There are three rules I used to follow while chasing for opportunities to succeed. One: Once I saw an opportunity, I had to chase it. Its level of commitment, its requirements — none of that mattered. I had to do it. Two: I always chased outside of my comfort zone. Three: Once I held on to the opportunity, I could not quit.
Opportunities can arise anytime and anywhere. The best ones usually come in the form of a bet. When others say “bet you won’t do this,” I do whatever it is they bet that I won’t do, as long as it isn’t illegal or harmful. “Why?” they always ask. “Why not?” I always reply with a wide, naive smile.
I avoid answering “why” because even I can not explain the reasons why I rise to challenges that I can not accomplish. Perhaps what drives me to test my capabilities is my obsessive desire to succeed. It developed in elementary school and it emerged in instances where teachers would place the boys against the girls. Whenever I heard boys say, “Boys rule, girls drool,” I could not just retort, “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.” I had to show that I could beat a boy at arm wrestling at lunch, outrun him in a game of tag during recess, outsmart him in chess. I felt empowered by doing these things, but not because I loved to directly challenge elementary gender expectations. Rather, I loved proving that I could succeed given the opportunity to demonstrate my abilities, even if I had no abilities that could have helped me to begin with.
This drive to succeed by challenging others evolved into a desire to challenge my own abilities in the middle school classroom: “Of course I can manage assignments, responsibilities, my social life,” I told my friends. “I’m handling six classes, six different essays and projects and five extracurriculars.” I am ashamed to admit that this might be an underestimation. “Look at the empty space in my Google calendar. I’m not doing enough.”
When my friends pressed me about my assignments, I said, “Ah, the forecast predicts that it’s going to be another all nighter!” When they subsequently asked me about my sporadic sleep schedule, I explained, “Yes, I am tired, but I’m not that tired.” Look at how much I am doing, I told them. I am everywhere. I am busy. “I’m succeeding,” I convinced them. “I’m succeeding,” I convinced myself.
The push to be successful grew when I started my freshman year of high school. According to my parents, my teachers, my school’s college counselor and several college admissions websites, I had to focus on the path towards college, my career, the future. I couldn’t be shattering arbitrary, elementary expectations for the fun of it or to fulfill a bet; I had to select selective opportunities selected by my school that would empower me to grow in character and in my abilities as a student, a citizen and a leader so that I could go to a good school, land a good job and, eventually, live a good life. Fulfillment of this path would mark true, stable success.
This hunger for the high school brand of success defined my career as a student. I took on more difficult classes, more extracurriculars that would make my college admissions file “shine.” My hand ached from annotating readings and scribbling pages of notes, and my desk was constantly cluttered with scattered worksheets and tea stains from mugs of green, chamomile, black, hibiscus and ginger tea. I felt less empowered by accomplishing tasks; they felt more like burdens. I developed a habit of finishing assignments at the last minute and, to justify my actions, I convinced myself that if I did not put too much effort into it, my teachers could not say that I really failed. I completed the assignment. It was submitted. I’m done. Success.
The only activity I actually chose to do during high school was running. I entered the school’s cross country team with the intent to exercise, not to run competitively. Running, the sport, requires technique and skill. But running, as an action, is basic, fast, exciting and in the moment when both feet are suspended in the air. It is bliss. I craved that feeling; it was the only instance where I wasn’t grounded by any expectations. I was flying. But gravity pushed me down to the ground and into my chair at my desk later the same night. I left each race disappointed that it had not lasted longer.
One day, I heard about an upcoming half marathon in Key Biscayne, Florida, and I impulsively registered for it. I thought that I could reach and hold those moments of flight given the longer mileage and the greater challenge. And my friend, a former teammate of mine, was running it — why shouldn’t I?
At 7 a.m. the next morning on the starting line, I heard the “Why’s” whispering in my ear: “Why did I not train? Why did I decide to run this?” I replied with “Why not?” even though it didn’t serve as a clear answer. “If I didn’t get injured throughout my high school running career, why not run again? Why not continue to prove others wrong? Why not prove yourself wrong? Why not try to expand my limits?” Although I like to think that I have a vague idea of where my physical and mental limits lie, I know that to establish those boundaries would be a violation of rule two. To stay within my comfort zone could potentially mean losing other opportunities to grow. I couldn’t step out of the race either; turning away from an opportunity while I’m chasing it would violate rule three. “I shouldn’t be allowed to choose for myself,” I thought. Before I could consider these questions, the airhorn blared, signaling the start of the race.
I ran not knowing where I was going or what I was doing. There was only the mileage and the time. By mile 11, I was hunching forward, leaning more towards the ground, running ahead of my friend and with no one there to challenge me except me: the girl who could outrun and outsmart any boy in the playground and who would have called it a success. But it was her school and her family that marked success for her as she aged, that marked the path on the ground to follow up until that point. And here was I, on a path that I chose to run on, my shoe prints marking the unpaved ground, running in a race where success wasn’t defined by achieving any opportunity because there were no expectations to try and surpass anyone. I didn’t have to.
I can’t distinguish between my hunger for success in my academic career or in my personal life. They overlap in my family’s and school’s definition of success. But in this race, I ran according to my own pace, keeping with the rhythm of my breaths. I didn’t have to run this race, but I chose to start. I didn’t have to keep running, but I chose to finish. I didn’t have to retort or convince anyone that I’m succeeding. This type of success was mine to chase, mine to achieve.
Isa Dominguez | email@example.com