By Derek Blalock
Most of our lives are bound by only two limitations: death and our imagination. Other limitations are ultimately constructed out of self-doubt.
To me, that's insane to think about. So often we refuse to act because of the stupid notion that we might fail. Or, even worse, others think we might fail, so we don't even try. But trust me, you don't know what you're capable of unless you put forth the effort.
When I was a senior in high school, my friend Thomas Smith died suddenly of cardiac arrest caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle abnormally thickens. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, this disorder is the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes.
Following Tommy’s death, with the help of my family, I was able to raise about $10,000 through a T-shirt fundraiser and spaghetti benefit dinner to contribute to the costs of his funeral and tombstone. However, as life took me to college and through numerous internships, there was something telling me that I could do more — I needed to do more.
Tommy had an infectious personality and an amazing thirst for life that inspired me to have the same thirst. Knowing there are many young athletes who face similar fates as Tommy, I decided I wanted to help limit the number of athletes impacted by this condition. I came up with the idea to bike across America for Tommy — specifically to raise awareness and money for the Thomas Smith Memorial Foundation, which works to ensure young athletes have access to free heart screenings by raising funds to provide local hospitals with mobile cardiac equipment.
“Tommy had an infectious personality and an amazing thirst for life that inspired me to have the same thirst.”
The idea was formulated when I was working at a youth sports summer camp in Massachusetts in 2012. I felt my life spiraling out of my control — time seemed to be passing way too fast for my liking, and I didn't want to wake up in 30 years and have little to show for it. I've heard it way too often from older generations: “I wish I would've done this,” and “I wish I would've done that ...”
That was not going to be me.
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Armed with the knowledge of charity bike trips from my time as a reporter at Michigan State University's student newspaper, where I once assisted a colleague with her story about Bike & Build (which leads bike trips to benefit affordable housing), I started dreaming about how I could help this foundation. I was going to create my own bike route, raise my own funds, do my own marketing — I was exhilarated.
But what was one of the first things I heard when I shared this idea with many of my "friends?"
"Have you ever even biked long distances before?"
I told them no.
They laughed in my face and told me that it was a pipe dream: "We'll believe it when we see it."
They called me naive.
Fuck you, I thought.
A certain amount of naiveté is fine with me. I think it's necessary to succeed. If we're not just a little bit naive, then we fail to imagine the wide-ranging possibilities, and we risk letting naysayers limit our potential.
That's how I came up with my bike trip. Naiveté allowed me to not only raise money for a worthy cause, but it allowed me to see some of our nation’s natural and historical beauties: the Grand Canyon, continental divides and Philadelphia landmarks, to name a few. It also allowed me to put my degree in advertising to actual use even before graduation by marketing, fundraising and blogging to reach thousands of readers and donors online, as well as in person by hosting dozens of functions throughout more than 25 states.
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Growing up I always heard from teachers, friends and family, "You can do whatever you want in life."
Deep down, my thought was always, Bullshit. I, like many others, thought natural ability mattered, where you were raised mattered, how much money you had mattered. But after my trip, I realize so often those are just excuses for people unwilling to put in the hard work or overemphasized roadblocks for those unaware of the real power of their imaginations.
“A certain amount of naiveté is fine with me. I think it's necessary to succeed.”
While there are only so many Beyoncés, Benedict Cumberbatches and LeBron Jameses in the world, you can still live out your dreams of working in their industries or in the millions of other jobs and paths and purposes. Don't be afraid to use your imagination to dream — and to plan.
I was just a kid with a sense of obligation — an obligation to help others, as we all should. I was also a kid who needed to find himself. I had no cycling experience — no clue how to change a tire, no clue how to fix a chain, no clue what a pannier was. The thought of my sporting the skintight suits cyclists wear was laughable.
Countless indoor cycling sessions in my dingy basement, as well as the prep trip I made to Indianapolis to see my Michigan State Spartans in the Final Four helped prepare me for my trip, but I knew traveling 7,000 miles in less than 90 days would be a different animal than the four-day, 300-mile trip I took to see my school play basketball in the NCAA Tournament.
But guess what: During my actual trip I biked up mountains, hiked up another, rode through extreme heat and rain; I blew 20 tubes, went through three sets of tires, lost my front saddlebag and pushed my body, but more importantly my mind, past what I thought I was capable of handling. I met some truly amazing people who gave me more support than I ever could’ve asked for. I hated myself for hours on end when I was in the middle of America with no one but myself and my thoughts. But I was also more proud of myself than ever before for throwing myself into this adventure — like I imagine Tommy would have.
In the end, I had the best damn time of my life. My imagination was reignited. I started dreaming again.
Now, I have dreams of writing a bestselling book, selling a screenplay, motivational speaking and more. You might call my dreams naive, but I would like to ask you, "Why not me? … Why not you?"
I might not achieve all of these goals. But then again, I just might.
Derek Blalock is a writer and recent college graduate and was the commencement speaker at his university’s graduation ceremony. He is a passionate storyteller with a plethora of tales to tell about the many foolish situations he finds himself in.