Flying with Clipped Wings
To simply call this week's guest "resilient" is selling her short. Heather Newman, as you will soon learn has approached her life from a young age with a very clear perception of her intended endgame. Like many of us, however, she's come to learn that life itself so rarely affords us the opportunity to reach that point without the final image being thrown out of focus. What do we do when our world is flipped on its head? What do we say when the doors to the roads we've been chasing are slammed shut? Heather reminds us that, even in these moments, we all have the capacity to shake off the dust and learn to soar once again.
I’ve been a planner for my entire life. From the time I was eight years old, I had my whole life planned out. It went something like this: I was going to go to the Air Force Academy, I was going to major in Astronautical engineering, I was going to get a master’s degree in Aerospace engineering, do a tour in an Air Force Research Lab, go to Test Pilot School and then be an astronaut and work on the mission to Mars; if I met someone somewhere in there they’d just have to be okay with my life plan.
Until I was 21 I was right on track. I started fencing in middle school, initially because it was something to do after school. I enjoyed the competition and the sport, but there were times where I pushed myself with the knowledge that the Air Force Academy had a fencing team and I knew being recruited would help my chance of getting in. I joined the Civil Air Patrol (the Air Force Auxiliary) my freshman year of high school and promoted as fast as was allowed. I did thousands of hours of community service over the course of my high school career, all in work I was passionate about and it felt great to make a difference, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was in part because I knew it would help me get in. In between all of the extracurricular activities, I spent almost all of the rest of my time studying. I got straight A's and did really well on both the SAT's and ACT's (and took both twice just in case).
I had the perfect high school resume. If there was a sample template for how to get into the Air Force Academy, I had it (I knew because I read all the books about what to do to prepare.) I started at the Air Force Academy in June 26th, 2009. I had an amazing Freshman year. That’s not something you hear more service academy freshman, or graduates say. But I can honestly tell you that it was my favorite year of the four. In all of the reading and the research that I’d done, I knew exactly what I was getting into. I knew the days would be long and the nights would be short. I knew I would never be right, even when I was. I knew I would be forced to memorize useless information and perform menial tasks. I knew that school would be hard, and time management almost impossible. I knew that it would be one of the most mentally challenging things I’d ever go through, and I was ready. The problem is, I wasn’t ready for everything that came after that.
You see, what none of the pamphlets and books tell you is that after freshman year nothing is like that. Sure, school is still hard, and yes, time management struggles never go away. It’s stressful for everyone in a different way as your cadet career progresses, but it’s never like freshman year again. For most people, that’s a welcome change. For me, it was a disappointment. I came to the Air Force Academy with a clear picture of what I thought it would be. I built it up in my head for ten years, and when I was finally in it, it didn’t live up to my expectations. As my time as a cadet progressed I became more and more frustrated with just about every aspect of the Academy life and the people I was there with. I felt very alone and I was really depressed. I knew by the end of my sophomore year that I was in the wrong place. I was 2,000 miles from home and I felt like I was across the country from everything and everyone that I loved and the only people that I could trust.
The way the Academy works, you can walk out at any time up to the first class of your junior year with up to two years of education for free and not owe the government anything. You commit to the next two years of school and five years on active duty by going to class as a Junior. I spent the first class of my junior year in the counseling center, panicking because I had no idea what to do. I wanted to leave and go anywhere else more than anything in the world but I couldn’t admit defeat and go home. From the time I was eight I told everyone I was going to go to the Air Force Academy and become an astronautical engineer. I couldn’t bear the idea of going home and admitting that what I wanted so badly, what I had dedicated my life to, was not what I thought it would be.
Needless to say, the counselor talked me into going to class. In spite of still being very unsure of that decision, I did my best to make the most of it and keep trucking along my life plan. No matter what I did I was never as happy as I was my freshman year. I did everything I could think of to get it back. I quit the fencing team because the coach was making me miserable and making me hate the sport I once loved. I got involved in new extracurricular activities and teams. I even signed up for extra classes outside my major just because I was interested. One of those classes was a very prestigious Flight Test Engineering class offered to only 20 people a year. Being a Flight Test Engineer was in the life plan so I jumped at the opportunity.
