Guest Post by Tara Munjekovich
Outgoing, athletic, confident, go-getter, self-starter… these were not words that would have ever been used to describe me as a child. On the contrary, I was fairly introverted, shy, insecure, and not really motivated to engage in any social or physical activities. My natural father died of leukemia when I was two and a half years old, I didn’t have any siblings, and my mom worked long hours to make ends meet. We lived in a small apartment in Southern California, in an urban neighborhood with very few children my age, so I spent most of my time indoors, working on solo arts and crafts projects. Although I was inherently creative, and I could easily entertain myself, overall, I was uninspired and lacked ambition.
I don’t recall having many friends in elementary school. I was small and quiet, which resulted in me being repeatedly harassed by some bigger girls who ultimately cornered me in the bathroom and stole my sweater. I was far too timid to defend myself at the time. When my mom married my stepdad (“Pop”), our lives changed significantly. Pop was a self-made man who had built a successful business, and he worked hard to provide me with opportunities I didn’t have when I was younger. I was taken out of the public school system in Los Angeles and sent to a small private school. We subsequently moved out of our dingy apartment and into a nice condo in a middle-class suburb.
My parents tried to get me involved in sports and activities, but I was completely disinterested. I was also the definition of clumsy and awkward. I frequently tripped and fell over invisible objects, and I couldn’t catch a ball or run a lap around the park to save my life. I don’t think I even learned to ride a bike without training wheels until I was in my mid-20’s. The only physical activity I enjoyed as a child was roller skating, and even that was limited to a trip or two around the block before I got bored or tired. My parents sent me to ballet, jazz, tap, and drama courses at a performing arts school on the weekends, along with lessons in golf, tennis, and gymnastics. The private school I attended was very tight-knit, and students were expected to participate in team sports. Soccer, basketball, softball, volleyball, pep squad… whatever it was, I was on the team. More accurately, I was the consummate benchwarmer for each team because I literally had zero natural athleticism or talent. I was legitimately like the kid in comedy films who accidentally scores goals for the opposing team, and I was only sent onto the field or the court to play when my team was so far ahead in points that it was a guaranteed win regardless of my performance. I literally sucked at every sport I tried, and I was far too introverted, insecure, and uncoordinated to put much effort into anything I wasn’t naturally good at. I was also lacking self-confidence because I was overweight and consistently being put on fad diets that were never successful.
I grew up in an era where education was stressed to be of the utmost importance in obtaining a “good job.” Contrary to my complete lack of physical athleticism, I had always excelled in academic pursuits, and when I completed high school, there was no question that I would be attending college. My mom had ensured money was put away for my education early on, and I was incredibly fortunate my parents paid for my entire undergraduate tuition, along with off-campus housing, as I attended a university that was 9 hours away from home. I was even more fortunate that my parents were both proponents of hard work and self-reliance because once I was done with school, they decided they were done financially supporting me.
Within a few weeks of returning home, my mom sat me down and told me I had two options: I could either pay rent to live at home (which included living by their rules), or I could leave and find my own place. Either way, I would have to get a decent job pretty much immediately because both options were going to require money. In my mind, if I was going to have to pay rent, I sure as hell wasn’t going to live by my parents’ rules, so I chose to move out on my own. I remember being somewhat taken aback that I was being expected to act like an adult and start financially taking care of myself right out of college. It was a rude awakening, but in truth, it was the absolute best thing my parents ever did for me. Being pushed out of the nest forced me to start down a path of developing self-confidence, self-reliance, and resiliency.
Because I had always been terrible at math and anything involving calculations or formulas, I majored in English Literature and Native American Studies in college, resulting in two fairly useless degrees in terms of specific job skills, unless I wanted to be a teacher (which I did not). I had no particular career ambitions, so I started working for a temp agency, accepting whatever secretarial and clerical jobs were available. I rented a crappy apartment in the middle of summer with no air conditioning, hand-me-down furniture, and 30-year old shag green carpet. For having two Bachelors’ Degrees, my situation wasn’t much to brag about, but I had a home of my own, and I was supporting myself with money I was earning, which felt pretty damn good. So good, in fact, that I started to believe I could achieve even more.
