A few years ago, my family and I decided to start a new Christmas tradition. Every year, we pack our stuff in the SUV (along with our 150-pound Great Dane, Owen) and drive 1,400 miles from D.C. to my hometown of Houston. Along the way, we stop in New Orleans, to stay in a quaint hotel and explore one of my favorite cities and all that it has to offer.
On Christmas Eve, we make the final five-hour trek to Houston, to the same humble home where my siblings and I grew up—and my parents still live. We attend midnight mass together at St. Patrick’s, our neighborhood church, after which my mom makes one of my favorite after-Christmas mass snacks: bolillos, halved and toasted on the parilla with lots of butter, and a cup of Abuelita hot chocolate.
The next morning, while waiting for my sisters and their respective families, I enjoy my father’s famous menudo with all the fixin’s. Afterwards we pretty much lounge around the house and eat and talk. Presents were never a huge part of our Christmas experience (they still aren’t). The stories and the jokes; the food and the music; so many wonderful and emotional memories: These were and are our gifts to each other.
Sadly, my family and I won’t be making that cross-country trip to Houston this year. With COVID raging unabated throughout the country, I simply can’t justify putting my mom (90) and dad (97) at risk. I miss them terribly, and it breaks my heart (and makes me very anxious and stressed) not knowing definitively when we’ll be together next.
Right now, millions of Americans—including many of you—are having to make the same gut-wrenching decision. To stay home, hunker down and wait for the pandemic to die out (or at least subside). Will it take a month? Three months? Six? Longer? Nobody knows. And it’s that uncertainty that makes this whole ordeal so difficult – and frustrating.
We have a long winter ahead of us. That much is clear. It’s how we weather these times—our choices, attitude, and outlook—that will determine not just our short-term sanity, but our long-term abilities.
As I pondered our collective plight, I couldn’t help but think about Joseph Campbell, the famed psychologist and philosopher who popularized the concept of the Hero’s Journey—and someone who’s thoughts and ideas I’m always revisiting. His theories have a lot to teach us. Now more than ever.
Typically, the journey begins with the hero’s initial call to action. For you, that might mean graduating college, or pursuing a specific career in STEM. At a certain point, typically early on, the hero crosses the threshold from the known to the unknown. As the challenges mount—a difficult class; the stress of finding a job—the hero must rely on mentors to help see them through the difficult times. This is what SHPE strives to be: a voice of wisdom and experience to guide you on your academic or professional and leadership journey. That’s what SHPE programs are all about, and it’s why we’re so excited to launch our re-imagined MentorSHPE program in January.
After the call to action, there comes the abyss or nadir. Think of the scene in Star Wars where Luke, Leia, and Han are trapped in the trash compactor and nearly get destroyed by the one-eyed monster. It might not be the most iconic scene in the movie, but it is one of the most important. Once the one-eyed villain is slayed, the hero (Luke) is forever transformed, ready to take on the challenges ahead.
In our current-day analogy, we’re stuck in the proverbial trash compactor: the walls closing in, a deadly force lurking beneath and all around, with no choice but to fight for every breath. To survive, we have to rely on the knowledge and skills that propelled us on our journey—and the wisdom of those who came before (our mentors and guides).
But unlike those stress-inducing scenes in our favorite action movies (which last maybe a few minutes at most), this nadir—the pandemic, the economic uncertainty, the social unrest—is one that’ll take years to ultimately overcome. So how do we do it? How do *you* marshal what you’ve learned (and need to learn) to overcome the challenges in front of you?
You do it the same way you’ve been doing throughout this past year: by observing, listening, asking catalytic questions, and acquiring new skills. Being open to new experiences and new perspectives. New ways of seeing your place and your purpose in the world.
How do you do it? One day at a time. One action at a time. Refine your resume. Earn a certification in a specialized area of knowledge like SHPE’s CyberTech Trek certification course. Explore the courses offered by our Propel program. Spend some time catching up on SHPE’s free latinXfactor series or the on-demand content from Convention 2020, all of which can help you sharpen your skills and gain that competitive edge. Get involved with your local SHPE chapter—even if you have to do it virtually. Make it your personal mission and mantra to become a little better each and every day. One action at a time. One day at a time.
This is where true transformation takes place: Not in the big, life-changing accomplishments; but in the little things we do every day to improve ourselves—and prepare ourselves for the journeys and summits ahead.
And remember: Just because you’re stuck at home physically doesn’t mean you need to be stuck at home mentally. Dig deep. Find something you’re passionate about—be it a work project or pastime—and give it everything you have. I promise you, when all of this is over, you’ll look back on these next few months and feel a palpable pride in knowing that you made the most of an awful situation. That you not only survived; but thrived.
To be honest, my favorite part of the Hero’s Journey isn’t the call to action. It’s not overcoming the nadir. It’s the return: the point where, having vanquished the enemy, the protagonist finally goes home—and understands, with clear eyes and full heart, just how much it shaped them.
However, I decide to spend these next few months— working out; learning to knit; refining my chess game; continuing my studies in stoicism; reading and learning; always striving to be the best leader and CEO I can be—that image of home, that humble house on Cochran Street in the barrio of Houston, will always be my light at the end of the tunnel. The home base and upbringing that helped shape who I am and what I’m about. Just as your home, family, and community or your studies or career will be that light for you.
Those sources of inspiration will be there: bowing heads and holding hands in grace around the dinner table; recounting stories and telling the same-old-but-forever-hilarious jokes in the living room; just… being together. And while none of us can know for sure when things will return to normal, when we can celebrate the holidays with those we love in the same ways we enjoyed in the past, there is one thing we do know: wherever we go from here, we’ll all be better versions of ourselves. At least I’d like to think so. Forever the cautious optimist.
But if you really think about it, there’s no greater gift we can give than that – a better version of ourselves, to our self, to others, and to the world.