My Big Why: On Motives, Mentors, and Defining Moments

My Big Why: On Motives, Mentors, and Defining Moments

Every hero has one: an origin story.

Bruce Wayne watched a mugger brutally kill his parents when he was just a child. Peter Parker found his inner hero after a radioactive spider bit him. Buffy discovered she was “The Chosen One” and learned to leverage her slayer superpowers in high school.

Even real-life heroes have them: Rosa Parks’ decision to not move to the back of the bus. John Muir’s pledge to make the most of his life after a brief stint of blindness. The first time Amelia Earhart experienced the exhilaration of flying.

And even if we never achieve fame and fortune, we all have moments that help define who we are and what we choose as our life’s work.

Usually, these moments are less devastating than murder or radioactive spiders. But they still cause emotional earthquakes.

Finding those moments and connecting the dots is a process we all need to go through if we want to understand our own heroic origins and Big Why. Here’s the story of how I discovered mine…

***

I thought nothing could exceed the agony of giving birth to a 10 lb. baby.

The last 24 years of my son’s life, have – on more than one occasion – proven me wrong.

And with the exception of his teen years (that kind of trauma is a whole different kettle of fish), the last 12 months in particular have shown me just how heart-wrenchingly painful motherhood can be.

My one-and-only son will graduate from a prestigious art school this December. As a sometime-artist myself, I can testify that this guy is capital-T talented. He’s got skills that far surpass anything I’ve ever done or could dream of doing with a pencil, brush, or crayon.

But still, he struggles to feel good enough. To see himself as above average at anything. To believe that he’s talented enough to earn a living at this thing he loves.

It doesn’t help that he suffers with depression. Or that he’s got strong convictions and ideals and feels them in ways that continuously amaze me.

Recently, I woke up to this text on my phone:

Hey Mom, are you still awake? I need to talk.

My heart dropped. His anxiety levels have been off the chart lately and we’d just gotten his panic attacks under control. (Thank you, doctor, for figuring out he had a severe Vitamin D deficiency.)

I texted him back. Sorry I missed you hon. Can you talk now?

A little while later he shared the latest camel’s back-breaking straw: a group “crit” that left him feeling hopeless about his future.

The students said things about his work like, “it’s boring,” “it’s too symmetrical,” and “I’m not seeing a story.” Even worse, his instructor failed to lead the discussion in any constructive direction.

Later, he went to that teacher and asked what he could do to improve the work. The man shrugged and blew him off – something he doesn’t normally do.

He was probably having a bad day, I said. It’s not about you.

My son explained this was just another reason in a long line of reasons that all pointed to one conclusive fact: he would never make it in this business.

Through stifled tears, he pointed out:

  • He’d not received any merit scholarships (so obviously his portfolio was crap)
  • He hadn’t been offered any internships, even though he diligently applied, followed up, and made every effort to connect with the right people
  • On the few occasions professionals had agreed to look at his work, they gave him mediocre feedback (pick a direction and go with it – don’t dabble, they told him)

The obvious answer (according to him) is that he should just give up now. The whole thing is pointless, Mom.

What do you do when you hear such despair and pain in your child’s voice? What do you say when nothing you say seems to make any difference?

Giving advice is sometimes harder to give, than it is to get.

As an English major who dreamed of someday writing the Great American Novel, I’ve been in his shoes.

In my last year at college, I committed to doing a senior project. One that – should I finish successfully – would allow me to build on my perfect grade point average and graduate summa cum laude.

Senior projects fell into two categories: the literary essay or a work of creative fiction.

I’d already proven myself with essays. Had even been asked to deliver a paper at graduate level conference.

Now it was time to show ‘em what I could really do. I’d aced a handful of creative writing classes, so of course I was that much closer to my mother-fucking dream.

Eager for the challenge, I brought my writing samples to the head of the creative writing department. Professor Krysl read them over, asked me a few questions, and then agreed to mentor me through my project. We had an entire semester to work together – nearly five months to mold my rough drafts into genius.

One month away from the deadline and eager to see how we’d tie up the fruits of my labor, I met with her one last time.

She asked me to sit down in a voice that felt ten degrees colder than usual.

I’m sorry. This work isn’t cutting it, Tea. And I don’t think we can salvage anything.

“What…do you mean?” I felt the blood leave my head.

You’re going to have to scrap this and start over.

“But – how? There’s only a month left until graduation!”

She offered no apologies. No hugs or empathy. No suggestions for how to move forward. This is what needs to happen. Do it, or your project is over.

I don’t remember leaving her office. Or getting home. Or even crying.

I only remember the deafening quiet of my room, later that night. Me in a fetal position. My best friend at my side, alternating between soothing whispers and raging tirades.

The next day, I realized I wasn’t ready to give up. So I girded my loins (such as they were) and made the rounds of my creative writing professors.

