Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Backing In - Part II

As a result of my uninspired performance in high school, I had very few exemplary academic achievements.  In my sophomore year, I did take a standardized Accounting test and scored among the highest in our school district.  It was as much a surprise to my teacher as it was to me!

Performing so well on that test was a pivotal moment in my life because it is what prompted me to study Accounting at Virginia Tech.   

My undergraduate degree led me into the world of Corporate Tax at Capital One – where, after meeting my wife - the next chapter of my life began. 

However, not long ago, a memory of my senior year of high school popped into my head.  No, not of sleeping in class or frantically finishing a book report the night before it was due; but rather, I recalled another surprising moment from Government class.

It was during one of our first writing assignments:  “What Does Government Mean to You?”  Can’t say I remember what I wrote – although I do recall having a great time doing it – but it was the reaction of my teacher that shocked me.

He asked to speak with me as class was ending…I still remember the snickers from my classmates who thought I had gotten into trouble (I figured I was, too!)  Instead, my teacher told me he thought my paper was one of the best things he’s read in a really long time and that I should be in his Advanced Placement (AP) class – all just based on what I had written.

Although I was surprised and grateful, I was also just 16 years old – so it mostly went in one ear and out the other….and nothing more came of this moment.

During this past summer, a good high school friend of mine asked if he could share my writing with his students.  He was inspired by my work and wanted to incorporate some of my stories into his lesson plans on how to write with meaning and passion.

Flattered, I agreed.  We communicated through text but eventually this graduated to the lost art of talking on the phone.  It was wonderful to hear from my friend and catch-up about both of our lives. 

During our conversation he referenced our high school days and told me that he was always in awe of my writing.  This was back before cell phones and social media, when writing was a more significant part of our communication.  Whether it was just silly notes between friends or working on a class project together, there were frequent written interactions between us.

My friend, who teaches children every day, including a job at the Kahn Academy, and has also spent time on stage as a comedian, is an extremely talented communicator himself.  So I was stunned to learn that my writing motivated him to become a better writer.

We all have our dream jobs and not many of us get to actually live them.  The examples are numerous:  An aspiring musician who works an office job because he has a young family and bills to pay or the lawyer who’d rather own a bakery but doesn’t want to risk trading a stable job for a failed business.

Working in an office or arguing before a judge isn’t who they are, but for whatever reason, it is the road they’ve found themselves on.  Choices made when they are barely 18 – the college they study at or what field they major in – sends them in a direction that’s opposite of their passion.  But if a genie came along tomorrow and granted them the opportunity to change paths, they would instantly take it.

Everyone understands these types of scenarios, and perhaps a few of you are currently living one. 

But what if I told you there might be something out there for you – a passion or talent - and you don’t even know what it is, yet?

For me, the reality is I wouldn’t have become a writer if I wasn’t diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  I would have never discovered this other part of me that prior teachers had alluded to or friends had admired me for.   It would still be hidden away, lost in the perpetual motion of everyday life.

Living with MS isn’t easy – there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t encounter blurred vision, shooting pains, tingling sensations, numbness, fatigue, etc.  How can something so devastating to my health and personal life also be the inspiration behind who I’ve become today?

To be clear, my writing hasn’t won any Pulitzer’s and I don’t have any books on the New York Times best-seller list.  And I’m my own worst critic so the last thing you’d ever see me doing is overstating the impact or reach of the words that I type.

But I still wonder – is my situation unique?  Or are many of us living our daily lives unaware that we are only scratching the surface of our potential, an undeveloped talent or unknown passion?  

I don’t have the answer to these questions but I think it’s worth it to take a few moments to pause and reflect on it.  While you are taking a moment to smell the proverbial roses, close your eyes and remember who you were…while dreaming about who you can become. 

Let your internal compass lead the way.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Backing In - Part I

In high school, I didn’t get bad grades but I also wasn’t going to be mistaken for class Valedictorian. 

You need to apply yourself is common feedback for teenage students.  However, this maxim didn’t fully encompass my academic shortcomings.  What held me back wasn’t a lack of effort but actually a lack of desire.

I still remember day-dreaming in Biology when I heard my teacher remark, “this will be on the test tomorrow”.  I felt the tension in the air rise as most of my fellow students were frantically writing every word that was coming out of my teacher’s mouth. 

What, me worry?  I knew I wasn’t going to get a 100 on the test but I also knew I’d do fine without much effort.  Unfortunately, these poor study habits (or, more specifically, lack of study habits) followed me to college at Virginia Tech, where I was introduced to something called reality.

Entering my senior year, I knew that as an Accounting major with an unimpressive GPA I had little to no chance of any firm giving me an opportunity. 

Although it was the dark ages of the late 90s, Virginia Tech had a pretty advanced electronic application system and it was then, in the Fall of my final year, that I was quickly (and routinely) rejected by the Deloitte’s and E&Y’s of the world.  My finger was still clicking “send” as I was getting their “Thanks, but no thanks” replies.

As luck would have it, fate intervened, in the form of a small – but growing – financial company named Capital One.  This was well before the Viking commercials, “What’s in Your Wallet?” catchphrases or celebrity spokesmen.

Given my mediocre marks, I was stunned when Capital One invited me to an on-campus
“pre-screening” that consisted primarily of standardized tests. 

Now, the disinterest I had for school was far outweighed by the passion I had for work; whether it was as a pre-teen delivering The Washington Post, or the jobs I had in high school at the local cleaners, a Chinese restaurant and the neighborhood video store.  In each instance, I thrived, even starring in a commercial for the Chinese restaurant.

So, instead of feeling dread, as I did before most of my college exams, I felt re-born as I diligently worked my way through Capital One’s large packet of questions.    

I remained in further disbelief when, as part of their college interview process, they invited me to stay overnight at an Embassy Suites in Richmond, Virginia (a city over 200 miles away from Virginia Tech).  After they bought a large group of us dinner, I headed back to my room to get a good night’s sleep.  The next morning, at 9 a.m. there was a knock on my door that started an all-day marathon of in-room interviews.

For some, this process might sound frightening, but I reveled in it.  I had nothing to hide.  Yes, my grades were terrible but they weren’t a reflection of who I was and what I could bring to their company and I knew I could prove it.

I was in my element during the interview process, providing financial solutions to their questions and speaking from my heart.  Thankfully, Capital One looked past my poor grades to see my potential and rewarded me with a job offer…they even intentionally timed the mailing so their letter would arrive on my 21st birthday.

Throughout my career, however, I always felt like I was trying to out-run my college GPA.  As each year ticked by, the farther away I was from being a college graduate.  A small bit of internal redemption came when I completed by MBA with honors (only one B preventing perfect scores).  In the process, I discovered the satisfaction that comes with truly applying oneself in school. 

But comparing graduate school to undergraduate work or even high school is similar to comparing apples to oranges.  So my true salvation came when I was working at USAA, and an executive remarked after a presentation of mine that I must have been one of those folks that got straight A’s in college because he couldn’t see me settling for anything less.  

I had created a new brand - Mike Wentink 2.0 – and I was finally free from my mediocre academic past.

What I didn’t see coming was the evolution to Mike Wentink 3.0.  Ironically, it would have never happened if I wasn’t diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

To be continued……

©2008-2015 Michael J. Wentink, Jr., All Rights Reserved.