My parents taught me that nothing worthwhile in life comes easy. That it was important to chase your dreams, think big, and make a difference in the world. Yet the concept of achieving one’s dreams is tied up in so many metaphors these days how do you know when you have actually done it? For most of my life I remember the chasing part. But what does it mean to truly achieve your dreams? How does it feel?
I am a sap for all those inspirational movies (admittedly male-oriented) focused on that very thing. I can’t help but feel warm and fuzzy when Homer wins the Science Fair in “October Sky,” or when Jim get called up to the majors after waiting his whole life in “the Rookie,” or when Andy breaks out of prison in the “Shawshank Redemption.” Even though I know it’s coming these movies get me every time. Of course who can forget “Rudy” when Rudy makes the team against impossible odds and plays on the field during the last game with everyone shouting: “Rudy!” “Rudy!” “Rudy!”? Even the most macho man breaks down in tears over that one. So how do I get my “Rudy Moment?”
I can’t honestly say that I had any dreams until I went to college. Before that, there were things that I wanted, sure, like living near the ocean and surfing. Nothing big or ambitious. No changing the world. But I guess that is what college is for, right? Well, it certainly was for me. I think it’s a combination of being around the Professors — passionate intellectuals, philosophers, and huge overachievers — and living in a competitive environment where expectations are very high. It’s no wonder many students suddenly become ambitious and want to change the world, at least for a while. This feeling is captured perfectly in one of my favorites quotes from “Happy Days” where Howard tells Richie about why he should go to college: “I want you to find out what life could be like before you find it what it really is like.” Hence, find your dream and hang on!
When I was a teenager all I dreamed about was surfing. Looking back that was good because you have to be passionate about something in life. And in college that passion transformed into a love of marine biology and all things ocean. And then one day, after a few years in college, one of my Professors at Cal Poly (Dave Montgomery) noticed I was doing well in his class, called me into his office, and asked me what I planned to do with my life. “A marine biologist huh? Well, then you need to get a Ph.D.” “Sure” I responded — like Meri in the Lord of the Rings after agreeing to go into Mordor to return the ring — “but how do I do that?” Thus was born my dream in life. Not so much the Ph.D. part but the marine biologist part. If I had known then how much work was involved, I’m not sure I would have done it. But as I was eventually to learn, achieving one’s dreams isn’t easy — nor should it be — and you never know what you are capable of until you are truly challenged.
So, a couple of years later I finished my Bachelor’s degree (with honors!), applied to graduate school, and promptly get rejected. Ouch! Later I realized, of course, there are lots of bumps in the road to achieving your dreams but at that moment I felt I had failed. I wasn’t going to be a marine biologist. Dream over. Looking back, I reflected: I constantly meet people — doctors, lawyers, actors — that when I tell them what I do for a living they invariably say: “Oh, yeah. I wanted to be a marine biologist” and ask me how I did it. It’s simple: I never gave up. And of course that is the key but more importantly: you must fail before you succeed otherwise success has no meaning. Dreams are defined by the anti-dream. But I also feel fortunate that I was able to pursue my passion because I had the support of my parents and my wife, I had terrific mentors, and I was lucky. All that aside it was simply hard work, very hard work, perseverance, determination, passion and never letting go of the dream.
So two years later I applied to graduate school again, this time getting accepted to UC Irvine. I was lucky at Irvine as the faculty were fantastic and truly challenged me. At the end of the first year, there was a very intimidating oral exam with five faculty, it was pass/fail, and not everyone made it. Here was my first true challenge and I rose to the occasion: passed, but not without some moments of pure terror. It wasn’t that it was difficult but I felt this was a defining moment on my path. Pass or Fail. Pass Go and get $200 or go to Jail. Two years later, I got my Master’s degree and applied to graduate school for a PhD. I ended up at Oregon State which was the best possible place for me. Excellent professors, the best adviser — Mark Hixon — a whole family of fellow PhD students and a beautiful place to live (not to mention meeting my wife!). It was at OSU that I truly learned what hard work was: when you are working as hard as you possibly can, processing enormous amounts of complex information, then you have to pile on more and — suddenly — your brain actually shifts into another plane, it transcends its previous boundaries and expands, actually grows in capacity to meet the new challenge. After six years in graduate school, after I had done this dozens of time, it became a more-or-less permanent feature of who I was. The realization of what I had done made me appreciate how little of my mental capacity I use without the pressure and the intellectual milieu of graduate school. Ah, such is the value of hard work!
After 6 years I got my PhD. Yeah! I vividly remember standing on campus after my dissertation defense and feeling decidedly anti-climatic. I’d done it! I got my BS, MS, and PhD degrees, I was a marine biologist! I’d fulfilled my dream!! But I didn’t have my “Rudy” moment. Where were the cheering masses, the carrying me off the field on their shoulders? What the heck?! But of course life goes on and now it was time to get a job, one of those rare coveted professor positions in academia. The one where 100+ people apply, 10 get phone interviews (the long list), 3 get personal interviews (the short list) and one amazingly grateful person gets the position. And so it began: 1 app, 2 apps….east coast, west coast, many months pass, a year…17 apps. Then, I make the long list at one place, then quickly at another. With #20 I make the short list and get an interview! Prepared very hard, went well, no dice. Major heart-breaker. Would I have to settle for some other kind of job? Months later, I see a position advertised in Science magazine at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Wow, the ad perfectly describes me and an eerie feeling washes over me. HAWAII! See, Hawaii and I go way back. I first visited when I was 14 and the I made a deep CONNECTION instantly. This was paradise; you could feel it, see it, smell it in the air. And of course to a surfer Hawaii is the ultimate experience and double ditto for marine biologists. So when I saw that ad I wanted that position like no other. Applied, phone interview, weeks later a personal interview. Threw everything I had at preparing for the visit.
Then the fateful interview came: loved the big island, Hilo, the campus, the students, the faculty, clicked with everyone. Interview over and one of the faculty, Leon Hallacher, is taking me to the airport. I was very, very tired. As we say goodbye he turns to me and says “You are our top choice and I hope you want to come here.” And just like that, there it was: my “Rudy” moment. After he left I had to sit down: my face was flush, my heart beating fast, my body was tingling and I felt a wave of pure euphoria wash over me that I had never felt before, and never since. The cheering masses were all in my head: my mentors, my friends, my fellow grad students, my family, my wife. And I was being carried along on a wave of pure joy. All I remember was calling my wife with the news and sitting on the plane for the next 6 hours with a huge smile on my face and my body floating cloud-like in my seat. So this was it. This was that time in my life when everything I had worked for climaxed in one culminating moment. I was going to be a marine biologist and live and work in Hawaii!!! I was actually getting paid to dive on coral reefs! I had achieved my dream and my parents were right: if it had been easy it would not have been worthwhile.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Two months later I was a professor at the University of Hawaii in my dream job. Teaching a diverse and passionate group of students everything I knew about the ocean, constantly learning something new to keep up with their questions, in the ocean almost every day, conducting research on coral reefs. If I had to do it all over I wouldn’t change a thing. Almost seven years later I ended up leaving for a new position at Washington State University to be closer to family. Not my dream job but a great one nevertheless. But hard work there paved the way for my next moment 15 years later when I left for a new position as Director of the Marine Lab at Humboldt State University. When I first started that position last summer, as I drove down the street in Trinidad to the marine lab looking at the gorgeous coastline, smelling the sea air, surfers passing by on the road, I had another one of those “Rudy” moments. But this time I was Coming Home.