Quitting What You’re Good At

I quit what I was good at.

I try to write my articles as if I am talking to you, to us. I am writing to current military members or former military members who have found this website and are thinking of their choices concerning higher education. I want you to feel like you can get to know me and understand what led me to leave the military and attend a college like Stanford University. The first thing I think you should know is if you met me when I was in the Navy, you probably wouldn’t have liked me. I was “that person,” the person we all tend to become annoyed with over time—the person who is great at their job.

I recognize, now, how annoying I could appear. I got my assigned tasks done. All the Officers appeared to respect me. I got out of the undesirable assignments because I was “too useful,” I got the good training schools, got awards, and eventually got promoted. All that attention and for what? Doing the job I was trained to do, how is that an accomplishment? Looking back, I recognize how good it felt to be that person. I walked into work every day, knowing I would never face a challenge I couldn’t solve. I was never assigned a task I wasn’t trained to complete. I even had advanced training in specific skills, so I was deemed “certified” to tell other people of higher ranks what to do, and they had to listen to my advice. After almost ten years in the military and a few deployments, I was the “real” deal. I had power, and I had respect, I had a good reputation. People knew me; they knew my name and what I was capable of accomplishing. I could have ridden out the next ten years doing the same thing, making rank and retiring with a lifetime paycheck at the end. Why then did I stop? Why quit when I was ahead?

I didn’t leave the Navy for only one reason. I left because I wanted to be with my family. I left because I had the luxury and freedom to leave without the responsibility of being my household’s sole income. There were many reasons to leave. But I want to tell you why I left for school. When I joined the military after high school, I told myself it would be short, and I would have someone to pay for college. That isn’t how my story went; but, I never stopped thinking about college. I never stopped thinking about that girl in high school who saw all her friends leave their small home town for a university. I still felt like I owed it to myself. I wanted a college degree for all the right reasons but also some petty reasons. I wanted a tangible piece of “proof” that I was intelligent. I wanted to know I could be successful in the world outside the military. I wanted people to stop asking me what my “plan” would be if I left. I wanted people to stop telling me that it was “hard” out there on the other side. I wanted people to stop trying to “scare” me into staying in when they didn’t know what it meant to be out.

That’s when I started trying. I started studying for the SAT and ACT. I started studying math. It was much more difficult than I remembered. Studying for academic school was not easy, as my job in the military had become over time. It was hard to sit down every day after coming home from doing things I was good at, to do all the things I was terrible at. I hated that I couldn’t remember simple English sentence parsing. I hated that I struggled to read science charts and graphs. I hated that I didn’t remember simple Algebra one formulas. I still hate that I don’t know simple Algebra one formulas. There were days I would sit down to study and hate that I wasn’t good at it so much that I wouldn’t study. I would stare at the Khan Academy page and wish I could just be good at the subject instead of trying to be good at the subject. I kept asking myself why I couldn’t just be good at this like I was good at everything else I was doing in my life. It was somewhere between the charts and the quadratic equations where the answer finally set itself into my brain. I wanted to leave the Navy for all the reasons I listed above, but I also wanted to leave because the fear of being bad at things made me feel good.

I felt motivated. I felt unsure of myself. I felt anxiety. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing and that the future was unpredictable. The challenge made me feel alive even though the challenge made me afraid. I want to tell you how I felt, and I want to tell you that I still feel like that every day.

I study a subject that does not come “naturally” to my brain. I had to relearn or learn for the first time most of the subjects in precalculus during my last quarter. Simply so I could take the lowest level math class offered at Stanford, calculus. I have amazing help from tutors who support my efforts. Now, I get up every day and go do all the things I am bad at doing. I hardly ever feel the easy confidence I once had in the Navy. I don’t have power; I don’t have respect; I am one very small fish in the very large pond that is Stanford University. No one knows my name, and they don’t know what I can or can’t accomplish. I feel a lot of uncertainty about the future. I don’t stop feeling anxious about what I have to do to make this dream a reality. I feel all those things, and I would still tell you, I made the right choice.

I don’t do what I am doing alone. I have support from my family. I have support from peer-tutors, office hours, a hired tutor, and Stackover Flow (I’m an aspiring CS major). I want you to know that you won’t be alone either. If what you choose is to leave the military to go to college, then I believe you can make that choice. I quit what I was good at, and I believe you can too.