Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Life lessons when you’re 51

The notion that I have anything to offer anyone in terms of advice might seem absurd to those who know me, but I’ve decided to start putting together my own advice anyway.

Unlike many people who pretend to be journalists and write for major magazines, these are taken from my life and I will edit them harshly to avoid overstating my role or accomplishments. I have some regrets in my life, and I won’t hesitate to criticize myself when I feel I’ve made a wrong decision.

My generation is considered today to be the biggest bunch of losers, whiners and non-achievers, and it’s interesting because we’re mainly blamed for participating in the society. I pull no punches, though: there are people in my generation who’ve accomplished nothing but the ingestion of drugs and alcohol, and have made irresponsibility so respectable that they get accolades for minor accomplishments like showing up for work on time three out of five days, while the person who is on time every day is treated like a burden.

So, here goes.

The death of someone close to you is not an excuse for a binge
Quite a few “recovery” tales in the newspaper start with a death in the family or a friend, and I have wondered for years why no one in my family went berserk on the loss of a family member. We’ve had our share, and since death is a part of life I guess we’ve learned – as other families have learned – to deal with the loss. A beloved uncle died tragically when I was young, my own father died suddenly soon after I restarted a relationship with him after years of rancor and I’ve had some important mentors in my life die. I went on in my life, especially after my father and my mentors died, and vowed to achieve great things in their honor. The response to the stress of a death can be extreme drinking, but I don’t do that. It’s the wrong response. It may seem cold and unfeeling, but I have mourned and moved on.

Bring out your best, and don’t just try to ‘get by’
At Parris Island in September 1978, I had it put into my face that I needed to start achieving, or else. I flunked the Marine Corps’ Physical Fitness Test’s situps portion, and instead of just being passed, I was demoted to the Physical Conditioning Platoon. Away from the familiar drill instructors and fellow recruits, I had to adapt to a new environment in the space of a few hours. I managed to get in my rifle range experience, qualify with the M-16A1 and pass a PFT, and get put back with my old platoon as it came off mess duty. I learned a lot from this, as I described in a post some time back, and vowed never to just “get by” again.

Turn setbacks into something positive
One of the biggest disappointments in my life turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I had been applying again and again for jobs in postal management, and despite my taking classes and studying hard, I was repeatedly turned down for advancement. Others I knew had become frustrated and gave up on themselves, and for a while I was in a funk. The answer soon appeared to me: Find a new path and a new direction. I embarked on a new project that, while requiring me to spend six more years in a job I despised, opened so many new doors that I am amazed at my good fortune. And that job enabled me to get a college degree without taking out student loans.

Age is just a number
I remember reading a “Dear Abby” column in which a person considering medical school questioned whether it was a good idea, noting that by the time he finished he would be in his 30s. Abby asked, “How old will you be in x years if you don’t go to medical school?” So it was with me. In my late 20s I did the math and realized that by the time I was finished with college and ready to embark on a new career, I’d be in my mid-30s. Nowadays, that’s not over the hill. Even at 51 and nearing 52, I am eager and ready for new things.

Take that first step, and the rest follow
I had seen Palm Beach Community College nearly every day on my way to work at the post office. But it was a mystery to me, and even a little frightening. Finally, one day, I drove on the campus, parked my car, went to the registrar’s office and found out what I’d have to do to start my educational journey. It was complex, with an ACT to take and forms to fill out. I did it, found myself having to pick courses and when I was accepted, I was so excited. My first college class ever was SYG-1440, Introduction to the Social Sciences. It was a summer class, and from the moment the instructor came in, I was hooked on education.

The diploma is a license to learn
In April 1994, I walked across the stage with pride and received by bachelor’s degree. It was a great moment, the culmination of six years of hard work. With my cousin Angelo and his beloved wife Veronica, and my friends Jack and Dorothy Martin in the audience, I became an educated man, and soon found countless doors opened to me in my pursuit of a new career. I had much to learn, and that diploma was the key.

