who we were in high school, college, the military, etc. none of it matters anywhere near as much as who we are in this moment and whether we’re going to get up and continue to push forward or we’re going to rest on our laurels and accept our fate which was written years before.
Life is ours for the taking, but you can only grab it if you get out of the stands and enter the arena; it’s never too late to try.
- Zac Small