I was aware that the bubbly guide was giving me instructions but I couldn’t hear her over the pounding of my heart. With my pulse racing, knuckles white, and a cold sweat covering my body, I shivered. I wasn’t cold; I was scared out of my mind.

I peered over the edge of the largest cinder-cone volcano in the world, clutching the weathered piece of wood that would be responsible for transporting me to the bottom. I watched my fellow adventurers toboggan down the face of the black sand and disappear over the 35-degree drop. Where did they go? Did they just hurdle themselves into a void of nothingness? What if there were a pile of bodies collecting at the base of the volcano that I was unaware of? Was I really going to join them in the stupidity of boarding down the 728-meter face to my hypothetical demise? A clap of thunder jumped my thoughts back up the incline to my current location: the top of Nicaragua’s most active volcano. “What did you say?” I asked the overly enthusiastic tour-guide.

She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted back to me, “It’s time! Off you go now!” Her oblivion to the danger surrounding the situation made me want to throw volcanic ash at her but the reality was, I had wanted to do this. I had specifically come to Leon because I wanted to go volcano-boarding. So off I went, cursing my own enthusiasm and praying I wouldn’t die.

My life had not always been so exciting. In fact only six months earlier, I thought I was destined for a life of lab research, publications, and academia. I was going to be a clinical psychologist. I had gotten straight A’s through college, chosen a psychological field to study, spent four years in laboratories running participants, analyzing data, and writing up journals for publication. I had worked in clinical settings, interned with the top psychologists in the city, and graduated top of my class. I had even been recognized as the Outstanding Graduate of 2010 of my university due to my commitment to the community and diversity. I had applied to over two dozen programs in a span of two years, flown across the country to interview with hundreds of other candidates and gotten nothing but kudos on my background and interpersonal skills. I spent my savings on airfare, hotel rooms, and a spiffy suit to make this dream happen.

At the time, I hadn’t minded the effort because I figured it would pay off once I was in a program working on the next groundbreaking dissertation. I had plans, BIG plans of becoming a renowned academic with an extensive research facility and books based around my years of research. All of this was to be spurred by my entrance into a graduate program on a full ride scholarship.

Naturally, this dream was crushed little by little as I systematically received rejection letters from the schools I applied to, each letter as heartless and superfluous as the last. I remember being shocked, saddened, and in a state of utter disconsolation. I had worked so hard. I had done everything I was told to do. I had followed the American Dream template down to the letter and I was rewarded with a big pile of, “Sorry, there are just too many other overqualified recent graduates with dreams like yours.”

I suddenly had no future, no plans, no expectations. I was literally living in the now. So I reacted like many other have when faced with devastating and life-changing news: I booked a flight out of the country in search of answers. (Okay, so it isn’t what most other people do when they have failed and are depressed beyond recognition, but there wasn’t enough alcohol in Las Vegas to make me feel better). First stop was Nicaragua to meet up with a group of other adventurous women to surf, do community work, and board down the world’s most active cinder-cone volcano. Yep.

At the time I looked at this trip as an escape mechanism, a way for me to avoid the fact that I had failed in every possible manner in my field. As the academic who all my professors and mentors were rooting for, I was the ultimate letdown. I needed some time to tend to my bruised ego and I figured a place in Central America where no one knew my name would be a great start. Little did I know how this experience would completely change my perspective on how to live my life.

We went surfing everyday, slept under mosquito nets, and danced in jungle storms. I went horseback riding down empty beaches and visited with local school children. I remember being so overwhelmed with how much love and welcome we received from the locals. I also remember being shocked by the surrounding group of inspiring, encouraging, and positive women. Coming from a city based around competition and beating the odds, I didn’t think it was possible for so many women to coexist and selflessly love and support one another. We were like Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Each of us embodied unique qualities and when our powers united, we were unstoppable.

Our adventure together would reach its apex when we decided to partake in this volcano-boarding excursion. We would make the treacherous hike up the side of the volcano in the middle of a storm carrying metal-slated boards. We would get soaked to the core trying to beat the lightning to our destination. We would sit on our boards at what seemed like the edge of the earth, trusting our fates to the ash below us. As I slid down the face of the volcano, I tried to remember experiencing a more surreal moment. I couldn’t think of one (Though to my credit, it’s hard to concentrate when getting covered in black soot and trying not to wipeout). I reached the bottom of the cinder-cone safely, never having felt more alive.

I flew back to the states with an entire new intention and goal in life. I now wanted to live, to experience all that the world had to offer, to drink in those once-in-a-lifetime moments that you only see in Redbull commercials. Getting rejected from graduate school had just been the unexpected beginning. Nicaragua had served as the motivation and the women I met were my inspiration. I started looking at everyday as an adventure, an opportunity to try something unique, to experience something amazing. The more I opened myself up to the possibilities that life had to offer, the more I found life opened up to me.

