• Courtney Dianne

Interview: The Optimist

Matt B., 32, could easily be mistaken for a son of privilege, with finely-tailored suits, weekend wear of the Nantucket variety, perfectly-coiffed hair, and a strong jawline, not to mention a sense of ease no matter his surroundings and self-discipline that belies his youth. However, this former Marine Corps intelligence officer, bartender, and professional house painter is anything but blue-blooded, having been raised in a working-class family in a small Pennsylvania town battered by the wave of late-20th-century deindustrialization. Now a finance manager and a recent divorcé, Matt shares, in his own words, on not yet finding his calling, the power of networking, what he's learned about romantic love, and why the world was due for a refresh.

My parents didn’t know the true value of education, but they knew education was important.

Therefore, I knew education was important. I worked hard to set a good educational foundation for myself. My parents did understand the value of hard work. They are simple people who worked tirelessly at their blue-collar jobs in order to provide whatever path to the future my brother and I chose. I worked five summers painting houses with my dad who took great pride in a job well done. I learned what good work looked like and how it made me feel. As a result, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to the work I perform.

I regret not talking to a life coach before starting college.

I had no idea what I wanted to major in before starting at Virginia Tech. I was good at math and physics, and my guidance counselor recommended engineering. I started out as a Mechanical Engineer but was too short-sighted to put in the time and effort to understand computer programming. I switched into Building Construction since the foundation courses were the same. I ended up not enjoying Building Construction and pursued politics upon graduation. I wish I took the time before going to school to reflect on what I really enjoyed learning in high school. Had I done it all again I possibly would’ve pursued Economics or Writing or Theater or Statistics.

I took an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill after graduation.

My parents never expected me to work for politicians. They also didn’t understand my decision at the time. I turned down a decent paycheck for something that was unpaid. They couldn’t understand that since their entire lives they collected paychecks with regular frequency. The outcome was overwhelmingly positive. I got to witness how the nation’s laws are made and met some very influential people. I had some great mentors that taught me how to build strong relationships. I learned how to create strong arguments and be decisive. I also learned resiliency. It’s not easy having to work two jobs to make the rent payment in DC, but after having that experience, I’m confident I can take a stab at just about anything and make it work. I wish I had stayed on Capitol Hill a little longer. After about eight months of no paycheck and two 40+ hour/week jobs, I was ready to make some money and get some more sleep. I took a job working for a defense contractor in their Government Affairs office. I got an offer to make $40k/year and work 40 hours a week. At the time I couldn’t say no. Looking back on it, I should have waited longer for a paid position on Capitol Hill to become available. There were so many resources at my disposal to help me in my career by being in the DC environment. However, I didn’t know how to use them until I met my ex-wife. She is a master networker and taught me how to network my way into jobs and education programs. It’s a skill that takes a lot of practice, and there is always an element of discomfort if you’re introverted. I haven’t mastered networking, but I’ve honed it enough to build a robust resume.

I always imagined I would have been a cop or some societal do-gooder when I was growing up.

When it came down to pursuing something like that, I chose what I thought would be a more practical choice and yield a high paycheck. After three years of grinding it out in DC, I ended up joining the military and fulfilled my sense of service later in life. Perhaps I only needed four years of being a Marine to feel like I’ve contributed meaningfully to society. It’s tough to say I’ve reconciled a different path than what I’ve envisioned growing up since I still have not found my true calling. I am at the very beginning of a transformation and am looking forward to the journey. There is no sense in looking back and wishing I had done something differently anymore. And I’m determined to meet the new expectations I’ve set for myself since I have much more perspective on life.

Joining the Marine Corps was a risk in terms of personal safety (the war was still ongoing in 2014) and whether I could complete the training.

I overcame my fears by doing what I do best: bonding with other people. There were a lot of guys and girls who were nervous about joining the Marine Corps and many of them were younger than I was. Throughout the process we leaned on each other for support and guidance. The outcome is that I am proud to have served my country and gain the experience I did. I was able to lead Marines at an age when most people haven’t had any leadership experience. I learned a lot about the different backgrounds that my Marines had and how to best lead them through stressful situations. I also learned a lot about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. There is a lot of ambiguity in life, especially in corporate settings – after being a Marine, I’m better prepared to navigate that ambiguity.

There is one theme that gives me some direction in my quest to figure out my calling and that is: “do what makes you happy and do what you’re good at.”

There is no reason to try to master something that I’m naturally bad at in hopes of only ever being mediocre. Rather, I’m reflecting deeply about what I’ve been good at throughout my life and what I’ve enjoyed doing. I hope to be standing at the intersection of performance and enjoyment within the next five years.

If you’re struggling with societal expectations, I’d encourage you to think deeply about whether the expectation is one society has placed on you or if it is one you are putting on yourself.

It’s difficult in the age of social media not to feel that there is an expectation you have to meet. Separate yourself from that.

As a recent divorcé, I have learned a lot about romantic love. I thought I found “the one” but realized a hadn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, my divorce was very amicable and I would be the first person to endorse my ex-wife as a partner. We just weren’t right for each other. I don’t know if there is “the one” for me or really anyone, but I do know what I am looking for in a partner now. For me, the key ingredients are empathy, sense of humor, and grit. I want someone who wants to take risks and experience the world like me. I also need someone with whom I can have deep conversations and who keeps me interested. There are many lessons learned post-divorce – I just haven’t figured them out yet. I talk to a relationship counselor now to help me find out what I have learned. It’s a slow process but will be beneficial as I start to date again. The one thing I do know is that I have a list of traits I am looking for. I’m not going to find someone who has all of these traits, but I am going to find someone who I love despite the traits she doesn’t have.

In the beginning I was very anxious about COVID-19. That anxiety was at an all-time high when I got sick about three weeks ago.

I rarely get sick and my symptoms were in line with COVID. However, my body beat whatever illness I had relatively quickly, and I feel much less anxious now. I remind myself that, as a 32-year-old who doesn’t consume healthcare and is in very good physical condition, that I fit nicely within the 85% of people who will experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Throughout this pandemic, I am being deliberate about reaching out to friends and family. I’ve never talked on the phone as much in my life as I have in the past few weeks. I am really enjoying the connectedness despite the lack of personal interaction. I’ve successfully led virtual game nights and happy hours. In fact, I’m about to attend my first virtual birthday party this week – I can’t wait! It’s these micro-interactions (10 minutes here or 30 minutes there) of talking to people on the phone that has helped me stay resilient and positive in the current environment we live in. I have also blocked out the bad news of the ever-growing number of cases and focus on the good news. Our society is pulling together in a way we haven’t seen since a major war or another catastrophe. The world was due for a refresh and the coronavirus is proof positive that we can be more charitable and change the world for the better. I am optimistic about our future.

Photo Courtesy of Matt B.


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