The other day, someone said he wasn’t “smart or lucky enough” to do what I’m doing. It’s not the first time that particular person has said something along those lines, either, but that’s a completely different story.
I’ve also had other people remark that I must have had an easy life since I’m generally calm and in good spirits. After all, if my life were harder, surely I wouldn’t be so jovial, kind-hearted, and possibilistic.
Both sets of beliefs posit that history defines our attitudinal states and/or capabilities. Both sets of beliefs are woefully incomplete.
I’ve written before that we can’t just look at history, luck, or intention separate from each other when we’re considering how our lives are formed and lived. Looking through the frame of history, luck, and intention isn’t as easy as trying to pick one, but I prefer an accurate framework over an easy one.
Let’s take another look at how lucky I’ve been:
- I was born to a poor, multiracial family in the South.
- I remember the fights my mom and dad had in front of us before, during, and after their divorce. There’s a motion picture of my mom throwing a huge plastic terrarium at my dad that I’ve never been able to shake.
- My mom moved a block away from my dad so that we could stay close, but it also meant that my brother and I were frequent emotional pawns in their tumultuous post-divorce relationship.
- My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 8. We were too poor and uneducated to really know what that meant, so it was a scary time. I spent many a night in my mom’s bed holding her hand because she thought she was going to die.
- I happened to be home from school one day when my mom collapsed in the shower. She screamed when she fell, so I had to break a locked door to find my semi-conscious, naked mother bleeding in the bath tub. I don’t remember whether I called 911 or ran to get my dad – who happened to be home, as well – but it’s hard for a 9-year old boy to watch his mom be driven away in an ambulance, not knowing whether the bathroom scene would be the last time he saw his mother alive.
- Mom recovered, kind of. She took chemo for what seemed to be forever, and this was the late eighties in the South. At that time, it was common for cancer patients to not know whether the chemo would kill them before the cancer did.
- During this period, my mom and dad independently let me know that if I ever wanted to make anything of myself, I’d have to do it on my own. My mom didn’t know if she’d be a cancer survivor, and my dad knew he’d be too poor to do anything but keep us alive. My dad was also older and a hard-worker – since I had already ingrained that parents die on you, I saw that it was a possibility that he’d die from either over-work or due to the family history of heart problems. I took their words to heart.
- It took years for Mom to get full use in her right arm back. We had an old Honda civic with a manual transmission, so I learned how to time shift-sticking with my left hand to her pedal operations. We made it work.
- To make ends meet, mom got a paper route. In the fifth and six grades, I’d get up, roll papers, and throw them while she drove. It’s no wonder I’m a morning person – I spent years getting up well before sunrise and working. We only did that a few years before it was clear that it just wasn’t worth it compared to the other jobs she might get.
The better job that mom got was being a nurse’s aid. The highest demand for work was during the 2nd and 3rd shifts, so for the next few years, I’d either come home to a skillet of Hamburger Helper that she cooked before she left for work at 3pm or, on luckier days, she’d leave around 10pm and be home just in time to see me off to school. Some days, she’d work a 3rd shift on one day and the 2nd shift on the next, so I’d have all of 20 minutes of time with my family.
My brother is six years older than I am, so while all of this is going on, he’s being a teenager. Not the “studious, providing for the family kind,” either – more like the “getting in trouble, chasing girls, and staying gone” kind. Everything that we had been through was taking a heavy toll on him, too. His ticket out of it was the Marines and he got an early ticket. Very shortly after his graduation – when I was 11 – he left. It didn’t change a whole lot for me, as he’d already been gone or distant for a while.
I spent the first year of junior high in detention more days than not. I grew up in a bad neighborhood and I followed the profile and expectations of my peers. I was in the gifted and talented program and I was forced to choose between the bad behavior and staying in the program – it was the first time I had to make that choice. I chose the education, remembering what my parents had said about making it on my own.
It could have easily gone the other way, but it didn’t because a few people got through to me. I was involved in the Boy Scouts, and I had some positive role models who showed me a different path. I was “adopted” by the Brownmiller-Ruth family, who were middle-class enough to show that I could do better but not so high class that it wasn’t accessible to me. Mr. Harris and Dr. Ruth (from a different family than the Ruths just mentioned) at my junior high challenged me in the right way when other teachers wrote me off as one of the bad kids. Herein is where luck comes in, for were it not for any single one of them, I may have made a different choice.
I started working at a Boy Scout summer camp as soon as I was old enough. It got me away from the worst street in the worst part of town, put a little money in my pocket, and it was mostly a classless society. Without our parents’ status, we boys had to find another way of sorting ourselves. Given the values of the Scouts, it was largely merit- and personality-based. For the first time in my life, I had a clean slate to work from. After that first summer, I came back a new person. I went back every summer until I couldn’t.
I started doing better in school. At the same time, mom was starting to get better jobs, so we were slowly creeping up from “way poor” to just “poor.” I worked odd jobs with dad when I needed some money before I could get a job, but mom was adamant for a few years that I not have a job so I could stay focused on the Scouts, church, and school. I never cared much for the middle of the three, but that’s where my tribe was, so I went.
