Public Shame #1: What happened to that kid?

So, I’m about to embark on a new writing experiment called “Public Shame.” In this exercise, I will publish a series of blog posts talking about my most humiliating failures and disappointments. I recently heard someone say that publicly airing your mistakes and failures can help you move forward from them rather than let them drag you down. Here is to hoping that shedding this extra baggage can help me figure out how to fly again.

Some of my greatest failures that bring me the most amount of embarrassment or shame are a mixture. On the one hand, they involve me doing something stupid or making a mistake… On the other hand, I often feel like I didn’t get a fair shake and had to pay more than I deserved to pay for my mistakes. Who knows? You be the judge.

I would like to start, however, with my greatest source of humiliation. This one isn’t a case of any single clear cut mistake, but rather a series of I don’t knows. A lifelong pattern of epically bad judgment…? A tragically comedic string of bad luck…?

My greatest humiliation is my own squandered potential. I am 34 years old. I am waiting tables for a living and experience anxiety and stress every time I am on my way to work – I have to psyche myself up just to start each shift. I feel trapped, living in a dumpy apartment in a city I have come to loathe and am dying to get away from. I have debts I can’t figure out how to pay off. And I have very few prospects for future advancement, finding fulfilling work, or doing much meaningful with my life.

I’m not really all that depressed about it. I’m exhausted. I’m embarrassed. I’m eager to dig my way out of my hole. But mostly, I’m deeply, deeply humiliated by how little I have accomplished considering how much potential everyone I ever knew said I had when I was growing up.

All my life, since my childhood, people have always admired a certain “spark” in me that I often had trouble seeing myself. People always told me I was going to go places and do great things.

For example, when I was a sophomore in high school I wanted to get my GED and go to college because I already had a 31 on my ACT and could get a free ride to any state school in Missouri. The principal of my high school advised my parents that I was “so smart” and had “so much potential” it would be a shame for me squander that potential by carrying the stigma attached to having “only a GED” and that if I just stayed in school and pursued a diploma I could get a full ride scholarship to an even better private school! This, of course, turned out to be really, really bad advice, but that is another story for another time.

Looking back, I realize that I was an “exceptional” child. Exceptionally weird. Maybe exceptionally smart. Maybe not. But certainly full of exceptional potential and in need of exceptional guidance and mentoring. Unfortunately, I never came across the right people, and all the mentors and guides I did have in my life just didn’t know what to do with me. So, I basically miss stepped every chance I had to. And that is why I am where I am now – having never done any of the things I was meant to do… and in practically no position to get back on the right path and get where I need to go. Heck, I couldn’t be any more confused about where I should go now. Or where I even can go anymore. Maybe nowhere. Who knows…?

So, that is my big shame. And in order to illustrate that pain, I wanted to share to other things that are kind of embarrassing: A mashup of three separate letters I composed over this past year to three of my heroes: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kevin Smith, and well, this one isn’t a person, but National Geographic Magazine (I had a long standing childhood dream to work for them someday which, I am not sure when it died, but it certainly never came to be, did it?). So, without further ado, I present…

What happened to that kid?

Dear Kevin Smith,
Dear Neil deGrasse Tyson,
Dear National Geographic,

First, I want to tell you, you are my heroes. And thank you for having such a positive impact on my life.

Kevin, I never intended you to become a hero of mine, but somewhere along the way I realized that after I had digested every movie, TV show, comic book, book, and podcast of yours that I could get my hands on you have somehow infected me and had a massive influence on my outlook in life. And especially when listening to you speak, some of your advice and your encouragements… Well, they have often been the only thing that has kept me going and given me hope to press on.

Neil, unlike Kevin, I haven’t heard you give a lot of personal advice along the lines of Tough Sh*t, but over the past decade I have listened to you speak so passionately about science and the universe that it rekindle in me a spark of wonder and aspiration that at one point had nearly died.

And National Geographic: When I look back on my childhood, my earliest memories, I can think of few greater influences on me than you.

