5 Things I Learned In My (Very Long) Undergrad Career

I have emerged from the abyss!

Well, it seems that way anyhow. I’ve been in the zone with finishing classes and keeping my head screwed on at work. I’m happy to report that I will be graduating on May 11! After all I’ve endured to get to this point–eight years of personal drama, family drama, financial aid drama, and more–it’s going to be one of the best days of my life thus far.

To mark this occasion, I’d like to share five things I learned on the long, winding, potholed road to my degree.

1. It’s not all about when you finish. It just matters that you do.

When I left college after a long bout of depression, I felt terrible about myself. It hurt me to know that I wouldn’t be graduating with my peers or that I had to tell people I was taking a break from school. Where would I work? What will my friends think? What if I don’t finish my degree until I’m 47 and everyone thinks I’m slow? I was, as you can probably see, very hard on myself back then.

Now, though, I realize that nothing anyone thinks about me can define who I am. I’m not in competition with high school friends on Facebook or with ambitious college classmates, nor is it my job to explain to anyone why I left school, why I’m graduating at 26 and not 22, or why I’m an English major. It’s only my job to make the best decisions for myself and live with the consequences. Am I graduating “on time”? No. I’m graduating in my time.

2. Recognize when something isn’t working. Then make the appropriate changes.

I hated my sophomore year of college. The journalism classes weren’t interesting to me, and to make things worse, I wasn’t getting good grades. Having done well in previous writing classes, I was dumbfounded at my struggle to write winning articles. So, after my long break, I decided English was a better fit for me–and I made the right decision. Something felt more natural to me about reading literature and analyzing it versus chasing sources and reporting stories. I looked forward to my classes.

Now, I’m not saying that not doing well on something means you shouldn’t pursue it. But it is important to be able to admit to yourself that your performance isn’t up to your standards. In my case, writing the right answer–I just needed to choose the right kind of writing for me. It’s satisfying to know you’ve finally made it to the right place.

3. Take the criticism, good and bad.

As an English major, I’ve had to develop a super thick skin to deal with paper critiques. When I thought I did brilliantly on an essay, for example, my professor would scribble a big C on it. While I didn’t always like or agree with some of the comments, I realize that my professors were only trying to make me the best writer possible. They wanted me to push myself beyond the comfortable box I built for myself. And for that, I can only be thankful.

Criticism isn’t always easy to take. If you don’t steel yourself for the fire, you’ll come out singed. So, instead of thinking everyone who nags on you has some vendetta to destroy your life, search for the nuggets of truth in their critiques. The people who really care about you will always make sure you find them.

4. Be you. 

The first few weeks of my freshman year at Howard University were a study in culture shock. First, Washington, D.C., looked nothing like my small coastal town in the South. My peers talked differently, walked differently, dressed differently. Feeling anxious and unsure of myself, I experimented with myriad looks. I wore sneakers when I’d always been a heels girl. I spent money on name brands just to say I was hip to the latest trends. I was a slave to the sartorial whims of the fly girls on campus.

It took me a while to discover the real me, the “me” who existed in spite of what magazines and campus chicks said and did. Learning to dress, speak, and think for myself gave the courage to be myself. Who else can be you if not you?

5. Keep learning. 

I’m still deciding whether grad school is worth it for me–and whether I have the strength to sit through more years of school (I’m fairly sure I do, but I want to take a break for now). Learning, though, doesn’t require a formal classroom: cliche as it sounds, life itself a good teacher. And anyone can be your professor–your best friend, your dog, your preschool-age nephew, so long as you’re open. Regardless of your age, you can make learning a priority–and you don’t always have to pay tuition for life’s lessons.

10 Great Quotes

Happy Tuesday!

The last time I wrote, I was deep in the winter blahs. I didn’t have much energy and didn’t feel like myself. Well, I am happy to report that I’m feeling a million times better. In addition to stocking up on multivitamins, fish oil, and iron, I bought a light-therapy box from Amazon–and I’m telling you, every day is a sunny one with this thing. Of course, nothing is perfect, but my regimen has been a big help for my mood.

You know what else puts me in a good mood? An inspirational quote. Here are 10 to inspire you today.

1. “Self love has very little to do with how you feel about your outer self. It’s about accepting all of yourself.” -Tyra Banks

2. “Confidence comes from discipline and training.” -Robert Kiyosaki

3. “Wanting something is not enough. You must hunger for it. Your motivation must be absolutely compelling in order to overcome the obstacles that will invariably come your way.”-Les Brown

4. “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” -Dalai Lama

5. “Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness, and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.” -Og Mandino

6. “‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.” -Alice Walker

7. “Patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice.” -George Jackson

8. “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” -Benjamin Franklin

9. Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” -Oprah Winfrey

10. “Come forth into the light of things; let nature be your teacher.” -William Wordsworth

5 Ways to Kickstart 2013

Yes, I’m sixteen days late, but I’ll say it anyway: Happy New Year!

