Saturday, January 26, 2013

Different Minds, Different Kinds

One of my favorite lyrics from Billy Joel’s music comes from “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me.”

Should I try to be a straight A student? If you are then you think too much.

I picked up this mantra when I hit college and realized I was all right with making B’s, and depending on the course, a couple of C’s. I liked to refer to them as “A Gentleman’s C.”

I grew up as a straight-A student. The work just came easy to me from elementary through middle school. Math made sense. Science made sense. English didn’t make sense but I could at least figure out what the teacher wanted. When I got to high school things got a little more challenging and I had to try a little harder in some classes, but I still graduated with a GPA over 4.0. (Alright ladies, who’s impressed yet?)

Then, I went to the University of Florida. I was in classes with some of the brightest minds in Florida and even the nation. It didn’t take long until I felt like the dumbest person there. I was in a marketing class barely getting by with a C and people were telling me, “Oh this class is so easy.” I would laugh along with them and agree, completely lying through my teeth. I would think things like, “I do not belong at this university. I am just not smart enough to hang with these students.” For a long time I felt that way, but I loved being a student there so I kept working hard at it.

I majored in advertising because I was told it had less math than marketing, so I thought I was done with math forever once I hit the classes for my major. I was wrong. There was a course we had to take called Media Planning that was all numbers and statistics and budgeting. I was in advertising hell. We took an exam and the next day our professor wrote the highest and lowest test scores on the board. I think the highest was about a 92 percent and the lowest was a 43 percent. My friends and I laughed and said, “Oh wow, I wonder who got the 43! That’s awful.” Again, I laughed along with them. Then I went home and checked my grade online and guess who had gotten the 43 percent. (Any ladies still impressed?)

I’ll never forget that.

For a while I had been telling some people, “I feel like I might be the dumbest person here.” That day I got to confirm that I was in fact the dumbest person there. My confidence was not soaring, so I went and ate my comfort food… Sonny’s. (Worries and fears seem to melt away at the smell of corn nuggets.) This sort of struggle went on for a while. I’d try to find the other students who were struggling like I was in whatever major they were in and have mini-group therapy sessions where we could feel like we were not alone. But those were rare. There are a lot of smarty-pants Gators.

I soldiered through the course because I had discovered long ago the art of “sitting next to the smart kid and making them your friend.” That’s a skill I hope to pass onto my children. By using that technique, as well as writing a good amount of “please pass me” letters to my professors (true story), I was making it through college one plea for mercy at a time. But I still did not feel like I belonged in that academic region.

Then something happened. I got to take some creative classes. Classes that graded you on how creative your ideas were, not just how well you could regurgitate and reinterpret a book. Classes that required us to come up with slogans, ad campaigns, and use a variety of media vehicles. I started to feel better about things because I started to feel like this was where I belonged.

I would talk with students who I know had gotten way higher grades than me in our other courses and who were now struggling to come up with creative ideas, while I was coming up with plenty of ideas with very little effort. I was now the one getting the highest grades. Professors told me they used my projects as examples in their other classes. Me. Literally the dumbest kid in the Media Planning class.

My confidence found me and for the first time at UF I felt like I belonged, and it was there that I started learning about my strengths and weaknesses. Like I said at the beginning, I stopped worrying about making As in classes I knew were really hard for me, and I focused on being the best in the courses where a mind like mine felt more at home. I figured out how to use my creative strengths in group projects where we all could benefit from each other’s different skills. I had one friend who was very book smart and thorough, two things I really wasn’t, but she liked working with me because I would come up with the creative ideas and ads. We took about every advertising class together and we aced quite a bit of assignments and projects.

I grew up my whole life thinking that being smart meant you had straight A’s, and no doubt you’re obviously not an idiot if you can pull off grades like that. What I have come to realize, though, is that there are many different forms of smart, but in America, we tend to do a good job of defining intelligence with only one explanation. “Kids, [this] is what a smart person looks like. Be like them.” So when students, and adults, struggle in areas that others don’t, they feel like they aren’t smart people. They lose confidence. They settle.

