I have what I think is an interesting relationship with success and competition.
It dates back to senior year in high school. I was voted most likely to succeed in my class. As I may have mentioned before, I am fairly sure I am not the most successful person in my high school class, but I feel successful. I use my own barometer. I have a beautiful, kind and talented wife, a family, three, mostly wonderful children, an interesting job. I am able to support my family most days. With a lot of help from my parents—coming, especially, in the form of funding my higher education—and learning to welcome and embrace change, I have carved a nice little niche for myself in the world. I may not be the most successful person in my high school class, but by my own yardstick, I feel successful.
This has not always been the case.
When I left high school and entered college, I was received a wake-up call like cold water being splashed in my face.
In high school, I was a big fish in a small pond. Captain of the swim team. President of the honor society. Editor of the literary magazine. I had straight A’s and a GPA above 4.0 before such marks were commonplace. I never had homework. Any homework I was given, I completed before leaving the school ground, fitting it in between the normal class work given in other subjects.
When I left Jupiter to go to Johns Hopkins, I thought I could get by doing the same amount of studying I had always done which amounted to almost none, because, in high school, it seemed I already had an innate understanding of everything they tried to teach me. Calculus. Advanced Placement English which included Chaucer, Dickens and Thoreau. Even Spanish. Go figure.
Then, I failed freshmen Chem.
I was no longer Captain of the swim team, president of the honor society, or editor of the literary magazine. I was just another kid in a college filled with the smartest kids in the whole world.
Unremarkable. Not even unremarkable. Below average.
I was one of the slower swimmers at Hopkins and an average student. Following my failure of freshman Chem, I ditched a pre-med curriculum in favor of something “easier”. But even then, at that young age, I think I understood that even though I wasn’t as remarkable as I thought or was made to think I was, and though there was disappointment in this, I focused on the small things that made me happy.
On Saturday mornings after swim practice, I walked to the McDonalds in Charles Village, quickly put down two Big Macs and two large fries, then trudged through the icy slush to the used record store. Coming from South Florida, I had no idea how to dress for the cold. I bought the biggest, warmest winter coat I could afford from a Burlington Coat Factory in Towson, Maryland, then wore it over a t-shirt and jeans. I wore gloves and a ski hat, because I thought that was what everyone wore in the North. The end result was my body and legs were freezing and my head and hands were sweating.
I spent a lot of the money my parents sent me on used vinyl (most of which is now in storage in a giant warehouse somewhere in Maryland). Led Zeppelin. The Who. Fleetwood Mac. Genesis. I took the LPs back to my dorm room and spent the rest of the afternoon listening to them and reading comic books and dozing in and out of sleep, gazing out the window of my dorm room into a grimy, Baltimore winter sky.
When I graduated college, I returned to South Florida and for lack of knowing what else to do, I started waiting tables. I wanted to be a writer, and a near-brush with success in this area gave me false hope that I might have what it took to break into the competitive modern publishing world.
When I visited my grandmother, she would ask me what I was doing. When I told her, she challenged me, noting I hadn’t experienced anything to write about. I took this criticism personally. I moved to Colorado in search of an adventure to write about. Eventually, I ended up in business school, then like a boomerang, back in South Florida.
I worked for my dad’s commercial real estate firm. The work was mostly easy and it paid well until the 2008 global financial crisis and essentially my job as I knew it ceased to exist. I went 18 months without a commission and was essentially jobless for two years. I cashed in all my life insurance policies, 401ks and stocks my dad had bought me as an infant to keep my budding family afloat.
Needless to say, I did not feel very successful at the time, but I eventually did get a good, new job. A great, fascinating and challenging job that paid well and has taken me and my family first to Washington, D.C., Brazil and now India.
When I took the job, however, I had no idea at the time how competitive in nature the job would be. I was (and still am) mostly just happy to get a steady paycheck. I have recently been tenured which brings a new sense of job security I essentially have not had in six years.
Then, I was passed over for promotion.
I have never had a job before where I could get promoted. I know half of America has experience being passed over for a promotion they felt they deserved, but this is my first experience with the phenomenon. I doubt it will be my last. I’m not even a middle-manager in this job, the Elysium fields of corporate America. Again, I am entry-level. Unremarkable.
And just as before, when feeling the sting of disappointment, I focused on the small things that made me happy. Only this time, I thought, it wasn’t small things, but small people. I am not important or remarkable to most everyone on the planet except for a very, very small group of people whose sphere of influence I mostly dominate. I’m not remarkable to a bearded, professor-like evaluator on a promotion panel in a locked DC boardroom with a stack of file folders in front of him, but I am remarkable to Sam and Peter and Clementine. I wanted to be promoted for Elise. In essence, to thank her for joining me on this voyage. I felt bad for her, but she assured me I’d get promoted eventually and that she still loved me and that was the end of that.
Last night, we fried fish for dinner. I told Sam that you didn’t need to know how to cook a lot of things, that you only needed to know how to cook about four or five things really well. I can fry fish.
I made Elise a cocktail of tequila, grapefruit juice and flat club soda. It would have been delicious if the club soda wasn’t flat. I drank Kingfisher. She sliced beets on the mandolin and made masala beet chips (then took the cookie sheet outside to photograph the tie-dyed incandescent colors of the beets). We listened to country music.
We pulled the kids’ table into the kitchen, and the kids ate fried fish faster than I could get it out of the deep-fat fryer. Elise and I ate corn on the cob standing up. We danced to Pete’s favorite song from the Cheney rodeo. Elise and I cried and embraced, unbelievingly of our good fortunes.
I should get passed over for promotions more often.