When I was in high school, I thought I knew everything. I thought that I was some kind of undiscovered diamond-in-the-rough. But I was a lazy bastard, truth be told. I thought I had an understanding of how the world worked, but I didn't.
I was full of shit.
I thought I could coast by on rhetoric and parroted maxims that I had heard but didn't really believe or even understand. I always had a small coterie of facts or factoids in my back pocket that I was ready to pull out at a moment's notice in any debate or argument.
My understanding of the world was platitudes and rote-memorization of certain truths that were not of my own creation, and insight that was not of my own discovery. I was the typical liberal-minded blowhard, thinking I had some sort of extra-sensory understanding of things.
When I was a senior in high school, I went to a learning development center to help me figure out why I was (allegedly) smart, but got terrible grades. I don't know that they ever figured out the reasons, but they gave me enough tools to get into college.
I went to college, fearful that I would be discovered for the fraud that I was. But surprisingly, I realized that I wasn't half the fraud I believed myself to be. Cognitive thought -- not memorization -- was actually far more my speed. In the college arena, my own thoughts were actually valued. I didn't have to regurgitate facts from 3x5 notecards, but was encouraged to actually think.
In the summers between college, I worked as "summer help" at an apartment complex for three consecutive summers. The work was grueling. Pulling weeds, cleaning apartments, painting fences, trimming hedges. My boss was a real asshole. He wouldn't let me wear a walkman. So all I had for 8 hours a day were my landscaping tools and my thoughts.
They drove me nuts. Every workday was like a personal hell. Working by myself, thinking thoughts, driving myself crazy with over-analysis. Ideas would come and go in my head. It was like the mono/dialogues of a madman, stranded on an island, with only himself to talk to.
In some ways, this may have been the genesis of my current, overanalytical nature. I always used to hear of people say that they would love to work outside. These people clearly have never worked outside. This job taught me two life-changing lessons: 1) it's okay to be analytical, but you have to find a way to harness it, and 2) I want to work at a desk for the rest of my life.
Working outside, in the elements, in the sun, is completely overrated.
When I went back to school after my third consecutive summer of landscaping my asshole boss's McMansion, I realized that I never wanted to mow another lawn, pull another weed, vacuum another apartment hallway, or clear the cobwebs from another basement.
Did that job ruin me on all physical labor? Maybe. I still can't stand doing these kinds of things, not because I'm not capable or even because they are too hard, but because they bore me to tears.
Working at the apartments made me vow to myself that I would never be bored again.
So when I went back to college in earnest my junior year (I wasn't sure if I'd be able to go back at the time, due to financial concerns), I made the pact to myself that I was going to overload my head with knowledge. I was going to take my obsessive-compulsive, over-analytical brain and put it to some use.
I had put on an air of mental superiority for many years, but I never proved it. It was about time to take the Camaro out of the garage.
Since the day I stepped back onto campus in August of 1996, I was ready to be a sponge. I needed to soak up as much information as possible.
That subconscious decision has bred a decade-long commitment to the absorption of information, the omnivorous ingestion of knowledge. I have always had a completist's streak in me. If you show me the tip, I'm going to explore the entire iceberg.
It started with hip-hop music from 1988 to 1996, of which I have a nearly encyclopedic knowledge.
It continued with cinema, which consumed my life for about a decade. (Sadly, cinema is currently in pathetic disrepair, though I am confident it will hit rock bottom as it did in the 1980s and rise again.)
It passed into the realm of craft beers, of which I am still woefully ignorant but constantly learning about.
Before I knew it, I had evolved. Not by some overnight metamorphosis, but through the lifelong commitment to knowledge. Sure, much of my knowledge of the useless sort that is valuable only for the Trivial Pursuit Pop Culture edition, but it is knowledge nonetheless.
What my job at the apartments taught me that to learn -- and to care about what is learned, no matter how seemingly trivial -- is the most important thing. It is crucial to challenge oneself, no matter how seemingly inconsequential that challenge is.
They say that one of the fatal flaws of our current president is that he doesn't have the "curiosity" gene. He doesn't question what is presented to him. He doesn't care to know anything other than what he "needs" to know. There may be something to that.
Give me a desk. Give me a problem. Or a question. Give me a goddamn challenge. If I stop caring, or stop rising to the challenge, that's when I know it's time to go back to pulling weeds.