The finite universe of opportunities

By Jason Cox

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to give you a C.”

This certainly wasn’t the first time my graphic design professor had to deliver this revelation to one of his less industrious students. Some must have been dismayed. I was thrilled that a C was on the table at all. 

I offered good points in class discussion, but only went to this twice-a-week class about twice a month. Class projects were wholeheartedly half-assed . I was graduating that semester and completing a practicum in the Tennessee capitol’s press room, and couldn’t be bothered with anything beyond the bare requirements.

This was a microcosm of a spotty-at-best academic career. Basically if I was interested in the subject (or had a friend in class) I showed up and almost always got an A. If not, it all depended on the professor’s nonsense tolerance. A few would give you an A for just limping across the finish line. Another berated me and called me ridiculous, then called back just to reiterate her point. 

Most were like this design professor: Empathetic to a young student who really just needed that C, yet possessed with enough dignity not to let me get away with an A or a B.

Young reporter with a bad habit taking notes at an Iraq War protest in Murfreesboro, TN when he worked for Sidelines, the campus newspaper at Middle Tennessee State University.

We’re all born with talents, and mine include two that make academic life a lot easier:

  1. The ability to write quickly and accurately, nurtured by school teachers like Mary Dennison and encouraged by my pal Anne Tucker, the first person to suggest I consider writing for a living. (That, ironically, came from another bullshitting exercise: I’d gotten a 5 out of 5 on a state standardized test on writing ability; my essay was about how bored I was with the test and how annoyed I was to put in the work.)
  2. A knack for multiple-choice tests.

The method to my madness was understanding the syllabus and course rules, investing my spare time in career-boosting activities like the student newspaper, radio station and clubs, and making friends with people who take good notes.

At the time, I thought I was pretty smart. Looking back now, I’m embarrassed. 

Yet it’s hard to quibble with where I’ve ended up. Aside from existential guilt, I paid no real price. I was the first in my family to graduate college. I write and think about communication for a living, which is more or less what I set out to do 18 years ago. But the opportunities I’d missed in college gnawed at me.

After changing careers from journalism to communications and looking into training programs, pursuing a master’s degree began looking more practical. You may be as shocked as I was when Purdue University accepted me into its master’s of science in communications program. 

This time would be different: I focused the competitive energy I’d channeled into my career towards academics, racking up A after A.

Then I hit a wall known as survey methods, aka stats. Math was never my strong suit. I threw myself into this class unlike anything I’d ever done academically. Overcoming a few mediocre grades, my classmate and I turned in an A-level research project.

Then comes the final grade.

A-minus.

A ninety-fucking-three. 

The highest grade you can get while still ruining your 4.0 GPA. 

My ultimate academic redemption was spoiled. I’d become the kid my design professor thought I was: at once livid, embarrassed and despondent. Too proud to beg, I laid in bed and stewed. 

It took a while to realize: An A-minus is still good! And at any rate, my redemption had never been about grades.

Jason Cox: Master’s of science in communications.

This was about seizing opportunity — putting in the work to maximize my talents and make up ground where I fall short. It was about living up to the dreams of my mom and dad, who insisted I’d be the first in my family to go to college, even as their parents didn’t provide the same expectations or encouragement.

Showing up to Dr. Himebaugh’s Feature Writing class would have made me a stronger writer. That design class would have helped me better appreciate and understand good aesthetic principles. And that Ancient Political Philosophy Class was just plain fascinating.

Jason Cox: Opportunity seized.

Those were all opportunities for personal and professional growth. I did what was interesting or came easy, and left the rest by the wayside.

What seemed plentiful or even infinite then, I now know, is indeed finite. Some of us get more opportunities than others, but the next one is never guaranteed. And I’m determined never to take them for granted again.

Jason Cox skipped Voices of August 2017 because he was too busy getting an A-minus in survey methods. He’s a public affairs specialist and posts boring tweets and quality retweets @jasonrcox. He lives in Salem, Oregon with wife Alana and baby daughter Cecelia.

Editor’s note: Jason is the husband of Alana Cox, a daughter of our longtime friends, Tom and Elsa Guiney. I’ve enjoyed watching his transitions in life: from community journalist to communications professional, and from single guy to husband and parent.

Tomorrow: Al Rodriguez | 3.5 Months To Go – Yes, I’m Counting

10 thoughts on “The finite universe of opportunities

  1. Thanks for insight into your then-college brain. It’s a good reminder for me to always resist misplaced empathy and hand-holding. I’m an adjunct prof, teaching a journalism class after 24 years of writing for newspapers. I am not a fan of half-ass work by the talented. This reminds me to stay that way!
    Cheers!

    • I probably wouldn’t have taken your class 😉 – but in all seriousness the professors that held me accountable generally got better work out of me back then. Today I’m my own worst critic.

  2. Your description of your earlier academic career is a spot-on description of my freshman year roommate, who remains my best friend today. While I spent every hour fretting over my GPA, he would be… well, he was probably behaving much as you did back then. But the thing is, my roommate from back then is one of the best guys I know, a person of tremendous character. We make assumptions about people based on academic grades, and really we shouldn’t. I don’t know of any research studies, but I am convinced that there is no correlation between academic grades and character. It is too bad that our society is predicated on a different set of beliefs.

    • I’d have been well-served to have a roommate like you. Mine was (and is) a great guy but was even more of a slacker than I was and dropped out. He ended up going back to school later and taking it a lot more seriously.

      Really, I just thought I could get away with working hard on the fun stuff and/or things I thought was “relevant… because I’m never gonna do anything crazy like go to grad school for communications!”

  3. Congratulations on obtaining your masters! I’ve long said I was a liberal arts major for a reason (ba-da-boom!). Math and science were not my strengths and I barely squeaked out that journalism degree. Then I grew up and started working in a technical field, which led to starting a masters in environmental science (sadly unfinished due to life’s curve balls). I had numerous undergraduate deficiencies, including math through calculus. At the community college I started with baby math and plugged my way to calculus. Because I could memorize, I eked out a grade worthy of two things – passing the class and getting reimbursed. A barely passing grade taught me that as adults on a mission, we can surprise even ourselves.

    • Hi Lynn, yeah given my math skills an A-minus was a small miracle. I’m still a little pissed though. Thanks for reading.

  4. This is a timely reminder that we only get so many opportunities and to keep our nose to the grindstone when it counts. I’m mid-preparing for a career change that is a 180* turn from what I fell into 13 years ago and we have similar study habits. I’ve recently begun wondering if I’m really as smart as everyone believes me to be or if I just get that benefit because of who I hang out with. Congratulations on your master’s!

    • Thanks! I too wondered if part of the reason I didn’t apply myself to a lot of my academics was a secret fear of failure. After all if I got a crappy grade and didn’t try too hard, I could always say it was effort not intelligence. But what if I give it my all and still fail?

      Have you seen Hamilton? “My Shot” was my jam for grad school. Crank it up if you’re feeling lazy.

  5. I probably wouldn’t have taken your class 😉 – but in all seriousness the professors that held me accountable generally got better work out of me back then. Today I’m my own worst critic.

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