Confidence or Mediocrity?

How I felt super-confident at one point in time, then depressed & mediocre, and how I stay motivated now.

In my last year of high school, I realized something: I wanted to be brilliant. The thought seems funny (and sort of pathetic) now, but at the time I had been an underachiever and somewhat a social straggler. So this realization seemed significant.

As a teen I wasn’t motivated by anything. Listening to Dave Matthews Band on end was all I could ever want (as you can already guess, this part of my life was patently embarrassing). College? Sports? Art? Beyond a few middle school bands, I barely put time into any of these things. Seriously, you couldn’t get me to do anything without lighting a flame underneath my ass — and even then, you were lucky.*

You could say I wasn’t challenged enough or that I had a bad attitude. Mainly, I just lacked confidence. This isn’t story corner, but let’s just say my life changed over the course of a summer. I didn’t become an amazing student, but I was for once comfortable at school. I engaged in my classes and beyond. I randomly became obsessed with vocabulary (which annoyed my friends), and I even ditched the Dave Matthews for the much cooler indie rock. The walls of my room were stripped of the old pennants of sports teams and replaced with the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. I began dating a girl who painted and sang opera, and I gravitated toward a group of friends with similar talents. I played guitar in a new band and sang in the talent show to a cheering audience. None of these things were spectacular, but I felt whole for the first time in my life. I had found a swagger. I was confident.

There I am in high-school, pre-confidence days. Yet, somehow still confident enough to wear that hat?!

And I carried this newly found appetite into college. For the first two years, I maintained momentum: I had a scholarship and good grades, I began learning Chinese, and I became president of a fraternity. Motivation felt like a lifestyle. So much so that when I took a job at my college’s late night food spot cooking burgers, I still felt like the shit working over a steaming-hot grill while being harassed by drunk, pastel-wearing business majors. I ran on a diet of confidence and ambition, my mouth thirsting for the taste of future success. Put simply: I knew I was going to be great.

And that was the problem…

Somewhere around the turn of those two years, things changed. I returned from summer study abroad in Shanghai without a job (I managed to lose my grilling duties). The fraternity I was supposed to be presiding over caused more stress than fun, and I had virtually no money. Relationships from the year prior were more tenuous; my living situation was not great either. Worst of all, my school work declined. Despite maintaining decent grades, I began to take the shape of an academic low-life. I pulled frequent all nighters to finish essays, and even worse, I would implore teachers to give me extensions on papers. My confidence in myself to do good work became nothing more than procrastination: instead of using my knowledge to further myself, I became reliant on the ability to just pull it off. In some cases, I couldn’t even do that. The As turned into Bs and sometimes Cs, and I spent more and more time alone watching “Breaking Bad” on Netflix. As my confidence and ambition was replaced by underperformance, I became mediocre.

Like a bad soap opera, you might see where this is going: an utter emotional shit show. For another two years, from the time I returned from China a second time to a few months after graduation, I was doubtful, sometimes hateful, of myself. How did I let this happen? I was supposed to be happy, but I was depressed. I was supposed to be making a pretty penny, but I literally had pennies in my bank account. I was supposed to be employed, but I had almost no job prospects.

My common bedtime monologue became: “I learned [random skill] though, right? That’s impressive! But couldn’t I be much better? I should’ve spent more time studying! Why did I waste so much time in [location/class/relationship]?” The stress of how I was spending my time became so heavy, I would sometimes break down into tears. My dad worried about me. My friends worried about me. I don’t know how these people made it through with me, because I was a self-pitying sack of mediocre meat and bones. But then, of course, as the old adage goes: “This too shall pass.” And pass it did.

Excluding details, things are better now. I’m newly 25 and started a good job earlier in the year. It wasn’t the job I expected (as a poli-sci major I probably shouldn’t have expected any job), but it offers a whole host of possibilities and exposes me to something new. I invest my time in hobbies that make me feel good like studying Chinese, making music, and writing. I’m convinced my friends are the carriers of art and culture (I’ll always be confident in my friends). Just check out my dude Will Lindsay as an example. And of course, I have a huge and loving family.

I gained and learned a lot in the pre-adult phase known as college, but I obviously took a lot for granted — as do many of us. I am still dealing with the fallout of feeling mediocre and expending a lot of life’s most important commodity — time — wastefully, but I can breathe now with a more level headed disposition. No matter how my day looks, sometimes I feel confident, but often I feel mediocre and small — today I feel pretty good.

Don’t ride the wave of confidence, which is what I did in those early years of college. Feeling good about yourself is much more a matter of exercise. You have to stretch it, challenge it, exert it. Feeling confident is great until it becomes self-importance. Feeling mediocre might inspire you to work harder, but it often bogs the spirit more than uplifts it. However you feel, tell yourself “This can be better.”

One day success will hit — you and I just don’t know it. Maybe the success and confidence you’re looking for will come in the form of great wealth and abundance; perhaps it will manifest in transcendent self-awareness. It will hit — I’m confident of that.

*Shout out to my Aunt Lisa for providing this excellent line.

JJ D’Aurora currently resides in Cleveland, OH and works for the marketing-technology firm Brandmuscle, Inc. Contact him at jjdaurora@gmail or find him on Twitter at @jjdaurora.