Is A Virtue

I remember walking off the mat after my first collegiate wrestling match. I wrestled for a small, but ranked, NCAA DIII program and had just been rocked by a cross-eyed, humpty-dumpty looking fellow from a NCAA DII program. After the match I remember two things; a) my teammates laughing and telling me that he was recruited by two of the top 10 ranked NCAA DI programs in the country, and b) my coach telling me that if they awarded a point for every shot a heavyweight took, I would win every match.

That’s pretty much me. A heavyweight wrestler. A shot taker. Weighted but aggressive. I move fast. I commit. I finish. That is the person I am. Some of it is, no doubt, the product of my experience as a student-athlete, but it has always been more than that for me. It started a long time before I even made it to college. Which is, ironically, what delayed me getting to college in the first place.

When I was a teenager I felt like adulthood was crashing into me like waves against the breaker, or to use another tired simile, I felt the future and the demands and expectations that come with it falling like the sky. I’ve always held tightly to the idea that I would make something of myself, but even when I was in high school, pondering the impending future, I didn’t anticipate that I had more than a decade left in the tank. I just assumed that life was moving fast, I was either going to do something worth the time and space I occupied or I would simply explode, fade away, be done.

I didn’t explode, fade or end. The results are still out on the value of the time and space I occupy. Because it kept going. It kept going long after I had thought it would. That is, you see, how I ended up in college, finally.

And that is the irony. I was convinced that everything was moving so fast, that everything was falling together/apart that there just wasn’t enough time to worry about later. So, when I didn’t drink the Kool Aid and that comet passed, I was still right there. And it was time to do something with my life. Time was still an issue, but instead of racing against it, I was racing to catch up and make up for the time I had wasted and experiences I had missed which were common for people fresh out of high school. That first great venture into adulthood – college.

I swung big and I missed. But that is also part of who I am, the shot taker. I tend to go for the kill every time. I took the ACT four years after high school without studying. I showed up the day of the exam with just a pencil. I scored a 25. I immediately tried to get into the local university and was shot down. Of course, it seemed to me, that someone who scored a 25 would probably just get in, high school grades be damned! I was rushing again and pushing for what I was sure I needed in that moment. Turned away by the university, I was accepted into the local technical college, taking generals and biding my time before I could transfer to the university. Except, I again sabotaged myself. There were a lot of circumstances and factors in my life that caused problems, but the fact is simple – I didn’t put in the work. Because I hit a home run with my GPA one semester and then bombed the next, I was forced to take another year of classes at CVTC and inverted the pattern having a lackluster fall semester before pulling it together and finishing my final semester with a 3.94, good enough to pull me above a 3.0 overall, securing my transfer to the university.

For someone who always moves fast, I had managed to delay college by four years and then tacked on an extra, unnecessary year at the technical college en route to the school I had assumed I could get in to originally.

It had been a delay, but I had achieved my goal – I was at university. That was a big accomplishment in my mind since I had never thought about college, known how to apply, what to go to school for, or had any assistance. I had figured this all out for myself.

But it never moves fast enough, until you realize it is too fast. I had wrestled when I was younger, but I had several years off from the sport. I had used the prior year as motivation for my brutal, hours-long workout sessions, generally lasting between 2-4 hours between strength training and running on the treadmill. I was ready to take the world by storm. Except, I didn’t. I quickly found that I was far outclassed by all of my teammates who had an average of over a decade experience more than I did. They were quite good, even for a DIII program. We were ranked top 20 nationally at that time and had several individuals who were ranked and had a realistic shot at making nationals that year. I was at the bottom of the depth chart that year, and every year if we are being honest.

I improved greatly from year to year, but there were some major problems that stood in my way. Beyond talent and experience, there was another major problem. My internal clock, the same one that had pushed me so hard in high school, that had made me feel the need to try and double-time at the technical college and again at the university to get the most out of my experience to make up for missed time. I always shot too fast, too often. I was taking ill-advised risks and being punished for them by superior wrestlers who better understood the pace that they needed to keep. I was tricking myself because I knew that my conditioning was excellent. For a heavyweight, I could keep pace the other guys couldn't hang with. I’d outrace the rest of my teammates in sprints during practice, I was stronger and more muscular, I could grind it out for as long as was required of me, pushing beyond the limits of what I thought was possible. To push it further, at a light 240 pounds, I would spend my offseason time split between hours committed to strength training in the gym and running hundreds of miles, one summer averaging over 130 miles per month.

But my fanatical dedication to working at an insane rate would sabotage me in the wrestling room. I was always too fast. In my head it seemed right, I knew that I would need to keep the action going to avoid any stalling calls or warnings. Also, I knew that I wanted to tire my opponent, something that I could not do if I tried to move at my opponent’s conservative pace. I moved too fast, always rushing, pushing forward and paying the price.

