As I stood there in the parking lot, dressed in old gym shorts and a baggy shirt, surrounded by a hundred or more other folks, there were two things on my mind: why am I here, and can I even do this?
There was a simple answer to the first part: I needed a job. It was August 28, 2010, and my commitment with Teach For America had ended in June. The last paycheck was gone, I’d begun to rely on my savings, and I was back home living in the basement. I’d applied to many dozens of jobs over the past few months, and this was the only one that responded.
The test was simple enough. Run two laps around the parking lot–about a half mile in total–and then drag a two-hundred pound Rescue Randy manikin for a hundred feet. Sounds easy, right?
Maybe, but I wasn’t so sure. I’d allowed my health to deteriorate over the past six years, and although I didn’t weigh the two-hundred and forty pounds that I’d eventually balloon to, I wasn’t far off. But as I watched others give it a shot, I consoled myself in a manner that’s all-too-familiar to anyone who is or has ever been overweight and out of shape. Hey, at least I’m not as bad as that guy, I thought, as I watched as a morbidly-obese man struggle through the first half of the first lap.
More importantly though, how the hell did I end up here? I’d been accepted to law school back in April–the logical conclusion of six years of hard work. It’s not that anything was wrong with applying for a job to be a Polk County Detention Officer–other than, you know, my opinions about our prison system. It was a solid job. It even paid significantly more than I made as a teacher. I just had bigger and better things in mind. Working in a prison wasn’t part of the plan. Then again, the neither was the economic crisis. Or law school morphing into a debt-trap with poor job prospects. Or any of the things that had happened since Teach For America.
But it was almost my turn to run. The butterflies had begun to wreak havoc on my stomach as I faced the reality of my situation: I’d gotten fat. I might not be able to do this. I wore size 38 and 40 pants, popped Nexium like M&M’s to fight the ever-present acid reflux issues, and I spent my time eating and drinking while living life vicariously through the stories of movies, television shows, and video games.
Exercise? It had been years.
I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d run.
If you met me back in 2008 or 2010 and asked who I was, I’d have said something like this:
Hi, my name is Frank Beard. I studied politics and history at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa–during which time I founded and managed some of the most active student organizations on campus. I moved to Washington, DC, for most of my junior year and helped start a political organization, and I ran a website that tracked absenteeism in the United States Senate. You may have heard about it on CNN or FOX. After graduation, I accepted a job with Teach For America–a prestigious national service corps that places top graduates in our country’s neediest schools for a minimum of two years. I plan to enroll in law school afterwards, and I will continue to advocate for the needs of low-income students.
Okay, it’s kind of pretentious. But that was my narrative; I thought it was a reflection of who I was.
When we form an identity when we’re young, we often focus on the ways in which we differ from those around us. We want to be different and unique. To stand out. So while my rural elementary school had the “athletic kids”, the “class clown”, and even the “farm kids”, I became the “smart kid”. I arrived in kindergarten reading books meant for high school students, I was immediately put into talented and gifted classes, and I was moved ahead in math beginning in seventh grade.
It was also a great defensive mechanism. Although I got along with everyone in middle and high school, I was never part of any clique. Rather than feel isolated when my most of my friends drifted off into one group or another, I took refuge in the idea that I was above all of the social games and drama. I just had to bide my time until I could go out into the real world. When that happened, it was my time to shine.
I had options, of course. I was always great with computers, and I taught myself how to program. Shortly after turning eighteen, I sold a website and an online community to a company in the video game industry. I was paid to manage it for a few years. Math and science came easy as well, and I could have done something with that.
But I wanted more than that. Although I didn’t understand how the world worked, it seemed that politics was near the center of everything. So I decided I’d pursue law and try to find a way into that world. The lawyers in my community seemed well-off, and it’s no secret that many of our politicians have law degrees.
That’s all it took to convince me.
So I gave it a shot. I worked hard and studied when many of my friends were out drinking and having a good time–or when some of them dropping out. One evening, I was so engrossed in my computer and headphones that I didn’t even notice that my roommate had returned with some of our friends, thrown up on the floor, and cleaned it up. As you can imagine, they didn’t let me forget about that one.
But I only say this to provide context.
Because when I suddenly woke up years later and realized that I was broke, living at home, unemployed, and didn’t have a clue what I was doing…well, let’s just say I didn’t take it well.
I completed the physical test though. My quadriceps burned, my calves screamed in agony, and I felt like a thousand needles had been jabbed into the side of my ribs–transforming each breath into a form of self-flagellation. Thirty seconds in, and my shirt was drenched in sweat.
As I rounded the first corner, I glanced at the other applicants. I remember how one guy in particular–who’d run the course like it was a joke–stood there with his arms crossed, staring at me the way I’d looked at the morbidly-obese man only moments earlier. Like I was a failure. It hurt to think that I’d become that guy to someone else, but I quickly put the thought out of my head because I was in too much pain to think about it.