I got invited to be a part of some leadership initiative whose name I can’t remember through the public school system. It was a fun break from school, and I now know that I was there as an example of a poor minority who was a future leader. We would lead younger kids in a wide range of educational and social exercises, so we actually got some field practice in leading people I just met five minutes ago.
Those programs are funny in that, at the time, you don’t realize that people putting you in front of other people as an example molds you as much as it provides the people you’re a model for. But it had its desired effect – it was another environment and indicator that I could do and be more than a poor mixed kid.
All of a sudden, people stopped treating me like a poor mixed kid.
Oh Goody! Another Lifetime story!
While this sounds like the wind-up to the typical American dream story, that’s not the 3-act play I wish to convey. My point is to irritate that part of ourselves that lets us off the hook and points the fingers at other people’s circumstances as the easy reason why they’re making it and we’re not.
Sure, a different past would have changed you, but so what?
Truth be told, I could tell this story a different way. I could talk about how fortunate I was to learn self-sufficiency, how to overcome adversity, leadership, entrepreneurship, compassion, continual vigilance, social adaptability, and so on. That story is just as true.
What happens to us is what sets the story, but it’s not the essence of the story. That’s for us to decide. (Click to tweet – thanks!)
Beautifully told Charlie. Turns out that you and I have a very similar background in a lot of ways. We even had the same type of schooling – but I quit the Gifted and Talented Program early on.
It’s not brains or luck that makes the true entrepreneur a fountain of effervescence. Often you’ll find that those who have suffered the most have the brightest outlook. That’s because we know the difference.
Often our circumstances do hold us back. But once that’s in the past, don’t use the past as an excuse. Keep pushing hard.
I’m a woman in my 30’s entering an industry dominated by young men who grew up with money – and education. But that’s ok — because I’ll always have something special to offer. And what I’ve been through, my hardships, allow me to connect to others with a compassion that I did not have before I experienced hardship. Today I’m running three businesses and attending school, AND recording albums – and I couldn’t be happier.
Love ya Charlie!!
I’m never lucky but I know that hard work can take me along way.
Great timing for my own life assessment and decision on my next pathway through life. I have pointed the finger, I have resolved it is my responsibility, I have taken the reigns in my life – and other peoples for a brief time, to get them on the path they want – and it is lucky and smartness that gets you where you want to be. Lucky to who we are with the resilience we learned; smart enough to sort the luck from the work and get on with it…
Like Amanda said, “Often you’ll find that those who have suffered the most have the brightest outlook. That’s because we know the difference.”
I had a different life with many of the same events (gifted and talented program because I was a slacker – or bored, who knows, Mom with breast cancer, parents went through a really tumultuous divorce, and then my own health issues). I’ve found that if there is one thing that sets people apart it’s a decision very early on – the decision to not become a victim.
Once we learn that we can indeed control our lives, anything is possible.
Thanks for sharing that, Charlie. I have a similar story with different details, lower middle class family, rural WI, lots of illness, alcoholism, constant fighting, gifted and talented program (actually, they had to make one just for me as the school didn’t have one, so I was constantly singled out).
Someone recently told me, “I hate you sometimes. You’re like a cat – you always land on your feet.” I just had to bite my tongue.
Thank you for the transparency, Charlie, and for putting this in such a way that it has poked me in the eye.
“What happens to us is what sets the story, but it’s not the essence of the story. That’s for us to decide.” Exhilarating and scary but, then again, I suppose that’s two sides of the same coin.
Jess Morrow says
GREAT post. I love seeing bloggers open up & get REAL, in just the right place for just the right reasons. Thank you for this.
I’d also like to add something that a close friend of mine, a man in his 50’s told me once. His mother was a teenage prost*tute when he grew up. He is a successful and wonderful man today. On his mother’s deathbed, she said, “I’m so sorry, son.” and he said, “Don’t be, Mom. Guess why? Because I like myself. I like who I am today. There is no tragedy.”
I would not trade any of the hardships I’ve been through. Barring a tsunami or similar natural disaster etc., our experiences really do shape us.
Love who you are today. It’s part of the puzzle that makes you, YOU!
I’d say “amen and hallelujah”, except I’m not even the tiniest bit religious. So what’s the secular equivalent? Right on?
I have struggled with this misperception of success all of my life; often from the people that are best positioned to understand the disadvantages I’ve faced. I’ve come to realize that my success will always be a reason for me to be “different” from them, even when they know we come from the same place. It’s easier that way, because they don’t have to change. But change is a choice, and it is a ticket out. I guess the luck comes with seeing that and being strong enough/brave enough/desperate enough to try (and then try again and again until something changes). There’s no saying why it works for some of us and not for others, but it’s definitely true that your world is what you make of it, and it’s a better place from the drivers’ seat.
Jermaine Lane says
My respect for you continues to grow. We (I) often become stuck in the “Woe is me” loop. Our great work pours out of our great pain. Almost all the great musicians, song writers, comedians, etc. fuel their art with their wounds. In a way, it’s healing for the artist. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always beautiful. Sharing it is healing for the world, it connects to other people who have gone through similar or worse situations, it gives hope.
It’s not luck or intelligence, it is a choice. We all have the ability to chose, victim or victorious. We chose how the story ends. Mad props for writing this one and take care brah.