My Father’s Mind
What I am going to confess in this blog post is something that I often deny to myself and the depth to which this runs is only known by one other person.
Last week, I made the discovery that my father had previously taken the GMAT and had gotten an offer from the University of Michigan for their graduate management program. Their MBA program has historically been a top 10 program and their executive MBA program has been a top 5 program. This was mind boggling to me because my father always made it seem that his siblings and my mother were smarter than him. I always assumed my father was just an extremely well read Renaissance type of man. He always seems to know something about everything, but some of his thoughts aren’t fully fleshed out.
I confronted my parents about this. My mother goes into depth about all these certifications that my father has compiled over the years that have nothing to do with his original profession as a chemical engineer and how he’s a Microsoft Certified Professional in various stuff. He took these tests on a lark because no one in his company could pass them, and he’s never used it. My father admits to me that the reason he’s been so patient with me was because he sees his struggles in me.
At this point in the conversation, I’m dumbfounded to a degree and I ask him what he meant by that. He tells me, “When you study, as you’re reading the first page, you’re thinking about the next 15 pages. By the time you’re done with that page, you have no idea what you just read, but you’ve already tried to formulate an understanding of the whole idea. You’ll read that page over and over, but you can’t stop thinking ahead of it. Isn’t that right?”
My dad then explained that he has managed his ADD his whole life by compiling lists, and that the only way he’s able to do things is to concentrate on his lists and intermittently decompress. He knew so far ahead that this was my struggle that one Christmas when I was an early teen he bought me a book called, “How to Study”. When I was struggling with Calculus AP, he got a tutor to force me to interact and study. He knew my mind was his.
The truth is that since my mid teens I have never studied. Never. Everything I have ever accomplished has been in spite of my behavior. My parents bought me books to study for the SAT and the ACT. I never looked at the SAT book past the first chapter. I only did the first chapter of review questions for the ACT. My parents bought computer programs that had ACT training. I played the first level and then quit.
In high school, I crammed the morning before a test. I purposely avoided doing homework. I colluded with my friends and next door neighbor. I did the bare minimum possible. I made a D in Calculus AP because I didn’t feel like doing homework. I never turned anything in. I skipped the class regularly. Matter of fact, the only time I studied anything near that age was in middle school when I was put in a competitive environment in my gifted classes. When we were forced to pit wits against one another, I made it a point to learn, memorize, study, and win.
When I got to college, my girlfriend at the time forced me to learn the handful of classes we had in common. The rest of those classes I basically failed. I finished my first semester with a 1.6 GPA. I tried to pay attention in class, but I just ended up zoning out unless it was a lab class or a seminar. Any lecture style class was a bad grade. I would make A’s in my honors lab classes and D’s in my lectures. I was put on scholastic warning.
My parents were so appalled that my father made me take courses at the local university during the summer. That summer my younger sister who was still in high school helped me with my math work. When I got back for my sophomore year, it was more of the same. I was put on scholastic probation. To dodge the problem, I panicked and took an internship with Disney to clear my head.
When I got back, I continued my journey in biological sciences but realized that the mission to medical school was a lost cause. I was never going to go to a good medical school. I messed up too many of my grades in core classes. I took the coward’s way out. I knew politics, religion, and sociology could keep my attention at least in class. At my core I love science above all else, but scientists and science professors bore me. Anything that required repetition for effective learning was not going to work. So I took classes that required no homework and had essay tests.
With this shift in focus, I began living at the library and coffee shops. I would waste almost all my time socializing, playing Bubble Burst or Solitaire on my Dell PDA, or reading magazines. I would read one or two pages each time I sat down and then just zone off. I would draw blueprints of homes I wanted to build. I would spend hours writing my financial plans if I were to win the lottery.
When I decided to go to law school, I took the Princeton Review course for the LSAT. I attended, but hardly ever participated. I took the practice tests, but never studied. I spent literally thousands of hours in front of those books, but never really used them. I would try to get through 1 logic game at a time, but I just couldn’t do more than one before I started worrying about my shoes or if the barista was checking me out.
My roommates and sister saw me sit in front of those books, they saw the hours I spent, but I did nothing. My mind was always racing. It was always thinking about something far into the future or reminiscing about the past. I almost didn’t even graduate college because I put off writing a paper until the last possible minute and turned it in a day late because I figured out my professor’s office habits and knew when she would actually pick up the papers. I even broke into the building to sneak my paper in.
When I got into law school, it was more of the same. I read a few books before law school giving me strategy guides on how to study in law school. For the first month, I spent all my afternoons and nights following that strategy. I’d look at my lecture notes, I would go through my reading, I would frame my outline, and I would highlight my book for the next day. Then, I just stopped. Law school was after that first month way too easy. It was made even worse by the fact that no one was holding me accountable.
