I had to pick a song, during my first week of my freshman year in high school, that was supposed to represent me. Most of the class picked ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor, aka the Rocky song. I remember being particularly annoyed because I didn’t think these 14 year olds had a lot of ‘straight to the top’ survivor material, but perhaps it was more aspirational. I was never really able to do that, to say “this is how I’m going to succeed and just watch it’s going to be amazing.” I was more of a Little Engine That Could: I think I can, I think I can…
During college, I discovered someone else who had a similar style: the 16th President of the United States, better known as Abraham Lincoln. When running for the Illinois legislature, he wrote the following:
“Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed. I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the back ground, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”
He was 23 at the time, earnest, melancholy, and truthful. We would all look back now and say, but of course! Lincoln was always going to be President. He was destined for greatness. Maybe that’s so. But more often than not it’s perseverance, indecision, uncertainty, course correction, lots of standing still, impostor syndrome, and what feels like dumb luck. That’s the more common route to personal success.
For me too. I learned how to be good at my job by failing at it. I have never gotten a greater dose of preparation than the time I failed a college course with an 8% (though to be fair, passing was 12). When I finally got into a job I loved, I spent the first six months in awe of my luck. The next, terrified I would be fired for being awful at it. And another six months after that before I realized there was very little luck in involved. Working hard, showing up on time (mostly), always expressing a willingness to learn and try new things - these are things that got me there. Not luck. And failing had taught me how to admit defeat, when to ask for help, and how to break down what I didn’t know and cut through it piece by piece. If someone had told me that was what success meant, I don’t think I would have been quite so scared I would never get there.
But my freshman year of high school I was very uncertain, very earnest, and perhaps a bit too truth-telling. I picked ‘Hands’ by Jewel as my song. It was embarrassing in light of all the tigers in the room, but it’s what came to mind when writing this:
“If I could tell the world just one thing, it would be that we’re all okay.”