A Journey Without Regrets
“She worked so hard,” a disappointed parent said to me recently, “and this is all she has to show for it.” “This” was several excellent college acceptances, yet none was the student’s first, second, or even third choice. Her top choices were all extremely selective, and while this bright young woman may have been highly qualified for those schools, she didn’t make the cut.
What I can’t shake after this conversation isn’t that the student didn’t get into her top choices; unfortunately, that rarely surprises me anymore. I’m also not surprised, although I’m saddened, that the student isn’t excited about her remaining options, because she had always envisioned herself going somewhere more prestigious. No, what I’m most disturbed by is the notion that her challenging classes, enriching extracurriculars, and deep community engagement were meant to produce a certain outcome—admission to a highly selective college. And that she ought to have done less due to how things actually turned out.
I know it’s corny, but it’s often said that the journey is more important than the destination. High school is one of those journeys, the purpose of which isn’t solely to gain admission to college. It’s also to enjoy and grow from all of the stops along the way. I think the same can be said for much of what happens throughout our lives. We should ask ourselves often, “If I could look into a crystal ball and see one outcome versus another, would I change what I am doing now?” “If I knew I wasn’t going to get into my dream school, would I still take that AP class or join that club?” “If I knew I wasn’t going to get that promotion, would I spend all weekend on this project?” Or even this: “If I knew I wasn’t going to run as fast as I’d hoped, would I still train for this race?” That’s what was going through my head at Mile 21.
Mile 21 was on San Vicente Blvd., and I was running the 2019 Los Angeles marathon in March. During a marathon, you’ve got a lot of time to think. My thinking that day went something like this: “I want to finish this race under four hours, and qualify for the 2020 Boston Marathon. I finished this race under four hours last year, and my training went much better this year. I deserve to finish this race under four hours. I trained for it. This is supposed to be my reward.”
I know it’s a stretch, but let’s consider high school a marathon of its own. Because that’s what I was thinking at Mile 21 when I wasn’t thinking about how much I wanted an ice cold beer. The training (studying, activities) requires an almost daily commitment with an end goal in mind (just finishing or achieving a time goal; getting into college or getting into a particular college). As I pondered this analogy, I thought about my training. Sure, there were days I didn’t feel like running, but I almost always enjoyed completing the scheduled distance. Whether listening to music or a podcast, or running with friends, I relished the time outdoors. I got caught in an epic downpour on the Back Bay, sloshing through puddles and literally singing in the rain. Hungry in the middle of one longer run but without any cash, my friends and I “borrowed,” with permission, some bananas from Pavilions (I went back later to pay). I ran my final 20-miler in 30 degree weather with a running group in Connecticut, embracing the challenge of dressing properly. I toed the line injury-free, feeling confident and grateful for the opportunity. The running equivalent of submitting a strong, solid application, after seizing the high school experience to its fullest.
And then the race began. After 19 marathons, I’ve felt what it’s like both to choke and to succeed. Around mile 10, when I should feel energized and strong, my pace felt a little too difficult already. At 16, a slight uphill felt too tough. Something was off and I didn’t know what. But I did know if I didn’t back off the pace, the final 10 miles would be painful and ugly, leaving me with a long recovery. I had no more interest in that than I do in AP Physics. And so, let’s pretend that qualifying for Boston was, for me, like being admitted to Boston College is for many college students: a goal, a priority, a motivator.
I quickly accepted that today, there would be no Boston (College). There was a limit to how hard I was willing to work for a goal that appeared elusive. Quitter? Realist? I don’t know, but it was kind of like saying, “I’m not taking six APs this year when I know I’m not getting into Boston (College).” An alternative would be to say, “I’m running as hard as I can (taking six APs) because I want to, whether I get into Boston (College) or not.” It wasn’t a six AP day for me. Instead, I breathed the air around me, gazed at the sunshine, absorbed the cheers of the crowd, and relished where I was, right there, right then. Regular physics…British literature…psychology. I was loving it all, within my means for that day. That’s why at mile 21, when I saw a table offering icy cold, bubbly, refreshing beer, I stopped, had a drink, and continued on to finish well off my original goal.
I would be flat out lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed I didn’t get into Boston (College). But if I had a crystal ball and saw this outcome, I wouldn’t change what preceded it. During the months (years) of training (studying), Boston (College) actually was hardly ever on my mind. I ran each run (approached each class, played each game, tutored each student, organized each event, designed each robot, fill in your own class or activity), milking it for all the joy it could bring me and those around me. I ran (took that class, played that sport, joined that club) because I wanted to. Running nourishes my body and soul. Similarly, students should choose classes and activities that nourish theirs. That expand their world. That open their minds to new ideas or skills or hobbies or careers. Yes, there will always be some classes or activities that check necessary boxes—maybe that fourth year of science you didn’t really want to take or that day you stuffed envelopes to get the one last service hour you needed. But the biggies, the ones that consume most of your time, should reflect your personal priorities and values and interests. Only then, no matter the outcome, will you be able to say, as I did, “I didn’t reach my goal, but I sure enjoyed the journey, and I wouldn’t have done anything differently.” I don’t want to diminish the disappointment of not being accepted to top choice colleges after years of hard work. The grief is real. But regardless of the ultimate name on the sweatshirt or sticker on the car, my hope is that all students live their high school journey without regrets.