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The Chip on the Shoulder

“You will never graduate much less get two degrees. You will never commission. You will never amount to anything.”

These were the words an ROTC instructor uttered to me that fall day 15 years ago. We’ll call him Colonel Smith*. This 20+ year military leader charged with my formation as a future Air Force officer let his contempt fly after I asked for his signature to take an extra class -- resulting in an overloaded semester -- in order to graduate from college that spring.

His words stung, and I could feel my head buzz with shock and rage. My cheeks got hot, and I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I barely knew him as an instructor much less a person…why was he treating me this way? I don’t really remember leaving his office, but I remember with crystal clarity as if it was yesterday that I’d made a promise to myself: when I was given the honor of supervising others -- I would never, EVER tell anyone they couldn’t succeed at something they wanted.

What he said lit a fire under this big Puerto Rican booty. I got a cumulative 3.96 GPA that year even with the extra credits I was taking, graduated on time with a double major, and became a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. I use to sarcastically wish he’d been there my freshman year…I could’ve graduated summa cum laude, son! Over the next dozen years or so, I supervised and mentored probably hundreds of Airmen. In those few instances when someone came to me with (what I judged to be) an impossible dream, I heard Colonel Smith’s voice in the back of my head. I’d promptly sit down with the service member and mentor them through a plan of action to get them to where they wanted. In the end, I’d always impress upon them that it would take hard work and sacrifice to make their dream a reality, and I’d finish our meeting with my Colonel Smith story in an effort to arm them with the most effective tool of all: hope. I loved those moments, because they helped me realize all that pain could be channeled and used for good.

In between those life-affirming events, I also had real-world missions to complete. We identified spies trying to get access to sensitive areas on military installations, we obtained confessions from suspects accused of sexual assault, we protected senior government officials (whom ISIS would’ve loooooved to kill) from harm. I’m not really comfortable talking about my successes, but if I’m really honest with myself, I was GOOD. In fact, I was better than good. I was respected by my peers and bosses. I had built my brand as a no-nonsense leader who got the job done, took care of her people, and said exactly what she thought in a tactful way.

I started getting an odd sense a couple of years ago though. I felt like I’d hit a bit of a productivity ceiling. I was efficient and effective, but….I felt like I could do more. Almost like I hadn’t realized my full potential. I bought a bullet journal to analyze how I was spending my day (they're amazing, btw), I changed my schedule around several times to see if it sparked anything, talked to mentors, etc. I got no answers. I got a life coach as a last ditch effort before I gave up my quest. I couldn’t even tell you how this coach got me to this memory from my college days, but she did.

And it blew my world wide open.

Although I had experienced worldly success at work, what I learned through this coaching session was that Colonel Smith was still right by my side feeding me this ugly line that I WASN’T GOOD ENOUGH. Everywhere I went…every new position I started…I was looking for the new Colonel Smith. That naysaying staff member at work who -- for whatever reason -- tried to tear me down, that co-worker who tried to take credit for my work, that “teammate” who tried to sabotage me…it was never ending. To counteract him, I would always “hit the ground running” to make a good impression, often working excessive hours to ensure my good name. There was no way in H-E-double hockey sticks that anyone was going to ever utter those words to me again, and I had come to believe that my quest for perfection would provide sufficient armor from any attack. What I came to realize during that coaching session was that the seed of all those results -- although positive -- was born from that anger.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” - John 12:24

I wasn’t able to break through my productivity ceiling, because I hadn’t allowed the poisonous memory to die. In fact, I had nourished that seed…I’d carefully fertilized, watered, and maybe even played a little Metallica at it…and my anger had served me well. I knew I had been a tool to save lives and seek justice, and I am so grateful the Lord kept his promise to “work all things for the good of those who love Him” (Rom 8:28). But nothing born from a seed of anger can ever truly flourish. I realized I needed to replace it with a seed of authenticity, so my coach began the difficult work of walking me through what that meant for me. Who am I? Why do I do what I do? What do I believe I was put on this earth to do? Through these questions and others, I was able to weed my thought-garden and replace it with seeds of truth: that I matter because God loves me (1 John 4:10), that God heals my broken-heartedness (Psalm 147:3), and that he had a plan filled with hope for me (Jer 29:11). I learned I am at my best and live my most authentic and productive self when I serve others, simply because of my love for my fellow human. The freedom I’ve gained from this lesson has been beyond priceless. It’s resulted in being able to build my new business from a place of joy, vulnerability, and love. Rather than working my butt off to prove the naysayers wrong, I now work my butt off to help rid the world of fear one person at a time…and there’s no Colonel Smith in sight.

What perceptions and stories hold your thoughts and actions hostage? What or who in your past told you that you weren’t good, talented, smart, or brave enough? How has that narrative served you? Are you ready to let it go to live your most joy-filled life? Message me if you need some prayer or just want to hash out some of these questions!

*Name changed

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