Since returning from Nicaragua I have had some amazing experiences. I’ve gone on surfing up and down the California coast, zip-lined down the Las Vegas Strip, gone rock climbing, hiking, learned how to snowboard and play the guitar, trained tigers and bears, worked on Hollywood movie sets, swam with sea lions, and this is only the beginning! I try to find a way to make everyday memorable, everyday a little more special than typical. The more enthusiasm I greet each sunrise with the more satisfaction I get out of the day.

This time last year I was looking ten years in the future and trying to impress all those around me in the hopes it would get me somewhere. I was working eighteen-hour days trying to be the ‘perfect student’. I was miserable and didn’t even realize it. And I honestly believe that if not for that pile of rejection letters, I would be stuffed in a basement laboratory somewhere right now trying to find the right statistical analysis to use on my research. Oh, and I would be dying a little inside each day.

What I thought was the biggest failure of my life ended up being a blessing. Sometimes I think about writing to each of those schools and thanking them for their decision, including a postcard from whatever country I’m visiting. Without being forcefully pushed off the path I so desperately wanted, I never would have found my true purpose: to enjoy life.

Sometimes you have to stumble, struggle, and surrender to the flow of the universe to achieve greatness. And as much as I wanted to fight what my destiny had deemed inevitable, I have learned that it’s easier to ride the horse in the direction it’s going.

So here I am writing this to you now, squished tightly in the back of an SUV on my way to California for three days of adventure. I really don’t know what awaits me but I do know this: it will be an experience to remember. And if you are only to take away one thing from this, I hope it is this: everyday is a day worth remembering, even if it seems tragic. Regardless of what kind of life you live or where you are, you are in charge of your life story. Will your challenges and failures bring you down or will you make them into adventures? Will you allow yourself to be trapped by social standards or will you break through them and create your own ideals? Will you follow what your heart wants or will you do what you think represents social success?

My story isn’t over yet; I know have years of travel and adventure ahead of me. But it’s time for you to start writing yours. Don’t worry; the world isn’t as scary of a place as we make it out to be. And if you ever need reminding that you can do anything, just get a hold of me. I’m happy to be your supporter.

Hilary Billings is a Las Vegas scholar who became a nomadic adventurer after receiving 14 rejection letters from doctoral programs. Searching for answers on what to do next in her life, she works on Hollywood sets with A-list celebrities, travels the world, and recounts her unpredictable life in Las Vegas that involves one too many encounters with lions.

Want to follow Hilary’s travels?
Read her blog: Nomad Grad

Follow her on twitter! @TheNomadGrad

3 Comments on “How One Woman Turned the Biggest Let Down of Her Career into a Life-Long Venture

  1. Thank you for sharing that story Holly. I am a fan of your surf style ever since I started surfing 8 years ago. Did not know you about your background.
    I am currently in the 2nd semester of my masters in EMBA with the University of Miami (off- campus course in Puerto Rico). I came to read your article because I was reading the retreat schedule for 2012 and saw the first title on the recent post and caught my attention.
    I am 26, a mother of a 2yr old girl who I am most thankful for and live here in PR with my husband (who surf as well).
    I have been interested in taking a retreat to Nica. As time goes by my feelings about it keep increasing. After the struggle, now I feel between stumbling and surrendering to the flow of the universe to find my actual path. Reason being I just need an adventure for myself and not just for 7 days…..for the rest of my life! I have never been so desperate. Why can we just follow our own path instead of rules?
    Thanks for reading and hope to be in Nica sometime this year or the next!

  2. Thank you for sharing Hilary! I recently returned to Georgia (USA) from a trip to Panama where I fell in love with surfing and found your blog when researching surfing for females. I took a leap of faith 3 years ago leaving a corporate career in order to teach, which fullfilled me until I began experiencing outdoor adventures such as hiking, climbing, caving, swimming, and more! After leaving Panama, there continues to be a void and longing for more adventure albeit a bit late in life! Your post is the confirmation I need to pursue what I need in life and as you said,, not living to society’s standards. I will always have a passion for teaching children and will continue to identify ways to incorporate this into whatever and wherever my next adventure happens to take me.

  3. what a great story! Mine didn’t involve grad school or rejection letters per se, but as with your story, it ultimately involved the realization that there’s much, MUCH more to life than the hollow personal satisfaction of corporate/social success, and I’ve been inspired since that realization to enjoy it as much as possible, whether it be surfing, scuba-diving, or swimming with whale sharks. Great to know there are so many other strong, purposeful and free-spirited ladies out there! thanks for sharing:)

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