Having rung in 2013 with the flu, I needed some time to get my head straight. Now  that I’m back to good health (minus the annoying throat-clearing, anyway), I’m ready to share a bit of wisdom with you. Here are five ways to kick this year off.

1. Get pumped. Just as life can’t survive on this planet without the sun’s energy, neither can you meet your goals without a well-powered body. Feeling sluggish? Analyze your diet, sleep habits, and overall health. Iron deficiency, for example, can thwart even sincerest of plans, and so can five hours of sleep each night. To get the best out of yourself, make sure you’ve got all the energy you need. That reminds me: I need to make a trip to GNC, stat.

2. Try new things. I’ve wanted to learn to play bass guitar for years, and I finally got my wish over the holidays. Sure, I’ve spent a lot more money than I thought I would on my hobby, but I’m loving that I have a new outlet through which to express myself. I’m challenging my brain and my body. Now if I can just get my fingers coordinated, I’ll really be making beautiful music.

3. Connect. What is life without relationships? Not much, I’d say. We need other people. This year, strengthen connections with the people around you. Call a relative you haven’t spoken to in years. Make small talk with an elderly person at the bus stop–you’d be surprised at how happy he or she will be to talk to you. And know when you need to break connections, too. People who abuse, denigrate, or drain you aren’t worth keeping around.

4. Get real. Few people like to admit when they’re wrong or when they need to change something about themselves. Imagine how confident you’ll feel, though, when you learn to be honest about your shortcomings, to be real about your not-so-good points. Spending too much money? Have a bad habit of  committing to something before you’ve thought it through? Admit it. When you do so, you gain the power to change yourself. You want that kind of power.

5. Express yourself. You’re unique. No one can express you other than, well, you. So raise your voice. Express the complex, intriguing person you are through your style, your words, your art, your music, your rhythm. You can never be anyone else, so why not let who you are shine through?

Thoughts for a New Year

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Happy New Year!

I wrote this piece for New Year’s Eve 2011, and I feel it remains just as true two years later. Enjoy!

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New Year’s Eve. The wrapping paper’s in the trash, the leftovers are somewhere in a sewer, and the gifts we didn’t like are stuffed in the back of the closet. Ads for diet pills and gyms flood our screens. This is the year we’re finally going to stop thinking Ronald McDonald is a personal chef and lose weight. We’re going to save money and remember every birthday. We’re finally going to reconnect with family, save money, or cut a persistent ex off for good.

Our Facebook and Twitter feeds brim with hopes for successful, inspired, drama-free new years. Some iron button-downs or shimmy into dresses to go to New Year’s service at church or the club. As the seconds dwindle, bad memories and habits shift into extinction. The first second of January 1, we’re brand-new.

Then comes the slump. Everything seemed to be going well, but we shirk even the most genuine plans for old routines. Tummies still lap over belt buckles and budgets implode. Peaches or Dayquan is still blowing up the phone at 3 a.m. The promise of a peaceful year evaporates as we fight with family, significant others, co-workers and ourselves. Nothing new happens in a year we were so sure was ours.

What happened?

We all do it: New signifiers in time — January 1, Monday, tomorrow — are the days we vow to do things differently. Many even think these new days drive the renewal we want in our lives, as if there’s some force in a specific day that isn’t in others. I’ve put off many tasks for the beginning of the week, month, or year, only to save them for another day that often never comes.

But in the late summer of 2010, I got fed up with fast food and sizing myself out of my favorite clothes. I decided I was going to eat smart and exercise and wasn’t going to wait another nanosecond. Not Monday, not the first of the next month, not next year. I hit the gym as soon as the urge struck — Thursday, August 19. My progress seemed dreadfully slow, but I kept working. After two months, I finally saw what I’d accomplished one day and was delighted.

That’s how change works — it’s not as simple as putting on fresh drawers. Growth and change are ongoing, fluid and imperceptible, like the minutes that fly or our lungs’ conversion of oxygen to carbon dioxide. Some events like getting saved or married may seem like instant transformations, but there’s still a long, often harrowing growth period to adjust to those new statuses.

You might immediately notice that things have changed one day, but only after everything required to produce that change happens. Whether you’re trying to get in shape, have better relationships, or clear out the drama in your life, just trust yourself with your plans, start them as soon as you’re ready, and prepare for a potentially tedious process. One day you’ll look at your life and see that a new day has, in fact, arrived.

Why I’m Happy

The great thing about happiness is that it can be experienced even when things aren’t going exactly how you want them to. Even when you know you have more to accomplish, more to achieve, and more to overcome, you can feel good about who you are and where you are in life–and it doesn’t take anything extravagant to do so.

Why am I happy? I’ll give you six reasons.

1. My basic needs are met. I rose from a bed in a temperature-controlled room this morning. I had hot water for a shower, clean clothes and a warm coat, and money to buy a breakfast sandwich. Those things that seem so simple, so commonplace are worth much more than they can seem.

2. I’ve got a few of my wants, too. I don’t have a car, but I do have a handy iPhone with which to check a real-time bus schedule. I wore my favorite eyeshadow today. In addition to the basics, I have many luxuries. I’m grateful for them.