Beyond being emotionally frayed from other things in my life, I started losing respect for my teachers because of how poorly conducted my Lawyering (legal writing and research ) classes were. I had to force myself to panic to even study. I thought of the worst case scenario and put myself in it. The only real studying I accomplished before an exam was the night before where I would cram. At which point I would have worked myself into an emotional frenzy, combined with sleep deprivation, and enormous amounts of caffeine. It was the only way to keep me from doing anything physically distracting and it scared me enough to concentrate for a few hours.
I knew it was bad when I was in the middle of my take home Civil Procedure test and I called one of my best guy friends from home. He had to talk me off the edge and get me into a state of mind to continue my test. By second semester, my small section knew my troubles when I would fumble about in the classes that professors would call on random students. They would get on GChat and send me the answers as I would wing it for the professor. I would be half asleep and not paying attention.
I almost didn’t finish law school because of my behavior. I even pulled the same stunt with the MPRE exam. The MPRE is the ethics portion of the bar examination that a student takes before they take the main bar exam. I sat in front of the books. I sat with my friends. I would read, but I wouldn’t concentrate. My mind was always somewhere else. I didn’t remember anything. I just took the test.
In high school, I just skipped classes and slept. In college, I skipped classes less but I would play games on my PDA. In law school, I just browsed the internet. I have kept a vast portion of my textbooks, and you can look at them. They’re almost all in brand new condition. I would highlight the first few pages and then quit. I would sometimes highlight ‘important headings’ while I was cramming so I could come back to it later. You can look at my LSAT study books, and there’s not a scratch on them. The same goes for the bar examination books.
I have spent tens of thousands of hours of my life sitting in front of books and not reading them. I read one page and my brain just disappears into the ether. Everything I have ever achieved academically has been last second cramming or no cramming at all. I picked study partners based on volume. The less questions you asked me the better study partner you were. When others would study for an hour and take a ten minute brain break, I would read one page in those ten minutes and take an hour long brain break. After that hour, I would have forgotten that page and ended up reading it again.
I have never wanted to admit this to my friends or my family, but how am I supposed to find my voice if I don’t accept my own faults? My parents have financially and emotionally supported me through so much of this, and I have felt so much shame and self hatred for my behavior. I never lied to them about the hours I spent trying to study, but I never did actually get real studying done. I didn’t want my friends to hate me because they thought I was lazy or that I achieved things when I didn’t really work for them.
My friends have wondered how I was so good at trivia or how I seem to know something about everything. The truth is I read dozens and dozens of articles every single day. The information is in such a piece meal form that it keeps my attention. I digest almost every single article posted on Fark or Digg. I read through every single headline on CNN. I go through sports websites, pop culture blogs, fashion blogs, and message boards faster than I can talk. I have a voracious appetite for information.
Now I sit here, relieved that I have finally made my confession, but ashamed that I had to make one. For my close friends and family, I’m sorry. I am so sorry for deceiving you all in some way or letting you down in some way. If you need to verify any of this, come by. Pull the books off my bookshelf and look how pristine they are. I have kept a large portion of my notebooks from college and law school as well. You can see how barren they actually are besides some outlining.
I tried to seek psychological help about this near the end of law school. I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t even make myself panic. I was going to counseling, and I tried to explain to my therapist how ashamed I was. She didn’t even believe me. She kept stating the fact that I was in law school and that I accomplished something. She seemed to believe that there was no way I got to where I was without doing some work.
I’m like a donkey that needs a carrot on a stick, a shove in the back, and blinders to keep my focus. The blinders I have relied on are emotional and physical exhaustion to the point where I can’t think about anything else. I don’t let anyone know that I need a shove in the back, and it’s hard to get inspired when I generally get the carrot anyway. It’s not a coincidence that my most productive moments have always come during two different scenarios. One is immediately after a traumatic breakup. I’m generally so fueled by sadness, bitterness, and anger that I’m able to focus on a handful of tasks at hand. The other is when I am completely secure in a relationship and realize that I want to be better for the person who is treating me so well. That safety and comfort somehow helps relax my brain and helps me be more productive.
The real root of my self esteem problems have come from the fact that I have never been able to overcome this. If I’m not competing, if it’s not fun, if I’m not being paid, if it’s not manual labor… I struggle to focus. Work environments are simple to me because the stress of accountability and how simple the work seems to me. Yet when I need to learn and focus… and not simply just apply or think on the fly, I struggle. I always blamed myself. It was always my fault. I always sought out women who seemed to have laser like focus in their interests and their careers. I always hold them in such high regard because I hold myself in such low regard in that characteristic.
To know that my burden has been my father’s burden and that he has found ways to cope, for once in my life… I really have hope of overcoming it.