What I found out, very quickly, is that I get very motion sick in small aircraft doing crazy flight maneuvers. When I say crazy, I mean doing steep turns when I wasn’t the one flying the plane. Talk about a devastating moment in my life. If I couldn’t fly in the back seat of a Cessna I’d never make it in a jet let alone a rocket without feeling miserably ill. My entire life plan flew out the window in a flash. So one semester from graduating I was miserable where I was and I had no idea what was going to come next. I planned every minute of my life from the time I was eight and I was 22 with no plan for the future. The one thing I had going for me was that I started dating my wife that same semester. She was a large part of what got me through that really hard time. One of the best things she did for me in that really hard time was ask me: “if money was no object, what would you do?”
That got me thinking a lot. It was just about all I thought about. The problem was, I had no idea what I enjoyed doing. I was an engineer because it fit in my life plan and because I was good at it, but did I really enjoy it? What did I actually want to do? What would make me happy? What would leave me fulfilled? What would pay enough to support my family? I spent countless hours struggling with these and so many more questions. I came to the conclusion that I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up but I knew that whatever it was it needed to meet three criteria:
1) It had to pay enough that we wouldn’t have to shop at the salvation army for our kid’s clothes
2) It had be a job my family could be proud of
3) I wanted to make an impact on the lives of others
I’ve been on active duty for three and a half years, I have a year and a half left, I still struggle on a daily basis with what I’m going to be when I grow up. What I have done is come up with a long list of things I think would enjoy and an even longer list of things I know I won’t. And for now, that’s just going to have to be good enough.
I don’t regret having gone to the Academy, I don’t regret having stayed for all four years, and I don’t regret the five years I’ll have spent in the military by the time I’m done. I am who I am today in part because of what I did to prepare for, and get through, the Academy and my time in the military. I have had experiences I never would have had anywhere else. I spent three weeks in Morocco, all expenses paid, studying French for my minor. I jumped out of an airplane, five times. I jumped off a 33-foot platform into 18 feet of water (not a feat for most people, but I’m terrified of drowning). I flew on the vomit comet and was “weightless” 42 times (under the influence of a lot of motion sickness drugs.) I taught more than 1,000 people an amazing violence prevention program. I spoke at TEDx. I have had some truly amazing experiences in my military career.
While I don’t regret having done anything I’ve done, I think a lot about what I would say to eight, or 18, or 20-year-old me if I could take everything I know now and go back. Would I tell eight-year-old me that there are other options out there in the big world and not to narrow your sights too soon? Would I tell 18-year-old me to entertain the option of other colleges and at least visit somewhere else? Would I tell 20-year-old me that it’s okay to fail, okay to admit defeat, okay if what you thought would be a dream come true actually makes you miserable? Even if I had the perfect piece of advice for my younger self, knowing myself I wouldn’t have listened. Countless people tried to tell me all of those things, people I loved and trusted more than anyone in the world, and I didn’t listen to one of them.
Most of you don’t know me, and have no reason to listen to my advice any more than I did everyone I knew and loved and trusted. But just in case, here is my advice to all of you:
1) If you’re a new college graduate and you’re not sure if what you studied is what you love, don’t be afraid to admit that to yourself. If you’re a new high school graduate, don’t be afraid to take a gap year or get a job and find out what you love before you dive all in in college and pay for the pleasure of finding yourself.
2) If you’ve been in a field for a few years and it isn’t living up to expectations, don’t be afraid to reevaluate and change careers.
3) Unhappiness, in your job, in your relationships, in your life is never worth it. When you realize you’re unhappy, try to figure out why and do something about it.
It’s not insane to take time off before college or going to community college to find out what you’re truly passionate about. It is not insane to realize you don’t like what you studied and decide to go back to school. It is not insane to change careers three, 13, or even 30 years into your first. It’s insane to do the same thing over and over and expect different results, so why do we tell ourselves anything else?
This post has been edited for grammar. All other content remains the original thoughts & expressions of the author.