I’ve always believed that time is a gift. Time is the most valuable thing that I have to give, to use, to experience. I graduated from college eventually. I had a degree, had worked as a TA and had committed myself to taking the GRE in my final semester. I scored in 87th, 70th and 73rd percentile on the different components of the exam. Again, I had set another clock on myself. This time, five years for a chance to use these scores to get into a graduate studies program. I had convinced myself that my low GPA in college could be overlooked due to my high marks on the GRE, my TA position, a few good letters of recommendation and a chance to explain my situation as a non-traditional student who worked a job, went to class and was also involved in athletics.

I picked a dozen schools, but after selling off better than half of my favorite records in my collection, I had only enough money to pay for my online GRE prep course and apply to two schools. I chose two of the best programs. I was again punching above my weight, taking the shot. I felt that I could handle it the same way I had somehow forced my way into college, onto the wrestling team and on through a life that was somehow continuing long beyond the original time frame teenage me had anticipated.

I was rejected by both programs that I had applied to. But I still had time, so I turned my focus to getting a job. Student loans were approaching, the time for their grace period was passing and I was in the crunch to get a job so that I could pay once those bills came due.

I applied to 16 jobs in one week, which I thought was impressive. The city I was living in, and still live in, was a city that in total is smaller than the population of some university football stadium capacities. Not a one-horse town by any means, but definitely not a metropolis.

I only heard back from one potential employer. They interviewed me, then told me that they were not considering me for the job that I had applied for. They offered me the position of the person who was taking the job that I had applied for. Knowing that time was running short on my student loan repayment, I took the job. It was a chance to cut ties with the last thing that tied me to college, my college food-service job.

As a wrestler, I always liked to be aggressive and wear on my opponent, or to let him beat up on me until he got tired of winning, just depends on how you look at it, I suppose. I knew I didn’t have the skill that the other guys did, but I also knew that I could push my body to fatigue and then keep going, gambling that they would tire, causing them to mentally slip. And I looked to take shots.

When a year of my life passed and I was still in the same position I had been when I started working at my employer, I applied for a position that I thought was perfect for me. I had put in my time. I was prepared for just such an opportunity. The call from HR came, they were not going to interview me. I was devastated. But I pushed on. And time and again I came up short and every application and interview that came my way ended in the same rejection.

Rejection isn’t hard for me, failure isn’t so scary anymore. I’ve had both in academics, job applications and interviews, and on the wrestling mat. I knew, and know, that failure isn’t the end. It means you need to improve for the next round. Keep upping your level and eventually you will break through.

But sometimes you don’t.

And I haven’t yet. And I’m trying to learn a bit about patience. It is a delicate thing. We are talking about years that I cannot get back. It is the time issue again, the idea that my time is not spent well - is wasted - if I am not building toward something better. When time is passing, people like myself will instinctively feel that it is time to take a shot.

But I am at a place in my professional life where I can’t take the shot, even when I want to, even when everything innate is screaming for it and pulling me toward as if calling forth the latent fighter inside to come and demand victory, if only by sheer will. Make it happen.

It is hard to explain that relationship. It isn’t just about time. It isn’t just about work. It isn’t just about taking the shot. Because time is everything and wasting time is the worst thing that I can do. I need to take a shot, but there is no shot to take.

Maybe that is saving me from myself. Maybe that is part of growing up, being mature enough to know that you can test a barrier, but I don't need to become another body piled against it.

I was never a good wrestler. I only won once in college. I was always a back up, always injured, always not as good as the next guy. But I loved the sport, loved the process, loved to compete and loved to challenge myself. I never found it to be a waste of time.

I still take shots. I took on commitments beyond my work. I looked for more opportunities and I use my time to the maximum that I am able. But I have learned a delicate balance in time. Time is not just being spent, wasted. Time is process, growing, honing a skill.

My time is valuable. Your time is valuable. But you can’t always win and you can’t always take shots. There are going to be times where you have to wait and you have to work to set up your next shot. The balance is that you must always be working hard, harder than your opponent, working to set up your next shot. But don’t be fooled, your opponent often is not another person or time, it is yourself.

I believe I have finally begun to learn about time. Time is valuable, but time is also a process. I have learned the balance of always working hard, working toward my goal, but understanding when I am in a place where I am not in control and need to wait. To learn to enjoy the moment and the small victories along the way, while never giving up on the bigger goal and never giving up on working for what I want.

I’m at a point where I can’t take a shot, because I have learned that taking a shot for the sake of shooting does not yield results. But I also see that I am at a point where I can work to set up my next shot, so here I am. I’m working, setting up my next shot…

by Daniel Coughlin