Thinking For Yourself: The Most Important Lesson to Learn

If thinking for yourself was easy, everyone would do it. Very few do, but I hope that doesn’t mean you won’t.

“I look at the world from a different angle

People change, even Satan used to be an angel

Think twice before you’re bitin’ on the hand that made you

Don’t believe what you believe just ’cause that’s how they raised you

Think your own thoughts, don’t let them do it for you

― NF, Remember This


For most of my baseball career, I was the “potential guy”.

I was always near the tallest in my class, and by the time I reached high school was past the 6 ft mark and on my way to 6’5″. I had an athletic body and had always been among the top basketball and baseball players in my city.

While I was good enough to earn a starting role on my teams, I never was able to put it all together and really capitalize on all that potential. I’d show flashes of greatness, but could rarely sustain it.

I remember a conversation with my dad before I left for college in the summer of 2017. We were chatting about some of my frustrations with my past performance and his response was something to the effect of, “Ah, it’ll be alright. You’re going off to college and your coach is a former Big Leaguer. He’ll be able to help you figure it out.”

I won’t belabor the point. I was throwing 84 MPH when I started college. At the end of our fall season, I was sitting 78-81. 18 months later, I wasn’t a tick better. (Video proof 🤢🤮)

So, no. It wasn’t helping.

Right around that time, I started to ask questions. I was sitting in the corner table at our campus coffee shop reading a little-known blog by a guy named Kyle Boddy when I had a thought that changed the trajectory of my life:

“I’m sick of being average.”

For the first time in my baseball life, I realized that I could genuinely influence the direction of my career. While I would need to be willing to break with the conventional mold of the day, I saw a path forward that might help me get better.

For years, I had put my trust in authority figures (coaches, trainers, mentors) who seemed to know what they were talking about. While they certainly weren’t clueless, I now needed to step out and take a risk. To try something unconventional, to work hard, and trust a process that didn’t have a long track record of success.

The journey started with a desire to not be average. It “ended” 2.5 years later with a 95 MPH fastball. Along the way, I learned the same lesson over-and-over-and-over again.

You must learn to think for yourself. Authority figures don’t always have it figured out.

Getting Married

18 months later, I stood at the front of Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Oostburg, Wisconsin as Jessica Lemmenes was led down the aisle by her dad. In 30 minutes, we would be Mr. & Mrs. Tanner Reklaitis.

If you’ve never gone through an engagement before, let me warn you: everyone you meet will suddenly think they are qualified to give you marriage advice. But here’s the thing: Most marriage advice is complete garbage.

And there was one piece of advice that Jess and I got more than any other, something that should be familiar to most of you who are married.

“Watch out you two. The first year of marriage is sooooooooo hard. Good luck.”

They usually said it with a wry smirk on their face, almost like they were reliving their own experiences and projecting them onto our marriage. It bugged me, but for a few months, I wasn’t quite sure why.

And then one day, it clicked. That’s exactly what they were doing! They had lived through a tough first year of marriage and because that was their experience, they projected that onto us. I shared this revelation with Jess (who had also grown frustrated by these regular “warnings”) and we now approached these conversations with a different mentality.

While our first year of marriage had every ingredient for frustration, strife, fights, and more, it wasn’t like that at all. We lived in 4 different homes across 3 states by the time we celebrated our first anniversary, had very little discretionary income, and somehow it all worked out. Sure, there were tough moments. But those tough moments didn’t define our year.

Lesson learned again. You must learn to think for yourself. Just because people experienced something one way doesn’t mean you have to live through the same thing.

My parting advice

I have a pinboard above my home office desk. On that board is my all-time favorite quote:

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact:

Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

―Steve Jobs

Can I confess something to you?

When Tread hired me to be their Director of Operations last summer, I literally had no idea what that meant and what I’d be doing all day. Some days, I’m still not so sure.

But when I came across this quote for the first time last month, it clicked for me. And I hope my realization helps you too.

What I realized is that there’s no formula for life. Nobody’s going to hand you a blueprint with exactly what you need to do. Well, that’s not true. People will try to give you a blueprint, but let me caution you not to take it. Trying to live out someone else’s blueprint is a losing game. You want to play winning ones.

Last week, Jeff Bezos published his final Shareholders Letter as Amazon’s CEO. I think his parting words are a great place to end this letter as well.

We all know that distinctiveness – originality – is valuable. We are all taught to “be yourself.” What I’m really asking you to do is to embrace and be realistic about how much energy it takes to maintain that distinctiveness. The world wants you to be typical – in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let it happen.

You have to pay a price for your distinctiveness, and it’s worth it. The fairy tale version of “be yourself” is that all the pain stops as soon as you allow your distinctiveness to shine. That version is misleading. Being yourself is worth it, but don’t expect it to be easy or free. You’ll have to put energy into it continuously.

If thinking for yourself was easy, everyone would do it. Very few do, but I hope that doesn’t mean you won’t.