Read on for the story of when I was a real, master-level quitter…
I remember a time when I was first to give up, especially with physical activity. People told me, and I told myself for so long, “You have Asthma. It’s totally fine for you to sit this one out; your lungs suck and you might die.” Or less dramatic, “Running’s not my thing.”
I thankfully skipped President’s Challenge – whose arbitrary pull-up metrics are those anyway? – and read books in the sun on the bleachers, blue inhaler always visible to runners passing by. Whatever, Kevin Cooper, have fun trying to beat your SIX-minute mile!
It was all fine and dandy. Decent time spent, really.
But all that not-running reinforced an ugly story that’d been building.
You don’t push, Ishita.
You never push.
You just do. NOT. push.
You know you don’t push.
You KNOW you don’t push.
Not when you need to. And not when you don’t need to.
I’d start feeling sick in my stomach, which came from knowing the truth.
If something got too hard or felt too outside my comfort zone, I’d quit.
No drama. No show.
Just casually stop doing it.
And casually start doing something else.
If it required effort, I was out.
If it required actual hard work, I let myself off the hook no question.
I got really good at throwing in the towel.
Again, a pretty okay life.
Not bad by any stretch.
I got through high-school and college and whatever else we do at that age.
But the story kept growing. “You don’t push, Ishita.”
It got so uncomfortable & heavy to carry, I often asked, “If push came to shove: if I REALLY needed to do something life or death – would I do it then?
This thought played in my mind so much that I’d concoct life/death scenarios all the time: What if I fell into open water? What if I had to save my sister? What if our plane went down?
I guess I’d try if our plane went down…?
Maybe if there was fire all around I’d really try…?
Maybe an actual life & death situation would make me push…?
I didn’t want to say it out loud because I didn’t want the air to hear.
I don’t know if I’d push even then.
Even then, Ishita?
Yeah, even then.
That was something to think about.
That was something.
I love myself a lot, so I did the most loving thing I could think to do in that moment: I turned on myself.
“Towel after towel after towel you’ve thrown in. For 20 years. It might not feel good to throw it, but you still ALWAYS choose to. WHAT THE $#%K ARE YOU DOING. HOW ARE YOU LIVING?”
I always had high self-esteem, but the thought of working beyond my capacity was entirely foreign to me; it was so uncomfortable to think about that my brain didn’t even consider it; I didn’t allow myself to go there it was so confronting.
Enter my soul, who knows things my brain is too scared to learn.
When I was a junior in college, I had the worst flu of my life. Days and days of rattle cough, muscle pain, and endless mucus. Non-stop. I skipped class all the time but this was a long stretch even for me.
That same week I had the most important Organic Chemistry exam of my life. “It’ll determine if you get into med school,” was the consensus on campus amongst pre-med stress-cases who were applying.
[People and their arbitrary ideas. Sigh. I know for a FACT nothing determines ANYTHING except how badly you want it and how creative you are. “Ms. Shafer DEFINITELY can’t meet you & you DEFINITELY can’t talk to admissions officers about your application.” Cool. Cool. Totally hear you. Then how come I just left Ms. Shafer’s office after talking to her for 30 mins where we shared donuts that I brought her? But no, I get it. Totally cool.]
Med school days take me down a rabbit hole.
Back to Orgo.
I was NOT good at Orgo.
I hated it.
But I also hated how I felt: DO I REALLY NOT CARE ENOUGH ABOUT ANYTHING TO ACTUALLY PUSH MYSELF?
When it came down to the wire, I didn’t deliver.
I didn’t commit.
I didn’t go full throttle. I’d always been so curious what full throttle looked like!
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t confronting something BIG about myself that I needed to.
Then this: “I’m going to work the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life and ace this exam.”
“I’ll study day and night for the next two days.”
“I’m going to do it.”
Amid the snot and exhaustion, no clue where it came from, but it was definitely inside of ME.
Here was my body, doing things.
Getting OJ. Lots of it.
Setting the Tylenol bottle next to the bed. Putting Kleenex under my pillow.
Gathering books and papers and highlighters and sticky notes into a sacred circle of SCIENCE around me on my bed.
I didn’t shower for two days.
Cursory glances to anyone who came into my sight.
But I did study my TAIL OFF for two days straight days around the clock.
Did. Not. Stop.
