It was a Saturday morning, days before the competition. I was ecstatic to be able to represent my school and my country, going against the top business schools in the world. Certainly, I was worried about how we’d do as a team, but naturally, I was even more concerned about my own performance.
All classrooms were full, so we had to wait until one became available for us to rehearse. I was the first one there, and then another one of the team members arrived. We agreed to go across the street for breakfast, while we waited for the others (and for one of the classrooms to clear). It was probably the first time I had ever been alone with her, after 14 months into our MBA. She was actually the only one in the team that came from my same program. I realized she was very smart, based on her participation in the classroom, but I didn’t really know much about her, except for some comments I had heard about how respected she was in her field, and the fact that she had to be at least 30, yet looked like a harmless 20 year old.
The breakfast buffet from the little hotel across the street was no succulent culinary experience, but hey; we were already there, so what the heck? We ended up reaving the fruit station (which was the only thing that looked colorful and enticing), and sat down on one of the tables from the outside deck, overlooking our school. As we went through the pieces of pineapple, mango and banana; we started talking about school, our classes, the teachers, and eventually got to discussing our classmates, and who we admired and why. This included a session of mutual praise about the great participations we had both displayed over the past year, and of course conversations on how important this competition was.
Then, it was time for me to ask the question I had always been addicted to. I needed my daily shot. Men, women, tall, short, big, small; it didn’t matter. I’d ask this question to anyone who I’d consider smart enough to build an elaborate opinion. I thought of her as a very smart and perceptive person, so I had been dying to ask. Although I wasn’t sure how she’d respond, given that she was very reticent, and very limited on her “judgements” of other people; but I just couldn’t hold it anymore. You know that feeling when you have an itch you can’t scratch? One of those bastards that start in the middle of your back, and unless you’re Elastigirl from The Incredibles or Mr. Fantastic from The Fantastic 4, you won’t reach it? It was time I scratched against the edge of the wall, and found some relief.
So I asked!: “Hey, just out of curiosity, What kind of impression do you have of me?”
I could’ve never anticipated what happened next! Be aware: This was a routine that I had depleted a thousand times. I knew it better than I know the lyrics to Top Gun (And I can finish any line in the movie. Try me). So this is what usually happened when I asked people that question:
- I asked them for their opinion of me
- They were caught off guard by the unusual request
- They answered something very polite and kind, usually about me being smart
- I insisted, by following up with: “What else can you say about me?”
- They dug deeper to find whatever other quality they could mention, and hope that I’d be satisfied and stop asking
The thing that shocked me, wasn’t the way she answered the question. It was how her face gave away that she had been somehow expecting it. Very confidently, and with the kind of wisdom you’d get from someone like Dumbledore, she replied by asking: “How do you mean? What specifically would you like to know?” I immediately knew I was going to be thrown off my game. I felt as if she knew exactly what to say, and how to say it; to lead this conversation wherever she wanted it to go. But like any other addict, I wasn’t going to let her demeanor stand in the way of my dose. So I said: “I don’t know!, I mean in general, what have you noticed about me?”
She did respond with positive attributes, as I would’ve expected from anyone else. Although I must say they were very elaborate and specific praises. Nothing along the lines of simple adjectives like “Smart”, “Funny” or “Nice”. But there was something in her tone that obviously implied that she had a lot more to say, so I did what I would always do; I PUSHED!
Armed with courage and dipped in curiosity, I dared to say: “Theres something you’re not telling me. I asked you what you thought of me, but I can obviously tell there’s things you’re keeping to yourself!”
This is where things got real. For the first time, someone peeled my thick outer layer right off of me like a super ripe banana. I had never before felt like a walnut that had just been surgically split open, until that moment.
“Why is it so important to you what I think of you? You should be more concerned about how you see yourself. Sure, now and then someone will point out something that you might consider an area of opportunity, and could be doing unconciously; but I cannot understand your obsession with how you are perceived by those around you!”.
That was just the opening statement. She gutted me like a Sea Bass that was just about to become ceviche. The next 15 minutes, were dedicated to her explanation of how she thought I had all the attributes in the world, but my childish behavior, constant craving for attention, impulsivity and continuous search for approval made it hard for other people to see them.
Some of the other things she mentioned included my involvement in conversations regarding material things, how I always tried to pick up the check for everyone, how I would talk about money with no apparent respect for it, and so on and so forth. She promised me that she could see that I wasn’t trying to rub anything in anyone’s face, but it was probably perceived as snobby.
She elaborated on how these signs are usually seen in people who lack self esteem, and she assured me that I had no reason to doubt myself, and what I was capable of achieving. She insisted that I gave up caring about other people’s opinion, and that I started focusing on building what I would consider the best version of myself.
