I graduated from college in May of 2006 from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. On that day back in 2006, with thousands of other college graduates, I was excited to enter the work world with intentions of shaping my own reality and entering the work world.
College fostered in me spiritual, professional, emotional and intellectual growth. The three years that I was at the university (my freshman year was at Davidson County Community College) provided me with nonstop opportunities and new faces, of which I was conditioned to expect wherever I went, even after college. I lead a Bible study at my church, helped run an on campus panel discussion with one of my professors, took part in rapt discussions on a daily basis in class, hung out with my English professors in downtown Wilmington, grew really long beard and most importantly met hundreds of new people. I felt like nearly every person I met, I became friends with (part of UNCW culture, I believe). Every goal I set seemed to work out-----in the classroom and outside the classroom. I loved UNCW and I loved my life. The big ideas and dreams that were formed within me during college would, in my mind, were the things I would spend my twenties “fleshing out.” Why would the next step in life, the transition into the work world be any less fulfilling? I expected to “fit in” to the work world as smoothly as I fit into university life.
Now I am 10 years older and more experienced in the work world. I regularly think about things I would tell my May 2006 22 year old self. To explain my mindset towards my career over the last 10 years I would like to look at the career arc of two Carolina Panthers.
When I had Cam Newton Confidence
I would say that I approached my “rookie year” in the work world with as much confidence as Cam Newton approached his rookie year with the Panthers. Cam Newton has never been lacking in confidence, but he’s always had a resume that justifies it. He won a national championship and the Heisman Trophy his senior year at Auburn. He was selected with the #1 overall pick by the Carolina Panthers with his signature smile. Newton had that boundless optimism that things were going to go great, as they were at Auburn. Like Newton, I felt like a #1 overall pick from a fruitful college experience at UNCW.
Cam Newton just finished his fifth NFL season and he has clearly reached his potential. He’s considered the #1 player in the NFL right now by his peers. For some of us, our post-college narrative may turn out like Cam Newton’s, a person who fulfills their large potential quickly. But for me, I’ve found that my post-college narrative resembles Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., a player whose “potential fulfillment” happens over a longer period of time and who is considered a role player.
Looking back over the last 10 years, I see that I approached my twenties expecting instant Cam Newton-like success. I expected nothing else and I would not settle for anything else. But what if “fleshing out” my big ideas and career goals would in fact be a growing process over multiple years rather than instant success? If I went back to May 2006 and said to my 22 year old self “You might not reach your full potential as fast as you think. You will need to be OK with being a role player for a little while before reaching your big goals. In fact, you need to prepare your mind for some disappointments in your twenties.”
My 22 year old self would probably say “Anything is possible. Don't put limits on what can happen!” I would probably think my 32 year old advice as being negative or restrictive.
Fast Forward to Three Years after Graduation from UNCW: Disappointment Nobody Told Me About
The most disappointing year of my twenties was 2009. After spending one year as a missionary in Slovakia, one year volunteering at a church and one year as an interim youth pastor at my church in my hometown, I got the impression that I wasn’t going to work in full time ministry as I had intended. I didn’t fail at these tasks, but I didn’t achieve Cam Newton-like success while serving as a missionary or at my hometown church. I was doing “good enough” but not making the Pro Bowl of youth pastors. I was the Blaine Gabbert of youth pastors (also part of the 2011 NFL Draft class with Newton). I decided to move on to my second career choice which was to become a published writer (even more difficult than youth pastor and I knew at the time).
In July of 2009, I decided to spend the next 5 months attempting to write a book while living off my paycheck as a substitute teacher. My plan was to substitute during the day (8am to 3pm), and write from 7pm until whenever.
My writing experiment was working until a stretch in late September 2009 when I only got 2 calls to substitute in a three week span. I began to fear I would have no money. Writing is fun as a hobby, but not as a career (you make about $0.00 per hour writing). Looking back, I think I developed some temporary anxiety issues. I remember during those weeks being very anxious about doing simple tasks such as going to the bank to cash a check. One day, I had nothing to do except cash a check at the bank by 5pm. I put off going to the bank and laid down to take a nap. I remember waking up in my bed, paralyzed with fear about how I would pay the bills along with an uncertainty about my career direction, I rolled over in my bed to see a Donald Miller quote I had posted to my bedroom wall:
“The protagonist who gives into the negative turn settles for tragedy.”
Donald Miller once said that every story has a “negative turn” in which the protagonist comes up against a challenge, conflict or obstacle. How the protagonist responds to that “negative turn” is whether the story is a tragedy or a comedy. I decided that I did not want to settle for a tragedy, I was the protagonist to my own story and I needed to find the courage to go cash my check at the bank by 5pm. I got out of my bed, prayed to God for bravery and made the 10 minute drive to the bank.
I was not the same person in September of 2009 that I was in May of 2006. Where was the confident guy with the long beard? Where was the socially brave guy with a clear vision of his future that graduated from UNCW? He had failed to be a full time minister (by his own standards). He was trying hard to be a writer, but now he was terrified of making a simple drive to the local Thomasville bank to cash a check. He was learning to deal with disappointment and failure on the fly.
