When I recollect that at 14 years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on my self entirely, without a relative or friend qualified to advise or guide me, and recollect the various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time, I am astonished I did not turn off with some of them, and become as worthless to society as they were. I had the good fortune to become acquainted very early with some characters of very high standing, and to feel the incessant wish that I could even become what they were. Under temptations and difficulties, I could ask myself what would Dr. Small, Mr. Wythe, Peyton Randolph do in this situation? What course in it will ensure me their approbation? I am certain that this mode of deciding on my conduct tended more to it’s correctness than any reasoning powers I possessed…
From the circumstances of my position I was often thrown into the society of horseracers, cardplayers, Foxhunters, scientific and professional men, and of dignified men; and many a time I asked myself, in the enthusiastic moment of the death of a fox, the victory of a favorite horse, the issue of a question eloquently argued at the bar or in the great Council of a nation, well, which of these kinds of reputation should I prefer? That of a horse jockey? A foxhunter? An orator? Or the honest advocate of my country’s rights?
Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Jefferson Randolph (Grandson), November 24, 1808
With my 38th birthday just a month away, I can say without a doubt the above passage of text has impacted me more than anything I’ve ever read. It speaks to me on so many levels and brings back so many memories I can’t really express. The details are unimportant now and aren’t the kind of things I wish to share publicly. Suffice it to say, I spent an inordinate amount of my youth and young adulthood associating with people I should not have and engaging in activities of which I am not proud. I don’t mean to imply that I was a drug addict or bank robber – it wasn’t that bad, but as Jefferson implies: there are a number of things we can spend our time on and people we can spend our time with. How we spend our time and with whom are very important. I could and should have made better choices in how I spent my time as a teenager and young man.
When I was a teenager I used to hang out with a bunch of guys and we spent a lot of time playing pool in poolhalls and the basement of one friend’s house. Over time, I got to be a slightly-better-than-average player but compared to my friends I was terrible. I spent the majority of my time losing in pool against my friends. One day I got fed up and said: "That’s it for me. I’m going to find new people to play with that I can beat. Its no fun losing all the time."
A guy named John, the best pool player in the group said: "You do that and you’ll never get better. You don’t get better by winning all the time. " These words fell on deaf ears. Frankly it was probably because John was otherwise not the kind of person I looked to for sage advice. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that the wisdom of these words sunk in and became so obvious to me. You don’t get better by winning all the time. What he really meant to say was: You won’t become a better person by hanging out with losers. At least, that’s how I interpret it today.
I now consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have found myself associating with and spending time with incredible people, beginning with my wife, my current & former coworkers, and the wonderful professional connections I’ve made in the last few years. I would love to have the eloquence necessary to truly express the level of appreciation I have directly to those people and have them feel appreciated with the same level of intensity of my feelings for them, but that level of eloquence escapes me.
For any young men & women who may stumble on this blog post some how, please read that quote from Thomas Jefferson again.
…which of these kinds of reputation should I prefer? It may pain us to acknowledge that all those corny things our parents said were true. It isn’t just that you’re known by the company you keep, but also that you become part of that company. Your associations become who you are. Become associated with great people and you may find the path to greatness as well.