Friday, March 7, 2014

What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?

There is one moment in time that I can recall that I exactly knew the answer to that question. The year was 2007, the location was Pittsburgh. Doherty Hall on Carnegie Mellon's campus, to be exact. I was sitting in my undergraduate chemistry seminar and a wave of certainty came over me. At that moment, I knew that when we were released from seminar, I was going to get up, walk over to Skibo gym, pull a 2k erg test and PR (I had botched one earlier in the week), and then walk to the mail center in the UC where I would receive the acceptance letter for graduate school at MIT. That was February 11, 2007 and I'll never forget that day. After getting up from that erg and receiving that acceptance letter, I knew that there was no way that I would accept failure. I knew my path from that moment forward: I was going to go to MIT, where I would join Tim Swager's group, and get my PhD in chemistry while training to make the national team in rowing at Riverside Boat Club. In August of 2007, I enrolled at MIT and started training at RBC. In November of 2007 I joined Tim Swager's group. And weeks after I passed my qualifying exams in 2009 I made the US Rowing national team and won a bronze medal at the elite World Championships.

And then things started to get fuzzy. I badly injured my shoulder late in 2009, my best friend passed away early in 2010, and by 2011 I knew that my rowing career was over (although it took me over a year of therapy to acknowledge what I had long felt in my gut). The only thing that went according to my plans was writing and defending my thesis to earn my PhD in late 2012. And boy was that a shocker! Athletics were always the thing I did to stay centered and grounded: even when everything was uncertain, unpredictable, and uncontrollable in my academics I knew that I could always count on hard work leading to results in my athletic life. Somehow, my hard work was directly leading to success in academics? Everything was turned upside down!

Apparently the frailty of the human body is a real thing. Honestly, all I ever wanted from rowing was to see how far I could go and with earning myself serious overuse injuries in every major joint I finally had to face the conclusion that I had found my answer. Even though I had learned new mind games that would take me to the next level of exertion, my body could no longer be tricked. I always believed that the human body was limited only by the mind, but it turns out it's our minds that are limitless.

Coming full circle and being offered my dream job as a chemistry professor at CMU has reminded me of the limitless power of my dreams. (Yes! It's official! I will be a professor at Carnegie Mellon starting in 2015!) It's allowing me to ask myself the question "What would I do if I knew I couldn't fail?" and for the first time in years, I surprised myself with an honest answer. Of course, I may not share that dream out loud, but I finally feel centered knowing that I can dream, feel that firey passion, and strive again.

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