Nothing Special

You wake up one morning and realize you're not as special as your parents and teachers told you you were

Disruption: Where Specialness meets the Business World

Clayton Christensen–pioneer of the Unspecial

In reading an article on business guru Clayton Christensen from the May 14th Issue of the New Yorker (oh don’t pretend that you’re current with your New Yorkers–one and a half months ago isn’t so bad!), it became clear to us how prevalent the idea of “Specialness” had become in our culture.  Yes there are the outward signs, such as David McCullough Jr. proclaiming “You’re not special.  You are not exceptional” to graduating seniors which we’ve discussed here, but there are also more subtle signs, such as those that appear in Larissa MacFarquhar’s article.

Utah’s Emblem

What do you think a master of commerce like Christensen, famous for the 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” which became a bible for organizations from Intel, to Microsoft, to the Pentagon, would have to do with our humble blog?  A hard-working Mormon who grew up poor in Salt Lake City and chose Brigham Young over Harvard, the Biz Wiz doesn’t seem to have any of the tell-tale signs of specialness.  (Remember that the emblem of Utah is the beehive, a colony where all workers are equal and must work for the good of the whole).  But that is exactly what helped Christensen come up with the key insight that would make him famous: disruption.

It goes like this.  At some point, no matter the industry, a cheaper, low-end product will come along that disrupts the high end (think cell-phone cameras and how they disrupted better quality digital cameras).  The disruptive technology product is always technically inferior than the market leader (VHS, Hyundai, or Christensen’s favorite example, rebar produced by mini steal mills) and sells for a lower profit margin.  Almost always, the higher-end product is happy to concede low-end business to these scrappy disruptors, as the giant integrated mills did to the mini mills; only later do the high-end companies realize that the disruptors have climbed up market and swallowed them up.  It might not seem like a revolutionary concept, but laying the argument out in print was enough to convince hundreds of top companies to set up scrappy, autonomous sub-shops on separate continents to “disrupt” themselves, rather than letting a competitor do so.

Christensen’s ideas extend to our personal lives as well.  He compares today’s companies’ tendency to outsource and forget the basics, to the way some of his students are being raised today.  While Christensen and his wife bought “two wrecks of houses” where his children learned to sheetrock, plaster and paint, he understands that may of his current (read Special!) Harvard Business School students would consider these skills unnecessary.

“Wanting their children to spend their extracurricular hours in the most profitable way, [parents] would pay for lessons and smart, enriching activities, and they would outsource the low-end, dumb tasks like mowing the lawn and mending clothes, and the children would grow up without knowing how to solve practical problems by themselves, or do something they didn’t enjoy or thought they weren’t going to be good at.”

Raise your hand if you don’t know how to sew on a button!  Or if you remember one of our most terrifying and gut-wrenching posts ever on this blog, Putting up a Shelf Using Winged Anchors!! (psycho music plays).

Of course none of this means that every parent must put his kid through shop class (that will come in a later post).  It does mean that as parents and teachers, we must encourage our kids to be disruptors: to not be precious about what they create: to value work done by the electrician as much as by the movie star, even though the electrician’s paid less.  If we raise our kids to know how a shoe is made, not only how to draw it and write poems about it, we remove so much fear of being incompetent, inadequate, or unspecial later in life.  Kids learn to be comfortable thinking outside the box when they understand what’s inside the box.  They will dare to disrupt their own thoughts of Specialness with seemingly “dumb” ideas that actually come from a practical place.  They will be like the tiny, independent company Apple sets up in Finland to take all the knowledge Apple has and create something simpler, easier, more practical and eventually market dominant.

Even in Christensen’s mistakes lie the proof of his theory of disruptions.  According to MacFarquhar, he was laughed at for thinking that the i-phone was doomed–too fancy for the cellphone market.  What he didn’t understand was that the i-phone wasn’t going to be disruptive to the cellphone market.  It was going to be disruptive to laptop computers.