I’m willing to bet if you’re not a straight-A type of person, you have strengths that you don’t even realize are strengths. It’s just a matter of finding them or seeing them as strengths. Start to look at what you’re good at doing and see if everyone around you can do it like you can. There are so many things I see my friends and colleagues doing that I just cannot do or even begin to understand the process of doing, but I had a friend ask me how I write songs and I walked him through my process and he said, “I don’t know how you are able to do that. I never could.” But for me, it’s sometimes as simple as just sitting down with my guitar and a song will pour out in about 30 minutes. Not every time, of course, but it’s just something that comes easier for me. It clicks with me. And it’s something I constantly am trying to improve in, but the initial connection and reaction are there to begin with. That connection is not there with pleeeeeenty of other areas. For example, I can’t learn a foreign language to save my life.

Maybe I’m old school but I don’t really like the idea of every player getting a trophy after baseball. I think a 3rd place trophy is about as low as it should go. When everyone is a winner then no one really is. (Again, maybe that’s the old man in me. As you have may have seen, I do love my cardigans, plaid shirts, and my pipe.) We tell our kids they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, but it simply isn’t true. I’m not saying to squash your children’s dreams, but I do think you are lying to them in a sense. The truth is we have the freedom to be anything we want to be, but we don’t have the abilities.

One of the best things I think my mother did for me as I was growing up was let me try out anything I wanted to try out. If I wanted to play baseball, she was going to get me to the baseball games. When I got really into basketball, we had Michael Jordan games on all the time. When I was 13 and wanted to play guitar because I thought it was cool how Steven Curtis Chapman could play and write his own songs, she sat in my room with me every night and taught me whatever she knew. She was at all my band gigs and comedy nights. If she saw me excelling in something, she got behind whatever it was. She didn’t try to make me do Model U.N. when I had no interest in it. (Which was a good call because I pretty much hate politics now even though I live in DC.) There were countless other endeavors I had from time to time, and she was always supportive of them, but she never tried to make me be someone I wasn’t. I really appreciate that, and to this day she still is the exact same way.

In no way do I think I am someone who needs to be telling you how to raise your kids; obviously I have none of my own, but this is more than just a letter about child rearing. I see the same school day struggles in my adult life. So many people are unsatisfied with who they are or what they are doing because they don’t look like someone else. America has one definition of success, and if we don’t meet that definition then it’s because we haven’t worked hard enough. But that is a lie.

If we spend our lives trying to conform to what works for other people but isn’t supposed to work for us, we will always be conflicted and discouraged. God made you the way you are for a reason. Just because you don’t look like someone else, it doesn’t mean you are not successful or gifted. It just means you are not identical to someone else, but who wants to be in a world full of robots? I know Will Smith doesn’t.

This straight-A mindset might work for some people, but really it could just be that they are gifted in the academic realm. Walt Disney didn’t make straight As. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t either. I know Tim Tebow sure as heck didn’t.  But all of those people found out ways to strengthen their strengths and move past their weaknesses. There is power in being able to say, “I can’t do that,” “I am not good at this,” and especially “I was wrong.” I know it goes against every self-help book out there, but I think humility, rationality, and acceptance need to find their rightful places in our minds and character.

You might not be able to ever be the CEO of a company; you might not have it in you, but what if you were never meant to be a CEO? What if the world doesn’t need you to be a CEO, but rather, to be the coach of a little league team that a CEO would never have time to coach? (Make sure you don’t give all of them trophies if they lose, though.) Does that mean you are unsuccessful in life? Does it?

What if you were actually able to be content with your job and what you do?

What if you don’t need to “be more like your older brother” like you’ve always heard?

What if you are exactly where you need to be?

My advice is to find out what your strengths are and invest your energy in them. If you have weaknesses that you want to work on then, by all means, practice and pursue those changes. All I am submitting to you is that maybe we have wasted a lot of time feeling bad about ourselves for reasons beyond our control. Your family needs you to be you. Your friends need you to be you. And most of all, you need you to be you.