My awesome friend and writer, Kristina, over at An Adventurous Life posed a question the other day: what 3 life decisions were pivotal to getting you to where you are now? She showed me hers, so I figured it was only fair to show her mine. It was kinda difficult to pick out on 3 things from the rolodex of memories, since so many events seemed to cascade together. But here are 3 distinct ones that came to mind:

Thing 1. As an undergrad, spending 5 hours on a 5 minute welcome speech instead of doing my homework. In October 2009, the chemical engineering department at Purdue hosted a symposium for sustainability. The plan was for the president of our ChemE student association to welcome the honored guests at dinner, but he ended up having an exam conflict that afternoon so the responsibility passed to me. This was the morning of the event. I sensed the need to make a good impression in a very short amount of time, so instead of doing school work as I’d planned, I spent the whole afternoon crafting a welcome speech. I wanted to suscinctly and eloquently convey to the room that it was a privilege to have them at our school and that I thought the work they were doing was of utmost importance. I slipped in a teeny amount about myself, including that I wanted to work abroad before starting graduate school in the fall. As the symposium dinner and speeches continued, a professor came over and told me that the VP of R&D for an international chemical company wanted to talk to me when the evening was over. He said they had centers in Europe. He set me up with an interview, and 1 month after graduating that December I was on my way to 9 months of living in Germany and a life-changing experience.

Thing 2. Breaking up with a soul-mate. So I met this guy in Germany. He was my match. I fell head over heels. We spent 6 months in that blissful trance that is new love… and then I moved to Seattle for grad school. We broke up via Skype 6 months later. Long distance killed us. I never planned to talk to him again. A few months later I got a letter from him: he loved me and wanted to make it work. I wanted that chance too. He moved to Portland to be closer to me. We gave it another shot, and despite the relatively small 3 hour distance, our geographical separation put insurmountable strain on the relationship and we ended it again. I was devastated. In taking our 2nd chance, my mind had settled firmly into the thought process: “This is it. Him and me forever. It can’t fail now.” So when it failed, it took the rest of my brain down with it, violently setting off all sorts of other emotional triggers from my life and upbringing. I drank to numb the feelings, of which there were overwhelmingly many. I remember the first evening of sobriety, after weeks of drowning my sorrows: I went to a yoga class and at the end I laid on my mat and sobbed. Shortly thereafter, I took myself to UW’s mental health center. My counselor helped me haul myself out of the depression. She taught me about mindfulness meditation. I started practicing loving kindness and compassion toward myself. I opened a new chapter of mental and emotional clarity. I started getting outside with a vengeance. I found my mountain happy place. I fell in love with backcountry skiing. I resolved to apply for a Bonderman travel fellowship. I learned to be selfish in the way that each of us MUST be selfish in order to have healthy relationships with others.

Thing 3. Quitting grad school. “Quitting” is a dirty word and “quitters” are failures. Or at least that is what I and so many other people have internalized. F that noise!! When I was awarded the Bonderman travel fellowship in spring 2013, I had two choices concerning graduate school: 1. take a 1-year leave of absence and return to finish the PhD, or 2. finish my MS and call it a day. I hated grad school. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad – I loved the lifestyle of a graduate student. But I was rarely excited to go to work in the morning. Now I don’t expect to fully enjoy any job, but I’d like to shoot for liking my work around 80% of the time. Grad school measured in at around 15%. As far as I could tell, I did’t even want to do work that would require a PhD. Sure, I wanted people to call me “Doctor Bucherl,” but that wasn’t enough motivation for another 3 years of 15% enjoyment. So I quit. And it felt like a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. I could leave for the Bonderman and return to the US to seek out my 80%+ occupation. I took a flying leap off of the path of what I “should” be doing, and landed in the sea of uncertainty. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t freaked out sometimes, but I know now that I can make unconventional decisions and survive. And not just survive, but pursue the things that bring fulfillment and joy to my life.
There is still quite a large amount of uncertainty in my life, but even with that I feel like I’m on the right track. I kinda need to find a full-ish time job by March so I don’t completely empty my financial well, but in the mean time I’m stoked to travel in NZ and then hang out with friends and ski a bajillion days in the PNW this season. Everything works out.

High fives for sharing personal things with the world, Kristina. Every time you make yourself vulnerable, it gives someone else to courage to do the same, and humanity gets a teensie bit better. 🙂

3 comments on “Challenge accepted: 3 pivotal life decisions

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