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“You Are Not Special” commencement speech

David_McCullough_Jr

Higher Authority on Specialness

This high school teacher, David McCullough Jr., has truly been reading our blog.

On June 7th, McCullough Jr., a Wellesley High English teacher, proclaimed to students:

“You are not special. You are not exceptional…
Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”

He even took our blog title!

Despite the fact, though, that he’s clearly been influenced by us, and the fact that he drags our dear Baltimore Orioles into a discussion on marriage  (“statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East (The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings)” he none the less has given a remarkable speech.  He has taken the moment expected to be a high point of self-confidence and achievement, and stuck a needle in the balloon.  Among my favorite lines of McCullough’s, “Even if you’re “one in a million,” on a planet of 6.8 billion, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.”  These kids would be very wise to listen.  If only he had spoken at my graduation.  Wait a second–I spoke at my graduation!  And I told everyone we could be special so long as we stayed in the Zone…  I might have contributed to making us feel more special.

From Editor’s high school graduation speech, “The Zone”:

The zone is the state of mind where nothing else matters except the present.  You are completely alive in the zone, stripped of what [GDS improv/mime teacher] Andrea Oram would call the “coulda woulda shoulda.”  There is no “I should never have worn these socks,” or “If I had only stuck with my first  impression and gone to Harvey Mudd, everything would have been different,” or “I shoulda written about something else—this speech is really  lame.”  It is, in its purest form, an incredible natural rush, a feeling of success, confidence and satisfaction with the way life is.  Do you know that a baboon lives its whole life in the zone?  Sure—it can’t doubt what it did yesterday, or worry about how awkward its conversation is going, or think back to when it was in is prime—it’s far too “unintelligent.”….

We are all Hamlet, beating at the doors of the zone, but pushing ourselves farther away with each knock.  None of us knows exactly how to obtain the zone, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get there.  As I get older it becomes so much harder to get in the zone[1] but when you’re there, what a rush!  You are pitching, or playing the violin, or holding hands, or watching “Evita” or doing math, and you slip through the bounds of time into [James] Joyce’s horizontal universe.


[1] Wait till you’re past 30.

Ignoring the pretentious James Joyce reference for the moment, look at how I told everyone that as long as you can stay in the moment, you will live in that special Zone, and you will be joyous.  What about all the time when you’re not in the moment?  When you’re not feeling great about yourself?  When you can’t take a step without thinking, “Why did I choose that?”  “Why didn’t I go for that?” Why don’t I come through?” “Why is everyone else better than I am at this or at least more organized?” What do we do then?  David McCullough Jr., in his high school commencement address, takes on this issue.  David McCullough Jr., I bow to a higher authority.  I humble myself before thee!  Just as you say, I am not speeeeciallllll!

Something to strive for

The Onion has once again written a piece that goes to the very heart–pressure-filled, desiring, unsatisfied green heart–of our Special condition!

As Long As My Child Does Something That Makes Him Happy And Wins The National Book Critics Circle Award For Fiction, I’ll Be Proud”

Enjoy!

Selflessness ≠ Specialness: Cory Booker and the Burning Building

Look what he's gone and done.

Now come on.  Cory Booker, Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law grad, beloved Newark Mayor and snow shoveler–already someone who made us all feel a little less special when we looked at our own accomplishments.  Now Cory, you go and do this.

Late last night, coming home from a TV appearance, Mayor Booker saw that his neighbor’s building was on fire.  He ran into the burning building, dashed up to the second floor, and SAVED a woman by grabbing her and carrying her through the flames.  You did not read that wrong.  Cory Booker, someone in no need of more Special points, ran into a burning building and saved a distressed maiden, suffering second degree burns in the process.

