Once, I was a young kid. I grew up in Virginia, where I got a really good education in some very decent schools. I got fair grades, but not as good as I could have. By far the most common comment on my evaluations from my teachers was “has so much potential. Needs to focus.”
I was an underachiever.
My test scores were excellent. I aced the SAT and ACT, only took them one each and almost got a perfect score on the SAT English half. I got a good enough score on the PSAT to be a National Merit Semifinalist. But I once failed a geometry final (although I wrote 63 pages of a post-apocalyptic romance novel in that class). I got an F in French, for Heaven’s sake, despite the fact that I can reproduce even very complex accents and vocabularies on one or two hearings and that I learned to speak Hungarian with native radio-broadcaster fluency, following which I moved into the German house at BYU and started with German 201, speaking German full-time in the dorm, without ever having had a German class.
But I took 6 years to graduate, because I changed majors 4 times. I got to a point in each major where I couldn’t make myself go to class anymore. Finally I finished in Classics, Classical Civilization. Advanced Latin and all that. Very practical stuff.
I started in politics, because that was what my father did. I even got an internship at the same think tank he worked at. I hated it so much I faked getting sick to avoid going to work. I liked battlefield politics, campaigning, so I did that a while. Three straight campaigns, three straight losses. I went into insurance and financial services instead of joining the National Guard. I was Rookie of the Year there. But by the end of my fifth year, I had one of the senior VPs of the company tell me “I don’t get you. You do most everything right. You have all the tools. You should be one of the stars of the company, and I don’t understand why you’re not.” And I wasn’t. Eventually, I couldn’t pay rent on my very modest office and it closed. I spent six months studying alternative currency theory, and didn’t have a job.
At the end of that period, I negotiated the sale of one of my friend’s companies to another friend’s company for $1 million. Out of that, I landed a job with the purchasing company that lasted 2 years. But it was a startup internet company, and it made payroll only once out of three pay periods, on average. In there, I was hired to be the National Field Director for a presidential campaign, where my job was to parachute into trouble spots on the campaign and get people working together. I was very good at it. We lost anyway. Eventually the internet company gave me stock instead of pay, and for one day I was a paper millionaire, but by the time they bought me out, the stock was worth about $100,000, and it eventually paid me about $40,000 on the sale of it.
I got fired from my next job. On the way out, the owner said I should try mortgages. So I did, and I liked it, and I was good at it, and it paid. But I left the company that hired me – again, I was one of the top guys in the company – to get paid more at another company. The new company was run by people that were, let’s say, unsuited to running a successful business. I left just before they fired me for being unable to keep my mouth shut about it. The next few years was round and round of hiring and firing employees, opening my own brokerage, then discovering that 2007 was not a good time to be starting a mortgage company.
But I have now landed at City 1st, and I like it. I’m coming up on 7 years in the mortgage business, and I still like doing the work. We’ve been in the same office now for 30 months. During this time I’ve been the President of the Rotary Club, the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, started three other businesses (all still alive at the moment, and one of them thriving), and become a moderately sought-after writer on mortgage subjects. We’re not rich, but we aren’t starving, either. We’re still here, through one of the worst mortgage markets in history.
One of the things that happens as you get older is that you stop thinking that you’re going to go on getting better and better at everything. When you’re a teenager, and even into your 20s, if you aren’t good at something, you know there’s time to improve. Your potential is always out there farther than the place you are. You get comments like “you have so much potential” and “one day, you could become really good at this” and “a little more experience and you could be dangerous”.
Now, though, I know that my best days on the basketball court are behind me, for instance. I know that I very likely will not learn Russian, and I won’t ever be a quality jazz pianist, and I will officially never be on the cover of the local business magazine’s “40 under 40″ edition of top young entrepreneurs. There are still a zillion things to improve at, I know, and this is not to minimize those things. But for a couple years now I have felt creeping up on me a sense that the sky really is not the limit, that I have in fact reached some of my limits already, and started drifting back.
When you’re young, you don’t know how good you can be at anything. You can always get better. I’m just 41, but I can already see areas where I have been as good as I am ever going to be, islands of peak performance rising up out of a shrinking sea of possibilities.
But there is something not-so-tragic-about this, too. Twice in this last couple of weeks, people that know me well have used a word to describe me that has never been used, not by anyone, not in reference to me, in my whole life.
They called me an “overachiever“.
Well. I’m still a bit disoriented by that. What happened? Was my potential revealed to be not nearly as incandescently bright as my elementary-school teachers thought it was? Have I learned to work sufficiently hard now that I can actually reach some of my potential?
I don’t know if the trend will last, obviously. But I’ll tell you this: having all my life been labeled as a kid with unlimited potential, most of it squandered by my lack of focus and discipline, to have arrived at a point where people start to believe that I have exceeded my potential in certain areas is downright satisfying.
Being young and talented is great. This is better.