After a week of being turned down by everyone in the building (Kid, she’s the freakin’ department head – if she says it won’t work, I’m not gonna fight her on it) they gave me the option to use one of my better essays and work with the head of the Literature department instead.

Utterly deflated, yet holding tight to my dreams of creative brilliance I said, Fuck it. I opted out of the entire process.

My Bachelor’s degree now reads merely with Honors.

No summa cum laude for me.

It’s a first world problem, to be sure. And I got over it. Eventually.

But first I endured a pummeling of rejection letters from graduate level creative writing programs. And months of unemployment peppered by the odd temp job.

I felt like I lived at the bottom of a deep, dark well – and there was no way out.

And I let that experience kill my dream.

Not once since I left college have I written a poem or a short story. Whatever muse I might’ve had got on a bus that summer and left for greener pastures.

Now, I write blog posts and articles and marketing copy. But every time I’ve tried to give life to a story? Nada.

It’s not a conscious choice, either. It’s more like someone surgically removed the piece of my brain that could make things up. There’s just…nothing there.

Last year I published a for-real, actual book (as distinguished from those I’ve made as gifts for family members and friends over the years). It’s on Amazon, so somehow it feels legit.

And? People like it. (41 reviews — 4.8 stars) They buy it. They recommend it. They tell me that it had an impact on them and their business.

But the kicker is that it’s a business book. About marketing. And communicating with your customers. About telling them stories that mean something.

What I’ve found in the years since college is that the writing flows not when I’m trying to be cute or clever or exercise my imagination. But when I truly have something to say. And these days, what I usually need to say has to do with business and marketing. (Go figure.)

It’s not the Great American Novel to be sure, but it’s important work. And it’s creative. Also? I’ve had nearly 20 years of practice.

The writing comes out of me whether I want it to, or not. Just not the way I thought it would.

—-

The day after my son’s tearful phone call, I dug out that old senior project manuscript and read it again.

My professor was right. It was boring. It did lack focus.

But what would’ve happened if I hadn’t given up? What if she’d been able to give me better direction, sooner? Would I have gone on to be the Great American novelist?

Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t think that matters.

What does matter is that I know who I am and what kind of writing works for me now.

More important tho, is the drive I have to mentor others now.

My son began his art school adventure with the dream of someday working for Pixar. That’s his Great American Novel.

Nothing would make me happier than to see him realize that dream. Not even world peace.

Is he good enough? Hell yes!

But he’s green. He still needs to find a specific path and walk it.

It might be the path to Pixar’s headquarters. Or it might be something even bigger.

The point is that he needs to keep walking so he can figure it out.

Even when the feedback is harsh. He’s got to find a way to get the mentoring that’ll serve him.

So he can serve the world the way he was meant to.

As his mother, I’d love to fix this for him. Wave my magic wand. Kiss him and make it better.

I wish-wish-wish I could just reach out and say do this and do that and voila, he’d find his yellow brick road and the sun would shine again.

But he’s got path-finding muscles to build. Something only he can do.

My one role is to support and cheer him on. Show him that he’s not alone in this struggle. That there will always be asshat teachers and professors and peers who don’t understand how damaging their crappy critical remarks can be. To help him learn how to advocate for himself. How to find a mentor. Or, two or three.

And how to take whatever crumbs of criticism he receives – good and bad – and use them all as fertilizer for his future genius.

***

Our two stories have similar themes, yes. But the big a-ha for me was when I noticed that the mentor role is one that I’ve chosen as my career. Sure, marketing is my area of expertise, but it’s not the-thing-I-must-do. I love words and pictures and communicating, but those are talents I feel I was born with — not a specific path I chose.

Over the years, I’ve found myself in various jobs that required me to teach or train others. And those were the places where I felt most alive. It wasn’t the content I was teaching that mattered as much as the teaching. The mentoring. The coaching.

Until recently, I’d never looked at my horrible college experience as a defining moment in my origin story as an entrepreneur. Now, I see that my lack of a true mentor in that time and place helped spark my desire to teach and mentor others now.

And wouldn’t you know? That one realization helped heal that piece of my past in a way that forgiving Professor Krysl never would.

***

What patterns do you see repeating in your life? What do you find yourself dealing with again and again? Those might be moments that define your work, purpose and Big Why. Please share so others can learn from your example.

Also – if you’ve been looking for a marketing mentor or writing coach, I’d love to talk with you.

  • John Free

    Thank you for pushing through and expressing your anguish as a parent and also what you went through as a student…………..We all have points in out life were we get the breath knocked out of us, the rug pulled out under our feet and our shins kicked all at once……..keep moving

  • Kim Doyal

    Thank You for this Tea!