In full disclosure, your humble editor knew Mayor Booker while Cory was a law school Fellow.  He went along with me, in fact, to try a Friday night dinner at Chai Society, Yale’s alternative to Hillel, founded by the delightful Shmully Hecht.  Rabbi Shmully was about my age, looked like a teenager, knew ten times what I knew and appeared to be already in his second career.  The rumor at the time was that he had been a successful Wall Street trader who gave it all up for the Rabbinate.  That first Shabbat night he made Corey, me, and our friend Sofia feel completely welcome, despite the fact that I force-shook the hand of his sister.  (Devorah was Shomer Negiah, meaning she restricted her physical contact with the opposite sex.  Clueless, and wanting to show what a friendly chap I was, I reached out and grabbed her hand to shake firmly.  I instantly knew something was wrong when her hand went limp as a fish and slipped back out. ) Far from making me feel bad, Shmully laughed it off and explained what had happened; for him the priority was to make me feel welcome–not to correct or shame–and to me that still represents Judaism at its best.  Even Devorah waived it off, as if people grabbed at her hand all the time.

While I was botching my greetings and otherwise fumbling, Cory, a Black Baptist from New Jersey, fit in like Maimonides himself.  Laughing, hand shaking, taking up arguments, it was as if it was his fifteenth Chai Society dinner.  One custom at these Shabbats, as I would come to learn, was for guests to stand up in the middle of the meal and start talking about a particular point of inquiry or Biblical passage.  This seemed to inevitably happen right when I was about to take a spoonful of something delicious–like potato kugel.  To my great shock, on that first night, Cory himself actually stood up to speak on the topic at hand.  I don’t think he mixed in any Hebrew phrases, but it wouldn’t shock me if he had.  Cory became an integral and beloved member of Chai Society, and I daresay that if it wasn’t the beginning, it certainly didn’t dampen his political stirrings.

Which brings us to the present day.  Reading the story this morning of Cory dashing into that burning building, my heart at first sank.  [Note that Special People, rather than being joyous at good news, often wonder if they would’ve been able to do something similar and feel jealous].  Yet remember FOOS (Fellow Occupiers of Specialland) that we can control how we think, and little by little, we must if we are to take on Specialness.  Once I caught my Special self and set it aside for the moment, I started to listen to a clearer voice, and started to think about the lessons we could take.

Thinking about other people, and their welfare, whether it’s a friend, a relative, or a neighbor dying of smoke inhalation on her second floor, is a GREAT way to overcome Specialness, because it gets your mind off yourself.

Being in the Moment is also something we Special People must strive for constantly.  As if we’re in the fire and we must act.  There isn’t time to stew, to wonder, to rue, to fear, but rather we must tap into a much more intuitive, action-based self.  This is how even amidst the burning building, Cory remained calm.

Oh we’ll still envy Cory.  We’ll wonder how achievements seem to follow him like a glistening cloud of dew, while we are constantly courting Specialness.  We’ll resent his succeeding at every single thing he does.  But we’ll try to learn from his actions too–how late one night, while not worrying about whether he was Special or not, Cory let his instincts guide him and did the most amazing thing you can ever do: save a person’s life.

The Oppression of Choice

Open Doors.
(Image from anonymous8.com)

Many of you no doubt caught Nicholas Kristof’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, From South Sudan to Yale.”  It drew my personal attention for two reasons.  One, I’ve worked on some Sudanese issues, including with a Darfuri refugee, and was curious about the incredible trip of this Yale freshman, Paul Lorem.  Two, the headline is a refraction of my original title for the “Nothing Special” memoir–“From Yale to Barbacking: one man’s remarkable journey.”  Kristof chronicles the way Lorem, an orphan at 5 in Sudan, was saved by a network of boys at a Kenyan refugee camp a little older than himself.  They instilled in him the need to get educated, and as Lorem blossomed, more and more community members helped him along his academic path, culminating in the African Leadership Academy and now Yale.

