When I was 20, I knew everything and let all others know that I knew. I could fix every problem, deal with any situation, and squash any uprising. Full of piss and vinegar, I let nothing stand in my way. If you didn’t like me, that was your problem.
Of course, looking back now at 40, I know that this is all a way of saying that I was a bit of a jerk. I considered it being “real” or “in your face”. Luckily, it was the late 1990s, so that persona was all the rage. The more shock-jock you were, the better. So that’s who I became.
Some people gravitated to that attitude. I had loyal allies and sworn enemies with little in between. No matter what side you landed on, though, I made sure to be irreverent and outspoken. That was my thing. It wasn’t over-the-top, but, of course, some people were offended by it. That sort of comes with the territory.
The time period after I left college was a real adjustment. The crazy actions I was so proud of years earlier began to shift into embarrassed memories years later. As I reflected back, I was able to analyze a lot of my motivations and insecurities which lead to the person I was presenting to others.
Then, in 2004, the closest friend I ever had passed away. It was a life-changing moment that really put my own existence into perspective and began to change my approach to life as a whole. While there were many other major moments and earth-shaking epiphanies to come, this was the start of it all.
Later that year, one of my fraternity brothers was married. His wedding would be the first time I had seen many familiar faces since we left campus and I wasn’t sure I was up for it. I felt like a different person than the one they knew or, at least, I was trying to be.
Upon arriving, I was incredibly self-conscious. I wanted to show everyone there that I had matured. It wasn’t a show or a public display. In fact, for the first time, it wasn’t. It was me being me – without the angry young man veneer from 1999. I wasn’t a character anymore.
Then, while at the reception, the best man walked up to a group of us. Another fraternity brother, this guy was one of those people who always took offense to my offensive attitude. He had once told me that it bothered him. While he wasn’t my favorite person in the world, in the years that followed college, I felt bad about it. It was nothing major and most people wouldn’t think twice about any of it. But he did, so I did.
As he walked over, everyone began saying nice things about his speech. To this, he dramatically held up a hand and asked:
Hold on. I have to ask one person. Yo, James. What did you think of my speech?
I was put on the spot and taken aback. This was the first thing we had said to each other in years. I was confused but went with it. His speech was fine. There were no dancing girls or fireworks, but it was decent. I took the opportunity to show how proper and gracious I was now.
It was good. You did a really nice job, man.
To this, he cocked his head back and loudly announced.
Ah. If James can say something nice about it, I know it has to be good!
Everyone laughed. I don’t remember if I pretended to as well, but I’d like to hope I didn’t.
Keep in mind, I hadn’t seen this guy in nearly five years. He knew nothing about my life, family, or personal situation. The last time he saw me, there were still little “19”s printed next to the year on checks. It wasn’t even as if he was trying to be confrontational with all of this. Simply put, to him, it was still yesterday and I was still the person I was then. In his world, things never changed.
Things do change, though. That marriage is a good example as it ended shortly after the wedding. I’m not saying it was because of his speech. I’m just saying.
Not only do things change, but people do. I did. You probably have too. Every day we are supposed to better ourselves and overcome our demons. That’s the goal. You go to bed each night knowing a bit more than you did that morning. You grow. You learn. You evolve.
Don’t let anyone else drag you back to a place you left behind or make you feel like someone you’re not anymore. I’m not saying to be ashamed of your past. Own who you were but stand taller as who you are today. Every misstep and course correction you’ve made has led you to this moment. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali, “The person who views the world at 50 the same as they did at 20 has wasted 30 years of their life.”
Whatever you have overcome or strive to overcome is personal to you. Be proud. Never allow someone who doesn’t understand or is more comfortable with how things used to be put you into a box. Just because they remember the you that you were doesn’t mean that’s the you that you are.