In my early education I hardly distinguished myself either as a personality or as a scholar – while I did collect a few “O” levels (as they were called in the pre-industrial age), they were nothing to write home about, and the teachers when writing my reports could barely remember who I was in the class – but they knew me, allegedly, well enough to tell my parents that I could do better.
At Parent’s evenings you could see the teachers squint at my folks with a look of stern concentration; you could almost read their minds. “Are they Ryan’s parents? Or – no, wait – hang on a minute who’s that funny quiet lad at the back of the class – the thick asthmatic one who seems to be away with the fairies half the time – he’s got a big nose and his name begins with T. Or was it D. No, it was T (I saw D’s parents earlier. I think… ) Yes, they were T’s parents. You might not know this but there was a famous Swiss developmental psychologist that all teachers have to study who wrote a treatise on how to match children to their parents by abnormal nasal proportions and wheezing, and similar common features, including flatulence and acne.
I went to college and my academic performance measured up in a similar fashion. The reason was that it was true – I was not in any discernible sense connected to the real world – during my childhood I had withdrawn into a little fantasy world that for a time suited me. It was my “coping mechanism” I suppose. It was my protective shell, and there I stayed put for a great many years. At college a number of clever academic people also told me I could do better.
And so it seemed to go – after college got a couple of jobs and though they were not too bad, I never really felt like I fitted in and I felt that I was an underachiever. To put it another way “I could do better”. You see, after a little while I didn’t need anyone else to tell me. I could tell myself quite well enough that “Tony could do better”.
Of course the memory plays tricks on us, but I don’t remember too many people actually uttering that phrase in a way that could have been regarded as motivational. It might not have mattered much but I really felt the criticism – that was part of my natural disposition. They were not saying that I could do better for my benefit but that I should do better for theirs, or for the college’s or for the firm’s – or for my parent’s. If I had only done better they would not have had to feel the anguish of frustration.