I was helped along my path to college by guidance counselors and Princeton Review.  Kristof notes that “Lorem plans to return to South Sudan after graduation to help rebuild his country.”  After my graduation, I worked at Barnes and Noble Bethesda.  Lorem’s story is moving and inspiring, and I have no intention of belittling his challenges.  But it did get me thinking about “choice,” that double-edged sword of the Special.  When one comes from a country like Sudan, and is entrusted with a precious American education, one likely can’t imagine doing too many other things than going back to help rebuild your homeland.  It’s a giant burden but it’s also a fairly easy decision.  When one comes from economically stable American suburbia, and has the opportunity to realize every dream and follow one’s heart’s desire, he may end up getting a little overwhelmed.  The path carries not nearly the same burden as Lorem’s, but much more choice.  And this leads me to today’s major theme.  Of all the pathologies that go into creating a Special person, choice may be one of the most pernicious and least understood.  While choice would seem to be the opener of a hundred doors, it can also leave us paralyzed in the hallway.

Opening up Choices!

When many of our parents were children, boys were expected to wear pants and play sports.  Girls were expected to wear dresses and play with dolls.  Girls were supposed to grow up and marry boys.  Boys were supposed to grow up and marry girls.  But in our childhoods of the 80s and 90s, these traditional gender boundaries were melting away.  One of my favorite books was “William’s Doll,” by Charlotte Zolotow.  In it a boy is teased mercilessly by his friends and even his parents when he asks for a doll like the one his sister got.  Mind you he’s a good athlete, but he really wants a doll.  Only his grandmother gives him the thing he wants—a realistic doll, and when his parents see how happy he is as a nurturer and caregiver—their hearts melt and they realize how closed minded and senselessly heteronormative they’ve been.  Everyone is happy.  When I was in a certain mood, the book would make me cry, I enjoyed the resolution so much.

But these gender norms we were smashing also served a purpose!  Just as Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak kept a certain, albeit oppressive kind of order, so the old gender lines made life a lot simpler.  Today we don’t just need to decide who we want to marry, we have to decide which sex we want to marry, or if we don’t want to get married, well that’s OK too! And gender barriers weren’t the only barriers coming down.  Think of your religious upbringing.  If you’re like me, you were raised with a certain religious structure, but it was taught to you almost sheepishly.  Not only are we in the age of science, but we’re in the age of “Don’t force anything upon your kids or they’ll come to resent it!” In generations past, people had a whole Bible of rules by which to live by—rules that told them who to worship, how to dress, what to eat, when to work and when to rest.  While religious communities still exist, and in some cases have become even tighter, the numbers continue to trend secular.

Responding to a 2009 religious affiliation survey showing a doubling of self-described secular Americans, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.”  Unlike Mohler, we of the Special Generation were supportive of the trend.  We were Special, and couldn’t be beholden to our parents’ religion, or to putting all of our hope and trust in something outside of ourselves.  But now that we’ve begun to realize that we’re not quite as Special as we thought we were—that life is painful and filled with setbacks, that you don’t get everything you desire—it would be nice to have someone up there to talk to about it once in a while.

Perhaps no other open-choice has been as challenging for us as occupation.  When our parents graduated from college or otherwise entered adulthood, they knew they needed money.  For my dad, law promised a way to raise himself out of his circumstances, to put a strong effort forward and get solid, tangible rewards.  He went to law school, soon took a job at a firm and worked there for over thirty years.  It wasn’t perhaps the fulfillment of every childhood dream he had ever had.  But it was steady, enabled him to raise a family, buy a house, and do all the things one expects to do when one becomes an adult.  When I graduated college, I wanted to find the career that matched all of the amazing talents I had—the one that would match the striving of my soul and bestow upon humanity the full gifts I had been given!  I found theater.  Can I get a Shakespeare  Whoop woop!

According to one recent study, the average 26-year-old has already had seven jobs.  Seven!  When we work today at our jobs, we are a far cry from the Greatest Generation nose-to-the-grindstone work-your-way-up through the company and accept a little drudgery–long hours and frequent set-backs.  It’s more… just over that hill, just on the other side, if I can leap out of this current job into one where I’m truly following my dreams, then I will have achieved that thing I always dreamed of achieving—fulfillment.

