For three years, I woke up at 4 a.m. every day. I spent two days a week as a full-time student; one of those, I was at school from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the other I split with one of my five weekly eight-hour work shifts. I did all of the driving in my household, which meant all of the grocery shopping and all of the car maintenance. When I wasn’t at school or at work, I was doing homework, determined to graduate with honors after three previous less-than-stellar years at a different college. On the one day off I had every week, I was usually visiting my then in-laws. Toward the end, I managed to squeeze in going to the gym three times a week as well. I got four or five hours of sleep a night, barely paid the rent and bills, and was running on ambition and self-confidence.
I was a wreck, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. Here are the life lessons I learned during my three-year stint burning the candle at both ends…
1. You are physically capable of more than you can imagine. Two of my favorite things to say to people during this period of time were “Did you know that you can go without sleep for a week and make up for it with 14 hours?” and “Did you know that during the Civil War, they amputated limbs without anesthesia or proper sterilization and they only had a 30 percent mortality rate?” These were mantras I said out loud and inside my head all the time, especially whenever someone said I was crazy for rushing around as much as I did, to remind myself that the human body is extremely resilient. Between a physical job, tons of commuting, the energy I exerted on my schoolwork, bothering to go to the gym, and the stress of juggling it all, a lot of people tell me they don’t think they’d be able to handle what I did. I tell them they only think that because either they’ve never had to or they’ve never tried — if they had a goal they were determined as I was to reach, they’d do whatever it took.
2. Financial independence and obtaining the level of education you want are the most important things to accomplish early in adulthood. In retrospect, I understand that the sense of empowerment I got from earning money, the responsibility of paying my own way, and the independence of thought I received from pursuing my education were what compelled me to fix everything else in my life and ultimately pursue relationships and careers that matched up with my personal priorities. My job wasn’t worth it for my resumé and my education wasn’t worth it for the degree. Those pieces of paper are fleeting. The lasting benefit was in building a version of myself that was self-reliant, resourceful, and capable.
3. No matter how hard you’re working, someone else is probably working harder, and getting along with their lives. I had the luxury of knowing that this part of my life would probably be temporary, and the perspective to know that I had classmates who worked two jobs and raised kids by themselves and went to school full-time, sometimes taking half again as many credits as I was. It’s hard to complain about working hard when you know you’re working hard to achieve something a lot of people don’t have access to or for which a lot of people have to sacrifice more than you. Our culture has a tendency toward the self-congratulatory, but I think that humility can be a better motivator.
4. Nothing is a big deal when you’ve come out on the other end of hard work. Write a book? Network? Start two new careers? Self-market? Run a marathon? Sure, why not? When you’ve trudged through years of doing things because you obligated yourself to do them, the things that are going to be hard for you but that you want to do start looking a whole lot like fun. Social drama melts into “ain’t got time for that” territory, your priorities become crystal clear, and you figure out what you have to do to take proper care of yourself. Get busy. It’s the best thing in the world.
[Photo: Deviant Art]