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Lapping people who aren't even in the race.
When I was 14, four boys knocked me on my back and picked me up, each holding one of my limbs. I was not strong enough to struggle free. They carried me over to a goal post and the two holding my feet forced my legs apart and positioned me so that they could pull and have the post crush me in the ‘middle.’ I’m not sure how long this lasted, but it felt like hours.
These same kids (and others) had bullied me weekly since I arrived at Newark Academy (the only two years of schooling I had in the U.S. before college– I spent the rest of them overseas). I got used to a lot of things: taunting, slaps to the back of my head in class, dead arms, knocking me into hallway walls, lockers, etc. but this one particularly violent event unfortunately led to a lifetime of real physical complications.
I won’t go into all the details. If you are a friend of mine, you probably know most of it anyway. If not, I do not think those details are really appropriate for this newsletter, but I have written about this incident elsewhere and spent many years jumping around to different doctors to try and get some relief. Other people have it far worse than me, of course, so I won’t go on about it, but to be blunt, it does suck.
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In the last issue of this newsletter, I ended with a question about how somebody like myself, who otherwise had a picture-perfect childhood filled with love and safety, could have turned into an adult with so much anxiety and irrational fear? Well … this was the kind of singular experience that can do that to a person. If you think you could be suddenly knocked down at any moment and maimed by a group of guys, you tend to tense up, and your resting state becomes one of high alert. This tension and catastrophic thinking can play a managing role in most parts of your life.
The reason I bring this story up is, believe it or not, relevant to the general subject matter of this newsletter. In fact, it is directly tied to my success as a creative business owner. Here is what happened: I developed a unique personal trait that arose out of my frustration with never having had a chance to fight back and ‘get even’ with those kids. This trait was a fierce and overpowering obsession with proving I was better than them. I’m not exactly sure what ‘better’ even means, but I do know I became furiously driven to overachieve, to overcome all obstacles, and to always ‘win.’ I’m not exactly sure what ‘winning’ means, either. But this is how I felt. A lot.
For the rest of my grade school years, I subconsciously competed with my tormentors; a significant part of my sense of self worth hinged on my dusting them in imaginary contests for the best grades, being the most liked by girls, excelling in more extra curricular activities, and on and on.
“I’ll show them,” I thought.
But they weren’t paying attention.
They weren’t even there.
I was, after all, at a totally different school in a totally different country, only a few months after the incident. But those boys lived on in my mind, as real as ever, long into adulthood.
Throughout the years, in moments of special recognition from peers, teachers, colleagues and friends, I remember clearly thinking to myself that ‘they’ were out there somewhere, watching, and crushed by the realization that I was the superior human, outshining them in countless ways with my many accomplishments. It never occurred to me until just a few years ago that the likelihood of any of those original four boys having any memory of me, or caring at all about my life, was almost certainly zero.
Why did it take so long for me to see this and accept it?
The answer is clear: as long as I fooled myself into believing they were keeping tabs on me, I could push myself to new heights and rely on my desire for revenge to keep me from falling behind (behind who, exactly? Didn’t matter). And while this delusion meant that I accomplished far more than I ever thought possible, it also meant that I never allowed myself to stop. Without any proof that my enemies had been truly vanquished, I had to keep moving on to the next challenge, instead of resting and feeling content in the knowledge that I was successful by any measure, my family was happy and safe, and life was good. This was unsustainable, and as I wrote last week, it took its toll.
I see all of this clearly now. And it has changed me. But it’s a slow change, and will require a lot of time and effort to make permanent.
It’s a mixed bag. My anxiety and fear, and my obsession with outplaying people who weren’t even in the game were all part of what led to the great success of my brush business.
But so were my positive spirit, my creativity, and my love of making art.
Now that I know I have mostly been competing with ghosts, I can learn to rely on healthier sources of motivation going forward: love for my family, the enjoyment I get when I immerse myself in creative work, and the gratitude on the faces of those who benefit from my efforts to entertain, inspire and teach them.
These are more than enough.
If you have thoughts to share, please do so in the comments. I would love to know if my story resonates with some of your own experiences.
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