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Don’t hide your abilities to avoid bullies

There’s a disturbing story on Slashdot today: Kids are playing dumb to avoid being bullied.

I have two things to say. I was bullied when I was a kid. In seventh grade, it was me against the world (or at least the entire school), and the problem followed me, though not as intensely, through two more schools, until sometime in my sophomore year.

But it gets better. Trust me on that. Some of the losers who picked on me never graduated high school. Some spent time in jail. Some couldn’t get a date if their lives depended on it now. Their lives peaked right around age 18. Meanwhile, things are pretty good for me, largely because each time I’ve been told to pass a long test if I want to keep my job, I’ve been able to do it.

But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself.

It ended in high school. There was a kid named Marty, a year older than me, who decided he didn’t like me, probably because I was bright. Our creative writing teacher made us sit next to each other anyway, and Marty figured out that I wasn’t such a bad guy after all. We became friends. Not close friends, but friends.

The next semester, in PE class, we played this stupid game called Speed-a-Way. The star of the game was a kid named Dennis, a self-styled martial arts expert and a good athlete. He could run, kick, and throw, and he could score goals like nobody’s business. Of course he was never on my team.

The thing was, I noticed he always approached the goal exactly the same way. So one day, when I was playing goalie against him, I decided to come right up to the end of the goal box to cut off his approach. And you know what happened? The idiot couldn’t adjust. I shut him down cold.

I shut him down the next game too. Meanwhile, his teammates could score on me just fine, which probably made him even madder, but the idea of changing his approach never occurred to him. Instead, he decided to pick me up and throw me to the ground. Then he said he was going to kill me.

The genius gym teacher saw the whole thing, and sent me to detention. The jocks are never wrong, you know.

The vice principal and chief disciplinarian heard me slamming stuff around in the locker room in frustration, so he came in and asked me what was going on. I told him–Dennis had picked me up, thrown me to the ground, said he was going to kill me, and the gym teacher saw the whole thing and sent me to detention. He got me out of detention. That was nice, but what was he going to do about Dennis?

Nothing, of course.

The disciplinarian might not have believed Dennis, but I did. The kid kept animal skulls in his locker. Everyone knew he was a psycho, even if the administrators didn’t want to admit it.

So I went to Marty. Marty was exceptionally skilled at Judo, so I hoped he might have some ideas.

“There’s nothing I can teach you in two weeks to protect you from him,” he said. “Tell you what, though. Stay close to me. He won’t bother you if I’m around.”

Marty was right, he didn’t. And after a couple of weeks of being Marty’s sidekick, suddenly I was OK with everyone else, too.

My senior year, I scored a 30 on my ACT the first time I took it. That got me automatic acceptance to Mizzou, along with an automatic scholarship that pretty much covered my tuition. I didn’t bother taking it again. I went to college, and I did what I had to do. I graduated with a GPA a little bit shy of 3.2 and I had a full-time job a semester before I graduated. With administrator rights on the school’s network. They trusted me that much. (I didn’t let them down.)

My career plateaued for a couple of years, but I hit stride when I had to get Security+ certified. Security+ is a 100-question test. I took the requirement seriously, studied every second I could spare, and aced the test on my first try.

A couple of years later, I found myself on another contract, and a coworker there told me I should study for CISSP, a grueling 6-hour, 250-question test. I didn’t feel nearly as good about that test the night before I took it, and I really didn’t feel good about it after the first couple of pages, but I kept going. I tallied up the questions I knew I couldn’t answer. According to that, I should have gotten 80% of the questions right. In my experience with study questions, you’re wrong about 10% of the time without knowing it, so if I factored that in, I still had 70% of them right, which is a passing score. If everything went wrong, I should have passed. Plus, 10 percent of the questions aren’t graded, and I might have guessed right on some of them. I didn’t feel good about the test, but there was no reason to think I didn’t pass.

Six weeks later, I got an e-mail messaged addressed to David Farquhar, CISSP. I’d passed.

Thanks to my ability to learn, pass a test, retain that knowledge and apply it to problems that really happen in the real world, I’ve been able to get good jobs with good pay. I’ve bought some houses along the way too, so I’ll have a retirement plan. Things are good now.

I don’t know when the tide will turn for everyone else. For me, it happened when I was about 17. For some people, it happens a little younger or a little older.

When and how doesn’t matter. What matters is that it happens.

There is no reason to apologize for finding something you’re good at and being as good at it as you can be. None.

If you excel, it’ll catch up with you eventually. And underachieving catches up with the underachievers too. I’ve seen both.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t hide your abilities to avoid bullies”

  1. “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
    Eric Hoffer

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