Challenge accepted [podcast episode included]
In December 2003, I received a letter in the mail.
It arrived in an official-looking white envelope from Kansas State University, where I had just wrapped up the first semester of my sophomore year.
To say I had limped through the semester would be generous
A check of my grades a few days earlier had read like I was singing the ABCs — A, B, C, D … and then F.
The A came in a blowoff Geology class. The F came in Calculus 3.
I was studying to become a civil engineer, and failing what was considered to be a mere prerequisite math class was a bad omen.
I opened the envelope and pulled out the single sheet of folded paper inside. I could feel my heart beating in my temples on my forehead as I unfolded the letter and began to read. It went something like this:
To Michael Ashford,
Based on the results of your unsatisfactory academic progress following the Fall 2003 semester, we must inform you that you have been placed on academic probation for the upcoming Spring 2004 semester.
Failure to improve your academic standing by the end of the semester will result in your expulsion from Kansas State University.
The letter went on to detail that my overall GPA had sunk to a 1.9. If it stayed below a 2.0 for two consecutive semesters, I’d be kicked out of school.
How in the world had I fallen so far so fast?
In high school, I was a straight-A student. I graduated with a perfect 4.0 GPA. I was valedictorian. I was class president all four years. I was a National Honor Society member. I earned enough scholarships to equate to a full-ride.
And in a little over a year, I was on the brink of getting sent home with my dignity in shambles.
Where did it all go wrong?
It’s an incredibly long story — one that I detail in full in my almost-complete book, “The Involved Man” — but the condensed version is that late in high school and on into college, I began searching for validation and acceptance from others instead of staying true to who I already knew I was.
This ultimately meant that instead of working hard to get what I wanted out of life — my relationships, my education, my career goals — I sought to take the easiest route possible so that I didn’t alienate anyone.
This meant that when the charm that had worked so well on my teachers in high school fell completely flat with my college professors, I gave up and blamed them for being too old, too stubborn, too out-of-touch.
This meant that instead of taking care of my responsibilities and dedicating myself to acquiring new knowledge and learning how to succeed in my college classes, I turned to partying to escape it all and fit in with the crowd.
But receiving that letter on that December day in 2003 placed me squarely at a crossroads in my life where I had two very clear options. Rarely does life offer up such black-and-white decision points, but thankfully, I got one.
You see, I easily could have surrendered. I could have looked at my 1.9 GPA and the fact that I hated my major and how much of an uphill battle I faced just to get my grades back to respectable, and I could have said, “I’m out! I can’t do this.”
Who knows how my life would have turned out had I chosen that option. I shudder to think what I would have forgone had I given up in that moment.
My only other option was to accept the Challenge.
Instead of tucking my tail like a dog that had been caught with its nose in the garbage and slinking off to sulk, I could instead get right with myself. I could get angry with what I had allowed myself to become. I could look at the Challenge in front of me and vow that this would not be how my story turned out.
I chose to fight like mad!
When I returned to campus for the Spring 2004 semester, the first thing I did was change my major. I had known for a long time that I was never meant to be an engineer, but because I had sought to please others so badly, I had opted for what others had told me I should do.
I first went Undeclared — meaning I had no chosen major — before I ultimately landed on Mass Communications and Journalism. If you can’t tell, I love to write and tell stories.
Buoyed by a major I actually enjoyed, I turned my attention to becoming the best student I could possibly be. I was determined to get nothing less than a B the remainder of my time at Kansas State, and I would do it based on merit, not because the professors and teachers liked me.
Finally, I poured myself into learning my new craft. I applied for a job as a writer at the student newspaper and got it (somehow!) despite my only writing example being an essay I wrote in my Expository Writing 2 class.
I applied for internships and freelance writing jobs, seeking out anything I could do to hone my skills as a writer in real-time and under pressure rather than avoid it.
And in August 2006, I graduated from Kansas State University with my degree just one semester later than originally planned , also with a job offer in hand.
More than a decade removed from college, my college GPA is about as relevant to my life as the rocks on Mars. Said another way: It doesn’t matter one bit.
However, the experience of what it took to earn that 3.2 has been the cornerstone of the person I have become.
Because of what I learned about myself in that moment to accept the Challenge that I faced, I am a stronger person. I am more driven. I am more capable of handling adversity. I am more determined. I am more self-assured. I am more confident. I am more empathetic.
That experience taught me just how important it is to continuously place yourself in uncomfortable and character-stretching situations and choose to accept the Challenge before you rather than turn away from it. When you lean into a Challenge voluntarily, you prepare yourself for the inevitable moments in life when you aren’t in control.
Case in point: When I lost my job in 2017, I applied the same tactics to repairing my professional career that I had used back in college to get my academic career back on track. I took full ownership of my situation and circumstances, blamed no one else but myself for being in the predicament that I was in, and I attacked my job search with ferocity.
I saw it as an opportunity to learn and grow again. Back in college, I needed to learn effort and honesty. During my search for a new job, I needed to learn patience and humility.
These days, I see so much value in being challenged to the point where I don’t sit back and let Challenges come to me. I seek them out. I cry out, “Ready or not, here I come!”
I’ve entered the competitive heat of a Spartan Race to see how I stacked up (and I did well, actually). I’ve hiked to the top of the tallest mountain in Colorado (Mt. Elbert) on a day that featured 50-mph wind gusts and 1,000 feet of altitude gain while hiking across a sheet of snow and ice. I started my podcast, the Fit Dad Fitness Podcast, when I had no idea what I was doing, nor did I feel all that comfortable in front of a microphone.
And now? I’ve got my sites set on doing a triathlon sometime next year, even though at this moment, I can’t really swim.
On a recent podcast interview, I was asked why I seek out Challenges as often as I do.
I could only point back to the decision I made in December 2003 at the moment I finished reading that letter from Kansas State threatening to kick me out of school if I didn’t get my act together.
My encouragement and hope for you reading this today is that you would accept the Challenges you face with a similar tenacity, determination, and attitude. That you would not wilt away, but that you would flourish out of the pressure and the expectations and the difficulties you face.
The best way to experience the growth you want in your life is to constantly test yourself to see what you’re made of.
If you fall short, learn from it.
But if you succeed, don’t stop there.
Always ask yourself: “What’s my next Challenge?”