Most people dedicate achievements to their loved ones. Friends. Mentors. Colleagues. But what about the ones who never thought you’d amount to jack? They deserve your thanks, too.
Sure, you needed support and encouragement.
But you also needed the opposite. Someone to say you weren’t good enough. To light a fire in you. Someone to strive against. To prove wrong. They didn’t mean to help you, but they did.
The first person to do that was my kindergarten teacher, Miss Grimm. She told my parents I’d probably wind up as a stripper or worse. As if sex work were something to be ashamed of. But the message came through.
And then there’s the professor who snubbed me at my first book festival. The one who looked at my novel and rolled his eyes.
I’m grateful to the mentor who once cut me off mid-sentence at a hotel bar as I was trying to thank him for inspiring me, and that I enjoyed his latest book. He looked at his watch and said he was “kind of busy,” then turned around and ordered another drink.
And here I was, wondering why he was divorced.
I’ll never forget my thesis adviser, who accused me of plagiarism and also forgot to write me a recommendation letter.
Even one of my dissertation readers thought I didn’t stand a chance on the job market. She was wrong.
Finally, I can’t forget all the important people who couldn’t remember my name. They know it now, though.
Everything good in life comes from people who help. Nobody ever achieves anything by themselves. You might owe a dozen people thanks for actually supporting your work.
Or you might have an even bigger list than that.
But you also owe your success to the assholes who stood in your way. They made you want it even more.
This attitude toward critics and skeptics works better than the alternative. I’ve met plenty of people who drown in the sand pit of doubt. People who took it all personally, and internalized their non-believers.
One girl in my grad program had a mental breakdown because one professor was too hard on her. He was hard on all of us. Not always in the inspirational sports coach way, either. Usually, he made it clear that he didn’t give a shit about anyone he didn’t see potential in.
He told us it wasn’t his job to inspire people. Instead, he wanted to work with grad students who’d already committed themselves.
In short, he didn’t have time for pep talks, or tough love.
This mentoring style didn’t go over well with some people. And they withered. They spent their time looking for love and support elsewhere.
When they found that acceptance, they wallowed in it and turned complacent. They bragged about the compliments and praise they received.
They deluded themselves.
And now they don’t have jobs.
Older generations like to hate on millennials. They see us as weak and coddled. They think we all want trophies for attendance. But it’s not true. The best of us understand you can’t thrive in perfect comfort. We do seek out challenges, and we don’t hide from adversity. But we’re not into flagellation and abuse, either.
It takes a mix, a balance. Shocking, I know. But often forgotten.
We love the idea of throwing our success back in the faces of our adversaries, even if we never do. Reality would never live up to the fantasy. I’d like nothing better than to show up at my old elementary school and do a striptease for Miss Grim, then flash my doctoral diploma and say, “psyche!” But she probably doesn’t remember me at all.
I’d have to explain everything to her, which would take away a little of the punch. And make me look a little…desperate.
Plus, someone would probably call the police on me.
Over the years, Miss Grimm has probably told hundreds of children they were going to wind up as strippers, or bouncers, or convicts.
What a legacy to leave behind.
The people we want to prove wrong the most have a way of belittling our achievements — no matter what we manage to accomplish. Somehow, they always move the bar up a little.
It doesn’t matter what they think about you now, anyway. What matters is what they did for you. They gave you their own special brand of inspiration. That’s how you should take it.
There’s only one person I think anti-inspired people on purpose. A grouchy old professor who’d published dozens of books. He’d created an entire subarea within the discipline, ran a book series for a major publisher, and was generally considered untouchable. He pulled a lot of shit moves, like assigning us extra books to read over the weekends.
Every week, he gave a little speech. “Most of you don’t have a future. Don’t worry, I saw that Taco Bell’s hiring.”
We all loved to hate him.
One day, a year later, we ran into each other at the library. His demeanor shocked me. He didn’t smile, but he didn’t yell either. We had an actual conversation. He said, “So I read one of your short stories in the school journal.” There was a long pause. “I actually finished it. Most of the stuff they publish is garbage, but I remembered yours.”
It remains one of the most encouraging things I’ve ever heard.
Here’s the truth behind all of this. We’re wired for strife and adversity. We think we want acceptance and happiness. And friends.
Honestly, I’m not so sure. Even when things go perfectly, we still find some little flaw to complain about. And if we can’t, we’ll make up something. Or we’ll screw something up. We secretly crave conflict. There’s nothing wrong with that. Conflict comes baked in. So maybe we should embrace that and stop bullshitting ourselves.
We don’t have to cook up extra strife. But we don’t have to live in fear of it, either. It’s good for us.
Be honest, part of you likes being underestimated. You like an opportunity to surprise an arrogant jerk. You can use that as motivation. It’s just too bad that you can never really cash in, not in any kind of theatrical way. The reward is a better life. You don’t need to stage a strip tease at your old school. Besides, I’m pretty sure my kindergarten teacher’s dead.