If you met your child self from years ago, how well would you like him or her? I’ve been thinking with surprise lately that I’d like my younger self quite a bit. The big question in my mind is how I stopped being him.
A few weeks ago, someone reminded me in a vivid way of certain things from my childhood. Those images have stayed in my mind and I’ve been thinking a lot about who I was back then. Thursday afternoon, I started thinking about some of the funny and unusual things I did as a child and teen. The more I thought, the more I smiled. My way of “playing” wasn’t normal. Here are the things I thought of.
I remembered starting a bank for neighborhood children when I was about 11 years old. We hadn’t been living in this community near Birmingham for very long, but I decided I would take deposits from kids around me. I had a box with a lock, and I typed tiny slips of paper noting how much each was worth. I don’t remember exactly what the business plan was, so I’m unclear how I intended to make money, but I remember kids trading those little pieces of paper instead of money for a few weeks. (The whole bank went bust when my sisters demanded all of their money back. I guess it was a run on the bank.)
I thought about a radio relay service that I was going to set up when I was about 9 years old between Anniston, Ala., and Meridian, Miss. I lived in Anniston and I had a friend in Meridian, where I had lived for about a year and a half before. I knew that it was expensive to make long distance calls, so I had found a cheap radio with a limited range. My scheme was to set up repeating relays between the cities to deal with the limited range of the signal. And somehow, I was going to sell cheap communication time between the cities so that people could avoid expensive long distance charges. Yes, it made sense when I was 9.
I remembered my plan to set up an inexpensive telephone service for an area of several blocks between my house and the house of a friend who lived adjacent to the junior high school in Jasper, Ala., where I lived at the time. A tornado had come through town and destroyed a lot of office buildings. That meant that a lot of telephone equipment was being thrown away. I collected all of it that I could and figured out how it worked. I didn’t have central office switching equipment, but I figured out crude workarounds to make a simple system work. My friend and I started laying wire between our houses, but we were stymied by the little matter of how to run our wires over streets without climbing the utility poles. I gave up and just wired my own house with extra extensions everywhere. (I also rigged a bugging device to record all calls on the line. I didn’t really want to hear anything in particular; I just wanted to see if I could do it.)
I remembered the time when I lived in Meridian and I was the leader of one of two small rival neighborhood clubs of boys. We were the nerdy boys. They were the popular boys. (Our club was called United States Spy and Investigation Enterprises. Seriously. Their club was called Flash. We both even had flags.) We had a makeshift “clubhouse” made from leaning plywood and strips of canvas. They had a much nicer place that someone had built. (Their fathers, maybe? I don’t recall.) The popular boys didn’t like the nerdy boys, and they threatened us. This was the summer between third and fourth grade, so I have no idea how serious such threats could have been. I warned them to leave us alone, but they kept pushing. So one day, I burned their clubhouse down when they weren’t around — and they never bothered us again. (I hope the statute of limitations has run out.)
While I was in high school, I led the youth group at my church. I was also editor of my school newspaper for my senior year. It would take too long to explain the details, but I spent the year driving that paper to record paid circulation and record ad sales, in addition to advances in technology and product quality that were sophisticated for a group of kids. The final issue of the year was a blowout 48-page paper in four sections with full color on all the sections, back in the day when nobody used full color. On graduation night, when others were setting off for graduation trips to Florida, I was managing a staff that was selling lots of papers at the ceremony. I didn’t care about a vacation. I was interested in sales numbers.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. I was a strange and nerdy child, far more serious than others my age. I had crazy schemes and I was completely confident that I could achieve them. I was smart and driven and more than a little bit arrogant. But I wanted to do things that I thought were big and exciting. I read biographies of inventors and leaders and businessmen. I wanted to do things great enough to be written about one day.
But something happened along the way. I didn’t realize it, but when I was in college, I started suffering from a tiny benign growth on my pituitary gland that changed my hormonal balance. I didn’t know anything was wrong. I just knew that I suddenly lost the drive that I’d always had. It wasn’t that I no longer cared about achieving things. It was merely that I didn’t seem to have the energy or the drive. I had no idea why. I also started gaining weight.
I still did pretty well at times. I was promoted to managing editor of a small daily newspaper a few weeks before my 22nd birthday. I was the youngest managing editor of a daily in the country at the time. I went on to start several businesses in my 20s, including a couple of newspapers and a typesetting company. But I would sometimes sit at my desk in frustration, realizing that something was wrong. I knew what to do, but I didn’t have the energy. All of my companies failed.
Eventually, the medical problem was diagnosed and managed. I expected to return to the way I used to be. Some things changed. For instance, my personality became more like the way it had been years before. I really wanted to return to the ambitious plans that I’d once had.
But something was missing. I had spent so many years feeling unable to be that person anymore that the confidence never returned. It never really has. I’ve never been able to get that “young David” back. I’d like to be more like him today.
My life hasn’t been terrible. I had a nice run in newspapers. Then I had another nice run in politics. But now I’m trying again to find the spark of confidence — or is it even arrogant self-belief? — to propel me toward doing the sorts of crazy things I once did.
I need a partner. (I always did projects better when I had a partner, even if he did almost nothing.) I need to get my mind focused on what kind of enterprise I really want to create. And I need to have that absolute belief again that I can go hunting for Moby Dick in a rowboat and take tartar sauce along — because I’m so confident that I’ll succeed.
How do you recapture what you once were? When I look inside, I know that parts of that kid are still there. Can I bring the rest back? I’m not sure, but I am sure that I like him.
I really like him a lot.