3. I have a job. I woke up to a lovely direct deposit this morning. While everything about my job certainly isn’t perfect, I’m able to take care of both my needs and wants. In this economy, that’s enough to make anyone happy.

4. Not only do I have a job, but I have a job in my field. I’ve been obsessed with magazines ever since I picked up Reader’s Digest at age 6, and today, twenty years later, I’m working at a magazine publishing company. After working numerous temp jobs and fretting about my career path, I can only be happy about how far I’ve come.

5. I’m graduating in May. My education has been a particularly daunting part of my young adult life. I was a journalism major when I started college, but I hated it, so much so that I dropped out of school (that’s where all the temp jobs came in). I endured a loooong serious of fits and starts before changing my major to English and getting the money to finance it all. Eight years after I enrolled at my D.C. university, I am finally set to graduate on May 11, 2013. Nothing will stop me from getting there!

6. I have loving family and friends. While I had to end relationships with people who weren’t true friends, I did gain new friends who are caring, supportive, and honest. My family is open and affectionate, and I know I am loved and able to return their love. For that, I am most certainly happy.

I could go on and on about why I’m jumping for joy today (and I probably will in another post), but instead I’ll reiterate the point that happiness doesn’t require anything extraordinary. You don’t have to be wealthy. You don’t have to lose five pounds or grace magazine covers to achieve it. All you need to do is take stock of what you have–and if you’re reading this post, you have a lot more than a large percentage of people on Earth–and decide that for right now, in this exact moment, it’s enough for you. If you can do that, you can be happy every day.

To Be Cleansed from Complaints

I’ve got a little problem: I’ve been complaining. A lot.

It’s so easy to do. As soon as I get in the car and I’m ready to roll, I’m irritated because someone is driving super slowly. Then someone going straight blocks the right lane so I can’t turn. When I finally get to the convenience store to buy a magazine and orange juice, someone’s buying lottery tickets. Ugh. As if he’s going to win, anyway! And don’t even get me started on the holiday shoppers. ‘Tis the season to curse folks out.

As someone who believes in the power of positive thinking, I am uncomfortable with my behavior. Yes, we all have moments when we’re impatient, annoyed, or frustrated, but dwelling on everything we think is wrong with our lives is an invitation to unhappiness. You have more power to change your mood than you give yourself credit for, and at some point you have to step back and realize that some people have it much, much worse. Some people aren’t so privileged that they can gripe about their Wifi conking out.

So, to counteract the wave of negativity that has seeped into my life, I’d like to start a complaint cleanse. No eye-rolling. No huffing and puffing. Yes, it’s difficult to find a parking spot at the crowded mall, but I get to celebrate the holidays with my friends and family. I have gained a little weight, but I can walk, run, jump, kick, and squat, and I’m generally healthy. My thighs are worth a personal Armageddon.

When I feel I’m about to strangle someone, I will breathe deeply, count to ten, and smile, even for a moment. I will be grateful. I will not let silly little annoyances like kids running around a store make me bitter, even if it would behoove their parents to chastise them.

And if I must kick myself (gently, with purpose and love) from time to time for a rogue squawk, I will be a much more joyful person. My happiness, after all, is worth it in the end.

Turning the Magnifying Glass Inward

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One of the easiest tasks in the world is to point out another person’s flaws. We peer down at others and smirk: She’s so weak. He’s so needy. They’re so selfish. We can judge folks in our sleep sometimes while convincing ourselves we’re completely objective observers.

What happens, though, when you turn the magnifying glass on yourself? If you’re honest, you most likely won’t like everything you see. In fact, you may be downright disturbed at habits that you know detract more value from your life than they add but are so difficult to change. The revelation can be embarrassing.

For instance, after reviewing journal entries from 1998, I realized that, 14 years later, I’m still doing some of the same things I did at age 12. Twelve! I’m 26 years old with preteen tendencies, and they’re not just any old bad habits. They’re insidious, draining, self-deluding habits. If that isn’t disheartening, I don’t know what is.

One thing that has changed about me, though, is that I don’t beat myself up for mistakes I’ve made. So while it is sad that history has repeated itself again and again, I’m not letting my past immobilize me. Of course I’m not pleased with actions, but instead of crying over them, I’m using this self-knowledge to my advantage. No longer am I hiding from myself. No longer am I content with repressing dark secrets. No longer am I impressed with my penchant for rationalizing my way out of responsibility. Now, I’m going to get the therapy I’ve needed for a long time. A new, more honest me is coming out of this revelation.

Only when you turn the magnifying glass on yourself can you become aware of your problems. When you become brave enough to look at all the pieces of yourself–those irrational, ugly, painful, harmful pieces–and accept those components as part of your unique life journey, you empower yourself to heal from them. Your dug-up faults, vices, and secrets may surprise or scare you, but when you commit to healing from them, they won’t be able to control you.

PS: If you’ve never journaled before, I suggest you give it a try. Regular journaling can be a great guide to your inner workings.