This is part of a series of posts from nominees for our LifeChanger of the Year educator recognition program. We meet scores of fascinating LifeChangers every year who have interesting perspectives to share about children, education and life.
My grandfather taught me how to drive in his green S-10 truck. We lost my grandmother the year before and my Pop left their breathtaking Wisconsin Northwoods lake home and moved to the tiny town of Beecher, IL. I think he took on the driving challenge to get the two of us out of the house—we loved the escape.
He was a quiet man. While we were driving, he would calmly stare out the window deconstructing his life. I wondered if he was thinking about my grandmother. Or missing his home. Or if he wished things had been different in life.
When he would talk though, it was like he was sharing passwords to unlock the future. Dropping gems of wisdom. I soaked it all in—even though I would not fully understand many of his lessons until years later.
Along the country roads, he would see that I would get nervous when other drivers would run up on the bumper. He would say, “Everyone is always in such a hurry…take it slow,” as he waved out the window for them to pass us. I felt a little embarrassed that he would not let me keep up with them; I trusted that he had reason, and this was much more than simply learning how to drive.
As virtual commencement speeches are being watched worldwide online during this quarantine pause, my heart aches for my current eighth graders and my former students who are missing prom and graduation from high school or college. The theme in most commencement speeches is about finding purpose and passion in life. This has been my lifelong goal.
When I think back to my high school and college graduations, I felt like there was a societal road map of expectations that was given with each diploma. If you do X, Y, Z, you will be considered successful. I put pressure on myself to achieve these expectations—I wanted my family to be proud. I finished school, took the first teaching job I interviewed for, got married, bought a house in my name, earned my graduate degree—first one in the family— and had two children. Success! Then I quickly realized that even doing everything “right,” I still was not truly happy. I found myself in a place of extreme depression and saw a life lacking adventure and passion. While my purpose shifted from spending countless hours in the classroom to pouring my time and energy into my two children, I knew something else had to change. I learned that when I overextend myself, I am left deflated. I lost the house, filed for divorce, removed the negative people from my life, and made a promise that I would never settle for a life without passion and purpose. I quickly learned that there is no roadmap. No shortcuts to happiness. The societal expectations of what it means to be successful and to find happiness are smoke and mirrors.
When I was asked last week to be interviewed by one of my college students for her civil careers class about advice for post-college plans, I thought about those rides with my grandfather. I stared out the window contemplating it all before the call. During the interview, I no longer pretended to have it all figured out. I am rounding 40 and I am finally giving up on expectations and realizing there are no answers. Only experiences. Lessons. Feelings.
My advice to her was to know that it will all make sense one day. It is a journey—exhilarating at times and painful in others. That you will not always have people to guide you—and some will purposefully mislead you. Trust the process. Listen to your intuition. Believe in abundance over scarcity. Take advice you never thought you would seek—jump on trampolines while listening to Tony Robbins, dance at conferences with Rachel Hollis, force yourself to be vulnerable with Brene Brown. Develop life-changing relationships within your community. Be very intentional with surrounding yourself with inspiring chosen family who hold tightly to you. I’ve learned my best adventures have been those without a GPS or destination—stumble upon new places to explore and new people to meet. Open your senses and take it all in. Life is not meant to check off a bucket list, to-do boxes, or to fit into a Venn diagram; it is meant to feel all the emotions—instead of running from them, distracting, or numbing them. Living means that we are always exploring a new place, interacting with people, and constantly recalibrating ourselves. Passion is not a destination or something that can be easily defined in a hobby or skill—it is an everchanging lifestyle. Be passionate about life. Slow down. Soak it in. Close your eyes and know that it can all be taken in an instant.
My grandfather passed away peacefully on my 17th birthday. Last year, my boys and I found ourselves on the lake where I spent my childhood summers. During that week, I found healing in the memories and lessons I shared with my sons. I found it encouraging that in 30 years of change and growth, nature has a way of still thriving and being beautifully recognizable —rooted in purpose and passion.
You will not always know where you are headed but take it slow. Evolve. Do not try to keep up with others—let them pass by. Open your windows and feel the wind on your face and smile.
Learn more about Jen Gruca on her LifeChanger of the Year profile.