SPECIAL GUEST AUTHOR: Ben Messer
It took me a long, long time to pinpoint what I would like to do for the rest of my life. Even now, I cannot define the answer in black and white. But twenty years of education finally led me to the conclusion that my favorite subject was not something directly taught in school, or on the soccer field, or anywhere else. Rather, it was something that underlined all classes and experiences I have ever had. Something that has since guided my journey to where I am today. It was learning.
After countless time spent thinking, “what university should I attend?” followed by, “what should my major be?” and finally, “where do I want my career to go?” it finally hit me that there may not be any single topic that fully satiates my intentions. The key to my happiness lies not in a field of study, but the field of studying itself. I love discovering something new, figuring out how to apply it to a real world problem, musing its inner workings, and challenging myself to truly understand it. On top of that, another great motivator for me is change. I love change. Too much time spent on one topic and my mind grows stagnant. I am quick to ready for a new challenge.
Put simply, I love to learn, and to learn lots of different things.
Now, when I am searching for a new position at work, a new company, or an entirely new avenue for my career, I look carefully to ensure my next destination will allow me to continue learning. To continue growing. To continue exploring myself and the world around me. If a new opportunity threatens to pigeonhole me, I am happy to wait for a better one to come along.
In hindsight, this desire to learn is evident in my journey to present day. But the path to get here has not been pain-free.
I entered university as a wide-eyed teen in UVa’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. After one semester of general courses, students narrow their focus to a specific field of engineering. I couldn’t decide between several fields (Aerospace, Physics, Materials, you name it), so I opted for a major which I thought offered a stepping stone to any other: Electrical Engineering. Three months later, I altered course to another widely-applicable major: Mechanical Engineering. Fast forward another three months, and it was time to change again. After a year and a half (almost 40% of my allotted time in college), I realized that maybe engineering wasn’t quite the right fit for me. This time, I completely overhauled my path and jumped ship to the McIntire School of Commerce. Over time this would prove an excellent decision. McIntire is full of professors who enjoy pushing their students and forcing them to question the world around them. Classroom discussions transitioned from “here is the first steadfast law of thermodynamics” to “what are different ways we could approach this situation?” Instead of a school of memorization and application, I had landed in a school of questioning and executing. A much better fit for a kid who was yet to understand what made him tick. And when it at last came time to decide which area of business to pursue as my specific major, I had the freedom to elect three distinct areas in lieu of just one. This marked the beginning of my recognition of that underlying passion to learn.
Three more semesters and now with sufficient “knowledge” under my belt, it was time to find an internship. A big corporation came knocking with an opportunity I could not turn down, and the following summer I spent ten exciting weeks with them in Richmond, VA. Despite an outstanding experience at a fantastic company, I did not feel comfortable accepting their full-time offer heading into my final year of school. Envisioning the next 10-15 years at a single company was too overwhelming for the then-twenty-one year old me. It was once again time to set sail on a new course.
Ten months, a handful of interviews, and much deliberation later, I embarked on a one-way plane to Hong Kong to play professional soccer. This had never been a serious consideration until the reality of a traditional career set in. Accepting a full-time offer from any major corporation meant dedicating at least the next two years of my life to a world that I was ill prepared to fully understand. Having never experienced the true weight of a full-time job, there was too much vagary behind the curtain for my comfort. So I rejected that path in favor of one that offered the chance of experiencing an entirely new side of the world. Comically enough, Hong Kong is a twelve-hour time difference from my hometown of Richmond. It is literally the opposite side of the world. This little coincidence illustrates well my feelings at the time. I wanted to find something new, to learn about something I had never been exposed to before, to view life from a completely fresh perspective, and to discover something about myself along the way.
One summer in Hong Kong ended up being enough, and shortly after returning home I was offered a position with a local youth soccer program. Working with children would yet again be a new challenge for me, so I decided to push my boundaries and develop skills I hitherto had not even given a passing thought to. One year there and I felt I had grown as much as those walls would allow, so I began anew my search. This time, however, I was ready for the big-time corporate position I had shunned two years earlier. I returned to my corporate job in a Management Rotation Program. (Side note: Rotational programs are a wonderful thing, and I highly recommend graduates to pursue these opportunities.) My first year back was spent in the Technology arm of the company. It offered boundless opportunities for growth and I was continually encouraged to attack those opportunities. I developed many new skills throughout the year and recognized various opportunities for improvement. A year later, I rotated into the Corporate Real Estate organization. Various factors led to my choice of the new org. Chief among them was the fact that the group offered its own rotational program, one that would carry me to a new CRE team every year for three years. Unfortunately, I never fully meshed into the culture of my new org. By the end of year one in CRE, for the first time ever, I felt negative pressure from my try-something-new-every-year strategy. This is when I first questioned if my desire to learn could inhibit the progression of my career.