I didn’t even know WHAT I was reading some moments, I was so lost. It didn’t matter. My brain was REWIRING itself to accept this information.
I studied formulas back and forth.
Crammed molecules like it was my job.
Made those carbon compounds my little bitches.
I wrote equations over and over and over again.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
I’d pop a Tylenol if my head hurt. Grab the throat spray when I coughed. Laid my head down on my books when I got tired. A few minutes into a snooze my head would pop up like a jack in the box.
If I went to the bathroom or ate it was five seconds and usually in my bed.
Whatever frenzy I was in, my mind, desire, body; everything focused on ONE thing: Orgo orgo orgo orgo orgo.
I studied, prayed, and self-talked the LIVING SHIT OUT OF MYSELF.
After day one, it didn’t feel like Orgo anymore: it had mutated into me fighting for life or death. It just so happened that both the hero and villain were ME.
I’ve pulled 3 all-nighters total in my life. One was that night. The second was when I wrote the application to work with Seth. The third was last Monday.
Okay, so it wasn’t about Orgo.
I was starting to see that.
It wasn’t about the grade, I could feel that too.
And it wasn’t about med school, that was for damn sure.
So what was it about?
Bleary-eyed, on the least amount of sleep I’d ever had (Asthmatics need a lot of sleep) I walked into the exam.
An hour later I walked out. The sun was out. I felt peaceful.
I didn’t know what to do with the new space in my brain.
I rocked that mofo, I thought.
I didn’t know my score yet.
But I knew what I needed to know.
Formulas be damned. What I NEEDED was to know I could confront and conquer myself.
My score came in a few hours later: A.
Looked like a capital P to me.
That girl there. She pushed.
That P gave me my life.
I’ve never said this out loud, to anyone, not even my family, but that moment was the first time I felt real ownership over my life. When I knew I could be resourced by something bigger than myself and rely on myself to use it.
I also knew I wasn’t gonna go to med school and that I’d build my own path. Doing what? Lord only knew. But I knew I’d be in control of my future. Though Ms. Shafer you did do me a solid. Thank you. [To close that loop I still applied and ultimately got in, sat on my acceptance for a year before finally letting it go – much to the shock & dismay of people around me. But if I’m smart enough to get in – donuts help! – I’m smart enough to know when to get out.]
This seemingly-banal Orgo experience most college kids have was my legit Everest moment. It’s one of the top 3-4 experiences I go to when I’m encountering the hardest stuff in my life.
It totally redefined how I saw myself, which redefined what I was capable of.
And whatever internal or spiritual energy helped me do it…
That knowing inside. That volition.
That singular focus.
That ability and capacity and DESIRE to push.
I used that same thing years later to change the course of my family, confronting a taboo issue head-on after 25 years of silence. To make a film about a Nobel Peace Prize winner on zero experience. To pitch and work with my #1 idol in photography. To apply to Seth’s gig and work with him. And to keep doing the very things that make me want to RUN, GRAB A HUNDRED TOWELS, AND THROW THEM ALL IN. GIVE ME THE TOWELS, KEVIN.
The self that I accessed made me reach. Made me push.
Made me confront the deep dark part of my heart & finally STAY WITH IT.
I’d run for so long because staying felt like death.
Now, staying was what gave me life.
What a fantastic, mysterious, shocking, confounding, magnificent life.
This life is yours.
When you face that deep, dark corner inside yourself – that story that you can’t shake – the one that grows each day…
YOU have the power to decide if it grows.
You have the power to throw in the towel or choose to stay.
Whatever stage you’re at with yourself – only you decide whether now’s the time to push.
No one can do ANY thing about it if you’re not ready. Not one. I stayed throwing towels for years. Years. If that’s where you’re at, cool. Cool.
But if you see yourself in my story, if you know there’s a dark corner you need to confront, you know it also might be time for you to push.
I can’t know that, only you can. And the solution can only come from you too.
But what I can be, what I hope to be for the REST OF MY LIFE for myself and others – is the catalyst to your pushing. The catalyst to reach and push to finally confront what you know you’re ready to.
Because that’s where a new life comes from. A way to see yourself that no one can take away from you.
No life circumstance.
No hard time.
No failure or rejection.
And certainly not Organic Chemistry.
Let’s do it together. 1, 2, 3….push.