Five years after dropping out of college

“You know what this means, mom?”

She was in tears.

“What, Zach?” She mustered.

“You’re going to have to start cooking.”

She looked at me with a blank stare. My comment wasn’t what she was expecting.

“Meth, mom. Cooking meth. Like Walter White in Breaking Bad.”

After those words left my mouth, I started balling and fell into her arms.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but we’re all dying. If you’re an optimist, you might say we’re all living (and you’d be right!) however, with each breath we take we’re one step closer to the end.

When you’re diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer the reality of death becomes much more tangible. When you’re healthy, happy, and in your routine, you rarely think about your own demise. Who would? Why would you?

When an oncologist tells you that a six month timer just started counting down, you have no choice but to face the gravity (and unmistakable reality) of your situation.

On December 22nd 2014, at nearly 2pm in the afternoon, my mom, Suzanne Shefska, shared with me her diagnosis. Her life had forever been changed (and shortened), and against her wishes, mine had too (she desperately didn’t want her diagnosis to affect the lives of her children — my sister and I).

“Stay in school, Zach. You know I want you to get your degree. Please, continue your studies.” I remember her words so vividly. My mom was a teacher after all, so higher education meant a lot to her.

“The community college is really well respected, mom. I promise, I’ll continue taking classes there. I can’t go back to Pitt though, it’s just too far away. I’d rather be here with you.”

A few weeks later I left my “studies” at The University of Pittsburgh and enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College. Pitt was a plane ride away from home. AACC was a five minute drive. My stint at community college lasted a few months. Calculus 2 was dropped from my schedule before the semester was over. I was done with higher education.

Four years ago I shared an update of sorts. One year after I resigned from the University of Pittsburgh I drafted up notes about where I was, what I was doing, and who I had become. Now, as I’ve experienced the five year anniversary of my mom’s diagnosis, and my decision to postpone my academic studies, I’m back with another “here’s what has happened since quitting college,” blog post.

If you know me personally, I trust you’ll find this update interesting and informative. If you know me from afar, maybe you’ll think I’m really strange (sidenote: I am). Or, if you’ve stumbled across this from somewhere on the internet, my hope is that you can learn how being resourceful, self-starting, and entrepreneurial can “pay off” in terms of starting your career (ie you don’t need a college degree to make money, be happy, learn, and live your life.)

I’ve organized my update into two categories; personal and professional. Feel free to click on any of the links below to jump to a specific section.

Personal

Family

  • I bought a house. My purchase happened six months after my mom passed away, nearly two years ago. My dad, sister, and dog (Cinnamon) moved in with me. Then my sister moved out, we put the dog down, and my dad decided to live at his condo at the Jersey shore year round. Woo! Something tells me I’ll be selling the house sometime in the near future. There’s no logical reason for a 24 year old bachelor to have a five bedroom home in the suburbs. If nothing else, going through the purchasing process was an incredible learning experience. In retrospect, I can hardly believe how naive I was going into the process. Knowledge for next time!
buying my first house
Me, my house, and my dad’s fingers.
  • My dad retired shortly after my mom passed away. Ironic, isn’t it? He had worked in the car business for 42 years, consistently pulling 60-70+ hour work weeks. As of today, he’s happy, healthy (for the most part), and relaxed. It’s nice to see, although I do get nervous about cognitive decline in retirement. Fortunately he works remotely and part-time for his old employer. He enjoys what he does. I have a few ideas for some projects I want to work on with my dad as well. Neither him or I have a compelling business background (he went bankrupt operating a retail golf store in the ‘90s, and I’ve never gotten my own business off the ground), but something about working together with him is top of mind for me.
  • My sister has been excelling in her role at the National Academy of Sciences. She recently received a promotion, and she is coming up on her own five year milestone with the organization. In parallel with her full-time work, she has also been pursuing her masters in public policy, although we’ll see if she finishes the program or not (it’s not particularly challenging or interesting to her which is unfortunate and frustrating). It’s a good thing she decided to enroll though. She met her boyfriend, Zack (with a “k”), and they’re the happiest couple I’ve ever seen. Win-win.

