"You're so talented"

posted by Jeff | Monday, July 7, 2008, 12:59 AM | comments: 0

One of the things that I've heard countless times from people who know me, including a lot of my former co-workers, is that I'm "so talented" or "bound for bigger things" or something along those lines. That's incredibly flattering, especially given the respect I have for a lot of those folks, but it's hard to get my head around the accuracy of it.

I haven't thought about this in years, but it's a good story to tell. When I was very young, in grade school, I was a bit of an overachiever. School was easy, not challenging at all. I was a straight-A student (actually, we had E for excellent, S for satisfactory and U for unsatisfactory back then, so I was straight-E). It wasn't that the schools were too easy I don't think, as this was long before all of the pass-a-test bullshit they do today, I just had a natural mind to latch on and do the work.

I didn't always like the attention though. In fact, I was kind of embarrassed by it. In third grade I was voted class president, and I didn't tell my parents. They found out when they came to open house. There was kind of an expectation going forward that I'd always be like that, and I think all of the praise put pressure on me to always be perfect.

Then came the fifth grade meltdown. I pissed off my teacher, Ms. Coe, for some reason (I recall she was unusually confrontational for being someone who spent the day with 10-year-olds) and she wanted me to sit out in the hall. This was problematic, because the speech teacher in the building went to my church, and she'd obviously bust me to my parents. So I had a crying/shouting meltdown and the teacher stuffed me in the coat room, and eventually had my parents pick me up.

The next several years included the awkward junior high years and such, and I got bored with school. I didn't care what my grades were. I just wanted to get by. That was a realization I had the first time I met a college admissions officer, at Ashland, who looked at my GPA (2.9 I think, and that was probably weighted), and my ACT score (28, in the top 4% that year), and figured I was bored. College was much of the same for things I was disinterested in, and when I look back I can't believe I managed to double major. Then again, the "effort" consisted of taking three extra English classes instead of advanced underwater basketweaving.

My professional career has been completely strange. I suppose if you measure success by income, then sure, I've upped my salary by five figures every two years or so. I learned when I cracked that $50+ hourly that it was a pretty poor measure of success. I think that I've had four significant successes in my professional life. And I've never really thought much about them.

The first was the distance I brought the cable access effort in Medina. There was nothing but a bulletin board when I started, and after three years, I ramped up school and city production, built a facility in a closet and won a lot of fans of what we were doing by getting high school sports on TV. I didn't play nice with a lot of the elected officials, who didn't understand that this was not their play thing, but I was proud of the direction we were going.

The second big success was my time at Penton Media. In my radio days, getting a job was all about sales, that is, selling yourself. Understanding that process got me the job at Penton, and it helped me to bring together the classic sales types (as in expensive cars, lots of golf and client parties) with content people and dotcom-era "Internet people." Sure, some of the old media types were repackaging my ideas as their own, but I didn't care, because it seemed to be working. It was a shame that the direction wasn't shared by the rest of the company, because the executives shut it all down, but I was a part of something new... the sheer act of creation. That was a buzz.

The third biggie was my book. It's probably the thing I forget most about, and yet the thing that gets me in the door first for new jobs. It wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be, and the sales were cosmically average, but dude, I wrote a book. If I never do anything else, I'm always going to have that.

And lastly, I've made money doing what essentially has been a hobby for ten years. My Web sites haven't made me rich, but they've lived through a private T-1, the ad fallout of 2001, marriage and divorce, a bunch of layoffs, and a shitty site design that has been around since 2003. I don't give myself credit for the commitment I've had to these sites.

Maybe that's the problem. I was chatting with one of the friends who said I'm "so talented" tonight, and I asked her if the typical day job for me was a safety net for doing something really important. Her response was, probably. I'm like that grade school kid still, in that I'm not sure I want the praise, and maybe it's just easier to coast by, even if I'm bored. God knows I talked myself into enthusiasm at my last job, even though I think I was actually bored.

Tomorrow I'm meeting with two possible employers. The one I know will be a waste of time, but the other is an actual business owner. We'll see what happens.

I need to make it a point to realize when I'm bored and ignoring that alleged talent.


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