I was having a conversation with a young person that will be entering high school next year and he said something that caught me off guard, which led to a series of conversations with various folks. We were discussing choices, and the young man said something to the effect of: "Man, I wish I was as talented as you were, so I could be as successful." I chuckled because I am more than sure that this young man is far smarter that I was at his age. At his age, my dream of success was a car, some Jordans and pretty girl to ride in that car -- she didn't even need to be beautiful, moderately pretty was just fine in my 14-year-old world.
I needed to understand what this young person saw about my lifestyle that was successful and unattainable for him. So I asked him. I wanted to know what seemed to be this difficult thing I was doing. The conversation was so powerful to me that it led me to engage other people and write this article. The young man felt that I had a handle on my craft, and that I had the freedom to come and go as I pleased. Success to him was basically the ability to move about the country and be respected by peers and folks from his community. He said he could never see himself in that position. He couldn't picture himself as an authority figure that was an "expert" in anything. This 14-year-old kid -- that just beautifully articulated that which peers of mine today in their mid-thirties cannot -- could not see himself being successful in the terms that he described.
Let's zoom out from my friend and look at the layout of young black and brown boys for a moment. For whatever reason, many of our boys cannot see the value they possess. That hold is so strong that when they do see a positive manifestation of themselves, then the belief becomes that that person is an anomaly and far different than everyone else. Even though I spend a lot of time with this young man and many others, it let me know that I needed to do a better job of affirming the boys I work with. I need to actively break down these cognitive barriers that society firmly supplants into the psyche of our children, hell, of our men, young and old. I needed to do a better job of breaking that Superman-Negro myth. So that was my first step. I needed to straighten that right out! I told that young man: "Bruh, I'm not all that talented." This isn't said in a self-deprecating way either, my self-confidence charts pretty high. If you know me, then you would agree.
I explained to this young man that for every success or win he sees connected to me, there are 10 humiliating and debilitating failures. Yo, I fail a ton! I explained to him that when I started college, I took remedial English and Math for a full year. I explained that for many things that may take my colleagues an hour to do, it would take me two to three hours sometimes. That myth has to die. Michael Jordan, in my mind, is the greatest basketball player of all time and has a lot of God-given talent. However, his work ethic and determination is what made him great. Growing up in Oakland, I've played ball with some really talented folks that you have not and will never hear of. The fire in Jordan's drive made him unstoppable. Oprah Winfrey is a talented woman, however she was mocked for being overweight and having a funny name. She isn't the greatest actress of all time, nor are her oratorical skills the greatest. Now look at her, she has a magazine that she puts her face on every issue. It's the choices and sacrifices she made.
In life, you make choices constantly. Sometimes there are some very difficult choices that have to be made, but they are choices nonetheless. Regardless of what success is to you, sacrifices have to be made. I explained to this young man some of the sacrifices that I have made. Some of those sacrifices are hanging out with friends, putting relationships on hold and dedicating personal resources to improve upon my own knowledge gaps. Sometimes it's being at the office at 10 p.m. on a Friday, or working in the terminal at the airport. I've made very deliberate investments in my own knowledge gaps over the years. For better or for worse, those are choices I have made. I went deep into my own self-investment. I told him the truth.There are times when you bet on yourself and win and times when you lose. One of my very loud failures was starting and financing a business with friends. It was a huge loss financially, but the shot my ego took was even more devastating but that's life. You pick up the pieces, you learn and you move on.
You see, what we ALL can offer young people is to teach and prepare them to be resilient. Our young people need to know that most of our success came from us bouncing back, not by being supremely talented. It came from learning from mistakes. Much of my "success" came from having an understanding of duty and what was required of me, not by having all the answers. The mistake that we sometimes make, is we can fall into the Superman space, because we start believing our own hype. We get a little bit of praise and our heads swell up and the older we get the more celestial our childhood becomes. We conveniently forget that our pants may have sagged or the type of temper we may have had. Some of our ladies forget about the clothes they used to sneak out of the house wearing, or just how fast they were. When this happens, judgemental preaching begins. The relatability factor goes out the window and we just lost another one. So in order to be honest with these young people, we gotta be honest with ourselves. I have to admit to that young man that:
Homie, I'm not that talented. In fact, you're much further along than I am when I was at that age. I fail miserably at something EVERYDAY of my life. I struggle with my own discipline. I do things that I vow that I wouldn't. This is what I am working on and how I am doing it. I am not Superman-Negro-Boy-from-North-Oakland-Created-to-Save-the-Hood. I am trying to figure it out just like you are. Let's learn together. Bruh, these are the mistakes I made, learn from them. Be better than me. Don't fall the same way I did but I love you if you do. When you fall, this is how you get up.
People, this is how you show love as opposed to just saying it. You reveal yourself, you guide, you hold accountable, you guide more, you push, you praise, you encourage, you show up, you affirm, you teach, you raise the bar. It's okay to admit your mortality.
Back to my kid; he left that conversation with a new confidence. He left it with renewed purpose. I expect greatness from him and I'll be here when he falls. I'll affirm his existence and I'll continue to push him. That's my duty. Start living yours, because we all have one.
Peace. Cole Out.