Health

  • After years of being too stubborn (and embarrassed), I started seeing a psychologist. Dr. Cohl has been instrumental in my capacity to grow personally and professionally.
    • I had been embarrassed at the idea of seeing a professional therapist. In retrospect, I don’t understand why. A therapist or psychologist is similar to a coach on a sports team. You don’t see any professional basketball teams without a coach, do you? Why not enlist the same support in your personal life too?
    • To be fair, facing your insecurities is not trivial or easy. Having Dr. Cohl on my ‘team’ has been highly beneficial in developing strategies to combat my unhealthy habits and make progress in areas of utmost importance to me. Mental health for the win.
  • There is a crazy gym, called SoliderFit, that I started going to, and I’m hooked! After years of lifting the heaviest weights I could get my hands on (and my body not always feeling great as a result), I have my sister to thank for getting me to try something different (and seemingly healthier). SoldierFit, a small collection of gyms whose workouts are in the same vein as their name (military-themed with instructors yelling out commands and instructions), has drastically changed the way I approach fitness.
    • The workouts are circuit-based, and I still recall the first “trial” class I went to. My sister invited me, and I was so cocky… Boy was that class a wake-up call! The five minute warm-up (consisting of running and dynamic stretching) had me more out of breath than I’d like to admit. The next 45 minutes didn’t fare much better. After that, I was hooked. When it comes to fitness, I love a good challenge, and SoldierFit delivered.
    • Since joining in early March of 2019 I’ve attended over 200 classes. That’s a class every 1.8 days or so. I’m so glad I trusted Dara and went to that first trial class.
    • Beyond the fitness benefits, of which there are many, there is also the sense of community you gain from being a part of the SoldierFit gym. I never understood the “community” aspect that could exist at a gym. In the past when others would say something akin to “I’ve made so many friends at my gym,” I would be confused. “Don’t you go there to exercise,” I’d think to myself. I’m no longer confused, it’s clear as day to me how important community can be in a fitness setting.
zach shefska at soldierfit
  • I’ve developed a healthier relationship with food and body image, however more work needs to be done.
    • In conjunction with seeing Dr. Cohl, I’ve been able to make great strides in developing a healthier relationship with food and my own body image. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with binge eating. Initial conversations with family and friends about my disordered behavior in 2016 helped me accept the fact that it was something I struggled with. Over the years, I’ve been able to suppress most all of my binge eating behavior, and candidly, it is not something I think about anymore (day-to-day).
    • Body image is a different story, although one where progress has been made as well. During the past few years, there was serious consideration to get surgery for my gynecomastia (something only I notice), and there is the continued pressure I place on myself to maintain a certain “aesthetic” or appearance. I don’t love it, and I don’t hate it (the pressure I put on myself), however, what I’ve come to realize is that I don’t have to let these thoughts dictate my life. For example, if I want to buy a shirt that may have in the past given me anxiety (“it makes me look fat”), I’ll acknowledge that thought, recognize that I can still feel confident in my own skin, and purchase the shirt (maybe this is more an indicator that I enjoy shopping, but I think it speaks to an improved appreciation for myself).
    • The process of developing a healthier relationship with myself and my physical appearance is ongoing, and I anticipate years of hard work will be required to continue to make strides here. There have been setbacks over the years as well. I can vividly remember instances of binge eating and self-hate. It’s not fun, it’s not healthy, but it’s part of my life. I’m glad I’ve acknowledged it and started to take steps to be healthier.
  • I still struggle with social media.
    • Decreasing my “screen time” is nearly always top of mind for me, however I haven’t taken much of any action to affect it over the past five years. There was the week where I didn’t check Instagram. Or, the fact that I don’t have the Facebook or Twitter app on my phone, and instead have to log in through the web browser. And (fortunately), the fact that I don’t have a Snapchat, TikTok, or whatever the next cool app is (ps, at 24 years old, I officially feel old). Yet, with all the being said, I still feel as if I have an unhealthy relationship with my phone and social media.
    • During recent travels out of the country, where I had no cell phone data, I found myself being less attached to my phone (who knew). This was good, a positive sign — that I can spend less time on my phone if service isn’t available — but still concerning, because when I was connected to WiFi I was glued to my phone. I’m not sure what steps I am going to take here. Something tells me I’m not the only one that struggles with this. While in Seoul, South Korea it became incredibly obvious to me how endemic and international the “glued to your phone” issue is. On the metro I witnessed a full car of people all staring down at their devices. Phones are taking all of our attention, regardless of if you’re in San Francisco, Seoul, or anywhere in between. It can’t be healthy.