A couple months later, I landed a full-time job as an assistant for a high-ranking executive at a famous motion picture studio. For being in my early 20’s it was a great paying job. I was now on my way to becoming financially secure and creating more stability in my life. I still had self-doubts about my talents and abilities, but the more I learned to depend on myself, the more confidence I developed, and the more I wanted to challenge myself to do bigger and better things. A few years into my administrative gig, I stumbled upon an opportunity to become a firefighter, and it changed the course of my life.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, I grew up as more of an indoor girl, and I didn’t spend much time participating in physical activities. My past athletic failures were a significant contributor to my lack of self-esteem in my youth, and based on these experiences, firefighting seemed out of the realm of possibility for me. However, despite the odds against me (including my 5’3” height, small stature, and complete lack of athletic ability), with my newfound attitude of self-reliance and growing confidence, I was determined to give it a go.
While attending the fire academy, I encountered numerous obstacles and setbacks, including multiple attempts at passing the physical agility test that resulted in failure after failure. I was at the top of my class academically and in the bottom tenth when it came to physical performance. There were times I wanted to quit, or I wished the instructors would just pass me for putting in effort, even though I wasn’t meeting the standard. Thank God I went to an academy where students weren’t coddled or allowed to skate by. If I had been given a pass, I never would have learned what I was truly capable of, and I likely would have developed the entitled “everyone gets a trophy” attitude that has contributed to the downfall of a solid work ethic in today’s society.
Was it embarrassing that I was elected to be the class president to give our graduation speech, yet I was unable to remove a ladder from a high wall and raise it by myself within the required timeframe to pass the test? Hell yeah, it was. But instead of quitting and resigning myself to failure, as I had done repeatedly in the past, I put on my big girl pants, told myself I was competent enough to do the damn thing, and put faith in myself to accomplish my goal. I spent several hours a week after class practicing the skill over and over, attempting alternate methods and techniques, until I was finally able to effectively complete the skill and replicate it with competence. After many months of frustration, tears, and consistently working to overcome self-doubt and build up my resiliency, I successfully completed a very rigorous academy and became a firefighter. I even returned to the same academy several years later as an instructor to share my experiences and help mentor and inspire others.
When I decided to transition to a law enforcement career, I again challenged myself to push past my negative beliefs about my inherent talents and abilities. Although I had developed a love of physical fitness as a firefighter, and I was maintaining a consistent strength and agility program, my primary athletic weakness was running. Similar to military training, the police academy I attended placed significant emphasis on running as part of our daily PT program. I was never a good runner. In fact, I absolutely loathed running, and I had barely managed to squeak by in the fire academy during PT runs. I still have an incredibly vivid memory of myself in 5th grade having to compete in a school-wide multi-team relay race, where I was forced to run laps around the track for my team. Not only was I the last person in the ENTIRE school to cross the finish line, but I’m fairly certain I was the reason my team took last place in the overall competition. Just the idea of doing daily distance runs in the police academy brought back memories of failure and made me want to throw up. I had also never shot a gun or trained in any kind of fighting or defense techniques, so I went into the police academy with preset fears and anxieties about failure.
As expected, I definitely experienced struggles and setbacks throughout the 7 months of the academy. However, this time I was more prepared to deal with the challenges being thrown my way because I had built up my ability to be self-reliant, confident, and resilient enough to push past my fears and accomplish my goals. Not only did I pass one of the most comprehensive police academies in the US, but I later passed an even more rigorous and demanding physical fitness qualification (with a timed run!), an advanced shooting course, and a specialized training school to become a member of one of the most elite units in my department. During my law enforcement career, I became a competitive CrossFit athlete and coach, trained in jiu-jitsu and karate, learned how to effectively ride and control a horse in chaotic crowd control situations, and took on multiple challenging physical leadership roles. If someone had stopped me in the street when I was a 22-year old office assistant and told me I would become a firefighter, police officer, and competitive athlete later in life, I would have laughed my ass of at the mere thought of excelling in any sort of physical career or endeavor.
