15 January 2013

Potential energy

I may have mentioned it here before: I spent the better part of my childhood "Not Living Up to Potential." When Mom passed away a few years ago, we found evidence of this, in the form of a box of report cards that she had kept. As I worked my way through this anthropological nightmare, the pattern became clear -- I did just enough to get by, just enough to avoid completely crashing out, nothing more, and sometimes less.

There were flashes of success, sure. Mrs. Wright in fourth and fifth grade was pretty awesome. Mr. Hollister in middle school, along wtih Mr. Higgins and even Mr. Biagioni. Mr. Sharp. In high school, which otherwise was four years of purgatory, there was Mrs. Stubinger above all, and Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Stark. Mr. Paldauf, who wasn't at my school but was my debate team coach. I still remember what she said to me, the day Mrs. Stubinger put me on my life's path, and I am forever grateful.

Despite those bright lights, the few inspirations who got through to me, my academic career was a study in stunning mediocrity. And you know what's funny? You know all those threats about how not doing well in school would affect you for the rest of your life? I didn't believe them. I thought they were bogus. I managed to muddle through just fine, thankyouverymuch.

And now I'm screwed.

It all started a year ago. At Christmastime after Daniel was born, Kim took the last of her maternity leave in Chicago, leaving me for 2 weeks in a big house, all by myself. I'm not really sure how it happened, but all of a sudden I found myself in the midst of a crazy project, blowing through my spending money in two days as I planned and began to build -- what else? -- a bike rack.

And somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, I recalled something long forgotten: A-squared-plus-B-squared-equals-C-squared. I wasn't quite sure what it meant, but I somehow remembered that I needed to know it to realize my vision.

And I'll be damned, it worked.

One thing led to another, and although I jacked up the angle cuts on the stringers, my right-triangle of a bike rack came together. And it looked decent. By somehow solving this paltry geometric dilemma, I had managed to build something real, something tangible -- without using a computer. And that was pretty neat.

Something -- I'm still not quite sure what -- was reawakened that day. Fast-forward a year now, and a2+b2=c2 has become part of my everyday waking life. I'm not harboring any illusions of becoming a master carpenter, not by any stretch of the imagination; I have instead decided to put my money where my mouth is, and to return to school.

For years I've been lamenting the state of affairs in the bike industry: That many talented, smart people don't stick around. That our ideas are stagnant. That there is a coming tidal wave of customer-oriented, technology-enabled change headed our way, and we're ill-equipped to capitalize on it. That we need more information, more innovation, more differentiation, and that we need to look outside ourselves to learn and adapt. The "bike industry" as we know it may not survive the decade, and without some serious effort on my part, my role in it won't either.

So I am looking to look outside. There are a number of really fantastic graduate school programs here in North Carolina, and I'm going to find my place in one of them -- or I'm going to blow up trying. See, getting into these programs requires a certain amount of knowledge, which is gauged according to well-known standardized tests. And as you may have guessed, those tests always include a "quantitative" portion, which in non-academic circles means "math." While I may do fairly well on the "verbal" and "written" portions, math isn't exactly my strong suit -- I only just learned (or rather re-learned) that my right-triangle equation came from Pythagoras  rather than being labeled a "quadratic" equation. Which it is also, apparently.


My lifelong middle-of-the-road approach is making things tough. I need to score very highly -- like, "Top-Tier" program highly -- in order to even be considered -- that's how narrowly I escaped my time in college. Sure it's been 10+ years, but really, it wasn't pretty. Especially with a C-minus in statistics (which factor heavily in business school, don'tyouknow) and two glaring Fs in logic (which I finally passed with an A-minus, but that's another story) on my undergrad transcripts. And I know full well that a piece of paper conferred upon me in 2 years does not a "Master" make, but I'm hoping that the exposure I gain while working on a degree will directly translate toward building a new future for my industry.

So despite a few hurdles, I think I can do it. No -- I know can do it. I may have sat in the back of Mrs. Tegtmeier's class making race car noises all through sophomore year of high school, but deep down I actually learned something too, while completing all those proofs she made us do. Because, as it turns out, Mom and Dad were right, and whether it's building a bike rack or studying for grad school admissions, all that stuff does matter.

And so maybe now I'll finally live up to my potential.

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