Education

  • Learning ReactJS
    • I spent a few weeks getting my hands dirty programming in reactjs. It’s been over two years since I built an app from scratch (in angularjs back then), and it was equal parts exciting and nerve racking to dive into react.
    • I don’t think I’ll be getting into the weeds of programming much more though. Web development is fun and I enjoy having enough skills to “get by,” and maybe even more importantly, to have informed conversations with professional developers, however I don’t see myself ever working as a professional developer, and with that in mind, I don’t see myself allocating time to really “level up” my programming skills.
  • I was accepted into the University of Maryland’s undergraduate business program and declined to attend.

Hobbies

Books

I’ve read a lot over the past five years (with a particular emphasis on the past 12 months). Here are a few standout books I’ve enjoyed.

  • Man’s Search for Meaning
    • Do you ever feel sorry for yourself? I know I sure do. Do you want a reminder that life isn’t so bad, and that actually, you have it pretty good? I’d suggest reading Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. You’ll probably cry, and with good reason. Frankl, a psychiatrist, documents his three year experience (1942 to 1945) detained in Nazi concentration camps. The book, broken up into two distinct sections, first provides riveting first-hand accounts of Frankl’s experiences within Nazi concentration camps. Death, torture, the most inhumane experiences you’ll ever encounter, they’re all documented by Frankl in vivid clarity. The second section of the book is dedicated to Logotherapy, Frankl’s psychotherapeutic approach that is founded on the premise that human beings are most motivated by a search for meaning in their lives. Frankl identifies key moments from his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and guides the reader through the realization that Logotherapy (the search for meaning in his life) was what allowed him to maintain strength and survive.
    • Clinical studies on Logotherapy show compelling results. I look to my mom’s continued professional work after her diagnosis (teaching elementary school special education) as evidence that the search for meaning in one’s life can provide the strength to continue pushing forward. I think my mom lived as long as she did because of this search for meaning. Research appears to back this theory up.
  • Flowers for Algernon
    • Funny story here. I went on a father-son trip to Las Vegas. The highlight of the trip? Reading this book. The lowlight of this trip? Realizing I could have saved thousands of dollars by reading it at home instead of in Las Vegas!
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
    • Nine months before my mom passed away she suffered a stroke. Blood clots from her feet traveled through her body, passing through her stomach and heart, ultimately causing a stroke in her brain. Before the stroke occurred my family assumed that her pains where associated with her cancer and chemotherapy. We were wrong. My mom was in miserable condition because of the blood clots traveling through her body. As a result of the stroke, my mom lost all function on the left side of her body. In a true testament to how strong willed my mom was, she worked diligently to regain most of her mobility leading up to her death. Relearning how to swallow, stand, walk… all for the promise of getting to another chemotherapy session… if you want a “growing up” experience, supporting your parent through something like this is it. You’re a different person afterwards.
    • What does this have to do with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? I read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about a year after my mom passed away. Bauby, the former editor in chief at Elle magazine in France experienced a similar fate to my mom, except worse. At 43 he suffered a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome. Bauby, like my mom, was cognitively aware of what had happened (the stroke), and was still aware of his surroundings, however he couldn’t move his body at all. The only exception were his eyes. Bauby was nearly entirely paralyzed, and even worse, his right eye was sewn shut due to an irrigation problem, but he still wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly from his hospital bed by blinking his left eye.
    • Wikipedia sums this up effectively:
      • The entire book was written by Bauby blinking his left eyelid, which took ten months (four hours a day). Using partner assisted scanning, a transcriber repeatedly recited a French language frequency-ordered alphabet (E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L, etc.), until Bauby blinked to choose the next letter. The book took about 200,000 blinks to write and an average word took approximately two minutes. The book also chronicles everyday events for a person with locked-in syndrome. These events include playing at the beach with his family, getting a bath, and meeting visitors while in hospital at Berck-sur-Mer. On March 9, 1997, two days after the book was published, Bauby died of pneumonia.
  • Buddhism Without Beliefs
    • After breaking up with a long-time girlfriend I thought maybe Buddhism would help me relax and find peace. I don’t know if it did or didn’t, however I feel a stronger spiritual connection than I did before, and I like that.
  • The Challenger Customer
    • B2B sales isn’t easy. You’ve got competitors left and right, closing deals can sometimes drag on for years, and the worst part is you’re actually competing against the status quo (ie an organization’s willingness to “just keep doing what their doing” rather than invest in change). In their multi-part series, The Corporate Executive Board Company (whose members authored The Challenger Customer), provide great insight into the biggest “deal breaker” in B2B sales. This is a must read if you are attempting to resegmented an existing market (an insight that comes from my favorite business mentor, Steve Blank.)
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
    • This is the most influential business book I’ve read in the past five years. Trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, results, these are the five building blocks of great teams. Patrick Lencioni may take one hundred too many pages to make his point (his writing is entertaining though), however the key takeaways (what are the dysfunctions that inhibit teams from achieving “success”) is well received. After reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, I requested that each member of our team at MarketSmart to read it as well. I have a great mentor to thank for sharing The Five Dysfunctions of a Team!
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid
    • For nearly a year I have started, stopped, and started again to read this book. If I finish it in my lifetime I will be pleased. Not even because I want to understand it all, more-so to prove to myself that I can focus long enough to read it. Ha!