However this kind of struggle might be the norm in post-college life. Clinical psychologist Meg Jay specializes in life stage of the twenties and wrote a book "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of them Now." She says the following about reaching your full potential in your post-college years:
"Contrary to what we see and hear, reaching your potential isn't even something that usually happens in your twenties---it happens in your thirties or forties or fifties. And starting that process often means doing what doesn't look so good, such as carting granola around in vans or choosing a starter job. As a twentysomething client who works on a trading desk recently said to me, "These are the years when I put the hard work in, right?" Or as another who works in journalism asked, "I figure I'll be fetching coffee for higher ups at least until I'm thirty, right?"----Right."
Thinking about my 20's in this manner perhaps means 2009 wasn't as much as a failure as I imagined. Looking back at that terrible 5 month period from July 2009 to December 2009 was one of the lowest points of my life because I wasn’t sure what the future held. I spent $4,000 of my savings to make up for my lack of income. However I was able to apply to graduate school at UNCG (where I was accepted for the Spring 2010 semester) and write my “book” about a road trip I took with some friends. I also started writing for the Lexington Dispatch in the fall of 2009, which paid $0, but has grown my confidence as a writer in a huge way. I never published that book I wrote, but I did improve as a writer and get into graduate school.
This period of my life would be more like the Ted Ginn Jr. narrative, specifically when he was on the 49ers for 3 seasons.
The Ted Ginn Jr. Narrative: A Role Player Striving to Reach his Full Potential
When we think of career success, we do not normally say "I want to be a role player at my job.” Yet I think it is healthy for twenty-somethings to think of themselves as “role players” who are developing into a more prominent role, especially when they encounter disappointment right out of college. Children choose Pro Bowl players as their role model because they receive the glory and have attained a level of excellence. To be a “role player” sounds like a consolation prize to many people. But is that how the work world functions?
Carolina Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr.'s 9 year career has been a slow fulfillment of the potential that NFL experts talked about when he was a rookie in 2007. This past season was his most successful year of his 9 year NFL career. He caught 44 passes and scored 10 touchdown passes. Ginn helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl and was Cam Newton's #2 target behind Greg Olsen.
What has kept Ginn in the league for 9 years is his amazing speed. Ginn entered the NFL with high expectations after being drafted by the Miami Dolphins with the 7th pick in 2007 NFL draft after excelling at Ohio State. These high expectations gets fans excited, but it also leaves no room for error for the player. While Ginn did catch many passes his first two years with the Dolphins, one flaw became apparent. Ginn dropped passes on a regular basis. Ginn could get open, but people started asking "Is he going to hang on to the ball?" After three seasons in Miami, he was traded to the 49ers. Ginn spent the next 3 seasons playing for the San Francisco 49ers, but did not get much playing time.
This is the most important part of in what I would call the "Ginn narrative." After three mediocre seasons with the 49ers his career was at a crossroads. Could he find a new team where he could continue his development as a player? Or would have retire from the NFL after playing for 6 seasons?
In 2013 he signed with the Carolina Panthers. In his first year with the Panthers, on a one year contract, he caught 36 passes and 5 touchdowns. The Panthers made the playoffs and Ginn was a crucial piece in helping the Panthers make it this far. After his contract was up, Ginn signed with the Arizona Cardinals on a bigger contract. Strangely, he did not do well with the Cardinals and was released. Ginn decided to return to the Panthers since he enjoyed playing with Cam Newton so much. He then signed with the Panthers again in the summer of 2015, where he spent this past season------his best season.
Does Ginn still drop passes? Yes, he does. He was third in the NFL in dropped passes with 10. Yet Ginn ranked 10th in the NFL with 10 touchdown catches, which is why he is so useful to the Carolina Panthers. While some cynical people will point out his dropped passes, his speed shines through and has allowed him to become a crucial piece to the Panthers. While Ginn is on the field safeties and corner-backs must pay attention to him. He is often a distraction to secondaries which makes it easier for Cam Newton to run the ball, who lead the NFL in rushing yards by a quarterback. Ginn is a role player who still commits a flaw every so often. (In the Christian narrative, this is called sanctification.) But he's found his place on the Panthers and will help them compete for a championship next season. In my opinion, I don't think the Panthers would have been in the Super Bowl last season if it wasn't for Ginn's speed.
Likewise, in the work world, we will often have flaws and shortcomings that we must face. We will see our flaws or others might point them out to us. We can face up to our flaws, pray to God for help, spend time correcting our flaws and perhaps by the time we are 30 or 35 we can become a complete person in our career. Or perhaps realize our big goals/dreams at 35. That sounds restrictive doesn't it? Or is it?
Our post-college years can turn out like Cam Newton or Ted Ginn Jr. To only have a post-college narrative of pure and instant success can be unrealistic. Therefore seeing yourself as a role player like Ted Ginn Jr. for a season (a 3-4 year period) might help you to endure in reaching your potential and see your growth as a process. We should all strive to reach the success of someone like Cam Newton in our dreams. But at times, we may have to endure some hardships and failures to reach our full potential.