I used to think that what I thought mattered more than anything else. I was controlled by thoughts that I couldn’t control.
My thoughts and feelings are virtually entirely involuntary. I have little to no control over what is going on upstairs. I often have no warning of what is coming, either. For example, I met my friend to carpool together for work a while back and was in the most incredible mood that morning. That struck me as odd because I’m not much of a morning person and it was considerably earlier than I care for. But no matter, I was smiling the whole way over to his house and was singing my fool head off at the top of my lungs in my truck. Suddenly it hit me like a ton of bricks, “What in the hell am I so happy about? Something is all wrong here…” And sure enough, a dark cloud materialized over me and my morning completely went to hell at once. For no conceivable reason whatsoever, I was in a terrible mood and there was no escaping it. It was summoned up because I realized what a great mood I was in. It just doesn’t make any sense. But it was all that mattered in the moment.
I like to think that what I think is what matters. I believe that my personal experiences are as valuable and important as it gets. Because, honestly, I am the most important person in the world to me. At least it feels that way. I am thinking about myself before I ever open my eyes, practically all day long, and long after I’ve laid my head on the pillow. I’m consumed with thoughts of myself and feelings of myself.
Last winter I was driving to campus late one cold, icy night as the semester was winding to an end. I was obsessing over the looming prospect of receiving the first grade that wouldn’t be an A in my MBA program. This singular thought had eaten away at me for days and I could no longer hide from reality. That reality, an impending A minus.
Everything was over.
Why even go on?
I was an utter failure.
It seemed like a better option to simply drive my truck off the road than collect an A minus. I had to seriously coax myself off the ledge. That grade mattered to me. So much.
But why? A grade is simply, in my opinion, the measure of my willingness to act upon a personal commitment I made when I enrolled in the course. I’m not competing against anyone, and I’m certainly not competing against myself. It is rather a gauge of my own personal inclination, dedication, and determination. In the lead up to that moment, and particularly in that moment itself, the grade seemed to matter more than anything else in the entire world. It drowned out every bit of rationale and logic. I was a failure because of that A minus.
I was trying to keep my truck between the lines as I battled to make sense of how I could have ever screwed things up so royally. I just so happened at that instant to glance over to my right and saw the hospital. It was like a stinging slap right to my face. Six years earlier, almost to the day, I was a patient in that hospital for thirty-five days. I had developed a severe staph infection and blood clots all throughout my arm because of my IV drug use. I’d checked myself out of the ER earlier in the week against medical advice because I needed to keep getting high and I was terrified of being in the hospital without health insurance. Two days later I had a fever of 105 degrees, was delirious and couldn’t stand the screaming, burning pain in my arm one moment longer. It had darkened to a shade of purple and was so swollen. I couldn’t bend it at the elbow. The doctor said if I’d have waited much longer they might not have been able to save me.
I didn’t get it then. I was hopeless. I stayed in that hospital for those thirty-five days and nothing changed. I would dress myself in street clothes when I was well enough to be up and out of bed. I’d walk right out of the hospital to the gas station across the street and buy Jack Daniels and tall cans of Coors beer. I would go hide in an alley outside the hospital and drink them as fast as I could before heading back up to my room. Or I’d sneak the bottles back in my socks against my ankles and then chug them in the bathroom before sending the empties back out with the dirty laundry. I was trying to die.
A few years later I was consumed to the point of insanity that I was going to receive an A minus, a blemish against my perfect record of A’s, in pursuit of an MBA degree. It was an incredible dose of perspective. The grade didn’t matter.
Life mattered. I took a breath and looked at what had led to the A minus. I had helped my partner get his construction business off the ground right as the semester started and it was the busiest month of work in our entire lives. I had drawn a once-in-a-lifetime tag for elk hunting and had gone scouting with my dad across the state and then followed that up with an incredible elk hunting trip with my dad, brother-in-law, and best hunting buddy, Neal. In addition to all of that, my girlfriend and I had the incredible opportunity to move into what has become a fantasy home. All this happened during the semester. These things mattered. For a guy who was left for dead a few years back and just wanted to die in that hospital—my life had become nothing short of a miracle.
I needed to remember where I’d come from. The grade was not a failure. It was just indicative of a time in my life when I should have been more willing to shift my expectations. It is imperative that I shoot for perfection, but just as critical that I also accept perfection as a lofty goal I won’t meet. That is not a built-in crutch, but rather the truth of things. I absolutely had to shift my perspective to see that what mattered then, and will always matter more than anything, is life. I can’t quite put it into words—what life is to me—but I can say that I know it is so important. And I can say that it is the most beautiful gift. The grade, the pursuit of making myself a better person, is but a part of my life. It isn’t all of it. It just felt like it in that moment. It overshadowed everything else, at least it did until I was taken back to a time when a scared, hopeless drug addict hated life and wanted nothing more than to die. Then I knew. I knew what mattered most.
Please share your experiences of finding what truly matters most. Together we can share an understanding of what is most important in our worlds. Together we can see why it’s worth it, and why it’s possible, to build a better world—starting with what matters most.