That should have been a wake-up call: a sign that I’d made a serious mistake in managing my life. But it would be years before I did anything about it.
The problem, you see, is that I was still waiting for the right job to come along and rescue me. I was still anchored to the smart kid identity. I still viewed life through my pretentious narrative. I just needed to land the right job so I could claw my way up to the level of success that I thought I deserved.
So I took a job selling insurance. I know, I know. It’s basically the used-car salesman of the financial services industry. Everyone loves to hate them. But I was almost out of money, the training paid well, and there were no other offers. So what the hell, I figured. And as I soon discovered, there’s a lot of money in that field if you can make it work.
And I did for a while. I fit the new job into the narrative, felt a sense of pride through my association with a well-known and respectable company, and there were some months when I made great money.
But it all came crashing down. The slow months were brutal, and I was soon digging through my change jar for quarters to buy gas. Before long, I couldn’t pay the rent for my office and had to close shop.
And I took this hard.
The narrative, the plan, all of it was blown to hell. Destroyed. Gone. This was real failure, and I didn’t know what to do.
So I did more of what I’d done ever since the stress of Teach For America had gotten to me: I played video games, drank heavily, consoled myself with comfort food, and binged on Netflix. If I socialized, it was at the bar.
But I started to get angry. I deserved better than this, right? I’d worked hard and accomplished a lot. I had a good resume. Why was only one out of every forty or fifty job applications responding? And it’s not like I was being picky. I once interviewed unsuccessfully for a position at a rural gas station that paid ten dollars per hour. How did I go from introducing a congressman on CSPAN to this?
That’s when I embraced victimhood.
Look, it’s no secret that times were tough and still are. Many people are deep in debt, working long hours for low pay, and stuck in dead-end jobs that have no future. A sizable portion of my generation lives with their parents. There’s even speculation that, as a whole, we may never obtain their quality of life.
The facts are the facts. It’s up to each of us, however, to decide what they mean.
I decided that I’d been cheated. Screwed over. I’d done what I was supposed to do, and I deserved better than this. Some might call that entitlement, and I would have said “you’re damn right.” If you invested six years of hard work into something, would you expect a return? The idea that it was somehow a character defect to expect more than the chance to apply for a job at a rural gas station? I never found that convincing.
But I did find Chomsky, Žižek, and Rawls convincing. If you criticized the system, then I was listening.
And let me tell you, being a victim felt great. It was like a weight had finally been lifted off of my shoulders. This isn’t my fault, I realized. I held up my end of the bargain. It wasn’t that I tried and failed, but rather that the system had failed me.
Victimhood allowed me to keep my pride and ego. The narrative could still be a part of my identity. Only now it ended with being stuck in an unfortunate position, trying to “figure it all out”.
But being a victim just gets old. Regardless of whether your plight is legitimate or imagined, it colors your outlook on life and anchors you to your past. It keeps you trapped in stasis.
I finally had enough. Everyone around me was moving forward with their lives while I was stuck sharing stories about what I used to do and finding reasons why I was now unable to do anything.
That person who I used to be? That person hadn’t existed for years. I didn’t know who I was anymore, because I didn’t actually do anything. I worked, of course. But I lived a life of escapism. I looked and felt horrible. And I sat around waiting for some job or career to come along and imbue my life with meaning and purpose.
And even if I did get the perfect job, was that really the solution? Would I suddenly give myself permission to start living? Would I work towards my goals, do the things I wanted to do, and pursue companionship instead of being too embarrassed to let anyone into my life? Of course not. The last time I had a job that I was proud of, I sat around and did the same thing: nothing.
The problem was me. My life was a mess.
I needed to reinvent myself and figure out a different way to do this.
I travel the United States for my job, build up a ton of frequent flier points, and get to see more of our country than most people ever will. It’s a small company, and I like everyone who works there.
But more importantly, I have a full and active life outside of work. I don’t need a job to provide meaning and purpose, because I create my own. I’m an athlete who likes to run, cycle, do something that resembles swimming. I actively work on my writing, and I plan to roll out short stories soon. Maybe turn them into audio narratives that folks can listen to when they drive to work. I’ve also spent almost eight months working on a fitness website that I plan to launch this year; it helps people revitalize their lives through endurance sports just like I did.
In short, I’m actually living.
People see the difference. And not just since I’ve lost the equivalent weight of an MMA heavy bag, but because I’m happier, I smile more, and I tell stories about what I’m doing right now instead of what I used to do. I offer encouragement instead of negativity.
When they ask, however, they’re frequently looking for some life hack, secret formula, or collection of tips and tricks. It’s like they think everything suddenly changed because I bought the right book or found the One True Diet.
But that’s not the way it works.