When I was six, my grandfather purchased a subscription for me to the kids’ version of National Geographic Magazine. I wore out, cut up, and devoured every issue. My room and my “science workshop” was covered with National Geographic posters: images of outer space and the planets, bird species, and ancient artifacts. If there wasn’t a poster for it, I cut out my favorite pages of the magazines and posted them on the walls. My obsession didn’t stop at the kids’ magazine. My grandfather furnished me with nature guide books, National Geographic special edition books, and videotapes about wildlife. I watched some of them so many times, the tape eventually wore out.

But that wasn’t enough for me. My grandfather had been collecting “adult” National Geographic magazines for over forty years – before photographs were even on the covers, when they had decorative borders – and I was determined to read every single issue.

By the time I was ten, my grandfather gave me his entire collection of National Geographic magazines and I spent countless hours reading them cover to cover, learning about the world, about the universe, science, and anthropology, nature, and humanity. By the time I was fourteen I had read over four hundred magazines.

And my sense of wonder and imagination flourished.

And even now I wonder… I wonder: What happened to that kid?

What happened to that kid who, at the age of four, boldly proclaimed that he wanted to do every job in the world except for a policeman and an army man because they could get killed and, while he wasn’t afraid to die, he thought that might cut short his plans to get around to ALL the jobs?

On a side note, that kid eventually grew up and did join the U.S. Air Force for a few years. In the meantime, he got it into his head that the only way to do every job in the world was to become an actor, and he viewed his time in the military as a multiple year role playing the part of the perfect textbook Airman.

What happened to that kid who at the age of eight spent entire afternoons at home glued to the sliding glass door cataloguing and counting every bird that came to the little plastic backyard bird feeder his grandfather had given him?

What happened to that kid who without any prior experience working with wood or designs explaining how to make something, decided to design and build a three story bird bed and breakfast with a bath and a feeder and a roof on top using some old lumber he found in his parents woodshed?

What happened to that kid precariously perched on the limb of a tree with a microphone and boombox that was half his weight as he recorded bird calls and narrated into the microphone the species of the bird and what the call might mean?

What happened to that kid who, when his microphone broke, without any background in electronics or anyone to tell him if it could or couldn’t be done, figured out how to turn an old, broken pair of headphones into a microphone so he could keep up the important task of making bird call tapes?

What happened to that kid who took every toy and discarded item in the house with something electronic in it apart, stripped circuit boards for parts, and deciphered the meaning of color codes on resistors through trial and error tests?

What happened to that kid who was given an “electronic circuit board play set” and used the wires and instruction manual to build his own circuits from scratch with the spare parts he had collected over the years?

What happened to that kid who (almost fatally) discovered the difference between AC and DC through experimentation when he got his hands on the power cord to an old clothing iron he had taken apart?

What happened to that kid who, at the age of ten, had the audacity to write a letter to LEGO recommending that they license the rights to produce LEGOs themed around comic book characters, The Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia and to come out with LEGO sets that better integrated his hobby of inventing things with electronics with his geared LEGO sets and that he had even more ideas he could send if they would write him back?

On a side note. LEGO did write that kid a letter back, politely declining to accept his ideas because of legal issues and he was not an employee of the company. They included an outline of the education path he would need to take to someday get a job with LEGO. The kid didn’t understand “legal issues” and what that meant and felt like LEGO wasn’t taking him seriously because he was just a kid and was so discouraged by the rejection that he threw the letter away. He then spent the next decade in disgust as he watched LEGO implement every single one of ideas before it finally occurred to him what “legal issues” actually meant.

What happened to that kid who taught himself to type on an old typewriter by reproducing his favorite articles word for word from the World Book Encyclopedia?

What happened to that kid who decided he could design an easier to understand layout for the sections of the encyclopedia that catalogued various species of animals and breeds of dogs, so he typed them out over and over, creating mind maps, various forms of outlines, and relationships before finally embarking on the project to combine every illustrated section of the encyclopedia about different kinds of animals into one giant typographical map?

What happened to that kid who received an ant farm for his birthday one year and went to bed at night and was visited by dreams of building giant, buildings sized ant farms from scratch, each night picking up in his dream where he left off to keep building the world’s largest ant farm?

What happened to that kid who watched PBS programs about physics designed for kids twice his age and by the age of twelve had written several paper theorizing about the existence and properties of dimensions beyond the fourth dimension?