Don’t give up on yourself
When I was at Parris Island, the drill instructors used to say, “You may give up on yourself, but we never will.” And they didn’t. Well, in the civilian world, sometimes you may be the only one who believes in you. I’ve always said, if everyone is gunning for you, so long as you believe in your own abilities and capacity to succeed, often that’s one more person you have in your corner than your enemies have in theirs. Too many people just give up and accept something less than they deserve because they listened to people who had a vested interest in their failure. I eagerly take on challenges now, and look for new opportunities to expand my skills and knowledge.

Don’t let others rule your life
My college plans were a cause of laughter and ridicule among my peers and my bosses at the post office. A few were supportive, but at the post office dreams were quashed all the time, and there were plenty of people who were eager to share their tale of their cousin Harvey, who had a college degree and was working the drive-through at McDonald’s, or their Uncle Melvin, who – they claimed – had a college degree but no common sense. One loser at the post office loudly proclaimed that I would be “an educated moron.” Bosses would try to discourage employees from learning new things because they feared the loss of their power. It wasn’t hard for them to see what I was doing. On my lunch breaks, I’d put on the headset with classical music to drown out the whining in the break room, open my textbooks and do my homework or reading. Sometimes, people would interrupt to give me their learned opinion on how higher education was a waste for bottom-level workers like me, but eventually they left me alone when they realized that their opinions didn’t matter to me.

Your life belongs to you, not the boss
While going to college, I found it kind of odd that some postal bosses thought I was being disloyal to the holy cause of moving the mail because my main focus was my education, and not their career advancement. One of the biggest liars I ever met was a boss who claimed that she really wanted to be a worker again. Bull. Nobody gives up power and authority voluntarily. Hold it, I do know of two people who actually were in postal management and voluntarily gave up their positions to be workers again. And both did it for principle. My big advantage was that after I started college and saw my new path, the Postal Service had nothing to offer me. Even a promotion would not have deterred me from my desire to leave and start something new.

Read, and be inspired
At the library are books about people who were laughed at and abused because they thought they had a good idea. In their stories is the basis of your own success. Don’t listen when the unbooked ridicule you for “always having your nose in a book.” You’re the own who is growing. It is a slow and sometimes painful process, but even in the books I’ve disagreed with I have found nuggets of truth and wisdom to carry me forward. Being informed is the best defense against being ripped off financially.

Don’t live by negative clichés
People always used to tell me, don’t believe everything you read, so many of these folks didn’t read anything at all. Well, I don’t think you should take everything you read as the final truth but having information for and against a position or point of view is not confusing. We make decisions on contrary data all the time. Cliches are simple-minded sayings that often have little basis in reality and often are designed to try to limit your expectations and efforts at self-improvement.

A negative attitude can be a positive thing
My last and most controversial belief takes some explaining. Back in the day, there was a preacher named Norman Vincent Peale who wrote a book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” I never read it, but read what some people said about it. One person said it was bullshit, like feeding bad data into a computer. When you build up a belief system and it doesn’t work and collapses, you’re left with nothing. Well, I was in a negative situation – the Postal Service – and realized that thinking that anything positive was going to come out of it was simply delusional, so I reversed the polarity, so to speak, and when I thought negative about it, I realized that I needed to go elsewhere for positive things. That led me to college, a very positive occurrence in my life. Thinking negatively often is nothing more than being realistic about a bad situation, and making a move to change it. It usually upsets people in authority and power, because they want to control your mind and make you think the negative situation you’re in really is a positive situation, but that’s part of their distortion of reality. When I was in the Postal Service, a lot of managers couldn’t handle the distortion of reality (faking mail volume numbers, running the same mail through machinery over and over again to “make the numbers,” abusing and tormenting subordinates) without using drugs or alcohol, and sometimes on the job. By being honest about my feelings, facing the realities and working to resolve my conflicts in a positive way, I overcame a lot of negativity.

I’ll have more bits of advice later. In the meantime, don’t give up! Work to improve every day.

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September 19, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , ,

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