The Paths We Take

Earlier this week, I went for a run. The alarm clock went off at 7 AM, and I swung my feet off the bed and onto the floor, laced up my running shoes, hitched Simba onto his leash, and went out the door. We’ve been running a couple of times per week for the past few weeks to prepare for Santa Cruz’s Wharf-to-Wharf 10K race next weekend. The hills of Santa Barbara’s Riviera provide an excellent training ground, and the view from the top makes the trip worth it. Each time I run, I take a different path, and on Monday’s run I was trotting down De La Vina Street when I saw a crumpled green note on the ground – a twenty-dollar bill! It felt extremely lucky; it was like I had just been paid about $40 per hour to go for a run. It was pure coincidence though; I wouldn’t have found it if it had been any other day or if I had taken any other route.

That same day, only about an hour later, I left for school on my bike. Now, I used to drive my car about seven miles and bike the remaining three miles on the scenic, creek-side and beach-side Obern trail. There was a financial incentive for me to do this: I don’t have to spend $400 for a parking pass. There was also a more intrinsic motivation for me: I get to exercise every day and enjoy the scenery.  Of course, it would be easy to wonder why I don’t just ride my bike the entire way to school. I mean, if I rode my bike the whole way, it would only take about 15 minutes longer, and I would save even more money on gas and upkeep of my car. Our apartment is 250 feet above sea level while UCSB is right on the beach. The issue was that I was always filled with a little trepidation when considering the daunting climb I would face riding my bike home.

Last Friday though, I decided that I would give it a shot. I ran and climbed 200+ feet in elevation, and that wasn’t so bad, so why wouldn’t I be able to bike such a steep precipice? Plus, Kierstin’s parents had just donated their rarely-used 18 speed bikes, which could tackle the hills of Santa Barbara much better than my rusty and heavy single speed. And really, it wasn’t that bad. I decided I missed my time at UC Davis, where bikes and bike-friendly paths are aplenty and where I could go two or three weeks without driving my car (which was so long that the next time I drove it, I would feel out-of-place and too big on the road). I decided I’d ride my bike to school every day.

So the next Monday, only a couple of hours after I found $20 on the ground, I was racing down the hills toward UCSB. Over the weekend, I had a looked for the best route on Google Maps and found an earlier entrance onto the trail than I had taken previously. As I was riding along this new path on Monday, I went over a little bump in the road, which rattled my back tire and had me mentally jotting the location so I could avoid it next time. It wasn’t even a few tire rotations later when I noticed that my bike tire was completely flat. I was about six miles away from home and about four miles away from school. I was in the middle of the trail, right next to a residential area but nowhere near any bike shops and with no money for the bus. I walked the remaining four miles to school, something I wouldn’t have had to do if I had taken another path (or even if I had weaved a couple of feet to the left or right of the bump, I noticed later). It was just an unfortunate happenstance, almost the polar opposite of what had happened on my run two hours earlier.

I started to think about this a lot (mostly while walking; you can think about a lot of things while walking for an hour). I knew that it wasn’t the universe trying to balance itself out just because I had found $20. I knew that my tire could have popped a mile later or a mile earlier or not at all and that I could have missed the $20 if I had looked down or took a right turn a block earlier or someone else had run by just before me. The paths that I took to get there enabled these circumstances to occur, but they weren’t the reason why these things happened. It was just dumb luck, a fluke, a strange accident. I think this can be related to events that happen every day and help to understand or deal with why different situations occur.

For example, I applied to a few fellowships this year so that I could be independently funded, not be required to TA, and have a small token of prestige that comes with the awards. I was heartbroken with my subsequent rejections; after all, I had done everything right. I received good grades while earning my undergraduate degree, I worked for a research group for over a year and published a paper, and I projected my passion for my field by volunteering at a science museum and by winning a solar energy contest. I received positive feedback on one of the fellowships but was still not recommended for an award.

It’s not that my credentials weren’t deemed worthy. The problem is that it’s almost like a big fish, small pond situation. Everyone in graduate school worked hard and earned their current position, and so a lot of grants and awards receive applications where the majority of the applicants could be given an award. There are just not enough awards to give out (small pond) to the large number of qualified applicants (big fish). The reviewers’ decisions end up being extremely difficult, sometimes arbitrary. I would consider it lucky to win a fellowship since it’s such a crapshoot – just like it was lucky that I found money on my morning run or just like it was unlucky that I popped my tire with an hour’s walk still left.

The point is that there is no reason I should feel upset about getting a flat tire or not winning an award. Bad things happen, even if we take the right path. Good things happen, too. You shouldn’t be discouraged from riding your bike to school just because you might waste an hour of your day. After all, it’s possible you might come across a green-faced Andrew Jackson, or more likely, you might feel good about yourself after riding for 10 miles. That’s why, in relation to the example I gave above, I haven’t stopped travelling down the path that could help me earn fellowships or will improve my chances at a successful career in the future. Instead, I’ve taken alternative routes: I’ve worked hard while teaching a class; I’ve volunteered for middle school science nights and applied to teach a Saturday high school science course; and I’ve been striving to formulate a research project that will help me earn my PhD. The first step to finding something good along the way might just be in the direction of a new route, and even though you could run into trouble along the way, you’ll never get anywhere if you never take that first step along the path you take.

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