I was an awkward 7th grader, six inches taller than anyone on my basketball team. I towered over the competition. They put me in when we needed to score, rebound, or anything else, despite the fact that I could barely shoot.
My size simply gave me an advantage.
But it wasn’t my size that placed me in my first of five high schools when I was in 7th grade, it was my brain. I could compute mathematical equations that many adults couldn’t figure out. I found myself as the only junior high kid in a classroom full of sophomores and juniors. I had kids three and four years my senior coming to me, asking for help with their homework.
I was labeled the big nerd. I was labeled the smart kid.
A short year later, we moved from that school in Belgium to Minot, North Dakota. I found myself in a small Catholic school – again with a series of individuals anywhere from 7th grade to seniors in high school. At this school, I became known for…well, nothing.
I was in advanced classes, but I had transitioned from algebra to geometry, and geometry wasn’t my cup of tea, nor did I have much interest in it. On the basketball team, my talents were exposed: I couldn’t shoot and I couldn’t dribble, and those at the school had learned to do it quite well. My size had faded away and was now quite average among my peers.
I stayed at that school for a year before moving on to a public school in the same town. I started afresh. Once again, my vision of myself and the perception others had of me changed. This year, I made the basketball team. In the semifinal game, playing against my former school, I scored 32 points, including six 3-pointers. All of a sudden, I was a star for the junior high B-team. I made the baseball team and while I wasn’t necessarily the cool kid, I had a cool group of friends.
A year later I landed in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I would spend the next year-and-a-half. Settling in, I found a niche. I found a group of friends at our church and quickly became a leader in my youth group. I didn’t even make the basketball team and was eventually cut from the baseball team — but I had a different identity. I was good enough at sports, but not great. I was average at academics, but not too nerdy. I had a group of friends and became “one of the guys.”
It was only a year-and-a-half before it was time to move again. This time, to Cheyenne, Wyoming. I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was a bit difficult to break into a group of folks that had been together for their entire lives. Because I wouldn’t cede to peer pressure, I simply didn’t gain much traction. After a short four months, I decided that it was time to go off to college. And so I did – without a high school diploma.
I had experienced 5 high schools in only 3 and a half formal years of high school. More importantly, I was perceived as 5 different people in a short seven years. I had allowed my surroundings to define me.
Moving so often wasn’t easy, but, I learned a lot from the experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Too often, we allow the world to define us. We allow the world to dictate who we become. We become the star athlete when we happen to be better than those in our immediate circle. We become a big nerd when we happen to excel in academics at a point in time in our lives. We become “one of the guys” when we ‘click with others’ and don’t stand out. We’re an outsider when we are new or different.
Too often, we define ourselves by these perceptions instead of reaching down to figure out who we really are.
Since high school, I have been fortunate enough to be able to step back and see myself for who I really am. The diverse experiences in my life gave me the opportunity to identify the trends that wove themselves through each one of my experiences. They allowed me to figure out who I really am and double down on those gifts.
Don’t be defined by your surroundings. Figure out who you really are and leverage your gifts. Shape your life. Don’t let it shape you.