For some kids, today is the first day of school.
When I was about seven years-old, my mother took me to take a test for school. It wasn’t a regular test and it didn’t focus on one subject in particular, it was more or less like the first round of Jeopardy mixed with trying to figure out the instructions to Ikea furniture. I don’t remember all of the details of the test, I just remember that about a week later, my mother sat me down and told me that I would be going to a different school than all of my friends. I was special, so I was going to be treated differently than others.
I was labeled as “talented and gifted” and placed in a class with “high potential learners.”
At age seven, this is both a gift and a curse. When you’re in the smart kid classes, you get to take all the cool field trips, you get to eat lunch at a special time and you get all kinds of recognition at school assemblies. It’s sort of like how college athletes get treated, except these are all the kids that get picked last in dodgeball. But with all of the special treatment and adulation, there’s a serious downside to being in those classes; you get saddled with the word “potential.”
There’s nothing like being being burdened with such high expectations as an eight year-old; you get to learn how to greatly disappoint people at an early age.
Admittedly, while I was a smart kid, I was also a bit of an under-performer; it’s not that I didn’t understand or follow what was going on in class, it’s just that I didn’t too much care for what was on the chalkboard and spent my days reading comic books or playing paper football in class. We had a set of World Book Encyclopedias at home and my family was comprised of educators, so there wasn’t much in that was taught in the classroom that I couldn’t teach myself in a setting I felt more comfortable in. Not that I wasn’t staying on top of my work, in hindsight, I was staying ahead of my work. I even read my older brother’s textbooks because I thought they were more interesting than what I was learning. I mean, who cares about Virginia history in 4th grade when the kids in 6th grade are learning about Ancient Egypt?
After a few parent/teacher conferences and some tutoring sessions, there was a sense that I wasn’t committed to what the Talented and Gifted program was trying to teach me. I was, in their minds, not living up to my potential. How could a kid who was allegedly so smart with these amazing standardized test scores be such a consistent C student? How could he be wasting all of this potential?
The problem was, no one ever asked me what I wanted to use my potential for. When you’re that young, you can’t truly express how you feel about your situation and wind up sitting in the guidance counselor’s office answering questions with shrugs and picking your nose because you don’t want to tell them that you’re bored or that you’re more concerned about if Batman was going to catch The Penguin than the preamble to The Constitution.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
That was basically my academic trajectory throughout the rest of my pre-college academic career. An underutilized mind in a bunch of classes with kids that were believing the hype. Study hard, get the best grades, get the highest scores on standardized tests, go to the best colleges and universities of America and get into underage drinking with America’s best an brightest. By fourteen, these kids knew exactly what they wanted to be and exactly how they were going to get there, so to fit in with my smart-kid counterparts, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.
It sounded smart and I heard they made a lot of money, so it seemed like a respectable and typical choice for a kid taking AP classes.
When I finally broke free of the educational tyranny that was high school and got a chance to go off to college (Morehouse College in Atlanta. TIGER RUMBLE!), I was excited at the idea that I could pick a major and finally learn what it wanted to learn and finally get down to brass tacks when it came down to what I wanted to be. Unfortunately, I was still conditioned from all those years of saying that I wanted to be a lawyer, I decided to take a Pre-Law path. I figured I’m find a major that would put me on a trajectory to a decent law school, pass the bar exam and have a respectable career that my mother could be proud to tell her friends about. I had the potential to do it so I was expected to do it. I thought I was Luke Skywalker and this was my destiny.
So I majored in Political Science.
A funny thing happened on the way to Law School though. I found myself in the same predicament that had haunted me through elementary and high school. I knew I was supposed to learn certain things, but I got distracted trying to learn everything else. I was bored by my Constitutional Law and Government classes and became far more fixated with my Political Theory classes.
I stopped caring about the nuts and bolts of what was going to get me into law school and became fixated with Hobbes, Hume and Locke. I wanted to know more about State of Nature and Rational Choice theories. I wanted to do more Prisoner’s Dilemma than criminal law. I’d unknowingly shifted my potential into something I liked which made me really good at it rather than forcing my potential into something I was supposed to do and became satisfactory at it. THAT was what I’d always wanted to do. I wanted to understand WHY we do things rather than know HOW to do things.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs out there for political theorists, but I did happen upon a job in advertising.
It started simply enough. Advertising allowed me be creative, think strategically and apply my notions of human behavior while working in an office with beer and a pool table where I could wear jeans and sneakers every day. It was to be the nexus of the two things I was good at, creativity and behavioral understanding. I didn’t want to practice law, I wanted to do cool shit and that’s why people get into advertising, to do cool shit.
Not so fast. The ad game is like any other profession. While creativity is sometimes rewarded, following the rules is the key to success.
