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I was seven the first time I remember thinking I was fat.

Our elementary school had a parent-teacher organization meeting every month, and the different classes took turns providing some kind of short entertainment. We were doing a scene from Snow White, that infamous moment when Prince Charming came along, kissed the princess (on the hand, since we were first graders after all), and led Snow White into the sunset as the woodland creatures and dwarfs rejoiced.

There were animal costumes for everyone, and I remember feeling my face get redder and redder and redder as my teacher struggled to find one to fit me. At seven years old, I was as tall as some of the eleven and twelve year olds in the higher grades. I mean, there were a few other larger kids in my class as well. I wasn’t a total freak. But that day, while every other kid pulled on costumes with ease, I felt like I was.

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There are moments in life that build us up, and we like to talk about those moments and hug one another and feel good about life. But really, the moments we often remember, the moments that define us, are the moments when we are torn down. We are shaped by these life lessons we don’t even realize we’re learning, that life isn’t fair, that the world isn’t a nice place, that people are cruel. These moments linger with us, teaching us what we’re not and what we will never be. Outwardly, we celebrate how wonderful we are, happily sharing our accomplishments. Privately, we wonder why we aren’t more.

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When I was in eighth grade, I was selected as part of a graduation decoration committee. We had this silly little ceremony to celebrate us moving on to the high school, beginning that last part of our public school education, and there were three of us who were allowed to skip classes to prepare the auditorium for the big night.

I imagine that I was the easy choice when the teachers all got together to decide which students should be in charge of the decorations. I was months, maybe even years, ahead in all of my classes. Similarly, Randy was fairly far ahead and well-liked by the teachers, so he was likely an easy choice for the decoration committee. But Jesse? He was an average student on a good day, and known for running with the wrong crowd, even if he usually stayed out of trouble himself. He was a follower, someone who generally got in trouble because he went along with the crowd, but when no one was looking, he was a beautiful soul, funny and shy and creative as all hell. I guess maybe the teachers just wanted to give him a chance to do something good, to show him that he could be a better person if he wanted it.

The three of us cut out these HUGE silhouettes of a boy and a girl, both in graduation caps, to serve as the backdrop on the stage. We ran out of black paper for the girl silhouette, so she was cut off shorter than the male silhouette. No one really noticed, but Jesse and I joked with one another that we had ruined graduation, that we had four years to improve or we would probably ruin our next one too. When the day was over, we went our separate ways again, with Randy and I going back to the “smart” classes and Jesse heading back to his trouble-making friends, but for a day, the three of us we allowed to be friends, with no pressure to be anything that we weren’t. And maybe that’s what the teachers wanted more than anything. Maybe this odd grouping was as much for Randy and I as it was for Jesse.

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The last time I went on a job interview, back before I decided to be a freelancer, what I remember most was feeling like a stuffed sausage in my three-piece suit. I say three-piece because it was pants and a coat and a button-down shirt, but let’s be honest - it was way more than three pieces. I was stuffed into panty hose and stuffed into ugly heels and stuffed into a conservative bra that would hopefully stop any buttons on my shirt from bursting open. Even my hair was stuffed into a frumpy bun updo. Somewhere along the way, this was the life lesson I had learned, that this is what people do. We stuff ourselves into a mold, hoping that we’re a good enough fit that the interviewer will offer us the job. Sometimes, we’re stuffed so tightly that we can’t breathe, for a job we don’t even really want. I remember feeling as anxious that I would get the job as that I wouldn’t.

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I was 21 when I got my ears pierced for the first time. My parents were extremely conservative, so I wasn’t allowed to have it done during elementary school, when everyone else was getting pierced ears for their birthdays. By the time I was deemed old enough, I had lost interest. Well, kind of. Part of me just didn’t think about it anymore, but the other part of me was just embarrassed. It made me sick to my stomach to go to the mall, as a teenager, and admit that I was the biggest dork in the world and did not have my ears pierced. I wanted it done, but I also was too worried about being judged.

