Graduate school is supposed to be a life-changing experience, but the biggest changes I went through in those 5 years didn’t occur in the lab. This is the story of one of those experiences.
One Small Step
As most life-altering days do, it started completely normally.
I got out of bed, showered, brushed my teeth, got dressed, frantically searched for my backpack, and left the house.
It was winter in Wisconsin. As a former Floridian, that meant I was dressed in several layers of the thickest clothing a grad student could afford. Even then, it still felt cold.
I took the bus to school. The nearby route dropped me off right across the street from the chemistry building, my home away from home. The only thing that stood between me and that simulation I’d been thinking about all morning was that single street and the T-intersection at which I would cross.
In Wisconsin winter, I never cross even an empty downtown street without waiting for the walk sign. To be honest, it’s just out of paranoia. I have this constant fear that I’m going to fall, take too long to get up, and a car won’t notice me on the ground. After all, I’m just a gray blob in my thick winter outfit.
I started to cross as soon as I got the sign, and I was nearly halfway to the other side when I saw a car coming down the cross street and signaling a turn in my direction. They were slowing as they approached the intersection, as one would expect. I just kept walking, assuming that they would stop and wait for me to finish crossing. As it turns out, that was a bad assumption.
Once it reached the intersection, the car started its turn. This still wasn’t an atypical experience. Cars often stopped just short of the pedestrian lane instead of at the light, but I hated it when they did that in the winter with its icy roads.
As it approached, the car wasn’t slowing down. Rather, it had started to accelerate. I’d like to say that this is when I leaped out of the way. I’d like to say that I moved at all. Instead, I froze dead in my tracks.
In the past, I’d imagined how I’d react if I were hit by a car. I’d always seen myself enacting that move from The Next Karate Kid. It’s not the most popular pop culture reference, so let me elaborate. The protagonist of the movie finds herself in the middle of the street with a car coming right at her (sound familiar?). But she avoids injury by jumping at the last second and landing on the hood of the car in tiger position, starting her on an epic journey to karate fame.
But I didn’t jump. There was no tiger position. I wasn’t a tiger. I’d say that I was a deer in the headlights, but there weren’t even headlights. My fight-or-flight reaction was to freeze in place.
I had chosen my spirit animal. I was a possum.
The car hit me while still accelerating. I finally found enough range of motion to put my hands against the hood as I hit it. This, however, left me in a terrible position when I bounced off the hood and found myself plummeting toward the pavement face-first.
The next few minutes were hazy. I had lost all feeling in my face. I know the driver had gotten out to check on me, apologizing profusely. I think there was a small crowd gathering as well, but I couldn’t turn my head to verify that. I wanted to get up, but flying seemed as likely as standing at that moment.
The ambulance soon arrived. At least I’m assuming it was soon, but the aforementioned haziness makes my internal clock less than reliable during this part. I do remember that they asked if I could move, then immediately stopped me when I tried.
I was hauled into the ambulance and brought to the nearest hospital. Then began the tests. Nurses and doctors poked and prodded me in ways that I hope to never go through again. I’m not sure if I was more embarrassed or scared, but I know I felt quite a bit of both.
There was talk of stitches, which I eventually understood to be related to the fact that my mouth had taken on an apprentice, a large hole completely through my lower lip. It still worries me that I never realized that was there.
I guess they got my wife’s number from my phone, and my parents ended up flying in from Florida as well. By the time everyone got there, I was on a heavy dose of morphine. Between that and the inability to speak, I probably wasn’t the best host.
There was no pain in those first few moments on the ground. There was only cold and numbness. But in the hospital bed, even on morphine, the pain had found me. My face felt like someone was hitting it with a sledgehammer. It was like the most intense migraine was somehow radiating from my right cheek.
The most worrisome of the tests came back fine. My spine, neck, and internal organs seemed to be in good shape. There was nothing life-threatening, and no reason to believe that my mobility would be permanently affected.