    Two things come to mind immediately with this post. First, is that I didn’t pursue art school for the specific reason that I didn’t want people judging something that was so close to my heart. My fears got in the way. Having gone back to school to finish my degree a couple years ago (not in Art), being an adult learner I approached the entire thing as something I was simply doing for myself.
    Sometimes I wish I had stuck with it, but for the most part, I’ve learned to Trust (which pretty much requires life experience, nothing else).

    The other thing was in a rhetoric class in college. Someone asked the instructor what the purpose of the class was- and I chimed in that there wasn’t much in that class that you wouldn’t get in philosophy, english or a speech class (she wasn’t thrilled).
    And what hit me like a TON of bricks is that academia is a world in and of itself and I made the decision then and there that if the instructor wasn’t also using their ‘expertise’ in the real world I didn’t take what they said about anything I did at face value. Period.
    I’m not interested in opinions from people who aren’t putting their own work out to the world.

    I have recently gotten VERY clear on my Why as well. Much of it, like you, is because I enjoy teaching and supporting. But my heart wants to see people be themselves in whatever they do- regardless of what a ‘guru’, mentor, etc. tells them. This is where I’ve found the juice in my own business.

    And lastly, for what it’s worth…. I’ve seen some of your sons work. And he’s brilliant! The world needs his work and I’m sending you both much love. :-)

    • http://www.thewordchef.com/ Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

      Thank you, Kim for your support and for sharing your experiences, too. It’s amazing to me how often this kind of thing happens to all of us. Will definitely pass along your compliments to Sean. :-)

  • Lisa Burger

    Your son’s experience in college really touched a (raw) nerve from one specific class and instructor during my experience in college.

    Dang, that was 2003 or so, and it completely changed how I viewed myself. (Aside: At that point in time I thought I wanted to be a software developer.)

    Instead of inspiring me, it left me quite self-critical, defeated, and insecure. And that wound is still there. I still get that knot in my gut if I have to do scripting or programming – which admittedly, is rare these days. The wound it left has a callous over it most days, but every now and then, it can break open again and still hurt.

    My Dad died at 63 (barely) about 3 years ago and if you go by his standard, I’m about halfway dunzo. Not a fun thought, but it is a kick in the pants. It forced me to review what makes me happy and where I impact the world the most.

    Like you, I recognized that mentoring and being a supportive force was what made me happy. Not recognition on a big platform as a smart fella, nor a big paycheck – but making somebody else feel smarter, validated, and/or empowered.

    One of the flaws I see in academia and higher ed is ego and a lack of compassion. I felt as if many professors forget that their assessment of a student is not what will necessarily define success later in life.

    You are not your GPA.

    And I think they forget that some students are motivated by constructive criticism, while others are motivated by supportive guidance. Some students learn things by hearing it spoken, others need to see it visually, and yet others need to touch it. Some students grasp concepts instantaneously, while others need to let it soak in for awhile.

    And these differences do not mean one student is greater than the other. Nor that one will be more successful in life or business, especially in the long term.

    Every now and then I see that professor as he is a business acquaintance of my husband, and it’s a small world here on the Central Coast. I do wonder how my life would be had that experience been helpful rather than crushing – and I wasn’t the only student in that class that felt that way. But things happen for a reason and probably, I found a niche where I can be more effective than being a programmer.

    In the long term, it probably was for the best. But it’s hard to say that with my full confidence, even today.

    If your son is a fan of Fight Club, remind him that we are not our GPA. And push him to volunteer (versus a paid internship), if needed. Because you’re right, he needs to locate his mentor and idol – someone with some compassion and real world moxie (versus academia bullchit). And he’ll make it as long as you’re his #1 cheerleader! It just might take him awhile…heck, it’s taken me 10 years to get to this point and I know I’m not the only 30-something going WTF.

    Hang in there Tea, and thank you for sharing this today. I know it took courage. So, thanks.

    • http://www.thewordchef.com/ Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

      Wow, Lisa. And thank YOU for such a thoughtful response. I’ll definitely pass along your advice to Sean. I think this is a conversation that more of us need to have so that we’re not blindsided by the crazies when they show up.

  • Vicki

    Tea, you are just delightful, and your son sounds as though he is too. One of the most challenging things in life as a parent is to resist the urge to rescue our children from their sad experiences, and thus develop their resilience to deal with the harsh moments. Children know when you believe in their abilities – but they do need to hear you say that when they phone for confirmation. So you have done the right thing, but the rest is up to him. It’s called practice for the future! With you for a cheerleader, he won’t go wrong – but he has to do things for himself, just like the opportunity you had with your writing.

    • http://www.thewordchef.com/ Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

      Thanks for chiming in, Vicki. Yes – as parents it’s HUGE when you realize that helping your child out of a bad situation isn’t always the best thing for them. That’s exactly what I *thought* the point of this essay was when I wrote it. And then I shared it with a colleague who then shared her own version of it and how it affected her…and voila! New and deeper meanings happened.