Art

  • Another post-break up decision that worked out really well! Signing up for pottery classes. Throwing ceramics has become my therapy and escape from the world.
Pots that I made
Really proud of how these two pieces came out!
  • Sitting at the wheel, making a giant mess, and taking a ball of clay and transforming it into something functional (a vase, a mug, a bowl, etc), was (and still is), one of the most invigorating and inspiring activities I’ve ever done. Very recently, at the beginning of 2020, I was fortunate enough to throw some bowls at an open-air studio in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. The experience (being in a foreign country, in the forest, amongst locals, etc.) was very powerful and exciting for me. I feel so fortunate to enjoy this hobby and engage in it globally.
an angular vase
A very angular pot that was challenging, fun, and rewarding to create!
  • Before ceramics I had a lukewarm appreciation for art. I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t paint, I certainly couldn’t make a bowl or a mug. Exploring ceramics has proved valuable in many ways. Not only do I now have mugs, bowls, and vases that I use each and every day, I also have a deeper connection to myself. It might sound corny to those who haven’t had the experience, but tapping into this side of yourself is pretty revolutionary and valuable. It’s funny, I read Buddhism Without Beliefs while starting this hobby, and although the book didn’t resonate with me greatly, there are many passages that talk about being “like the clay on the wheel.” The parallels between Buddhism and ceramics is certainly compelling!
  • My new found connection to the arts inspired my pursuit of collecting art… on my body :-). Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate to work with talented artists to capture some of the most important and meaningful moments of my life on my body through their work. Tattoos, and self-expression through them, is something I would have never taken an interest in a year ago. With an open mind, and a willingness to learn and grow, anything can happen.

Airplanes

  • The pursuit of a private pilot license is not easy, and with good reason, once you’ve attained your PPL you can legally fly an airplane (with passengers in tow too) at your discretion (there are rules, in particular with regards to weather, but you get the idea). After conducting a “discovery flight” during the summer of 2018, I knew I was hooked, however it was only more recently that I began to take lessons with an instructor. To date I have only ten hours of flight time in my logbook, most spent in a Piper PA-28 single engine aircraft. The minimum requirement for your PPL is 40. Much to my father’s dismay, that means I am only 30 hours, a written and verbal exam, and a “check-ride” away from being able to fly a plane on my own. Get excited, dad!
Zach Shefska flying an airplane
Flying is fun!
  • I aspire to be able to fly to destinations in the future. With different tiers of licenses, a PPL doesn’t guarantee I’d be able to fly whenever I’d like (only under certain weather conditions), however it does represent the first step towards this long-term (and lifelong) goal.

Travel

  • When my mom was sick I rarely travelled. It simply didn’t feel right to leave her, and morbidly, I wasn’t sure if she would be alive when I came back. After she passed I travelled more than I ever had before. I think she would be proud of me for that.
  • My big trip of 2019 was Iceland. That experience actually led to the creation of a separate blog, I’d Rather Be Traveling. Man was that an incredible trip.
  • I’ve also been fortunate to dot the country over the past two years as well, with time spent in:
    • San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Boston, New York City, Atlanta, St. Louis, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and probably a few more that I am forgetting. Denver was a stand out for me. I greatly enjoyed my time there and want to visit again sometime soon.
  • Very recently I returned from another major trip. New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, and South Korea, were all visited at the end of 2019 and the beginning of this year. My adventures (with three of my best friends) will be documented on my other blog, however as a whole, I hope I am able to travel more in the future. Experiencing other cultures is exciting to me. I am happy, engaged, and excited when I am in new places.