When those 15 minutes were up, my chin was hitting the table. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. A part of me wanted to argue back on how insensitive and wrong she was, but the other part knew that everything she said was absolutely true, and that the only reason why she had shared that, is because (you guessed it) I PUSHED!
Now I must say that this wasn’t the first time I had heard some of these things. My former wife had mentioned a few of them before, but probably in the way that a wife would; being careful not to hurt my feelings. Also, let’s face it! More often than not, observations from an outsider cause more impact on us than the ones made by our significant other. But leaving all of that aside, this girl was practically a stranger! She hadn’t even been around me enough to have such an accurate and critical impression!
I had no choice but to thank her for being so candid, and I told her that I really appreciated the fact that she would tell me things that other people had probably thought, but didn’t share, and that I knew she had only done it to help me.
The Dig Down
After that shocking morning, I couldn’t help but start thinking about all the other stuff I could be doing, that would be deemed as a sign of low self esteem, and need for acceptance. I was somewhat paranoid. It took me some time to figure out where all of this “self esteem problem” had originated, but I eventually got there.
As it turns out, most of it came from my childhood. And several of the clues I followed, led me in one direction: My dad.
I love my father, may he rest in peace. He was my very own version of James Bond. This guy was an ENT and head and neck surgeon, pilot, air force colonel, race car driver, karate black belt, musician, diver, and the list goes on. I’m not even kidding, he was one of a kind. The problem is that we often raise our children based on how we were raised by our parents. My dad was a very loving father, but there are two main things that marked me as a child, although I know it wasn’t his intention.
The first one has to do with allowing your child to find his own way, and letting him figure stuff out on his own. My dad and I were very alike in many ways. He’s the one who inspired my love for cars and planes, and from whom I inherited my skills as a handyman. They often found me dismantling my remote control cars, and unscrewing my robots just to see what they were like on the inside. I loved doing things with my dad, but he always craved being in control, and he was super competitive. Whenever I would start doing something, like putting together an object that required assembly, or trying to fix an appliance that had broken down, he always interrupted with: “Wait! You’re doing it all wrong! Here, let me show you.”
As I took a trip back in time, I remembered that happened extremely often. It almost felt as if he thought I wasn’t going to be able to cut it on my own, or as if he was already expecting me to drop the ball. I recall being completely certain that I was doing a great job at whatever the task, the problem is, that if you constantly tell a child he’s not good enough; well… he’s eventually going to take your word for it.
I’m glad I was able to figure that out, so I can prevent doing the same thing to my daughter. I owe my former wife all of my conscious parenting skills. She taught me that conversations are more effective than reprimands, that my daughter could feel shame if I called her out in front of others, and most importantly; she helped me understand that my daughter needed to feel she was able to do things on her own. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about selling her the idea that if she focuses enough she will be able to levitate, because we are both aware that she needs to learn how to deal with failure as well; but just giving her the opportunity to try on her own, and learn from her mistakes could eventually make a difference.
The second thing that I learned, was that the relationship my father’s family had with money (and material things in general) was not healthy. My grandfather was the son of a Lebanese couple that fled there trying to escape the war. They had no money, and had to start from scratch. I remember the stories about my grandpa, learning by himself how to become a radio technician, and fixing old radios in a small room in his very humble home. He grew to be one of the most successful businessmen in the region, and made millions. Now, my dad was the only one that was born while my grandfather was still on the rise, so he was able to get a grasp of where they came from; but my uncle and aunts were all raised as spoiled brats. I saw first hand how buying things and spending money translated into “success” and “triumph” in the eyes of my family. In contrast, when my parents divorced, my sister and I went through difficult economic times living with our mom. So in my mind, being able to spend and acquire things, was obviously the right way to go about things. The problem is, my grandfather wasn’t the one spending all the money, as he was too busy working for it; his kids were the ones destroying it, since they obviously had it so easily available.
What goes through the mind of a child, when all he interprets is that acceptance is for sale? Fast forward 20 years later, and there I was paying for everyone’s dinner, worried about what car I was driving, or what clothes I was wearing; when truth be told, I should’ve been worried about the example I was setting for my daughter to build her life from. Remember how I told you guys about my anxiety disorder? Multiply that by poor respect for money, and that’s the recipe for falling so deep into debt.
This blog isn’t called “We All Fuck Up” for no reason. I told you I was a fuckup master. But the important lesson here is that no matter how many times, or how deep our fuckups are, we can always find a way to come out the other side a better person. All we need is a strong desire to not go down the same road again, and the commitment to dig inside ourselves, and acknowledge the things that we need to fix.
I’ve said it in my previous posts, and I’ll say it again; it has been a painful, dreadful and almost nauseating process, I will not lie to you. It is very difficult to face the monsters inside each one of us, but I assure you, it is the only way you will ever be able to reach true happiness.
I hope you enjoyed the read, I am honored to be able to share my story with you. Oh, and please don’t forget to comment below!