This is not a lecture. It’s an observation. And it’s not a self-aggrandizing post but I do need to give some detail on my own life to make the point, so I will.
Recently, I saw Wayne Koons, a former Marine, then NASA Engineer, then pilot/astronaut speak about his education, his life and his faith. Speaking at the same event were one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a Nicaraguan musician and the head of athletics for University of Kentucky, Mitch Barnhart. Other accomplished people joined them but all of them shared a similar message: Do something. Koons pointed out that the median age of all employees at NASA up into 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon was under 40. And he said it to point out to college students that they can make a difference.
It got me to thinking. I’m a guy who often feels frustrated by lack of success in areas of my life. 23 months unemployed. And I have a hard time getting a job because I’ve done so many things, despite a Masters, and despite the fact my career had been somewhat steady until I was fired by my ex-employer in May 2010. Resumes don’t explain all the variety in my life. But what does explain it is an inner drive I was raised with to be someone who made an impact on my world and community.
My parents are a doctor and nurse who believed in service. Of my grandparents, one was a farmer, one a teacher, one a housewife and one a utility worker. (The housewife was all about service. She raised six kids and helped manage a farm in addition to serving church and community so don’t write her off as less significant.) My family has a legacy of service to others–careers and jobs which make an impact far beyond the walls of their homes. So naturally, I grew up expecting to do the same.
My earliest dreams fluctuated between being a rock star/composer and an author/writer. I focused on TV and film in college but then wound up leaving my time in Hollywood to travel doing music. Fun as those days were in many ways, I found them unsatisfying. I still wanted to make a difference and entertaining people wasn’t enough. So I went back to school for a Masters while working in sales and other retail jobs to get by, often working 30 hours plus while taking a full time load of classes. It was hard. Grades suffered someone. But I was serving and that made me happy.
After I got my Masters, I founded a nonprofit and travelled for the next decade to Africa, Brazil, Mexico and other places bringing musicians and other qualified arts people to provide specialized training to people who couldn’t afford or get access to it any other way. I raised money, recruited volunteers, led teams and taught. And to this day, I still hear from students who grew and went on to great success from what Anchored Music has done. We still exist. Life just sideswiped me a bit and have been less active the past two years due to many personal crises in my life. But the point is, we made a difference. I got paid nothing. I took consulting or contract jobs instead of full time to have the freedom to take weeks off and do the mission work. I sacrificed a career path, in other words, but I was doing something and that’s what mattered. No matter what other failures I experience, no one can take that away.
It’s funny when you’re an author. No matter the genre or book itself, people just assume you’re accomplished. Not that I am belittling what it takes to be published. There is hard work and some degree of intelligence generally involved, most of the time, yes. But do all authors deserve to be treated like heroes? Not so sure. I do know when your book teaches something or brings a message of hope and change, it’s much more satisfying than just writing to entertain. Because you’re doing something with your words.
What’s my point? When I was 17, all I wanted to do was be the rock star/composer, find a girl, fall in love, and have a family like the portrait painted by my hero John Denver in his songs. How disappointing it was to find out years later that even John Denver couldn’t live the ideal he sang about. His “perfect” family life was far from it. But I never imagined the roads and paths down which life would take me in my quest to make a difference. Or how much frustration and heartache there could be with employment as a result.
Still, I don’t regret it, because even if I die tomorrow, I have accomplished a lot for a 43 year old man: national radio singles, opening for major acts, name on national TV, TV and radio appearances, songs used in six languages and sung in churches, published books, and most importantly students who took what I taught and went on to make better lives for themselves and their community. That last one is the greatest accomplishment of all. To those people, my life matters. They still tell me that every time they track me down online. I made a difference. I did something and it had significant impact for their lives.
Wayne Koons and Mitch Barnhart never imagined growing up where their paths would take them. Neither did a little African boy who was just feeling lucky to be alive every day in the Sudan. But now they are educated, accomplished men with better lives than any one of them could have ever imagined.
No matter who you are or what your dreams or background, you can do that, too. You can do something and be significant. Your liffe can matter to more than just you. I urge you to consider that. Strive to serve more than just yourself and your own desires. Strive to reach beyond you spouse, kids and immediate community. As Christa McAuliffe said, before dying in NASA’s Challenger accident, “It’s better to shoot for the stars and miss than shoot for nothing and hit.” So shoot for the stars. You never know, you might just change the destiny of a solar system. Your life can be significant. It can matter. And all you have to do is DO SOMETHING.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.