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When I graduated high school, we had an empty seat at our ceremony, a seat for Jesse. At some point during junior year, the life lesson Jesse learned is that it would never get better, so he put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

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This is After Graduation, where I’m supposed to talk to you all about the career choices you make after you graduate. I’m supposed to tell you that it is okay to not know what you want to do with your life and I’m supposed to tell you to follow your heart when choosing a career path and I’m supposed to tell you that money isn’t important if you love what you do. I’m supposed to share with you all of the life lessons I learned along the way, but the truth is that I feel like it is more important that I tell you to undo the life lessons you’ve already learned, just as I’m trying to do.

We need to unlearn that we’re not good enough, that we might as well not even try because we’ll just fail anyway, that someone else out there is better, so what’s the point. We need to unlearn all of the things we’ve grown to know about ourselves, that we don’t admit. We’re really good at putting on a smile, but when our friends go home and our spouse falls asleep, what do we really think about ourselves? We need to unlearn those doubts and fears. We need to unlearn the utter crap we know and give ourselves a chance.

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Recently, I had the chance to spend a weekend with someone who made me feel, for the first time, like I didn’t have to be the fat seven year old who couldn’t fit into a costume. He held my hand and made me look into the mirror and feel beautiful.

And that may not be much, but it is a start.

This post is part of the Life Lesson Series, hosted on Abubakar Jamil’s Self Improvement Blog and in collaboration with the wonderful Farnoosh Brock of Prolific Living. Thank you so much, Farnoosh, for inviting me to participate with all of the other amazing bloggers who have taken part in this series. I feel so honored to be part of such a special group of posts.


Like what you read here? Stay connected with the After Graduation community and receive a free copy of Career Oomph!, a weekly newsletter to help you stay motivated to find that perfect job:



  1. Farnoosh (Reply) on Thursday 27, 2011

    Oh chilled to the bone. Great stories here, Alli but it is the story telling and your remembrance of it that gives me the chills. Thank you so much for participating and now I feel I know you so so much better….and I like everything I see. Oh I am so sorry for Jesse. It is so sad when those things happen when happiness can be so near and so accessible. I am so glad you are finding your way in this world. Thanks for being our big bang for the finish, # 108! :)

    • Allison (Reply) on Thursday 27, 2011

      Thank you so much, again, for asking me to participate. It was a hard post to write, but I always feel good after writing stuff like this.

  2. James Sanders (Reply) on Thursday 27, 2011

    Hello neighbor, small world. Mrs Farnoosh linked this in her Tweets and I thought I’d come by and read. I agree, people grow up with so much baggage. It’s really hard to “unlearn” the things we learn through life disappointments, but it CAN be done. It can be hell during the process too. It’s about next to impossible without a strong mind to catch yourself every time your mind starts to play those tapes, and that is the biggest part of the battle. It all goes back to that “garbage in garbage out” thing.

    But anyways, nice write up, sorry to hear about Jess and his final solution to temporary problems. Good luck with the endeavors and may your making money online dreams come true.

    • Allison (Reply) on Thursday 27, 2011

      Thank you for stopping by, James. I think it can be done too, but it certainly is hard. It takes a second to “learn” that you aren’t good enough, and a lifetime to learn that you are.

  3. Abubakar Jamil (Reply) on Thursday 27, 2011

    Allison,

    Great stories and great lessons. Happy to see you in the Life Lessons Series and thanks a lot for sharing with us this lovely post.

    • Allison (Reply) on Thursday 27, 2011

      Thank you for hosting it!

  4. Weekend Coffee Links: Lessons Edition

    [...] The Lessons We Learn: What happens when the best advice you can give someone is to unlearn everything they were taught - by their teachers, themselves and society? This one will stick with you. [...]

  5. Brian Cormack Carr (Reply) on Thursday 27, 2011

    Great post, Allison. I really connect with your point about the stuff we need to “unlearn”.

    So much of what we’re taught, or what we think we know for sure, just doesn’t stand us in good stead in the real world. Your readers might be interested in my free oline video series, which aims to help job-hunters and career-changers “unlearn” the traditional career-search methods they’ve been taught, in favour of practical, tactical, real-life methods that actually WORK.

    A short promo clip, especially for graduates, is at http://youtu.be/sDAE63yUBP0












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