Lesson From 8th Grade: Jerks Are Real. Knowing Yourself Is How to Beat Them.
Alternate Title: The Universe Doesn’t Make Mistakes
It’s been a while since I’ve written, which means that there are a lot of new stories that need telling.
But today, I have an old story to tell
I was recently reminded about something that happened to me way back in 8th grade.
Something that still bugs the shit out of me today.
Something that friends that were there still don’t mention.
Something that, at the time, felt to me like the world was ending.
Something that forever changed my perspective on how people were judged and the inherent biases that are always involved, so in a way, maybe my world of a naive perspective did end that day.
I was cut from the 8th grade basketball team.
Ok, ok. Anti-climactic and maybe not a huge deal. I mean, it’s not like I have a “Well look at me now and all my NBA championship rings!” kind of a story. Nope. But, although getting cut maybe wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, what happened afterwards absolutely was.
When you know, you know
I was around thirteen years old and yeah, it sucked. I wasn’t the best player at tryouts, but I had a good week, made some standout plays, and felt good about my chances.
That is, until the final day of tryouts when I couldn’t help to notice that in the drills all week, we were broken up into groups where there was a group that would always go first, then a group that would always go second, then a group third, then one that went last.
The same groups always went in the same order. It was a weird and unnecessary way to do the drills and the pattern was hard to ignore after a few days of this.
Guess which group I was in? Yep.
I was in the group with classmates that didn’t really love basketball that much. They were indifferent about tryouts, and it showed.
They didn’t play year-round like I did.
They didn’t play in the rain and snow like I did.
They never asked their parents for 10 more minutes outside and could they please start their car and turn on their headlights because it’s dark out here and I need to hit five more of these baseline jumpers that don’t seem to be falling today like I did.
They didn’t play before and after school like I did.
They didn’t eat lunch in a hurry so they could play a quick game in the gym before next period like I did.
But all week long, there I was in the last group with them, waiting my turn and slowly starting to get what it meant: Regardless of what I did out there and how I played, a decision had already been made.
Back at school on Monday, the list was already up before first period and not seeing my name on it was how my day started. I had the whole weekend to come to terms that I wasn’t going to make it, but this cemented it.
That day sucked
But, whatever. Some days do that. I just had to push off being super bummed about it until I got home.
When I did get home, my mom and dad noticed that I was upset and appropriately left me alone to be upset by myself before checking in on me. Looking back, and as a father now, I have NO idea how they were able to do that. I hope to one day have that kind of restraint from doing what you want to do, and instead doing what you know you need to do.
I was devastated but mostly mad — partially because I was cut and deserved to be on the team, but partially because I realized that my performance was meaningless and I was going to get cut regardless.
I was brought back to reality when my mom told me I got a package in the mail. I was in 8th grade and never got mail, so I was pretty curious.
I opened it up and — not kidding — it was a brand new Michael Jordan basketball. The one that I sent in for from a Wheaties box like 2 months earlier. 1 in like every 25 people who sent in the little card won a ball, and I won…and it arrived at my house…addressed to me…ON THIS EXACT DAY.
“Hey universe, what the f**k, man?”
I didn’t even want to inflate it. It was perfectly deflated, just like me, so let’s keep it like this. How goddamn appropriate. The universe that is supposed to know everything just messed up or is just rubbing it in.
But that night, the strangest thing happened. I got out of bed. Took the ball out of the box. And went to the garage to inflate it. I had one of those handheld pumps so it took a while, but when it was inflated enough, I opened the garage door, and took some shots in the dark.
I still don’t know what compelled me to do that. It was cold and I didn’t have shoes on, so I took only 2 or 3 shots then went inside. I usually leave the ball in the garage but not this time. I brought it in with me and back into my room.
Getting that ball on that day wasn’t the universe messing with me. If the universe makes mistakes, it didn’t this time.
It was telling me to keep going.
The next day
It wasn’t in my nature, but I had summoned the courage to talk to the coach about it and make a case — not so much to reconsider and let me on the team, but to explain to me the reasoning. I needed to know, and I felt that knowing what I could have done to earn a spot would inform my future work and efforts towards improvement.
If he had a good reason to cut me, then he should have been fine with my approaching him, given me a few tips, and that would be that.
But he wasn’t fine with my approaching him, and instead became overly defensive, which immediately made two things crystal clear:
- He was, in fact, 100% full of shit.
- I better buckle in because this conversation was going to be rough.
And it was. I recall he raised his voice a few times. I kept my cool — not because I was mature and strong, but because I was 13 years old and scared absolutely shitless.
Then he said it: “When I see you and you’re Indian, it doesn’t really say ‘basketball player’ to me.”
He said it just like that. Out loud. Unashamed. That was his reason.
And that was the day my perception of everything changed and I became less naive.
Now I know
I won’t be dramatic and say it was the end of my childhood innocence or anything like that, but it did put a pretty big dent in it.
Sound awful? Yeah, maybe a little. But it’s one of my favorite moments of my life because it taught me three very important things that have stayed with me throughout all levels of school, through corporate careers, and through my journey as an entrepreneur:
- Know how you’re perceived by others. Not caring about their perception of you is something else and totally your choice, but it’s important to know what that perception is at all times.
- Know how to dictate how you’re perceived by others. Not everyone will see you the way you want, but do what’s in your control.
- Live, perform, speak, and behave in such a way that when you are shorted something you earned, it’s obvious to everyone that it’s the other guy that messed it up. Don’t give them a leg to stand on. You do you. They’ll do them.
After making the team the next year in 9th grade (different coach), I tried out again in 10th grade (same coach as 8th grade) and knew I wasn’t going to make the team because of the history. Knowing helped.
So, the only thing left to do was to kick ass in the tryouts and leave people wondering, “Wait…what?!” when I got cut. I feel I did that.
Know where you stand
Sometimes — in life or business — your perception is all you have. Call it a brand, call it a vibe, call it whatever. But it’s something that is important to understand and control.
Self-awareness is a powerful, yet fragile, asset. Having a certain sense of it can be the difference between knowing when something is over, and when it’s just beginning.