I was slightly relieved, but I was more focused on the fact that my face was still a combination of numbness and intense pain. The x-rays confirmed that my cheekbone had been fractured.
Couple that with the second mouth, and I was pretty sure that I was destined to become a model for the next Picasso.
They sent me home that same day. If you are going to get hit by a car, do so in the morning. That gives the doctors all day to patch you up and send you home without an overnight hospital stay. Trust me, it’s worth it. Overnight hospital stays are the worst.
The couch was my new home. The walk between the couch and the bathroom would be my only exercise for the next few weeks.
My diet was limited by my inability to move my lips and the excruciating pain if I tried to chew. I became very familiar with what you could eat through a straw. I also discovered how hard it is to even use a straw when you have no feeling in your swollen-to-triple-size lips.
Whoever came up with Campbell’s Soup on the Go was my new culinary hero. Certain yogurts also worked. And that was pretty much the extent of my options. Meanwhile, my family ordered Chinese takeout.
Our favorite local Chinese takeout place, as many do, offered free items if your order was large enough. The free item for this order size was crab rangoons, and I love crab rangoons. Who doesn’t? It’s crab and cream cheese all wrapped up in that perfectly shaped piece of fried dough.
As you may have guessed by my aforementioned dietary restrictions, crab rangoons were not on the menu. Somehow, this was worse than anything else going on. My graduate studies were a distant dream right now. I could only imagine how my new horror-movie face would do in job interviews, but those crab rangoons were within reach.
Before the crab rangoons, my goal had been simple: get better. But what does that mean? Was it being able to talk normally? Was it being able to walk into a room without someone asking what happened to my face? It was too vague and monolithic of a goal.
Eating a rangoon was a simple goal. I knew what was required.
- I needed enough coordination not to stab myself in the lips with fried dough.
- I needed to be able to chew without too much pain
- I needed to be able to swallow non-liquids.
Now I had subgoals. Each of which I could check the progress of regularly. Coordination was all about how often I stabbed my lip with a straw while drinking my soup. I could move my teeth periodically to check the pain levels. Swallowing was harder to track, but I tried to gauge the difficulty I had swallowing liquids as a proxy.
Sadly, I missed my goal. Crab rangoons don’t last weeks in the fridge. I would have probably been better off with a more achievable goal, but the motivation worked all the same.
I kept focusing on those three subgoals. There were more crab rangoons in the world, and this was my path to eating them.
It took weeks, but I did eventually eat crab rangoons once again, and they were exactly as delicious as I had hoped.
I eventually did get better. The only lasting effect is the scar marking the place where my second mouth once was.
Would I have gotten better without my crab rangoon goal? Of course. But that’s not the point. They gave me a clear motivation which kept me going strong through those difficult weeks.
This is a lesson that I have taken with me into each new endeavor. The way I set the goals has evolved since I was introduced to the concept of SMART goals. Looking back on my crab rangoon, here’s how I did on being SMART.
- Specific — Check. It’s hard to be more specific than ‘eat one of these crab rangoons’.
- Measurable — Check. It’s very easy to tell when I’ve eaten a crab rangoon.
- Achievable – Fail. Here’s where I messed up initially by defining the goal as a crab rangoon from that batch. There was no way I was going to achieve it. I had set myself up for failure.
- Relevant – Check. Nothing mattered more than that crab rangoon. It was relevant.
- Time-bound – Check. Rangoons don’t last long in the fridge. But what I should have done is specified a date here instead of requiring that it be from that batch.
SMART goals have been crucial to my success, both personal and professional. I used them in my startup. I use them in my entrepreneurial pursuits. I even use them for learning to draw and learning to speak Spanish.
They are how I learn from my failures and celebrate my achievements.
I want to change the world, but that’s not a SMART goal. So today, I want to publish an article about crab rangoons and take out the recycling. Neither of those will change the world, but they will keep me on the right path.