If there’s one question people ask me the most, it’s, “Juan David, why are you so driven?”
Not an easy one because it’s so vulnerable and personal, but I will do my best to explain.
Some lives go through events that can destroy them or fortify them. Mine might seem like it should have been destroyed, but with the help of a strong mother, I fortified it.
I was born and raised in the beautiful country of Venezuela. It’s culture and everything about it is deeply special to me. I was the son of two young professionals who worked very hard and did everything for their kids.
Venezuela started losing its essence after 1998. A new regime came to power that encouraged people to be divided, take what’s not theirs, and have everything for free. This impacted not only my life, but the lives of millions and millions of Venezuelans.
In 2005, I was two years old. Everything started on the morning of Saturday, May 21. As usual, my dad and I were going to one of my Grandpa’s farms to do the payroll and get some work done. Before we left the house, I was packed with my milk, diapers, and everything else a two-year-old needed until I came back home with my dad later that day.
We never came back home together. We never came back home that day.
This morning was nothing like the others; in fact, it was rather suspicious—my dad would sometimes have a bodyguard, but on this day he was mysteriously unavailable.
On our way to the farm, we were aggressively confronted by a group of criminals who were trying to kidnap us to request a large sum of money. My dad did not want to give up and let his son be kidnapped or killed.
They started shooting the car multiple times all over—doors, windows, everywhere.
Unfortunately, my dad was hit by several gunshots, and I watched as he died, bleeding profusely—an image that will never fade from my mind. I didn’t know what was happening, and I hugged him so hard to protect him. To this day, no one knows how I survived this tragedy.
On this day, my life drastically changed. It was a miracle; having survived that event uninjured and it had a deep meaning for me.
If I was so fortunate to have received this opportunity to live, my life would have a great purpose, a purpose that I’m still trying to figure out.
I knew my life would not be the same as everyone else’s. This sense of self-awareness helped me better understand and cooperate with my mom’s efforts to raise us despite her being alone and young.
An event like this makes you value your life and be very careful about your actions. A feeling that lives with me vividly, even today, is the possibility of being kidnapped at any moment. This makes me see risk differently and things like always looking back if someone is following me, limiting myself on social media, and having a private life.
The other action I took was to grow up fast. You don’t just decide how to grow up, but it starts with being more mature. It helps once you know the risks involved (being kidnapped or killed).
There are more factors involved, but here are the three most important:
1. Other People’s Opinions
My favorite sport is soccer. I started playing when I was 5 and I have loved it ever since. When I was about 8, my town created a soccer team. All of my soccer friends would go to the games. I wanted to watch and learn, too.
Until recently, soccer was a man’s sport; women didn’t play or go to games. All of my friends went with their dads, but there I was with my mom, who didn’t care what anyone thought about it. My mom courageously took me to the stadium. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but people would talk about all sorts of things, and going to a soccer game with your mom alone wasn’t something you saw.
She was focused on raising me and providing me with unforgettable experiences. The problem comes when you start listening to other wrong people. You begin to behave differently. Your actions and thoughts are not yours, but theirs.
In our town, everyone knew everything about you, including what had happened to me. Nice kids would treat me a little weirdly, while others would gossip behind my back or even try to hurt me.
The philosopher Charles Cooley once said, “I’m not who I think I am, I’m not who you think I am, I am who I think you think I am.”
People knew what had happened to me, so they saw me a certain way, and I almost behaved the way they expected me to.
I wasn’t myself. I was somebody named Juan David who people talked about.
Even adults act this way, but I was determined to be the Juan David I wanted to be, not what other people thought I was or expected me to be. How? Memento Mori, which translates to “Remember you will die.” I just couldn’t imagine myself looking back and seeing how unoriginal I was about myself and my life.
2. Where My Optimism Comes From
I’m an optimistic person. My optimism defines who I am and what I do.
Optimism can be perceived as naïve or delusional, but for me it is very down-to-earth. Optimists realize what the situation is (whether good or bad), and try to make it better.
Some people think optimists haven’t experienced “real life.” They couldn’t say that about me. I had all the excuses to become a nihilist, cynic, and pessimistic about my life, the world, and humanity.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, what I experienced made me more optimistic and gave me a sense of urgency to make change happen and make the world a better place.
Losing my dad and having a tough upbringing, then moving to the United States to start from zero all over again might seem like terrible disadvantages, but in reality, they were all advantages, which leads me to the third point.
3. Survival of the Fittest
The fittest, in the Darwinian sense, are the ones most responsive to change.
If I didn’t have all the challenges and difficulties I had, I would not be who I am today. Period.
You get stronger, you get smarter, you adapt more when you have so much adversity and discomfort.
You don’t need extreme circumstances to become the person you want to be. It starts with having a dream of where you want to go, then knowing you might fail. If you fail, remember why you started and get up and start again. Then, focus on helping others because we can’t expect to achieve our goals if we don’t help others achieve theirs first.
No one thought I had survived. Yet, I did.
I knew my life would be different, and I decided that it would be unique.
I knew my life would be twice as hard, but I decided that it would be twice as good.
I knew my life would be forever touched by my dad’s assassination, but I decided to always appreciate my own survival.
It was recently the 15th anniversary of my dad's death. I hope he is proud of me. If it wasn’t because of him, you would not be reading this. For that, I’m grateful.
So, why am I so driven? Because I was given the opportunity to decide who I would be, and chose optimism.
Thanks to Hal, Charlie, Scott, and Zakk for reading drafts of this essay.
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