This is a story for the kids who ached to be noticed and weren’t.
This is a story for the parents of those kids, who worry about their future.
This is a story for any human who’s known the frustration of being “just OK” at more or less everything.
This is a story for the clients and colleagues who assumed I came out of the womb a straight-A overachiever.
This is a story about what really happened.
I remember sitting across from the Dean of Students that steaming South Florida afternoon.
We were in her office, again, discussing the same thing we usually did: me, and my notorious academic blah.
As a little background: I hated these meetings. Partly because I had to sit down and confront my own self-disappointment, and partly because the office was somehow never warmer than 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
I was bombing something – maybe Algebra II or Physics, I don’t remember. But what I do recall distinctly was her bad poker face as she glanced at a manilla envelope in front of her.
The conversation was old, but the envelope was new.
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, hoping this would be over quickly.
“Hill,” she said amiably, using the nickname only strangers called me “Do you remember in second grade, when you took that day-long assessment test?”
No. Not at all.
She named a number. For the story’s sake, let’s call it 20.
“A 20 on this score is smart. A 30 -” she raised her eyebrows at me intently “- is gifted.”
Like I said, terrible poker face.
My heart started to pound. A glimmer of excitement wicked it’s way up through my chest.
You see, my whole life, I wanted to be exceptional at something. Anything.
But my excruciating desire to be noticed was crippled by my utter middle-of-the-roadness; unquestionably due to a mix of lack of discipline, and trying to approach recognition through the wrong avenues.
I wanted to be the star of the soccer team, the lead in the school play, the top of my class, the heartthrob of my grade. Instead, I sat on the bench, high kicked in the chorus line, scraped by with B’s and C’s, and was labeled “average at best” in the looks department.
The worst part was, I was boisterous as hell, and a frequent disruptor – but had no redeeming brainpower to excuse my behavior. I was just… (sigh) annoying.
To further sour the pot, my siblings were both brilliant in their respective ways. My sister was a superstar academically and creatively, and my brother had a near-perfect SAT score without so much as a glance at his review materials.
But maybe now, that was about to change.
Maybe this was my moment – when I’d discover I was a misunderstood genius with magical smarts yet untapped. A violin prodigy who just hadn’t touched the strings yet, or a successful politician-in-waiting just not popular enough to make any headway in student council elections.
As she opened the envelope with a rustle, my hands turned to fists in my lap.
I leaned forward as she sifted through the papers inside, and pulled out a page.
Glancing over the results, her forehead furrowed slightly. Instantly, my small balloon of hope began deflating with a sad squeak.
Still, she flipped the paper around and circled the dot that represented my score.
There I was. Right on 20.
It was clear in her face: she really believed she had something better to show me.
Her continued assurances I was “a smart girl” were muffled by my oppressive desire to melt into my chair and slip out her office door, never to be seen again.
There it was, in black and white. Proof I was doomed to be halfway decent the rest of my damn life. Smart, but not too smart. Kind of good at stuff, but not enough to stand in the spotlight.
Get comfortable with those participation trophies in the chorus line of life, kid. The assessment scores have spoken.
It was one of those odd first-world moments of heartbreak that stands out in the ocean of growing pains and awkward challenges of high school.
Coming face to face with your own mediocrity hurts like a bitch.
I can’t tell you what happened after I left that office that day, but what I do know is that I probably spent that night, or the night after that, ignoring my algebra or Physics homework, and sitting down for my self-comforting ritual: writing.
I wrote anything. Parodies of fairy tale stories, LiveJournal blog posts, fantasy novellas, fanfiction (no, not porn, come on guys), letters I never sent to friends or boys I was angry or in love with…
I’d submit work in online forums, and review the work of others as well.
I had always written. It was a habit; like biting my fingernails, or tapping the ceiling of my car for luck as I blew through a yellow light. I considered it a soothing mechanism more than anything else – a chance for me to rest in a world of my own creation, a world I felt I completely understood.
Please note, this is not the part of the story where I reveal: SURPRISE! I was a genius after all. Ha ha, take that Dean of Students.
The truth is, I was writing constantly at school as well; essays, creative pieces, etc. But beyond one really solid assessment of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and a “Hey, that was pretty funny!” comment on my college essay from one of my teachers, my writing clearly fell under the “decent” category too.
But somewhere between my senior year of high school and first year of university, I made a decision:
If I couldn’t be naturally really good at anything, maybe I could at least be known for working really, really hard.
Worn out by years of “smart but undisciplined” talk from essentially every teacher and school official I’d ever come into contact with, I figured it was time to give the discipline thing a shot.
So I taught myself… how to work.
I spent most of my first college semester at a top party school in the library, trying to get my shit together.
Spoiler alert: it’s harder to train yourself to listen in class, take notes, and create immaculate study guides at 18 than it is at 8.
It also turns out, I could still be undisciplined as hell in other non-school-related areas. (Lack of passion murders my motivation – but I couldn’t rest on that vain realization.)
So I just… tried. I tried really hard. Every day.
That discipline eventually lead to internships, which led to more internships, which lead to a job out of graduation, which led to a friend turning to me to remind me of something that had never occurred to me:
“Copywriting could be a great path for you. And hey, you’ve been writing since you could hold a pen…”
Had I? Oh yeah! That was actually kind of true.
This led to my start in an industry where hard work and a dedication to the deadline often superseded actual talent – at least in the initial stages.
Was I necessarily the best? Nah. But I got my damn work done, and I utterly devoted myself to giving my clients what they wanted.
I learned that my instincts were good, and if I could just keep pushing forward, working with more clients, honing my skills, and making things happen for myself – I could stand out.
But it wouldn’t be the sparkly, all-eyes-on-me standing out of playing the lead in that musical, or having the highest score on some assessment I’d taken when I was 7.
I could stand out for being a hard worker, a professional, and a fun person dedicated to the follow through.
And in the end – isn’t that all that really matters?
Honestly, I’m not sure how to end this. What can I possibly say to all my brothers and sisters who never slammed their SAT scores, played supporting roles, and were largely overlooked despite all their inner fire and furious desire to sparkle somehow?
Well, for one: we are so much more than our hopes for ourselves at 16 (thank God.)
And furthermore: dedicating yourself to your work, or even just finishing whatever’s in front of you to the best of your ability, means so much more in this life than getting the gold star. Besides, the gold star kids don’t always succeed anyway – and having a slightly smaller ego than some can only serve you.
Sometimes I wonder how long I would have waited for someone to turn around and call me “exceptional” the way I’d hoped for. To be honest, it may never have happened. And I’m glad it didn’t.
Because there are so many ways to shine in this world, and so many ways to add value and joy to the people you know and work alongside.
Hang in there. You’ll find yours.
Photo by Jeff Weller. Because of course.