So here we are: omnisexual, unaffiliated, humanistic, multi-potents with absolutely nothing tying us down.  As kids, no one told us whom to like, what to worship, which job to take, what path to travel on.  We had all the tools—a good head on our shoulders, love and encouragement, enough food on our plate, everything that people never have in a Dickens novel.  And because of all this freedom of choice, and the praise and acceptance that came with, we were very, very happy children.  But now we are very, very confused adults!  There’s no decision our circumstances foisted upon us.  When you are offered only a job at the factory, you take the job at the factory.  When you’re offered the world, you stand there, trembling, and may have every desire to crawl back into bed.

Marketing guru?
(Image from http://zhurnaly.com)

Luckily, sooner or later lying in bed just doesn’t seem like the best option.  We might not realize we need to go back to our homeland and rebuild our country (we don’t), but we might start rebuilding our own expectations for our life.  We might start seeking less than total, unbridled fulfillment.  We might even get a job in marketing.  But then again, we wonder, what if Shakespeare had stopped dreaming and gone into the Globe’s PR department?  See, we really, really don’t easily let Specialness go easily! 

“Wonder” Years later

Fred Savage and Danica McKellar

Kevin and Winnie

Our blog is often filled with melancholia and ruefulness, as we struggle with the Special condition.  We thought it high time to highlight a fascinating story of hope and resilience.  I’m of course referring to Danica McKellar, the one-time star of “The Wonder Years” and current author of young adult education books such as “Hot X: Algebra Exposed” and “Kiss my Math!”

Danica, like us, had all the makings of a special childhood, and then some.  She was successful, celebrated and marveled at–all before the age of 12.  She was beloved by “Wonder” watches, cute and a little odd looking, with big thick-lashed eyes.  Your humble editor, it may as well be said, had a big crush on Winnie.  (It makes him feel only a little icky to find her pictures in “Maxim” and “Stuff,” but we can’t deny a certain fascination with our kid crush all grown up–really grown up!)  But this is not a post about the hotness or swan-like trajectory of Danica–at least not entirely.

This instead is an appreciation of how Danica somehow warded off the Speicalness trap that can afflict so many successful children.  If she had just turned out normal, not terrified of failure and never living up to her childhood self, it would have been enough for us (Daiyenu).  If she had only written her sassy math-is-fun books, and not gone on to be a cheeky blogger, Daiyenu.  But Danica now writes this blog, has a Yoga and Meditation video, has a little baby, and, to our great amusement, is putting out killer palindrome puzzles! Is there no end to her productivity?

Palindrome puzzles are where clues are given to figure out a palindrome, or a phrase spelled the same forwards and backwards, ie. “Madam I’m Adam.”  Special People both love and hate these types of puzzles.  We love them because if we solve them, we feel smart and special.  If we don’t, however, we loathe ourselves and fear that we’re losing any ability we once had to feel smart and special.  Put that aside as you look at the following.  Your editor fully admits that he solved pretty much none of these, but still enjoyed enormously.

Some of these may be ones Danica collected.  Others are clearly ones she devised herself–which is not easy!  We found this out the hard way when we tried to do some with a student, sat in silence for ten awkward minutes, and finally together came up with one palindrome: “Bob stops, spots Bob.”  For answers to below, you can go here.   And don’t stress!  Danica doesn’t, and she has every right to suffer from Specialness!

Cool one to warm up with:
Clue: “What did the mathematician say when she was offered cake?”  Hint to start you off: “I prefer ____”

Now see if you can get any of these!
Clue: “We’re out of citrus and cantaloupe.”  ____________________
Clue: “Possible headline if Marilyn Monroe encountered some rodents.”  ____________________
Clue:” Nickname for physician who is uncomfortable talking to his patients.” __________________
Clue: “Possible headline I [Danica!] were in a commercial for vitamin b3.”  ____________________

Not enough people like you enough

What me Worry?