I can say with absolute certainty that if my parents had coddled me and enabled me to take it easy and live at home until my 30’s or beyond (as many parents allow their kids to do), I wouldn’t have developed the drive to want to support myself. If I had been given participation trophies even though I failed, I wouldn’t have become tough enough to face failure head on and keep trying until I succeeded at my goal. If I hadn’t continually challenged myself to keep pushing past my comfort zone and try new things, I wouldn’t be the strong, resilient, and self-reliant person I am today. That’s not to say I haven’t accepted help from others throughout my life, because I absolutely have. I firmly believe having a strong support system was integral in achieving success throughout my life, and I still consistently count on others for advice and guidance when I need it. However, I also believe I accomplished my goals and had career opportunities beyond my wildest dreams because I developed the skills and abilities to be independent and able to take care of myself.
Every goal that I have achieved of my own volition has given me the confidence to tackle and crush the next goal. Becoming a firefighter taught me that I was capable of pushing past my perceived limitations and becoming physically fit for the first time in my life. Police work taught me to be proactive in quick decision-making, to trust my instincts, to project confidence even in the midst of complete chaos, and to become a strong and outspoken leader. Becoming a competitive CrossFit athlete taught me that even though I suck at team sports and don’t have the greatest hand-eye coordination (I still can’t catch a ball without getting smacked in the face or a set of keys without them slipping through my fingers), I am capable of excelling in physical challenges and activities I once thought were impossible for me.
Having to rely on myself to achieve success has also contributed to discovering new passions and re-defining my purpose in life. Self-reliance and resiliency are the main reasons I believed in myself enough to leave a stable law enforcement career last year and take the leap into the unknown in pursuit of the simple life. The timing of this decision was especially critical because I chose to make this move during an uncertain and volatile time in our country. We are experiencing what is possibly the scariest and most unstable economic and social period of my lifetime, and I currently have the least amount of financial / job security I’ve had in over 25 years. Yet, oddly enough, I feel more empowered, confident, and capable than I ever have. I know that I can take care of myself, and I will always bounce back from failure to achieve something greater in the end.
I am now in my late 40’s, and sometimes I feel like my life is just beginning. Having grown up and lived most of my existence in a busy urban environment, my pursuit of a more rural simple life has resulted in discovering a whole different set of challenges and opportunities for growth. I am excited to once again be out of my comfort zone and focused on new objectives, and my current goal is to become more self-reliant when it comes to living off the land. In the next few years, I’d like to get a couple of goats and horses, along with a few chickens. I intent to build a raised garden bed in my backyard and grow my own vegetables. I want to learn how to bow hunt and fish, confidently use a riding lawn mower, build a fence, start a fire in a wood stove, and become more resilient to the neurotic and ever-changing weather patterns of the Texas Panhandle. These may seem like simple tasks for anyone who has grown up on a ranch or a farm or in a rural area, but for a city girl from Los Angeles, I am in a whole new world.
For now, I’m starting off small with my current project, a 3’x1.5’ elevated garden bed on wheels. I’m trying my hand at some bell pepper, cayenne pepper, and squash. I’ve always had the belief that I have a “black thumb” because I’ve never been able to successfully keep any plants alive except for weeds. However, I know I’m capable of growing some thriving vegetables, and once I do, I’ll add a few more garden beds to the mix and work on some herbs. I’m fortunate to have a neighbor who raises goats and chickens, and I’m excited to gain some insight and knowledge from her so I can be ready when I get my own livestock. I’ve also taken up archery as a hobby, and I’m planning to practice slinging arrows until I become as proficient with a bow as I am with a gun.
Overall, despite all of the negativity and crazy shit going on in our country and the world right now, I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever been. I am no longer the quiet, insecure, and timid girl I was in my youth. I have grown into a woman who is outspoken, sure of what I want, and completely comfortable in my own skin. I stand up for myself and others, and I take responsibility for my actions. Instead of making excuses when things don’t go the way I expected them to, I learn from my mistakes and failures, and I figure out how to turn them into strengths and successes. I am at peace with myself in a way I have never been before, and I no longer have conflicting internal struggles or doubts about whether I’m in the right place in my life. Building self-reliance, confidence, and resiliency over the years has enabled me to see the value I bring to the table, and I refuse to settle for less than I want or what I believe I am worth.
I know this new adventure in my life isn’t going to be all sunshine and roses, and I’ve already had my fair share of difficulties and challenges in the past year. However, I also know I have developed the tools to handle struggle and adversity and come back even stronger. As I grow in this new chapter of my life, I’m prepared to embrace whatever comes my way (and hopefully kick a little ass in the process).