Comfortable and privileged – these words best describe my life growing up. My family isn’t wealthy and we went through more than a few financial struggles but we had enough to be comfortable. Enough to have a nice house in a nice part of town and enough to ensure I had a first-class education from a well-respected and presitigious school.
At this educational institution, I was never the kid in class who had enough lunch money for the rest of my batch but upon reaching my teenage years – that fabled age when identities are formed — I became rich in the ultimate currency of adolescents: popularity.
I was a varsity athlete and had been since I was nine. I was a starter and people knew I was pretty good. I was an annual member of student government. Most importantly though, I was in that strereotypical barkada, the one that threw the best parties, hung out in the coolest spots and of course, knew all the ladies. At the time, that’s all that mattered. Nothing was more important and in that period of adolescent verve and confusion, while our peers were still stumbling into the world of social activity and interacting with the opposite sex, my friends and I were already world class sprinters and marathoners. We didn’t just walk around school, no — we strutted. Proudly. With fluffed feathers and chins and noses raised proudly in the air.
I was at the very center of relevance. As far as my friends and I knew, we were kings.
But since – as the old saying goes — all good things come to end, eventually the bell tolled on my perceived royalty – and in spectacular fashion.
Leaving the Comfort Zone
Midway through my senior year in High School, my parents decided to move to the US. The move was to take place the following year. So in the summer before what was supposed to be my freshman year of college, we left — leaving our entire lives behind for a place that was entirely new and completely isolated from everything we knew and loved. My parents would settle in New York, while I went off to my school in Michigan.
In this new place on the other side of the world, we would be apart – separated by hundreds of miles. My life as I knew it, was ending — literally and figuratively.
Into the Fire
I always tell people that High School taught me the fun, easy things in life – like love and adventure — but College was where I grew up. It’s when life taught me the hard lessons.
First thing I had to overcome was the drastic change in environment. I went from being in the heart of one of the world’s biggest cities to a town with just under 50,000 residents. I was 700 miles away from my family and I went from big social circles to not knowing a single person. I was alone. I didn’t have a pre-existing reputation. I was just another kid.
There was no one around to feed my legend, so before long it was lost entirely.
This was only the beginning.
For Services Rendered
I wanted to spend my summers in Manila — where all my friends and my girlfriend were — but my parents decreed that any trip overseas would have to come out of my own pocket.
At first, I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t even know what it meant, not fully at least.
“Are you serious?” I thought. It didn’t make sense to me that, while they could afford it, they chose not to give in to me. It was all I wanted and I was going to have to work for it. Finally, after complaining and pleading, I gave up — exhausted. I slowly came to terms with my reality and braced myself for what I knew I had to do.
I was unaccustomed to hardship.
As unfamiliar as my surroundings already were, the idea of working was even more alien to me because unlike my American counterparts — and even at the not-so-tender age of 18 — I had absolutely no work experience, which meant job prospects were few and far between.
Eventually though, an opportunity presented itself and only a couple of days after getting the callback, I started at my very first job, working in the dish room at one of our university’s cafeterias.
Where once an incorrigible and unyielding youth had stood, in that moment, my pride was laid low – hard.
A dish washer. The first of many jobs, it set the tone for the kind of life I was destined to lead for the next couple of years. I’ve worked in a dishroom, a kitchen and a dining hall of both a cafeteria and a restaurant. I’ve scrubbed floors, cleaned bathrooms, served food and bused tables.
After that, any sense of self I had and any lingering false notions of my “importance” went out the window at some point. Left on the floor, on my hands and knees, literally scraping for minimum wage.
Any recognition I got wasn’t because of my last name or what car I drove. I had to earn it. With blood, sweat and skin, I earned every bit of it.
After college I left Michigan to be closer to my family and get my career started. I was glad to be leaving — I don’t resent my time there, but I was glad I was done.
So, after five years, I packed my life up again. I put everything in boxes, threw it all into the boot of my car and set out on the 700-mile drive to my next home.
“Finally,” I thought. No more student jobs. No more small town and long winters. I didn’t have to be alone anymore and I could finally get my life started. “Finally everything was going to change,” I thought.