Professional

Career

  • I was given the title Chief Operating Officer at MarketSmart in July of 2018. This January however, I was asked to transition into the “Director of Sales & Marketing” role.
    • I started my career at MarketSmart as a web designer in February of 2015. The company, then only with a handful of employees, has grown substantially each year that I’ve been there. It’s fun to be a part of an organization that has a compelling mission, is growing, and is financially rewarding. I don’t know how long I’ll stay at MarketSmart (I desperately want to work for myself), however I am forever grateful for the opportunity to learn, grow, and make an impact at the organization.
    • My day-to-day responsibilities are myriad and varied. No two days are ever the same, and for the most part, I enjoy that. Very recently I have been asked to head up the growth of our sales and marketing departments. This has been a fun challenge, and I have learned a lot in the process (while also growing revenues).
    • While in my COO role I was responsible for:
      • Legal and Regulatory responsibilities
      • Developing organizational initiatives. Aligning the organization’s goals with department level initiatives. Establishing key metrics to measure outcomes and identify areas of growth for the company. Etc.
      • Set budgets for Marketing and Sales
      • Hiring really talented people
      • Firing really talented people 🙁
    • The “best” thing I think I’ve done at MarketSmart was develop a Strategy and Support Team (ie a leadership team). When the CEO and Founder gave me the title COO, the org structure was incredibly flat. There was the CEO at the top, and then everyone else. When I became COO the structure was still incredibly flat, but now with two people at the top. Over the next year I worked with the CEO to restructure the organization to have three more “Directors” join the leadership team. By developing a leadership team we have been able to execute more effectively as an organization and set the stage for growth beyond the scale we are currently at. Building this structure took a long time, and progress was not always obvious (frequently I was concerned if what I was doing was actually worthwhile), however in due time (literally over a year), it has finally become clear how powerful and important this decision was for the business. I feel good knowing I’ve done a good job at MarketSmart.
Busy at work with a dog!
Working hard with Rhonda!
  • Also during the past few years I was tasked with developing a new business unit at MarketSmart. I lead the growth of Fundraising Report Card to $250K in revenue before making the strategic decision to make it free for the nonprofit sector. Over $60B in donations have been analyzed on the platform, and users include some of the largest nonprofits in the world, as well as the temple where I went to Jewish private day school as a toddler. Talk about a cool moment, seeing something you made being used at an organization you benefited from as a youth. Rewarding!
  • Recently I’ve had the privilege of representing MarketSmart at The Giving Institute, an industry leading organization tasked with advancing philanthropy. I sit on multiple committees and enjoy collaborating with influential members in the sector.
  • Over the years I have honed my sales skills. I’ve really learned how to sell in the B2B setting, closing hundreds of thousands of dollars in deals with multi five figure deal sizes. This is a skill I’ll be forever grateful to have learned.

The next five years

What do the next five years have in store for me?

  • I’m determined to work for myself rather than for someone else. This is undoubtedly my number one objective over the next five years. I cannot pass up on the incredible learning experience I am getting at MarketSmart working for my mentor, Greg Warner, however within the next five years I envision myself doing something different.
    • One of the challenges I acknowledge in working for someone else is that you can find yourself having thoughts along the lines of “I have to split my time between working on me, and working on them.” What I mean by that is that you end up negotiating with yourself on doing something for you, and doing something for them (them being defined as the organization). Yes, organizations are capable of more impact (simply as a result of scale), however I would prefer to be an owner in the organization, rather than simply be a cog in the wheel of it.
  • I see more tattoos in my future… It’s an expensive way to express yourself, but one that I think is worthwhile!
  • I envision myself selling pottery at a crafts fair… I honestly don’t even want to sell anything… I just want to have a table at the event and talk to people about pots. Ha!
  • I want to buy an airplane… They’re not that expensive. To which my dad says, “is that really the purchase you want to be frugal about?” Point well taken dad. We’ll see if this is achievable in five years. It might not be, but maybe within the next five years I’ll at least have my PPL.
  • I plan to travel more. I have the rest of my life to live in a house in the suburbs. I hope to hike more as well. You don’t need to travel far to find incredible sites. I feel a sense of guilt that I haven’t explored more of the National Parks here in the United States. That will certainly change over the coming years.

That’s my update.
If you’ve made it this far, then thank you. Thank you for caring about me, my family, my life, etc. If you’re a distant friend, consider reaching out. Odds are, I’d probably be really happy to hear from you. Unless you’re… Nevermind 🙂