Many years ago, when I was young and things didn’t go my way, my mother used to look at me with a fierce and piteous expression and tell me: “Nobody’s better than you.”
My mother is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. By the time she was born, her people (and my dad’s) were well established throughout the American south. Though early to the great waves of immigration, which began in the late 1800s and continued through the end of World War II, my ancestors were no less stigmatized, seen by their neighbors as part of the influx of unwashed Jews, Poles, Irish, and Italians debarking en mass from ships.
Living in small towns in Virginia, without the community of others of their kind, the Rosenbergs and the Sagers kept their observances confined to the indoors; like cinema’s classic Miss Daisy, in public they practiced fervent assimilation. Their efforts weren’t always successful. Among the few stories of his childhood my father ever told was one about being chased by other boys in his town, who threw rocks and called him a “kike” and “bagel eater.” Later, his entrance into medical school at the University of Virginia was delayed a year because the quota for Jews in the class had already been filled.
My mother remembers being a brunette in a sea of blondes, excluded from the in-crowd, a perpetual outsider in her own milieu, which happened to be a town that saw a lot of action during the Civil War. Everyone in school knew whose parents owned the “Jew store.” And everyone in school shopped there; my mom could sometimes be found working after school, sitting on a low stool, fitting shoes. When she didn’t win the vote for yearbook editor, the teacher appointed her co-editor. Same with the newspaper. The teacher knew my mother would get things done, even if the popular kids wouldn’t vote for her.
And so it was, when I didn’t win the election for middle school vice president, or make the J.V. basketball team, or secure the attentions of the cute and popular girl for whom I was vying—when my achievement was lacking, my performance was underwhelming, my results didn’t match my expectations—my mother would try to let me know I should keep on trying, that I shouldn’t let myself feel undeserving. That I should stand up and demand whatever I felt was rightfully mine.
Nobody’s better than you.
I think what she was meaning to say was, You’re just as good as everyone else. Just as deserving. Just as equal. Just as entitled by God above and the U.S. Constitution to as much opportunity as the next guy, no matter who I was or where I came from.
But of course she was blinded by motherhood. And I was a kid.
Nobody’s better than you.
Those were her exact words. And I believed her.
Despite every indication otherwise.
It took me the balance of my grade school years to figure out that maybe I wasn’t as great as my mother had led me to believe. (I should have gotten a hint when some jokester unplugged my amp during my big guitar solo at a school talent show). With an underachiever’s 2.6 GPA, I barely found my way into college; only two schools would have me. By the end of my senior year of high school, I was starting to get the idea that simply feeling entitled and deserving was not quite enough.
When I got to college I was petrified; I’d never done much homework in the past—I’d never even managed to memorize my multiplication tables. But I guess my fear awakened a slumbering work ethic. I became the guy who never missed a class. I highlighted the textbooks and outlined the highlights, re-copied my notes, even read the books teachers left for reference in the library. Along the way I began to discover that development is exponential. The farther you go, the more you know, the more you can handle. Eventually I branched out into extracurriculars…and found my life’s work—an instrument through which I could try to express all of the greatness my mother insisted I had inside.
By the time I left the small pond of my college—which, at the time, was way more famous for churning out med school students than great writers—I felt like a pretty big fish. Nobody was better than me. Nobody I knew, at least.
Through a convoluted series of events, I found myself, at the age of 21, working at the Washington Post, first as a copy boy, then as a staff writer.
Among my bosses—who themselves were employed by the iconic Post publisher Katharine Graham—were men depicted in movies; they’d helped to bring down a crooked president, inspired several generations of ambitious and idealistic kids like myself to join the Fourth Estate. Among my colleagues were the granddaughter of a president and the son of a poet laureate; the cream of the Ivy League’s writing and journalism programs; the best editing and reportorial talent that could be hired away from other newspapers around the country.
And then there was me: Mike from Baltimore.
In an acre-square newsroom housing 800 other writers, everybody was better than me.
I guess I was too naïve to be deterred.
I had, after all, lied to my parents about the law school’s promise to keep open a slot open for me in the next year’s class.
And maybe the seeds of entitlement planted by my mother were never entirely destroyed.
I may never have been to Cape Cod in summer like the some of the blue bloods in the newsroom, or studied with John McPhee, or palled around with JFK and Jackie. I may not have spoken French or dined regularly with ambassadors or sports heroes—or anyone at all during that first couple of years, when I worked the graveyard shift exclusively.
But I did have a few things going for me. A facility with words. A musical bent. An eye for detail. An empathetic ear. An interest in people who were different than me. A little dab of street wise I’d picked up in my early days as a rebellious junior hippy, and later as a day-tripper through seedier climes. And above all, the knowledge that this was what I had to be doing.
Over time, without thinking too hard about it, I did the best I could with what I had, drawing from my intangible assets to create a style of my own. Some people like it. Some do not. I’m not a household word. But I always try, with every piece that I make, to deliver something different and original, something entertaining that carries the weight of truth, something that people will pay me for—yes, that’s important too. Into everything goes my all.
Along the way I have learned that comparison and competition are enemies of the artist. How did he get that assignment? How could she win that award? How many books did she sell? What’s his hourly rate?
All that should matter is the piece of work that sits before you. There is you. There is your art. At the elemental level, nothing else matters.
Call it my Theory of Originals.
Don’t worry about the competition. Find what you do best. When the room is full or when the lines are long, form a line of your own. Be number one in a class of one.
Once you’re there, nobody will be better than you, either.