We sometimes overlook how society itself is pushing us towards an all or nothing mentality.  It’s bad enough that as special people, we think that we have to be the best, must finish first, cannot fail, and that if we do fail, it means that we might always go on failing.  What’s worse is that sometimes the world itself seems to echo these same thoughts!

Imagine you’re Mitt Romney.  You did all of your homework, for four years, preparing for this race, correcting your mistakes, gathering allies, building your coffers.  You developed the best defense for attacks on your healthcare plan (What’s good for Massachusetts is NOT what’s good for the country) and for your nearly obscene wealth (I’m not going to apologize for being successful!).  You got a better debate coach than last time and you’ve come out swinging–even rising to the occasion on a crucial debate before the Michigan primary.  When all the momentum seemed to be filling the sweater vest of pesky Rick Santorum, you pulled a coup de theatre by lumping him with moderate Senator Arlen Specter (the horror!) who helped make Obamacare possible.  You turned the tables and won your home state.

You have five perfect kids who all have good hair like you and the right number of kids (5 sons who have 16 kids, or 3.2 each).  You don’t cheat on your wife to our knowledge.  Sure you’ve made some gaffes, like insulting NASCAR attendees, betting more than a nickel on TV, and musing out loud about your wife’s several Cadillacs.  But doesn’t a knight speak of jousting?  A cobbler of shoes?  Why shouldn’t Mitt talk about what he knows?

On the eve of Super Tuesday, you have 187 delegates, almost triple that of Santorum.  You’re predicted to win Super Tuesday, including the bell weather state of Ohio.  But here’s the kicker: even if you win Ohio, and even if you win Virginia, Massachusetts, Idaho, North Dakota, Alaska and Vermont, as  538 is predicting as a baseline scenario, you STILL will leave doubts.  You were vulnerable in Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma.

What does a guy have to do?  Why do we expect such perfection?

The truth is running in a Republican primary like this one is a Special person’s nightmare.  You want to tell yourself you’re good enough, and you’re smart enough… but dog gonnit, people still don’t seem to like you.  Or at least not enough people like you enough.  It’s never, ever enough!  I’m worried about Mitt and how he’s holding up through this thing.  And even once he eeks through this process, unless the economy turns downward in a big way–ie. the Republican-majority Congress succeeds in its goal–he’s still not going to beat Obama.  For someone who’s had so many blessings in life, this will be very difficult to handle.  I hope some kind person in his life might lead him to this blog.  Mitt, if you’re reading this, I want you to say the following:

“I’m not Special.  Making billions of dollars in the private equity business, governing a liberal state, working on the Olympics, having a beautiful above-average family and getting great hair DID NOT make me Special, just as losing this election didn’t make me a failure.  I’m not Special.  I’m Mitt Romney.  And I’m not running for president.  But that’s OK.  I can do other things.  Like read and mow the lawn.  Yes, that will be nice.”

Help for people who HAVE graduated college

Statistical Success

There’s been lots of discussion of late about the value of completing college.  A Times article last week on the gap between richer and poorer students cited college completion as “the single most important predictor of success in the work force.”   According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, students with a Bachelor’s Degree are currently expected to earn about a million dollars more over their lifetime than those with just high school degrees.  As a result, there is an enormous amount of energy being put into figuring out how to get more people through college.  There’s even an entire website, boostingcollegecompletion.org, run by the impressive-sounding Education Commission of the States, devoted to helping people graduate.  And this is all important work that’s being done.  But it’s also overlooking a crucial segment of the population: people who have graduated college.

Yes, I’m once again talking about Special People.  (They are after all the focus of this blog.)  These are folks who have often graduated college with flying colors, but now find those colors to be just kind of drifting, or maybe even grounded somewhere near Dubuque.  They may even have graduate degrees, bless their hearts, but have still not graduated from Specialness.  “How,” they may ask, “can I have followed this societally-encouraged, statistically proven, Arne Duncan-blessed track, and still not find myself on the other side of the rainbow?  What did I need to have done differently?”

