“Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” – Proverbs 27:6 (ESV)
The story I’m about to tell you is true. While I am not particularly proud of certain aspects of this story, I think it has a happy enough ending, as well as a useful moral, so I’m willing to live with the discomfort. If you are a student or you are launching your working life, I hope my telling you this story will help you find the motivation to do your best work now.
When I graduated college back in the last century, it was late in May. When I received my diploma, I had not yet secured that all important J-O-B, despite interviews and even some call backs from some well-known companies still in business today. Through contacting friends of friends, I eventually landed an entry-level sales job with a textile machinery manufacturer in a nearby small city. It was more exciting than frightening — and even though I knew absolutely nothing about textile machinery, I had sold everything from Christmas cards to cogs to clothing while I was growing up. How hard could it be?
After college, the real education begins
Through the grapevine, I knew that many of my classmates were working in the big city, and that their starting salaries were about 20% higher than mine. I didn’t care, because I had a degree, a job, a car (a ’69 VW Beetle with a fuel leak) and my own apartment. The first lessons were hard ones. “Real” life as an adult doesn’t operate by the rules that govern campus life, and the range of appropriate self-expression in the workplace is more narrow and well-defined. (I’m telling you this so you’ll have a clue when you get there.)
On top of the cultural lessons, there were the business lessons. Companies don’t simply “have” money. If they are selling products and services, they have some coming in, but if the amount coming in isn’t greater than the sum of expenses, they won’t be in business long. For this reason, a company can’t simply decide to pay its employees more, nor does a company always have the option of raising prices. Usually, a company’s best path out of trouble is to increase sales while reducing expenses. If the former doesn’t happen, people who aren’t the owners or related to the owners will find their hours curtailed or their positions eliminated to accomplish the latter. I have never forgotten this — and I want you to know and understand it.
Then there were the personal lessons. I had a vague idea about how the whole paying bills thing worked, so I dove into it headlong. I was never late on my student loans, my car payment, or my rent, but without a budget, I often found myself with month left over at the end of the money. Oh, and early on I didn’t understand that I was supposed to have the electricity switched over from the apartment complex to me, so I did come home from work one evening to find I had no power.
So, there I was — a single man in a small town with no friends nearby and nearly no experience in a tough industry. The one grace of that first year was that my company expected me to be on the road making sales calls during the week. As long as I was doing that, I had food to supplement my meager groceries and I received mileage reimbursement to cover the wear and tear on the new car I bought. Still, it was tough.
Connecting the dots
I recall being at home in my shabby apartment one evening, eating barbecued Spam. (And if you only know that word as another name for junk email, click here. In certain parts of Polynesia it’s considered a delicacy.) I thought to myself, “This sucks.” I remembered the interviews with the big-name companies where the recruiters told me they were looking for the top 10% of the class, the captain of the football team and the president of the fraternity – in other words, not me. I also thought back over the squandered opportunities to study longer, dig deeper and learn more. At the time, I didn’t see how excelling in the classroom would correlate to my standard of living so soon after graduation.
Cue the flashback
And I thought back to that afternoon late in my senior year. The college had posted the list of inductees into Phi Beta Kappa — the premier academic honor society — and I didn’t make the cut. I don’t mind telling you, I wasn’t anywhere close. I knew this. At lunch, a fraternity brother a year behind me expressed surprise that I wasn’t on the list. I thought he was mocking me. He assured me he wasn’t. I laughed ruefully and we dropped it.
Later that afternoon I swung by to see my major adviser and told him the story. Offhandedly, I said how unlikely it would have been for me to receive such an honor. What he said has stuck with me ever since:
“You could have been Phi Beta Kappa. Why not? Your problem is not with your head; it’s with your (posterior). If you only knew how frustrating it is to read a better paper from you than any others I get and to know that you haven’t done the reading, the WORK. The only reason you aren’t Phi Beta Kappa is YOU.”
I was mortified and felt sick to my stomach. For one thing, I admired my professor a great deal (I still do) and wanted his approval. I didn’t expect such an endorsement of capability to come wrapped in such a thermonuclear truth-bomb. But alone, months later over my plate of spam, I saw that he was right. I had no plans to go to graduate school — and certainly no money for it — but I remember saying out loud, “If I ever go back to school, I’m going to work so hard…”
I guess I was praying after all
A short time later, my employer sent me to meet with a textile research institute to talk to them about our product line and the philosophy behind our approach. I had two names to ask for — the first was out of town, but the second one agreed to meet with me.
We spent two-and-a-half hours with him asking me questions and me answering them. As our meeting wound down, he asked where I had learned about textiles and textile processing. “On the job, ” I said. He asked if I had graduated college and what sort of grades I had made. I told the truth. To my surprise, he asked if I had ever thought about graduate school. I told him I had, but that I couldn’t afford it.
He told me that every student at the institute was there on a graduate fellowship that covered tuition, books and fees, and that the fellowship included a stipend. As a result the program was very competitive. He said based on our discussion that he wanted to encourage me to apply. If I’d do that, he said he could guarantee I’d be invited for an interview. And if I conducted myself in the interview the way I had in our meeting, he was over 90% sure I’d be accepted. It was a miracle.
How did it turn out?
I’ve gone on too long already, but to sum up: I did apply, I did get an interview and I did receive a fellowship. And yes I worked so hard. I was a much better student in graduate school than I was in college. And I had three offers from top-notch companies. You can learn from my experience. Do the work now. It will pay off.