And change they did – big time.
The Capital of the World
Having grown up in a city, I’ve always been naturally drawn to and been more comfortable in a metropolis. I’m a city boy through and through but there is no place on Earth quite like New York.
It is every bit as enthralling and romantic as people make it out to be, with its unmatched vibrance and glamour. New York is the collision point of an enormous and colorful past and the brightest possible future. For almost two centuries New York has been the symbol of promise and opportunity, a beacon sending its message out to the world, saying “here, anything can happen.”
There I was, standing in line to grab my share of New York’s fabled “opportunity,” but despite all I had been through in college, somehow I was expecting an easy journey.
“After all,” I thought. “I’ve paid my dues. I’ve done enough at this point. I’m not entitled like I used to be, but I think a break or two wouldn’t be too much to ask for.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Wrong in my expectations but most of all, wrong in the way I felt I deserved a break.
It took me just under a year and more than a thousand resumes and applications sent – I stopped counting at 800 after four months — to find a real, decent job in The Big Apple. So much for glamour.
Before my big break, I had to take whatever I could find. I wrote copy — without pay — for a really boring online startup just so I could get some relevant experience. At the same time, I worked at a Levi’s store, selling clothes for a living. Two jobs just to make ends meet, I crawled my way for months, painstakingly adding to my resume one day at a time.
A Chunk of Change
My pastor once said, sometimes God shatters us — completely – because it’s the only way He can put us back together again the way He sees fit.
Going to school in the US and living there for seven years changed my perspective on a lot of things. Most significantly, it put my feet on the ground and completely changed my sense of self.
My first lesson was the value in leaving your comfort zone.
Learning takes place where you’re not comfortable, like ore melted down before it can be formed, and that it’s better to get out there willingly than to have the rug pulled from under you when you’re not ready.
I learned how to take hits because while stepping away from your comfort zone teaches you a great deal, it also almost certainly kicks the crap out of you. Roll with those punches – toughen up.
I learned not to buy too much into my own stock.
Be confident, yes. Believe in yourself and draw on your passions and desires to succeed. But confidence is tricky, I learned. Too little or too much on either side can spell disaster.
I learned that I wasn’t more than I really was. I wasn’t THAT guy. My education didn’t matter, nor did the kind of car I drove. My group of friends, my address and the manner in which I spoke was worth about as much as a hill of beans to the people around me so stop trying to sell it.
I learned that If you want something, your hands have to get dirty.
The only way up a ladder is to climb — you have to work for it. I learned to value hard work and perseverance over having the keys to the back door. So what if you have to dive into the dirt? Own what you do and do it as best as you can. You won’t always be happy but finding meaning in what you do is always the best motivator.
I learned that hardship gives way to greatness.
A lot of your ability to endure hardship comes from the condition of your heart. So too, does you ability to receive the benefits of hardship.
I’ve been blessed with more than I can ever find words to be thankful for and I know that if my heart wasn’t ready for it, I would have squandered those blessings. Hardship humbles us and prepares us for bigger things.
Finally, I learned that I need to do what it takes.
I cannot wait for someone else to get things moving for me. I learned I was wrong to have that dependence inside me. People will always be around to help us throughout our lives – family, friends – but I learned that I need to stand on my own two feet, and that it’s better to figure out how sooner rather than later, because Life isn’t going to stop and wait for me. I may have all the promise in the world and more talent than an all-star team, but if I don’t show up for practice and put in the hours, I’m not even going to make it onto the field – nevermind writing my name in history.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Almost a year ago now, I left New York and moved back here to Manila. It was always my plan. But I couldn’t have imagined how much I would change in the time it took me to actually make it back. To be back here — after all that – and to see how much has changed both around me and in me, one feeling stirs in my heart more than any other: gratefulness.
I’m grateful for the life I’ve led and how I’ve been blessed beyond measure. I’m grateful because I’ve lived the life some people can only read about in books – both in good and bad. I look back and sure, I see pain, but I’m grateful for that pain because of all the things that contributed to my taming and education, hardship was not only the most frequent teacher, it was the most meaningful.