Friday, August 20, 2010

Will I Never Learn

I have this knack of, umm..., let's call it getting myself into things... situations where I start to wonder, "How the f*%k did I get myself into this?", and perhaps more importantly, "How the hell am I going to get myself out?"

I've had this ability for as long as I can remember and I've applied it to situation after situation after situation. The funny thing is that each time I'm surprised.

Not College Material: 1975
At the end of high school, I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. Fortunately (I guess) my dad had a very clear one. I was going to go the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana. The only catch was that my high school GPA was somewhere in the vicinity of property values in Detroit. Not long after I submitted my application, I received a notice telling me that I might do better elsewhere.

Reading the note, I breathed a sigh of relief. What business did I have going to a University; high school had been bad enough. But my dad wouldn't hear of it. Turns out that Illinois paid particularly close attention to your score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and I had not performed particularly well on them, particularly because I had forgotten about them completely and had played a gig the night before that got me home particularly late (4:00 AM) to be greeted by my particularly pissed off dad.

So, my dad arranged for me to take the SAT again giving me two pieces of advice: 1) after you select an answer to a math question, look at it to see if it makes sense; and, 2) if you get stuck, just move on. After I taking the exam, he had me write a letter to the admissions office explaining how disappointed I was not to have been accepted and explaining my SAT situation. Anyway, my subsequent SAT score apparently indicated an unprecedented increase in academic prowess and, much to the dismay of me and my fellow Wheaton Central High School graduates who were also heading to Illinois, I was to be among them.

My first semester was like being dumped on Pluto. I had no idea what to do or how to do it. With no one yelling at me in the morning to get up and go to school, I managed to miss a lot of classes. I didn't party so much as sleep. I don't know if it was the kindness of the teachers or luck of the draw or being able to BS my way through essays, but somehow I made it through the first semester with three C's and one B.

The next two semesters weren't much better, but then something changed. By the fourth semester (second half of the second year), I decided that I was going switch from liberal arts to music. I also decided that I was going to get all A's. Further, I decided that I was going to make some money working twenty-hours a week. I signed up for six classes including theory, composition, arranging and, umm..., math; I got a job washing dishes at Papa Del's Pizza; and I launched Mark 2.0.

Unexpected Freedom
For whatever reasons (ones that are first becoming clear to me even now as I write), I found being in a situation where I couldn't possibly succeed remarkably freeing. My entire life I'd been terrorized by the words: "Youshould be able to do this; it's easy." Whenever I heard them, I'd freeze in my tracks knowing that failure was only steps away and that failing would confirm my being a complete idiot. However, when I told my dad about my plans to take the maximum course load, to work a job and to get all A's, he actually said, "Are you sure you want to take all that on?"

Even as I write this I'm reliving breathing a sigh of relief.

That semester was my best school experience, ever! I made it to all my classes. I worked hard at the pizza shop. I learned a lot. I got all A's. For the first time ever, I heard my dad on the phone telling his friends about my academic exploits. It was pretty remarkable. However, something had changed in me along the way. It was as though I'd ignited this fire that was consuming fuel faster than I could feed it. What had seemed impossible and freeing at the get-go had become expected. I needed more.

Earlier that year, I'd made friends with an amazing guitarist who'd been at Berklee College of Music in Boston. We'd hang out in his dorm room and he show me various techniques that I wasn't learning at Illinois. He not only knew traditional music theory, but he also new pop theory and jazz theory. So, by the middle of my all-A semester, I decided that I was going to leave Illinois and head to Boston. Not only that, but I decided that I was going to declare piano as my principle instrument. Being a sax player, I was tired of having to recruit ensembles to play my music just so that I could hear it. If I played piano, then I'd be able to play it for myself.

It was early spring. I applied to Berklee and found a teacher at Illinois who would help me learn to play the piano.

On to Boston: 1977
In September, I arrived in Boston with my suitcase and without my saxophone. (I didn't want to give myself any outs.) At Berklee, we all took various tests and evaluations the first week so that we could be placed in class sections with people of similar skill. Each class (arranging, composition, theory, ear-training and analysis) had thirteen levels.

Somehow I ended up in the top one or two for each. The people around me were amazing. The first day of ear-training, the teacher walks into class, drops the needle on a Coltrane record and says, "Write this down." I thought he was kidding, but then I look to my left and see the guy next to me pick up his pencil and begin writing. OK, maybe I needed to rethink this a bit.

My piano teacher showed absolutely no mercy when I told him that I'd only been playing for a few months. He handed me a book of Chopin Etudes and pointed to the sections that I was going to have learned by next week. Each week, our arranging class performed the week's assignments. I would slide down in my seat hoping not to be called upon to play, but alas, the day came, and I sat behind the piano to play with the rest of the class. Embarrassing would have been a step up.

I left class that day wondering, "What the heck did I get myself into?" and "How am I going to get through this?" But I did. I practiced like never before, four to six hours a day of metronome work with the piano. I started translating everything I heard (elevator music, passing boom-boxes, fire truck sirens) in to notes. I developed a new technique for composition and arranging that involved a rapid cycle of write, crumple, toss in bin.

In the end, I don't know exactly how, but I did well, really well. Again I got all A's.

Time to raise the anti. I got married...(1978) We got pregnant...(1979) I quit Berklee... We moved back to Wheaton...

I've talked before about when Joy was born (December, 1979). We had no healthcare and little income. It was challenging. In 1981, I got a clerical job at Bell Labs. It was more money than I'd ever made and the benefits were great. I was set! But noooooo...