What happened to that kid who stared at photos on the wall from that time his grandfather went to Africa and encountered lions, elephants, and giraffes and took for granted the notion that one day he would go to Africa with his grandfather and father and take his own pictures of lions, elephants, and giraffes?

On a side note, his grandfather passed away on June 8, 2004 and he still can’t quite shake the feeling that he has never lived up to his grandfather’s expectations nor has he done anything to make the man he looked up to so much and shared a birthday with proud of him.

What happened to that kid who was so fascinated with ancient Egyptian art and culture decided that logically he would spend the final years of his life in Egypt, studying the people and the culture and somehow would convince the locals to mummify him when he died?

What happened to that kid who, without ever seeing a single architectural blueprint, used his tiny plastic toy drafting table to design scale schematics for his dream mansion in the middle of the woods, that blended in with its natural surroundings and came complete with secret passages, underground tunnels to other buildings, and a massive indoor arboretum with a waterfall?

What happened to that kid who tried to build a scale model of that mansion only to discover that copier paper was too flimsy to build a very big model?

What happened to that kid who decided to use the light, flimsy copier paper to his advantage and instead build a model plane with nothing but scotch tape, bendy straws, and copier paper that sported a three foot wingspan, was designed using the article in the encyclopedia that explained lift and actually flew the length of a football field before crashing down in a drainage ditch and becoming hopelessly ruined when it landed in muddy runoff water?

What happened to that kid who listened to audio biographies about great inventors and always felt like Thomas Edison’s idea of trying to hatch an egg by sitting on them himself was a perfectly logical experiment and that if they had been kids at the same time they would have been best friends?

What happened to that kid who did his own “crazy” experiments, like that time he tried to invent the “ultimate” beverage that tickled all the taste buds on the tongue and simultaneously tasted sweet, sour, salty, and bitter?

On a side note, he never could get the formula quite right so that the beverage met his taste requirements AND tasted good. He conducted his experiments in secret and hid the beverage, which was more the consistency of pudding – another problem to figure out – in the back of the extra refrigerator. One day he forgot about one of his beverage experiments and after a couple of weeks his mother discovered it stinking up the whole refrigerator and threw it out, much to his disappointment because he thought that one was so close to his perfect formula and he had lost his secret notes with the recipe.

On a side not: Sorry, mom!

What happened to that kid who painted with watercolors and oils and acrylics and had visions of creating experimental 3-dimensional art using paint, broken glass, glue, and four inch thick picture frames with lights and lasers on the inside projecting light through the artwork?

What happened to that kid who collected hundreds of Dr. Pepper cans and was inspired by the film Twister to unfold and then cut the can’s metal to provide materials for building metallic origami miniature models with the Dr. Pepper logo prominently featured as a tribute to the cultural impact of Dr. Pepper?

On a side note, thanks for beating me to the punch, Red Bull!

What happened to that kid who decided he was going to visit every country in the world, and then watched with a mixture of delight and horror as the Soviet Union collapsed and the geopolitical map dramatically changed rendering his carefully ordered and typed out lists of which countries he would visit obsolete?

What happened to that kid who, at the age of eight became interested in geopolitics after he watched the fall of the Berlin wall on television and was the only member of his family to regularly tune into Peter Jennings on World News Tonight after that?

What happened to that kid who spent two weeks straight glued to the television during Desert Storm and then went to the library to read every book he could find about the history of Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and U.S. foreign policy in the region?

What happened to that kid who insisted on reading books that had a recommended age range further past his own and was not satisfied or mentally challenged until he was reading a book that was so advanced he could barely understand what was happening in it?

On a side note, I still, to this day don’t think I would have no idea what was really going on in the unabridged version of Huckleberry Fin.

What happened to that kid who, in 1997, when the video rental store he worked at started carrying DVD’s, excitedly proposed what was turned out to be Netflix’s exact business model to the store manager of a subscription based mail-in rental service.

On a side note, the manager kind of laughed at that kid and made him feel really dumb for the idea. Then a few years later he found out Reed Hastings had the EXACT same idea and turned it into a billion dollar business. Ironically, the name of the video rental store where that kid worked was working at the time was called Hastings.

