Living on the edge (well... sort of)

When I was a kid I never did my homework. I always found something more interesting to do: drawing stuff, or coding something, or learning a new computer program, or composing music, or… well, playing some video game (most of the time, really). My parents never seemed to care, probably because my grades were so good they assumed I was doing it right.

It’s not that I was really intentional about not doing my homework though. I knew I had to, but I just didn’t have the willpower. During many years, I went to bed feeling guilty and nervous about the consequences when tomorrow I’d show up with a blank page. I’ve always been a model student, so if I got caught I would disappoint everyone and fall in disgrace. This was such a big deal for me that it consumed me during nighttime. But still it never gave me strength to do anything different the next day.

Alone in my bed, I would trace a plan to get it all sorted out: “I can work during the morning break, and then get some more done at lunchtime, perhaps also if I have my breakfast really quick, I can also get some of the exercises done early in the morning…” But, again, I could hardly ever miss that important football match during the morning break.

So this leaves me getting to every class, with nothing done, sweating heavily while I skimmed through the pages, frantically jotting down answers or simply solving them and taking mental note of the answers in case the teacher would ask me. This happened class after class, day after day. So much for a stressful life. I was caught in the middle of a strange personality: responsible enough to care a lot about my duties, but too lazy to do anything about them.

I always got away with it (well, almost always). Either I was never asked about my homework (why would they? I was the best student in the class!) or, when they did, those rushed 3 minutes were worth every.single.second and I came up with the right answer.

Living on the edge on a daily basis taught me stuff that became important in my career years later. To start with, I handle stress pretty well. I’m not the kind of guy that stays super cool on a difficult situation. Far from it. I get extremely anxious, but I kind of feel comfortably nervous (let’s say) under pressure. I grew so familiar with that feeling that I demystified it. Moreover, I ended up performing better under critical conditions, which helped me enormously during exams. I was simply turned on by exams. I loved the anticipation, the tension around those days, and the excitement when you received that sheet of questions. What the hell, I ended up performing only under stress. In college I did not attend almost any class, but engaged in a sprint of 4 weeks to confront all the finals.

This turned out to be a very useful skill to produce and deliver a presentation on a tight deadline, to deal with angry customers or to navigate nasty problems at work. All of them, for better or worse, are circumstances where a young guy can stand out in the workplace.

But, these superpowers also came at a cost. They always come. Whenever you are exceptionally good at something, it inevitably means that you’ve become really bad at something else. In my case, the ability to focus intensely under pressure has deprived me of the capacity to see the big picture, to have perspective. I’m really good at executing, but struggle at visioning. I also have a rough time working in long term, planned environments. I’m not rigorous or organized. If you know me and disagree is probably because I live my days trying to compensate all my weaknesses by over structuring solutions around them. I obsess over productivity methods, devote a fair amount of time doing mind maps and yes, write a lot to gain some perspective too. But whenever I do these things I can feel the wheels in my head sloooooowly turning around. Give me a crisis and I’ll jump there in a second.

My career is taking me places where the skills that I lack are more and more important, pushing me to improve on those areas, which is good. But it’s one of those life’s impossible balances: exploit your strengths in a job that you enjoy and feel comfortable with or struggle with a job that does not fit you that well but makes you improve? Who knows. And who cares? Nobody I know controls his own career. We are simply offered options (if lucky) and then take decisions based on criteria that is far from what I’ve talked about here. This stuff is always an afterthought.

But I think about all this when I look at my children… not exactly sure how should I translate my own experience (admittedly a very good one) into their education. Perhaps the point is: you’d better choose a superpower and become inept at something else than trying to average all skills. I have the gut feeling that in their world doing what you are told, and only what you are told, will take you nowhere.

Enjoy your weekend, as you can see I survived the previous one alone with my kids and you bet my stress handling skills did help me with that!