I decided that I was going to be technical! I was going to show everyone that I could do mathy-type stuff. I was going to become a Member of Technical Staff (MTS), the top of the technical ladder.

I enrolled in night school. I stayed late at work teaching myself UNIX and shell and C. I volunteered for projects that were way beyond my skill set. It was like my moto had become, never accept a job that you're qualified to do. Long work days, night school four days a week, directing choirs, playing music, and two more kids (Eila and Luke) were, well, hard. But, I was learning so much. Two years later, I'd finished my bachelor's degree and I was ready to be promoted to MTS. (I later found out that people had rarely scaled the technical ladder from clerk to MTS and that it typically took at least ten years.)

The route to MTS included graduate school. I could either go to night school locally for two to three years being paid at the MTS salary level or I could go to school fulltime for one year being paid a small stipend. Rene and I had a house, three kids and a car payment. The choice was obvious. But...

Graduate School: 1983/1984
I applied to MIT, Princeton and University of Illinois. I got into Princeton and Illinois. I didn't have enough money to make it on the stipend alone, but I could work ten to twenty hours a week to compensate. So, we sold the house, packed up the kids and moved to Champaign/Urbana. The masters degree program at University of Illinois required a thesis. So, participants in the Bell Labs program were allowed to extend their stay through the summer (beyond the two-semesters of the academic year). However, I couldn't afford to stay that long. So, I decided that I would work, take five graduate classes one semester and four the next, and write a thesis in two semesters. Anti-up.

I gotta say, the question, "How the hell did I get myself into this?" was a relatively constant companion through those nine months. It still may be the hardest thing I ever did. If I didn't make it, it would have meant forfeiting all the work I'd done so far and my MTS position. It was tough. Yet, nine months later, I had my masters degree and we were on our way to New Jersey.

On and On...
And so it continued. I eventually ended up in basic research with a million dollar budget to be creative. It was dream job, and yet, I wanted to do more than come up with ideas. I wanted to see them implemented. So, I left the safety of research for the uncertainty of the business. I learned and I grew and I would wonder, "How'd I get myself into this?"

I left the security of AT&T for a struggling start-up in Boston where I was the CTO and VP of Marketing. I commuted from New Jersey to Boston, working sixteen hour days and I'd wonder, "How'd I get myself into this?" But I learned and I grew.

We sold that company to Intel. I had stock options, an amazing salary and bonus structure, and a great job. So, what did I do? I quit and started my own company with my own money paying people with money I got from my credit cards when my cash ran out and wondering to myself...

You'd Think I Woulda Learned
Over the years I and the people around me have come to expect that, given two choices: stay comfortable where you are or venture out into something completely uncharted about which you have no clue, I'll always choose the latter. No problem. However, despite having experienced emerging on the other side so many times, I still will sometimes be surprised by how hard it is in the middle. Despite the preponderance of evidence, I'll occasionally find myself asking those two questions. And in those moments, the situations will truly feel impossible. My sensibilities will be telling me to quit.

But, those feelings and sensibilities are ephemeral. They pass. Sometimes after a good night's sleep. Sometimes after working out rigorously for a couple of hours. Sometimes just by forgetting about it and diving into something else like music. Sometimes simply because someone else says, "Hey, did you think about..."

You'd think I'd have learned by now.

Happy Friday!


  1. Tef: As I slowly digest what you have shared, it occurs to me that it's almost completely antithetical to the common "If I can't win, I won't play" mindset that most folks (myself included) have. I can understand how some success in initially impossible-looking ventures can breed confidence and reinforce the tendency. I can also relate with the thought-process you outlined, where expectations of complete failure are actually liberating.

    One question that comes to mind: considering that you've had remarkable successes doing life this way, and have also touched many people in a positive way, looking back, do you see any downsides at all? Any 'collateral damage'?


  2. Sree, I'm not sure that I would call it collateral damage per se, but there are certainly trade-offs.

    For example, I have many friends who say they would take "risks" but can't because of others in their lives. Most often, people "blame" their kids for the choices they make. At other times, they attribute playing it safe to their partners. In almost every instance, as I've asked people questions about "what risk exactly", it's hard for them to come up with something that is truly risky. In the end, the potential side effect is the impact on the happiness of those around you. If you're with a partner who likes everything safe, comfortable and predictable, well...

    The other side-effect I've encountered, one that I wouldn't have anticipated, has been various business people who see what I'm doing as a ploy to get something else. The idea that I would just leave to go do something new when I already have "everything that I could want" seems incredulous. They assume that there must be some other motivation. As a result, there are some people who just get really upset.

    There are times where you want to really go for something in a big way and the people with whom you've worked don't. You can try to coax people along, but in my experience, unless people really want to do things from their own passion and initiative, it doesn't work. So, you're left with a choice: should I stay or should I go.

    In a couple of cases where I've decided to go, I've had friends who saw my actions as some kind of betrayal or lack of loyalty. It sounds a bit silly, but it happens.

    A lot of times, people who care about you tend to fret. My mom was one to call me frequently to make sure I wasn't "working too hard".

    Of course there are the very real considerations of time and space, of being finite.

    Finally, there is always the very really possibility that it won't work out the way you hoped it would. Then it's all about being willing to lose while passionately pursuing the win.

  3. Thanks for sharing. I've been having some similar thoughts about getting myself into stuff. Yet, I get myself into it because I want to. When the learning curve is steep, discomfort is my favorite response, yet, I'm reminding myself to be comfortable with the discomfort. Like muscle burn from a workout, it passes as I keep going. Thanks for the reminder.


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