What happened to that kid who wanted to be an actor to fulfill his dream of “doing every job in the world” and auditioned to all the prestigious acting colleges?

On a side note, he was offered a full ride scholarship to the acting program at to a school he had never heard of before. The head of the theatre department there had “tricked” him into auditioning for her while he was waiting for an audition with NYU as a “practice” she said. Well, apparently she saw something in that kid and offered him four free years of college to study acting. Like an idiot, he turned that full ride down. And he either didn’t get into or get enough scholarship money for the “big name” schools he wanted to go to – the ones his acting friends were going to – and he was too proud to go to a school no one had ever heard of for acting (or so he though). Apparently, Northern Illinois University was good enough for Joan Allen and Dan Castellaneta, but he didn’t know that at the time, much less how unimportant what college you study acting at really is. Long story short, he never did go to theatre school or get a theater degree. Instead, 13 years and $25,000 in student loans (it would have been worse without the G.I Bill) later he graduated from college with a B.S. in Economics. How did that happen?

What happened to that kid who, in 2006, started writing a business plan for digitally distributing comic books direct from publishers which included a standardization and association model for including small comic book stores in their paper distribution and breaking up the stranglehold Diamond Comic Book Distributors had over the industry and the prices.

On a side note, he even had this idea of making digital comic books dynamic and selling them as an add-on to a paper subscription. Little did he know that David Steinberger and friends were working on the key points of that idea around the exact same time and a year later ComiXology was born and is now the practically the only game in town in digital comic book distribution.

What happened to that kid?

What happened to that kid who knew how to dream big?

What happened to that kid who wanted to be a scientist and inventor?

What happened to that kid who wanted to be an explorer and a naturalist?

What happened to that kid who everyone said had so much potential?

What happened to that kid with a million new ideas every day?

What happened to that kid?

Here’s what happened…

He listened to all his worst critics. He took advice from all his naysayers. He surrounded himself by people who loathed him for having high standards and big dreams and were all too eager to bring him down.

He made safe choices that he thought other people wanted him to make rather than making risky choices that he wanted to make. He was so focused on living up to everyone else’s expectations that he forgot about his own dreams and desires.

If you had asked me when I was 10 years old, when I was 15 years old, when I was 20 years old, 25 years old, 30 years old… it doesn’t matter really – if you had asked me where I saw myself at 35 years old this is what I would have told you: I saw myself married and with a family. I saw myself traveling the world, either for work or for fun because I could “afford” to do so. I saw myself performing on a regular basis, either as a career or a serious hobby. I saw myself owning a lucrative business, maybe even several. I saw myself living some place warm, riding a motorcycle to work, and going swimming, surfing, scuba diving, and skydiving on a regular basis. I saw myself writing and creating music. I saw myself making a meaningful, positive contribution to making the world a better place.

And it isn’t just that I haven’t come close to realizing any of those dreams. It is that I feel like I was never even on the path to give it an honest try. And now I don’t have a clue how to get on that path. I feel stuck in a rut. And I feel buried by debts. And I feel limited by the fact that at my age, if you have accomplished as little as I have accomplished career wise, people start to look at you funny and no one even wants to even give you a chance – even at an entry level something.

I guess the idea is, “Hey, you are such a screw up and didn’t make anything of yourself at this point – after all those years and all those opportunities, why should we take a chance on you when you’re probably not going to get anywhere over the next 20 years and accomplish anything worth talking about? With all the young, talented, driven people out there full of potential, why should we waste our time giving you a chance?”

Why should anyone waste their time giving me a chance? All I am is a giant pile of unrealized potential. A failure in the worst sense of the word: I had so many reasons to succeed and so many paths to success and yet I somehow found that one path that would get me nowhere. I failed most of the time because most of the time I wasn’t even trying. And somehow, I still can’t put my finger on where it all went wrong. I apparently haven’t learned anything because I have no idea what to do next. THAT is real failure.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my greatest public shame. Myself, age 34, having accomplished nothing in life I wanted to and completely clueless about how to even pursue my dreams anymore.

Stay tuned for future episodes of “Public Shame.” Each one will probably be a lot shorter, but will ultimately be a small contributing part of this big one.