And of course this is a false construction, because Specialness cannot be averted or cured by higher education.  It can’t be fixed at Oxford, Cambridge, Cal Tech or DeVry University (though this last one would be the best place to start).  Specialness, in fact, has no known cure.  It can only be contained.  So while education experts are understandably focused on helping those who are struggling to complete college, we wanted to take a moment to focus on those who have.

Here are some productive living tips for people with college diplomas:

1) Exercise daily (including walking).  Moving your body is one of the best ways for Special People to stop thinking about not being special.  You probably ran around more in college, and that helped.

2) Focus on completing small, manageable and definable tasks.  Do NOT set out to write “Hamlet.”
(side note: my brother interestingly told me once that through the quirky law of copyright, one could technically transcribe “Hamlet,” list oneself as the author, and publish it as one’s own play, since it’s in the public domain.  This means that you might be able to actually write Hamlet in one day, and even publish it.  And that’s just fine.  So to rethink this rule, Do not set out to complete an entire work or task of earth-shaking proportions. It is OK, though, to literally set out to “write” “Hamlet.”)  

3) Eat walnuts and figs (dried figs, but the kind you can pick out–not prepackaged).  These are soothing foods that make one feel good.

4) Don’t outthink yourself before starting a task.  In general, view each task as its own endeavor.  Don’t think of it as something A) you’re really good at, or B) you really suck at.  Think of it as something you’re C) at.

5) Play “Words with Friends.”  (Losing to an 8th grade student of mine was helpful in dealing with Specialness)

6) Know that there is only a tiny, .01% chance that you have a rare brain disease and that you’re literally dumber than you were at the time you graduated college.

7) Remember that there are millions like you suffering from Specialness.  You are not alone.  And just because you graduated college, and statistically that’s a good thing, and Arne Duncan’s not worried about you, there are still people who have your back.  It won’t come easy, but we’ll slog through it together.

We will not become just another statistic!

Class Notes

ClassNotesI was recently sent Class Notes from my elementary school.  Sort of.  See, 99% of my elementary school friends went on to a particular middle and high school, whereas I went elsewhere.  My parents figure I enjoy checking in on my third grade playmates and thus thoughtfully send me the Class Notes from their high school.  One classmate in particular, my best friend in third grade, was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal for a major position he’s undertaken.

First, a note on Class Notes in general.

Here’s something I’m wondering why we don’t ever see.  In between

Jason Tishburn writes to us from New York.  He heads up Morgan Stanley’s Big, Big Money Private Equity Unit.  He bet against mortgage-backed securities in 2008.  Go Jason!”

and

Kevin Yancy has a new documentary coming out based on his best-selling memoir: “Being Kevin Yancy, M.D.Ph.D. Beyond the Letters”

how come we never see:

Ted Vettis is trying a new antidepressant his therapist believes may cut down on sexual side effects.  He’s hoping this one shows better results, and soon.

Wouldn’t that be a little bit refreshing?  Is it just Special People who hate reading about how married/dream-fulfilled/child-blessed every classmate of theirs is, even the ones who seemed a total wreck in school?  Or is it everyone?  I think probably everyone.

Secondly, about my friend.  Tom was my best bud in third grade.  We played all sorts of games together.  Some of them were on the normal side, like trading baseball cards and drawing our own make believe ones.  Some were loco–as in Gingrich Moon colony loco.  We developed a society of creatures, the Sheelies, who lived in Seattle, and the Boolies who lived in Boston.  The Sheelies were big green creatures with large snouts who were generally happy and wished ill on no one.  But the Boston Boolies were a constant menace.  The Sheelies and the Boolies were always doing battle, and we’d always root for the Sheelies.  To this day I think of Boston as a dark place.

Being at different middle and high schools, we rarely saw each other.  One time we met up in high school at a college fair.  Tom was snippy with me, seeming to have a chip on his shoulder.  Later I found out that he had hit on some rough times during high school.  He ended up going to a state school, while I went to an elite Ivy.  But now, many years later, here I was, in my boxers, reading about how wonderful my sandbox playmates were doing–above all my Sheelies and Boolies partner–profiled in the Wall Street Journal.