Leadership of the group was ready to place me in my next role, but there was no role within the organization that sufficiently appealed to me. No role offered the right opportunities for my growth. As time went on, I could sense their frustration with my lack of a definitive choice. I increasingly felt like I was in the wrong place, but continued to feel pressure to choose among the available options. Conversations between leadership and I went in circles.
“None of the roles I have explored feel right for me.”
“There will never be a perfect role, what is it you want to do? Where do you see yourself in five years?”
The problem was, I didn’t have an answer to those questions. I knew I wanted to continue learning, but I did not know what I wanted to continue learning. The situation did not feel right for me. I had found a place that offered the chance to join a new team every year, but I was now in the unfamiliar territory of believing any rotation would fail to offer the proper learning opportunities. (Side note #2: Make no mistake, Corporate Real Estate is a fantastic team. It is an organization filled with amazing people and opportunities, it just wasn’t quite right for my personal goals.)
That epoch was a very interesting time in my life. Work was not as happy as it once was, but in general I was loving life. Richmond had finally started to grow on me as a city, I had an amazing network of friends, success and enjoyment were endless on the soccer pitch with Lions F.C., and I was saving more than enough money to set myself up for long-term success. Life was comfortable. But as I struggled with my next move at work, I began to realize that maybe life had grown a bit too comfortable. I was finding success in work, with friends, and on my own personal endeavors, but it all felt too easy. Without realizing it, I had inadvertently steered myself into a corner and once again felt trapped. I was looking down the barrel at the next five years of my life; a time period from which I would emerge in my thirties. The worst part was, I could not envision where I would be growing as a person. I could not see the learning opportunities. For the second time in my life, I could see into the future. And for the second time in my life, I did not like what I saw.
One of my greatest fears is stagnation. Whether it be mental, physical, or emotional, I always want to continue bettering all aspects of myself. There will inevitably be setbacks and times of regression, but in the long term I plan to always move forward. Peering down the road to where my trajectory was directed did not reveal a way beyond the stagnation I felt at that time. It took a lot more peering and a lot more thinking, but I finally circled back to the principles I had nurtured over the preceding years. I realized I needed a return to a learning environment. An environment which would push me out of my comfort zone and force me to expand my horizons. Feeling comfortable was not something I was ready for yet.
Wind the clock forward nine months, and I am writing this article from a bench in the beautiful Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid, Spain. The past three months have yielded tremendous growth and discovery in my life. It has seen my first time living in Europe, my first time being alone in a country where no one spoke my language and I didn’t speak theirs, my first time teaching in a classroom, my first time living alone, my first time navigating the bank and phone industries in a system vastly different than America’s, my first time searching for an apartment without a head start and with immense time pressure, and my first time living on a very modest income. If I had bowed to the “traditional” line of thinking and settled into my stable, cushy environment, none of the incredible discoveries I have made these past few months would have been possible. But instead of settling, I trusted the one truth I have found so far. The truth that learning is what I love to do. It does not always matter what, and it certainly does not matter where, but as long as I continue to learn and grow I know I will be able to gaze upon myself as a success.
I hope that reading through my (admittedly brief) journey helps clear the head of anyone struggling with the same questions we all face day-in and day-out from our bosses, our parents, our teachers, or whomever. We are pressed too often and too early to choose a path that will take us through our lives without ever experiencing what else may lie in wait. Life is long, and getting longer, and I hope more and more people find the courage to start exploring. To experiment. To learn. To grow. There is so much that each of us has left to discover, the only thing required to capitalize is the willingness to learn something new.
It has not been easy arriving here. At times I still doubt if I have made the right decisions. However, without fail, every time that I have allowed doubt to creep in, a wonderfully fresh opportunity has presented itself at my feet. All I have to do is will myself to be vulnerable. To revel in the beauty that I do not yet know everything this world has to offer, and that hopefully I never will.