I used to talk to a lot of students at the Advertising School at the University of Texas. There was one student in particular that seemed to have a lot of ideas about what she wanted to do, but she was consumed with the fear of not knowing how to get there and the real possibility of squandered potential. She knew she was smart at something, but figuring out what was frustrating. There was a perplexing dynamic of what getting a Masters Degree meant in expressing what you can do versus having a Masters and actually being able to do something. So I told her about the three rules of getting into the ad game:
Rule #1: Don’t worry about what you know.
Ad agencies really only care that you graduated from college. You can major in Communications or specifically study Advertising, but that only puts you an inch or so further than someone else with a different educational background. Look, I majored in Political Science and studied Economics, that’s hardly a path to selling cheese or convincing people to buy a 3D Television, but it’s an education.
The fact is, no matter what you learned in school, the agency has its way of doing things and they will teach you how to do it their way. No one expects you to come in the first day, sit at your desk and go immediately to work. You’re fresh out of school and your 3.1 GPA doesn’t transfer over to the P&G business. Stay calm and be cool, the first three or four months of your career is all about learning and not blatantly screwing up. If you can get 65% of your job right, then you’ll be fine. The rest will come with time and good management, just make sure you learn from your mistakes.
Rule #2: Don’t look at the person’s desk beside you.
Different clients, different teams, different bosses or different expectations can all factor into what your workload looks like and why your day ends at 5:30 when the guy next to you doesn’t get home until 10:00 at night. There’s very little difference in the learning curve at the beginning. Your job is to shuffle paper and shut up when the client is around. Once you’ve mastered shuffling paper and shutting up, you’re just about halfway to your first promotion.
When I first started out, I had a roommate who came home at 10:00 or 11:00 every night while I left the office at about 5:30 or 6:00 just about all the time. At first I thought I was dumb or maybe I wasn’t working hard enough. I even tried to figure out ways to stay at work later, but to no avail. I realized quickly that he just had other stuff to do that I either didn’t have to do or had more support to get them done. He was a smart guy and he was dedicated to getting the job done. He threw himself into it 100% and had to work twice as long to get the same paycheck I was getting while leaving at a civilized hour. I could respect his hustle, but I also didn’t envy it.
Funny thing is, ten years later he’s long left the ad game and found a more gratifying way to fulfill his potential. I’d like to think that he was on the train home one night at 11:00 and decided he was too good for his job. Most likely though, he probably sat on that train wondering if he was good enough for his job.
Rule #3: Find out what you’re not good at and don’t do it.
Going back to my points about my educational background. I all to often wound up killing my GPA or wasting entire semesters trying to excel at classes I simply wasn’t cut out for. I was never going to be a mathematician, but I took semester upon semester trying to pass math classes pulling C’s and D’s because I thought that was what I was supposed to be doing (man, I think I even got a J on a test once). Had I known then what I know now, I would have just knocked those classes out in summer school since you’re basically paying a few thousand dollars to get a passing grade (and everyone knows that no one gets failed in summer school).
At work, there are going to be some things that you’re just not going to get and/or not feel like doing. Don’t waste your time trying to do them. For every job you’re not good at doing there’s someone there that is and for every job you’re good at doing, there’s someone there that isn’t. Don’t beat yourself up over things you think you have the potential to do; just be really good at the things that you know you can do. You’ll find that, as you move up the ranks, there are people who are at the job because they specialize in two or three things rather than spend all day trying to be an expert in everything.
Find out what you can do better than most people and work at doing that better than anyone else. On the flip side, find out what you suck at and figure out a way to get it done by someone else.
Just like school there are going to be some things that you like to do that you may not have the opportunity to do or there are some things that you may be asked to do because they feel like you have to potential to do them. It’s about taking what you do know and transferring that into something that you can do well.
I can’t and don’t spend my days at work discussing the merits of Post-Colonial African Democracy as a reflection of Machiavelli’s writing in The Prince nor do I try to tell my clients about Locke’s Social Contract vs. Rousseau’s. While I find those things to be quite interesting and deeply fascinating, they don’t directly impact how we sell cheese.
Instead I use my educational background as a means to propel my desire for knowledge outside of the workplace so that I may find a way to make them applicable one something I may be working on inside the workplace. Understanding the difference between Plato and Marx’s ideas of Behavioralism has actually helped me understand what motivates people to buy insurance.
Potential is a scary thing, but don’t mistake not being good at something or not being the smartest at something as squandering potential. It’s not that you’re implicitly doing the wrong thing, it’s just that you haven’t focused on exclusively doing the thing you’re best at.
Don’t confuse your inability or lack of desire to do something with your actual worth and intelligence to do anything.
The test told me I was special. But life taught me what I’m special at.