And lo…there surrounding him, rose up a cloud of jealousy.  Like buzzing bees–impossible to ignore, dangerous, unshakable.  I thought about it.  And I shook my head: at my friend who had struggled through high school but now was soaring; at me who had soared through high school and was now struggling; how I wanted to be happy for him, but couldn’t.

It’s in times like these that we must confront Specialness dead on.  It’s perhaps too high an aim to wish to be happy or proud of our friends when we’re in the midst of the jealousy bees.  But we don’t have to sit there letting them eat us to death either.  When we feel this way–the jealousy, the comparisons, the what ifs, the only healthy reaction is to double down on what we’re doing, whether that be fact checking at a magazine, grading papers, writing board-game question cards, copy editing, whatever we happen to be doing at the moment–double down.  Throw ourselves into it.  Be inspired that hard work can be its own reward.

Fight jealousy with action.  Fighting it with thoughts never works!  Oh, and next time, if the bees are around, don’t read the Class Notes.

The Poor Man’s Poor Man’s Shvitz

Readers of Nothing Special know of our proclivity for the shvitz.  The shvitz is the age-old tradition, popularized by the Romans but probably known long before them, of going into a very hot place and letting your body sweat.  Out goes all the thinking and overanalyzing of one’s place in existence.  In comes the heat–the reminder that…oh yes, I’m  an animal.

Readers will also know that we’ve touted Wall Street Bath and Spa as such a place in New York City where one may shvitz (to the point that you might think they are sponsoring Nothing Special, which sadly they are not).  What we loved doing there, in the company of friends, was the pairing of “opposites,” moving quickly from the hot, dry sauna to the icy cold plunge pool, and back again.  The reminder that…oh yes, I’m alive!

Since the fancy spas, however, can also remind us how expensive being alive can be, we’ve taken the habit of going to our local YMCA for the shvitz.  After all, the Y has a sauna and showers, and provides two towels per visit.  Sure you don’t get the special bathrobe, the pickled herring or the sensation of being part of some secret subterranean club, but hey, those are all just dressings!  Since we’re already members of the Y, this shvitz is already paid for.  We therefore call this the Poor Man’s Shvitz.

Swipe in to Y and do some exercise.
Then:
5 minutes in Sauna
1 minute in freezing Shower
5 minutes in Sauna
1 minute in freezing Shower

Today, however, I was at the Y and found myself in a pickle.  I had done my workout and was looking forward to the shvitz, but poor time management (see many other blog entries) meant that I had but 5 minutes for the procedure.  There simply wasn’t time to sit in the sauna, then run down the hall to the cold showers, then go back to the sauna, etc.  I had to improvise, and somehow deal with the fact that I couldn’t do the full Special shvitz.  Should I give up and just chalk it off to a missed opportunity, or was there a way?  And then it hit me.  I stood under one shower and put it on hot.  Then I reached to the shower next to me, and moved its dial just a touch, leaving it at freezing cold.  After a minute of the hot shower, I jumped into the cold plunge, whooped for a moment, then leapt back into the hot, then back to the cold, whooping all the while.  A fellow shower room occupant looked on somewhat startled, as I proceeded to do this for all five minutes that I had.

They say that the greatest inventions are born of necessity.  Today, FOOS (Fellow Occupiers of Specialland), I invented something: the Poor Man’s Poor Man’s Shvitz.  I now put it out there  for all to try.  Or if not the Poor Man’s Poor Man’s Shvitz, something else that might not be perfect, but is still damn-well better than throwing nothing.  As for me, you might catch me one of these days in the Y shower, yelping from the cold, jumping back to the heat, side-stepping into the cold, all-the-while shouting:

Oh yes…I’m cheap, pressed for time, and not all that special … but I’m alive!  I’m aliiiiiiiiiiive!

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