“I returned to my high school in LA last week, the first time in 38 years.
The first wave of emotion hit me while walking past the trophy/award case — it hadn’t changed. I remembered the case decorated with the headshot of a student and flowers, not once but twice in the same month. Brent Alberts had rolled his Jeep, and Bobby Mitchells had been struck on his moped. Both died. Drunk driving and binge drinking were the tragedy and scandal at University High School in 1982. However, my best friend was Mormon, which was (mostly) a good thing, as I didn’t drink.
I went in expecting to hear depressing stories of kids dropping out, struggling with depression, and not going to college. What I experienced was inspiring.
I met with Principal Claudia Middleton and college counselor Paula Van Norden, impressive women who made me feel optimistic about the future of our public high schools. I also met with Superintendent Alberto Carvalho who had been described as the LeBron James of the Miami-Dade school system before his tenure in LA. I met with the students — curious, ambitious kids who let me join them in the drumline — many underprivileged, some without a permanent home address. The important stats: 97% are graduating, and 92% are going to college. This. Is. Wonderful.
At the assembly, all the questions were a different flavor of the same query: What can we learn from your success, so we too can be successful? A: It began for me at Uni (high school). I ran for sophomore, junior, and senior class president, and I lost all three times. Based on that track record, I decided to run for student body president where I — wait for it — lost again. Amy Atkins turned me down for the prom, and I was cut from the baseball and basketball teams. Then I was rejected by UCLA, the only school I could afford to attend, as I could live at home.
However, I never lost my sense of enthusiasm.
I appealed the rejection, UCLA admitted me, and by my senior year of college, I was president of the Interfraternity Council. Weak flex, I know, but it felt important at the time. I graduated with a 2.27 GPA, but that didn’t stop me from getting a job in the analyst program at Morgan Stanley (applied to 23 firms, one job offer) or getting into graduate school at Berkeley (applied to nine schools, rejected by seven).
In sum, the secret to my success is … rejection. Specifically, my willingness to endure it. Everybody knows failure, everyone will experience tragedy.
You will get fired, make bad investments, and fall in love with someone who doesn’t love you back. Worst of all, someone you love, and who loves you a great deal, will get sick and die. A core competence of successful people is the ability to mourn, and move on.
So, how to develop this skill? People find strength and resilience in different places. For me, it’s atheism. I do not believe this is a dress rehearsal, and at some point I’ll look into my sons’ eyes and know our relationship is coming to an end. And that’s OK — I’m less afraid than most to risk public failure (starting businesses, making predictions, approaching strangers, etc.) because I believe this will all be over soon.
In addition, age has given me the courage to be more forthcoming with my emotions. To tell people I love them, that I admire them. Looking at important decisions through the lens of your deathbed usually yields the same answers:
Go for it, and tell people you love them.”
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