When I was a child, I was mesmerized by seeing my name on McElroy Motor Co. in downtown Birmingham. It was just a used car dealership, but it made me feel successful.
The company had moved from this location by the time I remember visiting, but I still remember wandering around the lot while my father visited his Uncle Emory — my grandfather’s brother — who owned the place. I remember standing in front of the main sign and seeing my name in huge letters and thinking that I would do far greater things one day — and that I would one day have my name on even bigger signs.
I don’t know exactly what I expected. I was probably 4 or 5 years old when I used to visit, but I know I was obsessed with the idea of success — the idea that I was going to achieve great things. There was something about this tiny bit of family success that made me feel as though anything was possible.
When I look back on that child, I can see why some people might have thought I was arrogant. I was unfailingly polite and charming to adults, but I always quietly believed I was the smartest person in every room. I never doubted that others would one day recognize my greatness — and I believed they would want to follow me.
I wouldn’t have understood the meaning of arrogance at the time, but when I think of that unbridled confidence, it feels a lot like arrogance. But I didn’t have any bad intentions toward anyone. I didn’t have the desire to hurt anyone. I was just impatient to get on with leading the world in some important way — which is what I felt I was born to do.
I was impatient with other children. I found other kids immature and I thought their ambitions seemed small. I was bursting inside to move on to the adult world. I didn’t quite know what I would do, but I was certain I would change everything. More than anything, though, I was certain that others would see something in me and want to follow.
It seems absurd now to share this with you. It sounds like the aging athlete who once dreamed of starring in the NFL or NBA. It sounds like a pipe dream — the ravings of a mad man or the fantasies of a child.
But I experienced a surprise as I went through the pictures tonight. I feel more like this confident child now than I have since I was a teen-ager. I have no rational reason to feel this way, but I’m slowly recovering the mindset that these photos remind me of.
By the time I became an adult, my father had left me conflicted about who I was. I didn’t realize that for years, of course. A career that started off promisingly went off the rails because I fell into a funk of self-doubt around the time I was 30.
I was more successful than I should have been when I was young. At 21, I was the youngest managing editor of a daily newspaper in the country. I just took that success for granted, because I expected it. By the time I was 26, I had started my first publication. By the next year, I launched a second newspaper. I then bought an advertising magazine to add to my growing little empire — and I planned to grow rapidly.
I’ve told you before how my father’s embezzling — and sudden withdrawal of promised investment — sent me into a tailspin and wiped out my first company. The truth is that I’ve never really recovered from that.
I’m off track, I suppose, but I’m just remembering that I was a little boy who was both innocent and arrogant. As a young adult, I was still both innocent and arrogant. I had no idea that I wasn’t supposed to be doing the things I was doing. I just assumed I couldn’t fail.
I took a long detour away from that confidence. I’ve dragged myself through failure and poverty and the cess pool of politics. I’ve made money and lost money. But nothing scares me anymore — at least about success. (The only thing that still scares me is being unloved and alone, but that’s a different sort of emotional issue altogether.)
On the inside, I’m still the arrogant and innocent little boy who saw his name on a sign and said, “I’m going to do something a lot bigger than this.” I’m still the arrogant and innocent little boy who walked around school rooms and felt out of place in a child’s world. I’m still the arrogant and innocent child who expected that people would one day see greatness in him and want to follow him.
Al Neuharth was the arrogant journalist who built the Gannett newspaper chain into one of the biggest in the country. (He was also the founder of USA Today when everyone told him a national newspaper was impossible.) Someone once said that Neuharth was the kind of guy who would go hunting for Moby Dick in a rowboat but take tartar sauce with him.
The point, of course, is that Neuharth always expected to win, whatever the odds were. He was confident that he would find a way to turn circumstances in his favor — and he pretty much always did. That’s the sort of confidence I once felt — and I’m heading back in that direction.
I haven’t fully recovered from the Dark Ages of my life, but I get closer every day. I know I need the right partner to get me to where I need to get. A couple of times, I’ve thought I’d found her, but I was mistaken. I wish I didn’t need a partner, but I’ve accepted that I’m not going to achieve the greatness I want until I can convince someone to believe in me and take a chance on me. (That’s why the recent story of a couple hit me so hard because of what they said he asked of her.)
I’m a lot more like the third grader you see above than I am like the person I was 10 years ago. Tonight, I’m looking toward that little child — and the dreams and arrogance and confidence he had — and I’m saying to him, “I’m going to do something much bigger than you ever dreamed.”
Let’s make something great happen.