Bigger Pond, Bigger Fish: how high school taught me to fight
No one gives a shit about you. Not until you give them a reason to. The pond is so big. The fish are so plentiful. The Internet connects all the fish, and all the ponds. And many of the fish are so hungry. Hungrier than others who haven’t faced defeat. Because defeat either ends us or makes us angry. And anger means it’s time to fight more.
I had the tough realization that I wasn’t always the best when I was fourteen and then again at the end of college. Here’s what happened…
At Poquonock Elementary School, from kindergarten through 4th grade, it seemed like the smartest kids were also the most popular. For a young high achiever like me, it was a great world. I think back on those years and wonder if I just lacked perspective (definitely) or if it really was a little meritocratic utopia (probably). Maybe it was just coincidence. Either way it was fun and easy to be at the top. Redistricting between 4th grade and 5th grade changed that slightly; the influx of so many new kids unhinged old patterns. Still, at the end of 6th grade, I was the one being marched out in front of the all school assembly to win some sort of best student award. It was a long time ago and I don’t recall the details, other than that I got a book on anatomy (because clearly smart kids become doctors and not architects).
Junior High wasn’t much different. All four elementary schools fed into one middle school: Sage Park. The brains didn’t run the school. That was the job of hormones and drugs. But regardless…the pond was a little bigger and there were some more high achieving fish. But at the end of eight grade I was still winning awards and known as the smart kid who was also really good at the bass guitar. It was nice being the top of the top. Again it was more or less effortless. It helped that I was rarely in classes with any of my friends so I had nothing to do but pay attention and feel a bit lonely.
Then came high school. Instead of the public high school I had the great privilege to attend Loomis Chaffee, a very prestigious private high school that was conveniently located in my home town of Windsor, Connecticut. I was just as smart and talented as always but this was a different world. In previous years I was really good at everything. I was a generalist. History, Spanish, Art, Music, didn’t matter. I knew how to get A’s. At Loomis, I was still smart, but there were kids who were geniuses at languages, who were taking calculus in 7th grade, or who had famous artist parents. I was surrounded by intense competition, competition that had all imaginable advantages—money, connections, brains, looks, etc. I was still special but not unique. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, it took me awhile to adjust, but by the end of high school I found my place and figured out how to make my mark. I got good grades, did great things, made an impression on a few teachers, got into a great college, but I wasn’t the top. I wasn’t slacking off, but I also wasn’t getting presented with any awards in front of the school. This wasn’t Poquonock Elementary.
College only got worse. Well not worse exactly; it just became an even more selective pond. Rice University was filled with some amazing students. I was one of them, but again if everyone (or most people) graduated in the top 5% of their high school class then you could be in the middle of the pack and still be very intelligent and hardworking. Or you could be intelligent, talented, and overwhelmed. I had the advantage of learning in high school that there were some people who make me feel stupid and inadequate. I learned how to work in that world and still fight for my place towards the top. I came prepared with the knowledge that my spot in the old pond meant nothing in the new, bigger, deeper pond. But some of my college classmates weren’t so fortunate. Finding out excellence isn’t as easy as you thought, when you’re not being supervised by parents, and when there is easy access to alcohol and people of the opposite sex, makes for a hard fall.
One of my most memorable professors at Rice University was Spencer Parsons. He gave us some very interesting projects to work on. One was a daycare. It was a fast project, maybe only three weeks, if that. While a great program for a student project, what was most intriguing was that he gave the same site and program to every studio he had. Not only were we designing this little project in a condensed amount of time, we were aware of previous solutions from friends and classmates who’d taken his studio before. The weight of competition was all around. The major project in his studio for my semester was a cemetery. While he’d never had students design a cemetery before, it was on a site he regularly used (in fact while researching this article I came across proof that he was still using this same site, albeit for an airport, in a studio years after I graduated). Again the specter of others’ genius was everywhere. Spencer definitely had a unique vision for how he taught.
Beyond good studio projects, Spencer was unique in other ways. After my cemetery project won an end of the year award, he commented to me that while he liked my project he thought a friend of mine should have won. Odd fellow.
My last encounter with Spencer before finishing my senior year was vertigo inducing. He and I were in his office. He took out the notes he made on my application for architecture school (he was on the decision committee and saved everything). Spencer didn’t pull punches. He told me my essay discussing Lego as a reason I was interested in architecture was like a thousand others he’d read (I kept my mouth shut that the discussion of building with Lego was really a foil for my relationship with my brother who was then living in Japan). He made some other discouraging comments and proceeded to tell me that he didn’t vote to admit me; that he didn’t think I qualified to attend the Rice University School of Architecture. In fact he went a step further and explained to me that the decision committee (a group of three professors) first picked a bunch of students they wanted to accept into the architecture program. They then looked at the total number, did some math, and did a second round of selection to make sure they accepted enough kids to get the final number they wanted (ei, accept 40 kids in the hopes that 25 say yes). I was the padding. I was one of the extras that they had to accept because they couldn’t guarantee all the ones they wanted would actually accept and attend. I had just done my best student work in his studio. I had won some top awards in the architecture program and was about to graduated Cum Laude from Rice University as a whole. And here a professor I had mountains of respect for was telling me that I was a filler student. I was good enough to get into Rice, but I didn’t impress enough of the selection committee to make the first round cut of students that they wanted in the architecture program. My essay lacked conviction, my portfolio wasn’t good enough, I was unimpressive. I think the only thing that saved me (and I’ll never know for sure) was that my application was filled with all the music and bands I was a part of, and one of the members on the selection committee had a previous life as a minor rock star. My future—I met my wife at Rice University—depended not on me, but on enough other applicants sucking enough that the architecture school selection committee needed competent filler students.
After basically telling me I was Danny DeVito in the movie Twins, Spencer proceeded to reflect on all the other students that were in my freshman class. I think it’s telling that three of the students that were at the top of the heap burned out of the program. One switched majors after the first semester, one barely finished the BA in Architecture, and the other got the lesser architecture degree, a BA in Architectural Studies. They have all since gone on to be successful in other careers but not the thing the school thought they were perfect for. Spencer was genuinely confused why these students—and a few others who survived but failed to blossom—didn’t live up to the selection committee’s expectations. And yet there I was, an underdog graduating with honors. I had no answer for Spencer then, but I understand it a bit better now.
I learned how to fight and claw my way to the top before I reached college. So it didn’t matter that I entered as a leftover. It didn’t matter that I was surrounded by excellence and really didn’t know anything about architecture, or that my artistic talent was not as polished as some others. I was prepared to fight and work hard. Spencer revealing this to me at the end of my senior year helped me get the right mindset for my next challenge: the journey to BArch then AIA.
Lesson for my daughters: some things in life will work out because of dumb, stupid luck.** Do your best to minimize those times. That’s bad risk, not good risk. I knew how to fight once I got to Rice, but I almost missed the chance to be there because I didn’t take the application process seriously enough.
Lesson for everyone: never, ever underestimate your competition. Even when you think you know how tough everyone else is. You are probably wrong.
If you haven’t been outfoxed, then you haven’t found your competition yet.
This is worth remembering for those of us who get to breeze through college, their internships, or whatever part of life is easy before things get tough as shit (hint: try climbing the architecture ladder with little kids at home).
**there’s more to the luck that led to me attending Rice University, but it doesn’t fit well into this already long and divergent post. Perhaps if I expand this for some future publication I’ll add those adventures as well.
See lesson number three from this post I wrote back in 2010; it discusses a similar lesson to the big one I learned during school. Follow Shoegnome on Facebook and Twitter for more anecdotal evidence of my own importance and other thoughts on being an Architect in the 21st Century.