Since I was a naive middle-schooler, eager to obtain any sliver of information that would aid me in the competitive college admissions process, I have been told finding a passion is the key to standing out — in both life and through an application. I was also told it especially helps when one is particularly good at whatever passion he or she pursues — whether it be mastering the piano, becoming fluent in Portuguese or receiving a scholarship to play collegiate-level basketball. At first, as most awkward and self-conscious eighth graders are, I felt lost and like I had nothing I particularly cared about or was talented at. I loved to write, but after having fallen in with the “popular and sporty” crowd (mind you, this was self-designated), I felt like I could no longer explore that aspect of myself. I mentally packed up my well-worn notebooks and remnants of poems and shoved them far into the back realms of my mind to make room for “new passions,” or rather, pursuits that I deemed more exciting and cool.

Throughout middle school I had run cross country for social reasons, but as I entered high school, I realized I had some natural talent, and decided I wanted to take my training to the next level. After I started winning races and setting personal records every other week, I quickly, along with my family and friends, began to identify myself as “the runner.” I was the one who ate extremely healthily, always left parties early so I could get a good amount of sleep and could be seen running through town at all hours of the day. Though on the outside it looked like I was achieving all of my goals, I was actually spiraling deeper and deeper into unhealthy behaviors. As I progressed through high school, my eating habits became borderline disordered, I would lash out or become extremely irritated if an event occurred that disrupted my workout schedule and I began to stray from any interesting activities that disrupted my running. After my debate team won the state championship, I went as far as to skip the celebration afterward so that I could get a second run in that day. Running consumed my life to the point that there was room for absolutely nothing else.

Sadly, life has a funny way of working itself out, and at the height of my obsession, I developed a stress reaction in my femur and was forced to stop the very “passion” that fueled my daily routine. Injuries are saddening to anyone, but because I had chosen to so closely tie my entire identity to being a runner, I no longer knew who I was anymore. I cried for days, withdrew from my friends, and lashed out at all of my family members. Eventually my bones healed, but it took me yet another injury — during my last season of cross country — to realize I needed to change the way I was living my life.

Though injuries took a lot away from my high school running experience, I’ve been so lucky to have the opportunity to run cross country and track for the University of Michigan. However, instead of continuing down my previous path of single-minded obsession, I have been much more comfortable with attempting the so sought-after concept of finding “balance”. I’ve finally realized that academics are, indeed, much more important than athletics, and I am not afraid to run a workout on a few hours of sleep in order to complete an assignment or feel confident walking into a test the next morning. There are so many interesting clubs I want to join and people I want to meet. Luckily, I am only a freshman and still have an entire collegiate career ahead of me. Yes, I am a runner, but I have realized that is only a small aspect of my complete persona. I am so much happier and healthier, and actually running faster than ever before.

Obviously, running is the example that is most pertinent to me, but this pitfall of pigeonholing oneself into one particular role can happen to anyone. I have friends who see themselves as “the artist,” “the musician” or “the partier” — and not much else. Passions are important and a major part of what makes life so unique, yet your singular passion (or what you do to look good on an application) does not define you. Human beings have a multitude of interests that should be explored, redefined and uncovered as they grow and change. In recent years, we seem to have settled into the dangerous thought pattern that it is important to be “really, really good” at one thing, rather than talented in a wide variety of areas. But when that one thing does not work out, we are left feeling like we are nothing at all.

College is the perfect time to explore all of these interests, especially in a community as large and diverse as the University of Michigan. The new year is the perfect time to take a step back, slow down and explore some of the interests and opportunities you thought you didn’t have time for while you were too busy being an athlete, business major or member of Greek life. Continue to grow and succeed and fail and experience all of the infinitesimal, wonderful and tragic moments that combine to make one’s college experience. We have the freedom to follow an infinite number of paths, and not get bogged down by others’ (or even our own) expectations of us. This was a concept that took me two broken bones to realize. In the words of writer Thomas Merton, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”

Kaela Theut can be reached at ktheut@umich.edu.

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