I’ll be the first to admit it: I was a crappy student in high school. I cut class, ignored my homework, and threw shade at anything that smelled of authority. Only with some quick talking and last-minute hustle was I able to pass by the skin of my teeth. It’s not that I wasn’t bright (though I didn’t know that at the time), but my recipe for greatness was to self-sabotage rather than risk failure.
There was one thing I really wanted, though: to go to Brandeis.
I fell in love with Brandeis University after meeting some of its students and seeing the rambling, tree-lined campus. At the time, I was active in USY, a Jewish youth group, and imagined that the school, which many USY alumni attended, would be like a four-year-long convention. I had always envisioned myself on a quaint New England campus, watching the seasons change, walking across green quads to my classes.
It was the perfect school for me.
But Brandeis, like many other colleges, was hard to get into. You had to have good grades, a decent score on your SAT’s, and impressive extracurriculars. I, meanwhile, had left behind a string of abandoned after-school clubs, teachers who would rather catch Ebola than write me a recommendation, a pile of detention slips, and a 1.87 GPA.
But. I did have two things going for me: stage presence, and Protectzia (Israeli-speak for “connections”). One of our neighbors was a Brandeis alumna, and would be hosting two recruiters from the school she would butter up on my behalf. All I had to do was show up for an informal interview, give ’em a little sparkle, and I was almost definitely in.
The weeks leading up to the interview were harrowing, as I pingponged between elation and terror. What if I got in? What if I didn’t? What if they liked me? What if they didn’t? What would I say to wow them? More important: what would I wear?
Finally, the big night – a Thursday, I remember – arrived, and I went with my parents to meet the Brandeis recruiters. Despite my best efforts with hair and makeup, there was only one thought in my head as we rang the doorbell: they’re going to take one look at me, and that will be it. It doesn’t matter how funny I am; it doesn’t matter how well-read I am. They will know I’m a fraud. I wear it for everyone to see.
I don’t deserve to get into Brandeis.
Instinctively, I bent a haughty knee, crossed my arms across my chest, and tossed my hair back and chin upward in the classic teenage pose for: I don’t give a shit. During the interview, I gave drab, clipped answers, acting like I was bored and had plenty of other, more interesting things to do. At one point, I interrupted one of interviewers and asked, “Are we almost done here? ‘Cause Friends starts in, like, fifteen minutes.” (This was in the days before Netflix, when you actually had to be home when an episode aired.) My father laughed with disbelief, while my mother just stared at me, uncomprehending.
“What was that?” she asked as we got into the car.
I explained as best I could: “Whatever.”
I didn’t get into Brandeis.
In the end, I got into a school that would accept someone with a 1.87 GPA. It had a good reputation and a busy campus right in the middle of Boston. It was a lucky break. But deep down, it wasn’t what I really wanted. I’d simply let myself land at the only place that would take me.
This pattern repeated itself many times, and I would blame circumstances for my disappointments. But the truth is, I made a choice to give up on myself. I chose to blow the opportunities that came my way. It was only after many years, and many more lost Brandeises, that I was willing to consider doing things differently.
Most people have at least one lost Brandeis, one golden opportunity they second-guessed away. And many will tell you that worse than any disappointment is the lingering, unanswerable question of “What if?” I’ve discovered that it is much less painful to try for what I want and fail at it than to smother my dreams with my bare hands. I would rather “choose life,” as Papa Moses says, than have life choose for me.
Tomorrow, I go to New York City for the Jewish Book Council Conference, where I will have 120 seconds to pitch “The Cape House” to over 200 Jewish organizations and lay-leaders, in hopes of being selected as a speaker at events across the United States. This is the big leagues, people. A once in a lifetime opportunity.
Naturally, I’m scared as hell.
Had this been ten years ago (alright, five), I would have done something, anything, to destroy this chance. I mean, it’s my childhood dodgeball nightmare on an adult scale: What if I’m picked last? What if I’m not picked at all?
Well, that part isn’t really up to me. As a wise yoga teacher of mine says, “We can only control the effort, not the result.” All I can do is practice, refine, practice some more, and pray my butt off. And just by showing up for those 120 seconds, I will have succeeded.
The rest is out of my hands.