It was back in 2003 or 2004, I was sitting in my (now) wife’s grandma’s house outside of Philadephia in Wayne, PA. At the time I was studying photography at Thomas Nelson Community College and I was a mess. I didn’t know exactly what to do or where to go, and I didn’t know it, but, I was about to get some serious advice from grandma.
It was Thanksgiving. I fondly remember eating turkey sandwiches late at night, poking through grandma’s frig to find that perfect combination of ingredients that I’d put on my sourdough toast. This night though was different. Grandma was still up, and I remember her asking me what I was going to do with my life.
Between bites of my sandwich, she explained to me that she had been a guidance counselor at one time, helping people decide what they would do with their lives. She told me about her office about the people she worked with and how much she’d enjoyed those times. I told her my ideas, I wanted to change majors, again–this time to study computer science. I explained that I thought bio-tech was going to be hot and that maybe I could do something in that field. In the three previous years, I’d studied business and photography, I spent more time in a dark room and out hanging out with my classmates than anything else though. I was wasting time.
She smiled at me but then looked at me very seriously, “At this rate Dan, I don’t think you’re going to make it.” I didn’t quite understand so she went on, “If you continue going to school, changing majors, taking 1-2 classes per semester, by the time you graduate and finish college, you’re going to be 40 years old. You need to buckle down and go back to school full-time. You need to take more classes, not less, you need to quit this idea that you can work full-time and also study. You need to study full-time and work part-time.” I knew she was right. I didn’t know what to say or how to deflect this realization, but I tried. Our conversation wandered into why I was where I was–I blamed others; I blamed my adoptive family, I blamed my natural family–I wasn’t taking responsibility for my future very well back then.
We spent a while talking and ultimately, we got pretty deep and personal. Grandma is good at getting to the core of situations. She told me something that changed my life.
“Dan”, she said, “you come from a failed family, and that’s okay.”
I was stunned. I never thought of families in that way. Being adopted, I didn’t think of family as being anything more than a group of people who by no choice of their own, were together. I didn’t see the success that other families enjoyed. I only saw the dysfunction, the problems, the expense–the pain that “family” brought. Being abandoned at age one and a half, I didn’t feel like I had any family. Of course my first family, my first relationship my first parents had failed. And, I was still alive and well–it was okay.
That night changed my perspective on things. Grandma had me write on a 3×5 card, “I come from a failed family, and it’s okay.” I carried that card with me for years. I looked at it all the time. I dreamed about what it would be like to come from a successful family, what that would have been like. It took me many years to be okay with that idea.
Years later, this mantra, would change. I started to think that “even though I come from a failed family, it’s my responsibility to succeed.” I would share this with the students that I mentored at Coding Dojo. They would come to me with their problems, their weaknesses, their desire to quit. I would lay out my life to them. I would explain how I’m the only child in my adoptive family to graduate from college. I had a career. I worked at NASA as a software developer and programmer. I opened a programming school in Tyson’s Corner, VA that taught hundreds of people. I was a success. If I could make it, then they could as well. They could succeed and they didn’t have any excuse not to–especially if an immigrant who came from absolutely nothing could make it, they could certainly be “okay.”
It worked. Some of the students with whom I had the pleasure of working with work have wildly successful careers now. Some of them worked at or work at Google, Oracle, Accenture, IBM–they own their own companies, they are CTOs, CIOs, and CEOs. Most of them, especially the ones who I worked with directly, have far exceeded their own expectations of success. I’m very proud of them and their hard work. I’m also proud of the effort that I put in to assist them to see what they needed to see to get them past the bumps in the road.
This morning though, I need inspiration. I needed to reflect back on the good things that have happened in the past years–to help me refocus on my task ahead. There are some challenges that I need to work through. I feel like I’m back at that table with Grandma again, spinning my wheels and wondering what to do next. I’m a part of another family now, my own family. For the first time in my life, I have my own flesh and blood with me. I see so much opportunity for him. I’ve spent his whole life trying to ensure that my failed family doesn’t impact his success–and I feel like I’ve done a good job at it. It’s not that now he can go on without me, but now I see we can go on together to make a successful family out of the ruins of a failed one.
I don’t have any excuses any more, and my mantra is now, “I’ve done it before and I can do it again.”
Thank you, Grandma. I love you.