I changed because I prioritized change over everything else in my life. If I wasn’t willing to put myself out there, try new things, get uncomfortable, and take risks–if I wasn’t willing to question my very identity and lifestyle–then I was going to stay exactly where I was.
I could have said no when my father and one of his employees invited me to go for a bike ride. I could have made excuses and found reasons to stay home. They’re cyclists, they take the sport seriously. They ride expensive bicycles and dress in funny-looking clothing. I’m out of shape, so I’ll just slow them down and embarrass myself.
But I was hungry for change. I was willing to try anything.
And it was embarrassing. I did feel awkward. My own father had to slow down as I struggled to pedal up small hills. I’m proud to say that I never walked the bike, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to. And when we finished, I was absolutely drained of energy.
But I had fun.
I had so much fun, in fact, that I agreed to start riding with them on Sunday mornings. So I decided to buy my own road bike. But winter was coming, and that meant too much snow and ice for cycling. I figured I’d wait until April to purchase one.
In the meantime, I had to lose the weight once and for all.
So that’s what I did. I downloaded MyFitnessPal, set a goal for daily caloric intake, and tracked every bit of food I put in my mouth. I learned to cook simple and healthy meals, cut out most of the garbage, and significantly increased my intake of vegetables. I also discovered that I love asparagus and broccoli. Who would have guessed?
When April rolled around, I didn’t even look the same. But now it was time to get in shape. I wasn’t about to get shown up again by my father on a bike ride(no offense).
But cycling wasn’t a “work out”–a phrase that always makes me think of headphone-clad folks in the local gym’s cardio room, with looks of anguish on their faces as they force themselves to do things that they don’t enjoy.
Cycling was pure joy. I zoomed down the hills on country roads, felt the sun warming my skin, listened to the chirping of the birds and the rustle of the leaves in the trees. I quickly reached a level of proficiency where I could just turn on the gas and go for four, five, and six or more hours. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t felt in…well, ever.
It consumed everything in my life. I stopped drinking so much, I chose food based upon whether or not it would make me a stronger cyclist, and I found supplemental exercises and drills designed to make me faster and stronger.
I watched a local triathlon, and it looked like so much fun that I decided to do it that following year. That’s when I rediscovered running. Except this time I wasn’t an overweight guy applying for a job that he didn’t want. I was in great shape.
But I still believed that I hated running.
And where did that come from, exactly? Nobody is born with an innate dislike for running. As a kid, I loved racing my dad across our front yard. I thought running was a normal way of moving from Point A to Point B.
Just like cycling, I decided to reserve judgment until I actually gave it a try. What I discovered, however, is something that completely changed my life.
If I could do what I love without any responsibilities or restrictions, I’d run all day. Every day.
I don’t run a lot of races, and I don’t care about having a wall of finisher’s medals. I’m not the fastest or the best, and I’m still working up to that local 50k that I hope to run as a personal accomplishment. To me, running isn’t another competition to win. I don’t need that kind of affirmation. I see what I look like in the mirror, and I know how great I feel both physically and mentally. That speaks louder than any shiny thing dangling from my wall.
Running is a form of physical mediation. It’s my time. When I’m out on a beautiful trail, taking in the vivid greens, blues, and the sounds of life around me, I feel something that can only be described as a spiritual experience. It reminds me that there’s something simple and profound buried underneath all of the ways that we make life complicated and confusing.
Monks meditate, priests pray, and I run. It’s what I do.
Endurance sports have also helped to diversify my identity. I’m a cyclist because I cycle. I’m a runner because I run. And I’m an athlete because I train my body to go for longer distances. Those are all things that I want to do, and I’m doing them right now. I don’t need my job to provide a purpose or identity.
As for everything that happened after college?
There’s opportunity in struggle. Never forget that. If I’d just moved into a career and kept chugging along, I’d be tied to a path that represents the best thinking available to my eighteen-year-old self. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe not. Perhaps I’d just be another overworked, overstressed attorney.
But it didn’t work out. And because of that, I struggled though some difficult years until something wonderful happened.
I discovered who I am.
I’ve been back to that parking lot.
I wanted to squeeze in a run before going out one evening last year, so I parked my car over there. It’s attached to one of my favourite bike trails.
As I looked around and remembered that embarrassing day, I wondered if perhaps my memory had failed. Surely I didn’t struggle with this. It’s small. Hardly anything. But then I remembered the placement of the orange cones. Yeah, it happened.
It was a great day for a run. Iowa has beautiful summers–even if they’re a bit humid. The sky was free of clouds, a light breeze snaked through the trees, and I ran with no headphones or other distractions. Just the sounds of nature, the occasional cyclist, and the synchronization of my breathing and cadence. I ran five miles out, five miles back, and passed through downtown Des Moines along the way.
I returned to my car energized, ready to take my girlfriend out for dinner. And then it hit me.
I’m glad that I failed.
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